The seventh season premiere of “The Walking Dead” is just over two weeks away, but before that — and before the follow up from the prior season finale’s major cliffhanger — the cast and executive producers of the massively popular Image Comics adaptation gathered Saturday evening at New York Comic Con, inside the Theater at Madison Square Garden.
At the (30-minute delayed) start of the panel, the session’s moderator — “Talking Dead” host Chris Hardwick — entered the stage, and on a personal note, told the crowd that today marks 13 years after he quit drinking. “If you’re on the fence, you can turn your life around,” Harwick said.
On the panel: showrunner Scott M. Gimple, “Walking Dead” franchise creator Robert Kirkman, executive producer Gale Anne Hurd, executive producer David Alpert, executive producer/director/special effects supervisor Greg Nicotero, and cast members Steven Yeun, Lauren Cohan, Sonequa Martin-Green, Austin Nichols, Danai Gurira, Melissa McBride, Lennie James, Michael Cudlitz, Alanna Masterson, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Norman Reedus and Seth Gilliam.
At the start of the discussion, Gimple informed the crowd that viewers will indeed find out who Lucille landed on in the show’s season premiere, which airs Oct. 23 on AMC.
“The actors this year are the stars of the show,” Gimple said. “Be on the lookout for some amazing performances. There are also amazing new faces. We have a gentleman by the name of Khary Payton who plays a character by the name of Ezekiel.”
“It really is a larger world,” Hurd said of the new season. “Even though the show has been a big show, it’s essentially been contained. Now, we have a ‘Walking Dead’ universe, thanks to Mr. Kirkman.”
Hardwick introduced a clip from “The Walking Dead: The Journey So Far,” a two-hour special that will air Oct. 16 on AMC, catching fans up on the series.
Reedus (and Yeun) read a playfully self-aggrandizing message from series star Andrew Lincoln, who was not in attendance at the panel.
Hardwick asks what Reedus thought was going through Daryl’s head during season six’s climactic scene with Negan. “That we’re all going to die, that’s what’s going through everyone’s head, I think,” Reedus said. “We’re outnumbered and it doesn’t look good. It’s a weird feeling to be that powerless when we’ve always fought to survive. It doesn’t look like we’re going to get over that wall. I hated shooting all of that, to be honest. It was miserable.”
Alpert on what makes Negan so threatening: “Negan was one of the best comic book villains of all time. He really is a sign of the new world. They thought they could take him, that they were the baddest people out there. And they run into someone who is bigger, stronger, better organized, better equipped. There’s seemingly very little hope for our characters, but Negan wields that power that’s perfectly suited for the apocalypse.”
Gurira on what makes Negan a worse foe than The Governor: “The Governor was small potatoes compared to this guy, because he has a structure in place,” Gurira said. “He has outposts in various places we don’t know about yet. He’s also extremely smart. There’s a whole other level of creating a system and order where you can reign supreme as a demagogue.”
Hardwick asked Morgan how the experience of joining “The Walking Dead” compares to past genre projects he’s been involved in, like “Supernatural” or “Watchmen.” “It’s already nuts and we haven’t started [the season] yet,” Morgan said. “Nothing close.”
“You have to believe in what you’re doing, and what he is doing,” Morgan said of playing Negan, saying his goals aren’t so different from the established cast. “He just happens to be caring a baseball bat that he loves dearly. I think he absolutely thinks he’s right, but he’s also, as you know, a bit of a showman. This world is a stage and he owns it.”
Of Negan’s followers, Morgan said, “I think as much charisma Negan has, there’s also a big element of fear. Negan is just unlike any character I’ve ever seen, certainly I’ve ever played, and I’ve played some dastardly motherfuckers — they don’t hold a candle to Negan.”
When asked how the show will capture Negan’s famously profane dialogue on basic cable, Gimple said, “We surgically capture the f-bombs that matter. We’re not willy-nilly with the f-bombs. We’re tactical.”
Hardwick asked if Glenn and Maggie’s relationship is a benefit or liability. “Glenn and Maggie are classic,” Yeun said. “I think traditionally, if you were to look at the circumstances, you could argue that having someone is a danger. But I think what Glenn and Maggie have is, together they’re even greater. Perfectly, for me, I think they’re bad ass together.”
Moving to Gilliam’s character, Gabriel, “I’m not sure what Rick sees in Gabriel, aside from his willingness,” Gilliam told Hardwick. “Basically, he’s surrendered himself Rick’s will. He’s incapable of taking his own life. I think his willingness is pretty clear and evident, and I think Rick sees that, and that at least he’s willing to try. He might not be as capable, but he’s definitely as willing.”
Martin-Green said her character’s relationship with Abraham is her “life after death,” since Sasha didn’t think she’d find love again. “He just fell head over heels in love,” Cudlitz said of Abraham. “It’s not about the rest of the night, it’s about the rest of his life.”
Nichols on Spencer: “I think in a very short period of time, maybe 2-3 weeks, [Spencer lost his] whole family. This is a huge blow. Whole family wiped out. Nobody except Michonne has really reached out. I think he needs help, he needs love.”
“I think the path he’s walking is the path he’s trying to walk,” James said of Morgan’s direction in season seven. “Those people who are begging for Morgan to come back to the killer, be careful what you wish for.”
McBride — who received likely the biggest applause of the panel when addressed by Hardwick — talked her favorite parts of Carol’s journey over the series. “Adapting, changing, getting stronger,” McBride said. “I love that she left them. I just love Carol so much.”
“What is it about this world that makes us want to survive so much?” McBride continued. “That’s a huge question. And a cool question. I love that question.”
Nicotero directed both the sixth season finale and the seventh season premiere. “To me, some of the most amazing moments were found not where you’re going to expect them,” Nicotero said of the upcoming premiere. “I learn every day when I’m on the set, and I get to work with these amazing people, and Scott, who makes me a better artist every day. By the end of the season, we will have shot 99 epsiodes of ‘The Walking Dead.’ We’ve had 99 hours to tell their story.”
“You guys have all been on such a huge journey with us,” a visibly emotional Cohan told the crowd. “Thank you, and thank you for caring about our show, and being mad when you don’t know things.”
Hardwick praised that the cast “legitimately gives a shit,” and are themselves fans of the series.
Cohan said that season seven — and the death teased at the end of season six — will be “unexpected, jarring and destabilizing in a bigger way than we’ve ever had.”
During a short fan Q&A, an audience member asked what it’s been like to keep the secret of who dies. “Personally, I’ve enjoyed it, it’s been a lot of fun,” Kirkman answered. “I’ve had fun watching him have so much fun,” Gimple said. Hardwick said it should just be a random, previously unseen character, and Kirkman responded that if that happened, fans would be relieved — “And we couldn’t have that.”
At the close of the panel, a clip from the season premiere aired, with Rick talking to Negan moments after Negan finished bashing the head of his (still unrevealed) victim. “I’m going to kill you,” Rick said. “Not today, not tomorrow, but I’m going to kill you.” After some dialogue back and forth, Negan asks for Rick’s axe, places it on his belt, and drags Rick away into an RV and slams the door — with the implication that Rick may finally lose a hand, like he did in the comic books.
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