‘The Walking Dead’: Khary Payton Explains Ezekiel’s “F*ck You” Reaction to Negan

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We’re almost in the endgame now on The Walking Dead. And with just a few episodes to go until the series finale, the fight with The Commonwealth is making some strange bedfellows. Particularly, Ezekiel (Khary Payton) and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who form an unlikely team-up in this week’s “Outpost 22”.

“There’s not a whole lot of things that Negan can do where Ezekiel’s not going to be like, ‘what, once again, what’s your angle?’” Payton told Decider of the duo’s pointed conversation.

In the episode, and spoilers past this point, a good chunk of our heroes have been taken to The Wasteland, a prison farm run by the Commonwealth that treats any attempt to escape as a death sentence. Negan approaches Ezekiel to help him foment a rebellion, but by the time the episode ends, there’s a twist: the Wasteland they’ve been working in is outside Outpost 22, aka their former home, Alexandria.

To find out more about this team-up, as well as filming the episode, read on.

Decider: Ezekiel has obviously way outlived his comics counterpart at this point… What’s it been like, bringing this character into the endgame?

Khary Payton: It’s been really cool. He’s had an interesting journey. And you know it’s kind of the modus operandi of the show is, knocking you down and seeing how you crawl and get back up. And fortunately, he’s been able to avoid getting killed… But the thing is, think about if you avoid getting killed, they just gonna end up knocking you back down again, and you gotta claw your way back up again, somehow. And they seem to give Ezekiel some interesting and devastating ways of getting knocked down, but I think that’s a testament to his resiliency and why he connects with so many people, as far as that never give up attitude. And not just not giving up, but also not giving up on a positive way of thinking, that life is worth living and not just about surviving. And so I think this is a nice culmination. Whether he ends up ultimately living or dying at this point, I feel like it’s the way he survives, or the way he sacrifices himself… He’s decided that it’s going to be uplifting no matter what. So that’s pretty cool.

Yeah, I want to jump into the episode and in particular, all the way to the Ezekiel-Negan conversation, which seems long overdue. What was it like filming this scene with Jeffrey Dean Morgan?

Oh, it was great. It was great. I love Jeff. And we genuinely have a good time together. We’d started to bond over our kids and football on set… I feel like we just got a great working relationship. We have kind of a yin and yang. When Jeff gets ornery and when it’s cold and wet. And he was like, “fuck cardio this fucking shit.” And I’m just like, “suck it up, man. But you can’t take it, you can’t take it?” He was like, “Man, fuck you, man. I love you.” We just have a cool way of working together to keep each other going, and to keep everybody light on set, especially, I mean, it was nasty out there, when we were shooting. It looked nasty out there in Alexandria, they did that for a reason. But it was literally just like, it would get cold so fast. It actually snowed during some of the scenes. And it was just like, what the fuck is happening? We’re in Georgia, and the temperature drops and flurries start happening. And everybody’s like, “dude, what do we do? Do we stop” and they’re like, “Fuck no, keep going.” You just suck it up and keep moving forward. But I think we kept each other in it, you know, in it to win it, and, I really, I had fun with Jeff. I was just texting with him the other day. We’re still talking shit.

Photo: Jace Downs/AMC

It’s funny to hear about the weather, because watching the episode, I was like, “Oh, they look like they’re so bundled up, there’s this Siberia vibe, work camp thing almost going out in the Wasteland.” And I was feeling bad for you knowing the Georgia weather. But since it was so cold, did help the vibe?

Thank God it was fucking cold because you know what, ever since I started this show, they put Ezekiel in like layers and layers of shit. And when I first started Season 7, we’re in the middle of summer when we were shooting and I’ve got this huge neoprene coat on, with all of this crap underneath, and I’m just dying. I’m supposed to stand there like it’s fall … pretend like I’m not sweltering. But it was nasty out. It was wet and nasty and cold. That’s how a Georgia winter is. It doesn’t – normally it doesn’t snow, but it’s just cold enough and wet enough to feel like, god, you just want to go inside. And so I think it lent itself to everyone’s feeling when the cameras were rolling, nobody’s got to pretend that it was crappy out because it was fucking crappy out.

In the scene, Ezekiel doesn’t hesitate to call Negan on his shit almost immediately. Do you think this is something that’s been running through his mind for a while, and he’s just been waiting for the right opportunity to rail on him?

No, no, I think he’s been trying to stay away from him. I don’t think he wanted to deal with him. And this is just his way of coping with a dude that he was trying to forget had won his freedom, however he’d won it. In Ezekiel’s mind, he felt like Negan deserved whatever freedoms he’s been given. And, yeah, he hadn’t thought about saying anything. I think he was worried about what he might say or do in this situation. Because the dude has handed Ezekiel a lot more pain then he cares to remember. So I think Ezekiel is doing a fucking good job of dealing with all of those emotions, concerning Negan. If all he does is give him a little bit of shit, I think he’s alright, he’s doing okay.

Given what you were saying earlier about how Ezekiel has grown and thrived and found something to believe in in the world, it’s really surprising to hear him push back on Negan saying, “you can deliver hope to people.” Ezekiel’s roll at the Commonwealth, he had this zoo with the secret clinic and everything. So he seems primed to be that beacon of hope. What is it about the situation? What is it about the Wasteland that immediately makes him doubt himself in that way, if that is how he doubts himself?

He doesn’t doubt himself, he just doesn’t want to agree with Negan. I think that coming out of somebody else’s mouth, would probably elicit a different response. But the first thing that Negan comes and sits down there and says, “you’re a great guy,” he’s like, “fuck you. You don’t know me,” I think that’s what it is, you know what I mean? And so anything coming out of Negan’s mouth, you’re gonna have Ezekiel take a second and be like, “what, what’s the angle? What’s your deal?” You know what I mean? “Why are you coming at me like this?” Maybe after a moment, he’ll think to himself, “Alright, maybe this is something I can work with.” But yeah, at face value, if you don’t like the guy … they come with a handshake, you slap it out, it’s like, what’s that for? Yeah, pull me in and punch me in the face. What’s that for?

It’s the sort of situation where Negan will sit down and be like, “hey, pizza is good.” And Ezekiel will be like, “fuck you. It’s bad. What are you talking about?”

[Laughs] Exactly, exactly. Yeah. “What you put in his pizza, you asshole?” Exactly. I think that’s closer to the truth of that particular moment, you know? ‘Cause I do think you’re right, that Ezekiel is desperately trying to find a solution, just the solution comes walking up with that JDM drawl.

Photo: Jace Downs/AMC

There’s a very telling line in the episode where Ezekiel says, “I’m with you.” And then there’s a little pause, followed by “for now.” Given the implication that Negan is going to sacrifice himself in some way or make some sort of sacrifice play, do you think there’s a place where Ezekiel could ever come to where he’d say, “All right, I’m kind of okay with this guy now,” or is that just never going to happen, no matter what?

I mean, it’s possible, but also I think that at this point, Negan sacrificing himself is like – I could see him seeing it as an easy way out, too… There’s not a whole lot of things that Negan can do where Ezekiel’s not going to be like, “what, once again, what’s your angle? You know, what, where are you? Why are you pretending to be altruistic?” Listen, if Negan sacrifices himself, he’s gonna be like, “That fucking guy took the easy way out.” And if he doesn’t sacrifice himself and other people get killed, he’d be like, “Fuck you, you should have sacrificed yourself.” I just feel like right here in this moment, Negan can do no right, as far as his ego is concerned. So we’ll just have to see where this relationship goes. Negan’s gonna have to take his lumps. Negan’s going to try and find some kind of aspect of positivity. But with Negan, you know what? Don’t look for approval from Ezekiel. Because it’s probably not coming all that quickly, just do what you think is right. And Ezekiel, to his dying breath, might still be like, “fuck him.” But we’ll just see, we’ll just see.

At the end of the episode, they’re headed towards what they originally call Outpost-22 but we find out is Alexandria. Does that put our heroes at a hometown advantage here? It feels to me like putting them in that situation is a very bad move on the Commonwealth’s part.

It could be, it could be. It could be home field advantage. But it could also be kind of devastating, if you go back home, and your home has been wrecked. It could be psychologically damaging in that way. So I think they both have aspects that they could play upon. It just depends on who’s doing a better job at the mental game, as far as this endgame is concerned.

Well, speaking of that, and I don’t know how much you can talk about this, but just thematically knowing that he’s probably going to survive at least another episode, what can we expect from Ezekiel on this final journey, emotionally?

You can expect me not to say a fucking word Alex. Not gonna say a goddamn thing, my friend. I appreciate you. I spent a lot of time filming this thing. I’m gonna let you watch it. I’m not gonna say nothing. Whether I live or die, I want you to be devastated. I want you to cry, one way or the other. Happy tears or tears of total and utter regret that you spent all this time watching this show and it just fucks you over. I just want to wait for you to see how it plays out, man. I’m most happy about that. Can you tell by my demeanor?

I love it. Well, assuming Ezekiel survives, would you want to pop up on one of the spin-offs or get a spin-off of your own?

I love Ezekiel, and whether he lives or dies is immaterial. I think my favorite thing would be going back and doing a, kind of seeing how Ezekiel turns into this king guy, that to me is really interesting thing to play, but it’s not up to me. It’s up to the good people at AMC+. So we’ll just see what happens.

Maybe some sort of Tiger King style show.

There you go, yeah, documentary style. We could do it that way. That would be interesting. It’ll be like Walking Dead, in The Office… There’ll be this disembodied camera that he talks to every once in a while.

I could definitely see Jerry doing the Jim-style, look into the camera type thing.

There you go. Exactly, exactly. This thing writes itself. Let’s do it.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC and streams a week early on AMC+.

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