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King Ezekiel

Wingman Wednesday

Cooper Andrews

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Whenever established shows attempt to introduce new characters well into the life of a series, generally it feels like sharks are being jumped. But when meeting new characters is ingrained in the very premise of a show, such as “The Walking Dead,” the audience is more accepting of a revolving door and even anticipates first-time faces, often while simultaneously having to say goodbye to longtime favorites.

Few characters in the history of “The Walking Dead” have brought synchronous smiles to the faces of the fandom more so than Jerry, King Ezekiel’s ax wielding, peace sign flashing right-hand man. Portrayed by Cooper Andrews with a jovial perfection, the affable resident of the Kingdom offers hope in a world where it, much like their resources, is becoming increasingly scarce.

Landing a memorable role in one of the most popular shows in all of television has a tendency to impact a career, and for Andrews, the after-effects have been no exception. Later this week the New York native will appear in the crime drama “Den of Thieves” opposite Gerard Butler and 50 Cent, and as it has been reported, he is set to star as Victor Vasquez in the highly anticipated “Shazam!,” due in theaters April 5, 2019.

We recently sat down with Andrews to discuss the fandom’s acceptance of Jerry, building a backstory for his undersized chest pad, and how he went full circle on “The Walking Dead,” from boom operator to star.

TrunkSpace: Not every job in the world has the power to change someone’s life, but we have to imagine that landing a role in “The Walking Dead” is one of those gigs where you can sort of feel the crackle in the air of things to come?
Andrews: Yes. Once I started on the show, I didn’t have a clue how people would respond to him (Jerry), but it’s been going well. I’ve been getting some cool opportunities from the show, just getting to go around the country and getting to go to other countries now. Just as an actor, working with all those performers, it gave me a confidence that I didn’t have as an actor before, I don’t think.

TrunkSpace: And from what we read, things moved pretty quickly. You auditioned, and then you knew within a couple of days that you were going to Georgia. Did the fact that it happened so quickly allow you to not overthink it?
Andrews: Yeah, pretty much. From me finding out to me leaving was just a few hours. I was with my friend shooting a fight sequence, and I got the phone call. I was sitting with all of this camera gear in a swimming pool. So yeah, I really didn’t have time to process it.

TrunkSpace: How soon did you feel the reach of “The Walking Dead” fandom and their acceptance of both Jerry as a character and you as a performer?
Andrews: The day after it aired I was already bumping into people who were like, “Hey, are you…” You know, with that kind of surprise, “Are you that guy?” But to the point where people just say my name now, that’s weird.

TrunkSpace: We mentioned this to Khary Payton recently as well, but with all of those from the Kingdom, the characters have made such a big impact, but in the grand scheme of things, you guys haven’t been around that long. For fans, it feels like folks like Jerry and King Ezekiel have been around for many seasons.
Andrews: And honestly when I was watching it, it does feel that way. I do a yearly binge of the show. I’m on Season 4 right now, and it was just one of those things where I’m like, “Man, I forgot how much I love this show.” I never forgot that, but with just how much story happens before we even get there, I’m like, “Wow, I feel like we’ve been on here forever, but it has not been that long.”

TrunkSpace: Jerry’s comic relief is often injected into the series at times where it feels like, as an audience, we need it. Do you feel like Jerry and other characters who offer those playful moments are important to the success of the series – a sort of balance of light and darkness?
Andrews: I don’t know how Jerry affects any of the series, but as far as I feel how I try to make him effective is, and I think when they gave me all the cool writing stuff, all these awesome one-liners, I think it’s important for people to remember that there is something other than fighting. And Jerry, I think, is a big part of that. He’s an optimist. For me, that’s an awesome thing to be on a show like that. And I think the other characters on the show kind of need that optimism. So yeah, I definitely think that the show needs it, too.

TrunkSpace: We know fans love to obsess about backstory, but one of the things that we love is that we can take a character like Jerry and try to read between the lines and dissect who he is and why he is. Like with Jerry’s affable nature, a part of that, for us, feels like perhaps it’s a bit of a coping mechanism for him in this new world. Maybe it’s how he gets through all of the darkness, by being the light.
Andrews: Yeah. I definitely feel that. I feel like Jerry’s whole goal is to move forward. And I had this… there’s this joke about me and the chest plate. I like Jerry not having a backstory. I like that idea, because Jerry is a very forward person. He thinks about the future. He thinks about what’s to come. But when I wear that chest pad, it’s so tight and so small that I always wonder, “Huh, I wonder if this was always my chest pad?” I’ve had that thought recently, or since Season 8 I’ve had that thought, I should say. I just always thought, maybe if there was a backstory, I wondered if there was a kid involved or something that he had, and he tried to set the example for his kid. But that’s just a thought. Maybe there’s nothing to do with it, and they just don’t make my size. (Laughter)

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TrunkSpace: Another item that became synonymous with your character was the ax. In the episode “Some Guy,” you lose that item, which got us to wondering, from a performance standpoint, did you approach Jerry differently after that? As if, by losing the ax, it altered the way he carried himself?
Andrews: I played it like this… when Jerry loses the ax, and he’s like, “Shit balls,” I definitely had more of a, “It’s just an ax” mentality about it. The reason I was upset is that, “Oh, I kind of needed this weapon right now to go through all of these things. This stick might not handle it.” I think a very big thing about the Kingdom is that they’re all spirit. Even right now, everyone has run from the Kingdom, but they’re still the Kingdom. They don’t need the Kingdom to be the Kingdom. I don’t need my ax to be complete. It’s just an extension of what we can do. So that’s how I played it.

TrunkSpace: In that same “Some Guy” episode, there was this really great, powerful moment for your character that we felt you played perfectly. At some point, and we’re paraphrasing here, but you call Ezekiel, “Your Majesty” and he says, “You don’t need to call me that.” And you respond with, very seriously, “Yes, I do.” That was such a great moment for Jerry and the season as a whole because we suddenly saw the character’s vulnerable side.
Andrews: Yeah. Jerry’s very much clinging on to everything that he had at that moment. Like if there was one more thing that happens, I’m gonna freaking lose it. “Yes, I do have to call you that, like more than ever right now.” Yeah, that was… I love that line.

TrunkSpace: It’s an exciting time for you because not only are you dealing with all out war in “The Walking Dead,” but you also have a film due out this week called “Den of Thieves” and it was recently announced that you’ll be starring in “Shazam!,” which is due out next year. People are always talking about “overnight successes,” but nobody’s an overnight success. Most people are always working towards a goal.
Andrews: First off it’s fun, but it’s one of those things where I’m like, “Huh, is this my life now? Is this what’s happening, or is this just a moment?” So I try not to get my head into that space too much because then I’m afraid I’ll try to give myself an expectation. But I do set goals for myself every year film-wise, working in the industry-wise. It’s always silly things. Last year my New Year’s resolution was to be in a movie. And then like four days later I was cast in “Den of Thieves,” and I was like, “Oh, sweet.”

TrunkSpace: (Laughter) It’s good to get those resolutions out of the way very early.
Andrews: (Laughter) Yeah. I was wanting to clear it.

TrunkSpace: And not only did “Den of Thieves” help you achieve that resolution, but it must have been a great experience because that cast is stacked.
Andrews: It was such a great experience. I love movies because we can really take our time to just focus on doing like two or three pages a day. When we’re shooting the show, we’re shooting maybe eight and nine pages a day and going through it quickly. We all put our best in, but we have to keep to a schedule, so it’s like we don’t get to take that extra time that a film gets to.

TrunkSpace: When we started our chat we talked about what a game changer “The Walking Dead” was, but fast forward about a year from now and “Shazam!” could change things for you again in a single opening day weekend.
Andrews: The biggest thing I’m excited about is, I’m a DC guy over Marvel. I was raised on Superman, reading his comics for like over a decade. I knew about Shazam, but I didn’t know the details about everything. I always read when he crossed over into Superman’s world or things like “Kingdom Come,” but the idea of Shazam I thought was always incredible. Just his honesty, just his pureness to be given the ability to shape the world, in a sense, is exciting. Getting to play this character is gonna be a lot of fun.

TrunkSpace: And I think a lot of the comic-loving population feels the same way you do. We knew of Shazam as a character, but we didn’t know every single detail about him, which may actually lead to the film being one of DC’s biggest cinematic successes… much like “Guardians of the Galaxy” was for Marvel.
Andrews: Oh for sure. I don’t know if you remember, but back when “Batman Begins” came out, everyone was like, “Michael Keaton is Batman! Michael Keaton is Batman! There was no other Batman!” I love Michael Keaton, don’t get me wrong. I loved it. But I was like, “I could see a new Batman.” And then Christian Bale happened. And then it was so funny because when Ben Affleck was announced, I then was reading, “Christian Bale is the only real Batman!” (Laughter) It’s just funny how that works.

With Shazam, there isn’t gonna be, “This is the only true Shazam!”

TrunkSpace: Maybe in 20 years from now people will be like, “This is not Victor Vasquez! Cooper Andrews is the only Victor Vasquez!” And it will come full circle!
Andrews: (Laughter) Yes!

I had an awesome full circle moment on that last episode of “The Walking Dead” that we did. So two or three years ago, Season 5, I was doing second unit boom operating. And so that means we do a section of a scene from this episode, then a section of a scene from another episode, throughout the season, because they’re just trying to cover everything. And there’s this scene where Andy Lincoln is behind the wheel of this car. I’m on the radio with my mixer, and I’m like, “All right, I’m just gonna get perspective from the camera side. I don’t think anything’s happening here.” And then Andy just starts yelling in the car. He’s like, “Ahhhhhhhhhhh!” I was like. “Whoa. Okay. I’m gonna move the microphone inside the car, and we’re gonna see what happens.” I put the mic in and then I hear, “And action.” And it goes quiet. And then nothing. And then I hear, “And cut.” And I was like, “I don’t know what just happened, but we got whatever that was.”

And it was him just yelling at himself to get into that moment, because it’s hard when you do these pickup shots. You have to get your head in there quick, and you can’t do like two pages of dialogue to build up an emotion, so he just yells it out. And with this last episode that aired, when you see me in the car at the beginning, I did that same exact thing like 50 yards away from when he originally did it – the same exact shot. It was the camera outside the car looking in, and it was just on my face and me having to go intense. And I was thinking, “Man, what do I… Oh, yeah!” And I just did it. And I was like, “This happened, full circle, 50 yards away.”

Den of Thieves” arrives in theaters this Friday.

The Walking Dead” returns February 25 on AMC.

Shazam!” is is due in theaters April 5, 2019.

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Wingman Wednesday

Khary Payton

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*This feature originally ran 11/17/17.

So often we hear about “the look” of those who work in film and television, but it’s their impact – an ability to draw the viewer in and take them on a journey – that should receive the “the” attention. One of those individuals with an exceptional impact is Khary Payton.

It came as a great surprise to us that the Georgia native has starred in, thus far, only nine episodes of “The Walking Dead.” As King Ezekiel, the spirited leader of The Kingdom, his character’s reach seems to have extended well beyond that which he has physically appeared, moving the fandom in ways that make a single digit episode count seem improbable. Yes, the character is noteworthy to “The Walking Dead” universe, but Payton’s performance is what makes the royal thespian memorable. It’s his “the impact” that makes an impact.

We recently sat down with Payton to discuss how he approached the character’s public persona, how voice acting played a pivotal role in establishing Ezekiel’s private persona, and why he feels like a proud papa when it comes to Cyborg, a character he has been voicing for nearly two decades.

TrunkSpace: One of the things that shocked us as we prepared for this interview is that you have only physically appeared in nine episodes of “The Walking Dead” thus far, but what you bring to the series seems to have existed for 90 episodes. That says something about your impact on not only the series but the fandom because you have really left your mark on “The Walking Dead” world in a very short period of time.
Payton: You know, I feel really a part of the production as well, and I feel invested with the cast and the crew. I think it’s just a testament to the way that this show is run and the people around it. It also helps that they give you a kingdom and a tiger. (Laughter) I’ve been lucky enough that they’ve taken a couple of episodes out to really focus on our community, so I think that helps to kind of cement ourselves into the fabric of the show. But yeah, people ask, “How do I feel about 100 episodes?” but I’m like, “I’m barely reaching double digits at this point.” (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: As King Ezekiel, you’re playing a character who himself is playing a character. Do you view both King Ezekiel, who the people of The Kingdom know, and Ezekiel, the more vulnerable man he shared with Carol, as the same character? Are you playing two different people?
Payton: No. I was viewing it as a guy who has a job to do and you don’t act the same way in your living room as you do in your work a lot of times. It just so happens that this guy has to bring his work home a lot more than most. (Laughter) It’s kind of two sides of the same person. I think of it like… a public figure has a certain way of dealing with the public versus how they are when they’re more relaxed. With Ezekiel, it just so happens to be that his work persona has started to infiltrate to his more relaxed state because he really doesn’t have much time to relax. And I took a little bit of a cue from Lennie James and Andy Lincoln on the show. They’re British, but they kind of stay in their accent the entire time that they’re on set, and sometimes it takes them awhile to turn it off. I feel like I’m using the same kind of device with Ezekiel, that he’s talking that way so often and so much, that to turn it off, he needs kind of a conscious switch to tell himself to turn it back on or off. So it’s not something that he falls out of so easily.

People say, “I can’t believe he stayed in character through all of that.” The thing is, once you’re in character, it’s kind of hard to fall out of it.

TrunkSpace: So much of King Ezekiel’s persona is about theatrics and appearing larger than life. When it came to those tender moments where he discussed his past with Carol, what is a more subtle choice you made with the character that you’re particularly proud of?
Payton: Oh gosh. What I’m most proud of I think, especially in that first moment with Carol in the garden, was that there was no mention in the script or even in the comic about his voice changing. It was just that his physicality changed, that he was holding himself like a regular guy instead of a king or like royalty. When I first read it, the first thing I thought was that his voice had to change. I had done all of this voiceover and all of this Shakespeare over the last 20 years and I just think that’s where my mind and my heart went, in that where you really feel the difference is vocally with him. I felt really good about that.

TrunkSpace: It’s so interesting to hear your perspective on that because when you listen to that change happen in the character, it really brings the walls down, and as a viewer, you’re instantly drawn to him, much in the same way that Carol is.
Payton: Yeah. There was this slight thing I did in that talk with Carol. I said, “People see a guy with a tiger…” and I meant to say “shit,” but I just said “shoot.” I added that because I felt the vocal quality changed kind of subtly at that point, because he’s kind of quiet about it, and so I think that “shoot” was the moment that people really heard that his voice had changed.

Photo by Gene Page/AMC – © 2016 AMC Film Holdings LLC. All Rights Reserved.

TrunkSpace: So often you hear actors talk about how they apply their on-screen experience to voice acting, but here you took what you learned at a microphone in a booth and applied it to your live action performance.
Payton: I think with all of it, one hand washes the other. The beauty of the job is that it’s always new and it’s always different. You can constantly explore. I’ve been able to play so many different characters and in so many different genres of acting, that I think it helps lend itself to making each part that I deal with a little more unique.

TrunkSpace: The introduction of Ezekiel came at a very important time within the ongoing story of “The Walking Dead” universe. With so much despair surrounding all things Negan, in a lot of ways he became humanity’s light at the end of the tunnel. For every ounce of bad in the world, there’s an ounce of good to balance it out. With that being said, is there more to Ezekiel than just a character? Does he represent something else – a sort of universal idea that there can’t be darkness without light?
Payton: Yeah. I think a lot of our job in The Kingdom was to bring some light and some hope back into a hopeless situation. But I also think that there are a lot of similarities as far as Negan and Ezekiel are concerned. They’re both very theatrical guys who are kind of about “the show.” Negan doesn’t just want to kill somebody, he wants to make a production out of it. And in that way, I think he feels he’s protecting himself. They both use theatrics to very different ends.

TrunkSpace: “The Walking Dead” fandom is far-reaching. Most of the actors aren’t too far removed physically from their on-screen persona, but there’s a bit of distance between real-world Khary and undead world Ezekiel thanks in large part to hair, makeup, and wardrobe. Does that physical separation allow you to have a bit more anonymity than perhaps some of the other actors?
Payton: Yeah, I would say I’m not as recognizable as Norman or Josh McDermitt, who plays Eugene. I mean, that mullet is hard to miss. (Laughter)

It’s getting a little harder to walk around without being noticed. The first nine months of this whole thing, I could walk down the street and not worry about it too much, but once the show’s back on, and especially after I do “The Talking Dead,” I start to realize people say hello just about everywhere I go. But it’s usually not a mob. It’s one or two people here or there and everybody’s really polite. I have to say, my life, although it has changed drastically, at the end of the day, it hasn’t changed that much. I go to work, when I get back home I take my girls to school and take out the trash – I guess it’s all a matter of perspective. But the work is really gratifying and it’s really cool to be able to go to these conventions and meet people who are really affected by the show.

TrunkSpace: And as we touched on at the start of conversation, to have been in nine episodes of a series thus far and have affected so many people in such a profound way, there’s something really special about that. That’s the reason you get into acting, right?
Payton: Absolutely! It’s the absolute reason why you get into it, or at least, it’s why I think you get into it for the right reasons. I always say, “We’re in the hope business.” People turn on their televisions or they go into a dark theater to find some entertainment, but beyond that, I think hope and inspiration. If you’re doing it right then some incredible things can happen.

© 2014 WB Animation/DC

TrunkSpace: You have voiced nearly 200 episodes of Teen Titans Go!,” which is a mind boggling number of episodes in television, but especially animation. Do you think you’ll ever be as close to another character as you are Cyborg, if for no other reason, just because of the volume?
Payton: (Laughter) Well, volume-wise, maybe not, but you never know. If I play my cards right, maybe I’ll somehow dodge the walkers and the bullets. (Laughter) But that’s going to be a more difficult proposition.

Cyborg was my first voiceover job and my first voiceover audition. I feel like that character is probably closer to me just because there have been so many iterations of Cyborg since then, but the first one, they kind of tailored him to me. I know there were Cyborgs before, but he really kind of blew up in that first “Teen Titans” show in the early 2000s, and so I feel kind of like a proud papa when it comes to that character in that we were able to kind of launch him into the larger fandom of comic book characters.

TrunkSpace: Your version of Cyborg has kind of become the character for so many people, so when they read comics with the character now, they’re probably reading him in their heads as you. That’s pretty cool.
Payton: Yeah, it’s kind of cool, man! (Laughter) I kind of liken it to Scooby-Doo. When I was a kid, I felt like Scooby-Doo was always around, even though it hadn’t been around, probably even when I was born. There are kids growing up now and Cyborg has been around as long as they have been alive, which is kind of crazy. As far as they know, Cyborg has always been around. Except for a few instances, I’m pretty much the voice. Of course there’s a new Cyborg now in the “Justice League” movie, but still, I feel like we gave birth to that being a thing.

TrunkSpace: You’re also voicing the new “Big Hero 6” series, bringing life to fan-favorite character Wasabi-no-Ginger. Is it a different experience for you finding a character who existed fairly recently through another actor?
Payton: They really were open to me just kind of giving my own take and not trying to do an impression, so it felt very organic, finding Wasabi’s character. I didn’t feel like I was having to put on too much. I was just able to bring myself to it, and so that made it easier. Plus, Wasabi being such a, literally animated character, he reminds me a lot of Cyborg, so I kind of just brought a little bit of that to it.

The Walking Dead” airs Sundays on AMC.

Big Hero 6: The Series” premieres November 20 on Disney XD.

The 200th episode of “Teen Titans Go!” airs November 24 on Cartoon Network.

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