Interview with ‘Walking Dead’ star Michael Cudlitz

‘Walking Dead’ star Michael Cudlitz on season 7, deadly catharsis, and more

Michael Cudlitz living dead

“We want to remind people constantly that this world is not safe. That’s why we keep taking out the characters you fall in love with.”

If there’s one character on AMC’s megahit show The Walking Dead who truly embodies the concept of “taking one for the team,” it has to be Abraham Ford, the loyal soldier played with a certain focused intensity by Michael Cudlitz (Southland, Band of Brothers). (Warning: Spoilers abound below. If you’ve yet to finish The Walking Dead season 7, read on at your own risk!)

In the still-shocking opening episode of season 7 of TWD, Abraham was revealed to be the first one to succumb to the relentless barrage of deathblows enacted from the barbed-wired bat known as Lucille, as wielded by Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the maniacally vengeful sociopathic leader of group known as The Saviors.

“Yes. Yes, I did take it,” Cudlitz admitted about the intent of his character’s ultimate sacrifice to Digital Trends. “I absolutely did.”

That pivotal moment set the tone for the main thrust of the brutally intense season 7 of one of TV’s most watched show, which is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital formats via Lionsgate.

As we all eagerly await season 8’s October 22 premiere on AMC, the ever-humble TWD alumnus Cudlitz was gracious enough to get on the line with Digital Trends to discuss Abraham’s noble season 7 fate, how his character avoided going the full-on Punisher route, and why he had to have the reddest hair on TV.

Digital Trends: You were a fan of the comics and had read up on Abraham’s backstory before you started filming on The Walking Dead back in season 4, right?

Michael Cudlitz: I did, yeah. I was a fan.

We’re not really spoiling anything here for people who have read the comics or seen the show, so I have to ask: Did you know early on you were not going to get an arrow through your eye, like Abraham did in the comic series [issue 98]?

I did know early on I was not going to get an arrow through the head. (pauses) But, well, I didn’t really know for sure. All I knew was what everybody else knew — that [TWD co-creator] Robert Kirkman said in some interviews that he was not happy with the death he gave Abraham in the graphic novels, so I extrapolated that to figure it would be something else.[/internal-link]

I’ve been reading the comic for over a decade, so I actually like not knowing for sure what’s coming on the show. For you, it must have been satisfying to give Abraham some additional weight at the end than what he got in the comics.

Yes, yes. I think it was a much more fitting death — a much more fitting soldier’s death. It was a very selfless death, rather than being a passive death.

I think the best word to describe your death scene is “visceral.” Did you have any input on any of the related deathblow sounds, or how you wanted it to look onscreen?

No, we’re not involved in any of that. That’s all [co-executive producer and episode director] Greg Nicotero, and more specifically, [showrunner] Scott Gimple. The buck stops there, as it were. Scott is very particular about his music, and he’s very particular about his edits. Greg, the editors, and all of those guys will take creative input, but ultimately, it’s the showrunner who has the final say.

Have you been able to watch that scene with any perspective, now that some time has gone by since you shot it?

The last time I saw it was actually when we did the commentary [for the Blu-ray/DVD release], and that was back in the spring, sometime in February or March.

I think the scene itself really messes with time. The entire first part of the episode takes place over three or four minutes, and then the end of the episode goes back into real time. You keep jumping back and forth between what’s happening, what could be happening, and what did happen. Not a lot of time passes and then they’re running around, and at the end of it, they come back to the next morning.

From a linear storytelling perspective, it’s really, really interesting. I said to the guys, “To me, this is the closest time the show has been like an episode of Southland.” And by that, I mean — well, [executive producer] John Wells described that he wanted Southland to be a show that did not necessarily follow linear storytelling. We were not going to have the “crime of the week” every week. Certain things will be solved, but that’s not it. The show will be about having a visceral experience and, at the end of it, having some sort of emotional response. It was like a piece of music — less like storytelling, and more like a composition of music.

“You’re forced to feel a bunch of different emotions, and in the end, you’re going to have some sort of cathartic response.”

Right. It’s like being a conductor, but in this case, you were taking the viewer through different beats and tones — and even different time signatures, in a way.

You’re going to be forced to feel a bunch of different emotions, and in the end, you’re going to have some sort of cathartic response.

I think that’s what they did on The Walking Dead. I was sort of both horrified and delighted about it, but I knew it was going to get a really strong response, and I knew people were going to be highly affected by it — and ultimately, I thought it was awesome.

Since you brought up Southland, can I give you a quick scenario? What would happen if your Southland character John Cooper ever had a chance to meet Abraham Ford?

Hmmm. I think, in a lot of ways, they’re very similar. They’re very dedicated to their job, they’re very dedicated to the people around them, and they will ultimately stop at nothing to do what they feel is right.

I’ve got one other scenario for you: Your Southland compatriot Ben McKenzie is on Gotham as James Gordon. If they came to you with a villain offer, who would you want to play on the show? Your choice.

That’s a great question. I talk with Ben all the time, and we joke about us being able to work together again, because we enjoyed it so much the first time. (slight pause) I don’t know. I’d have to figure that out.

Back to Abraham, who was always a very visual character who had no problem getting dirty or showing his injuries. Did that approach fuel your character portrayal in terms of, “let’s see all the blood and the gore, let’s see him get dirty, let’s see him do his job?”

Well, I would argue that’s true for all the characters in the show. It’s a very dirty world; it’s a very aggressive world. Look, we had a very heightened reality because we are from a graphic novel, but the only way that heightened reality works is if we ground it as much as possible in reality reality.

Do you have a personal favorite episode in the entire arc of your character, or a favorite scene of any of the physical actions you got to do?

There was a lot of fun stuff that I got to do, and, honestly, working with everybody was a blast. As a character, I do love season 5, episode 5 [Self Help], because we got to see Abraham’s backstory. That’s the moment everybody realized where he came from, and it just tempers everything you think you know about Abraham when you realize, “Holy shit — his entire family got murdered! OK, OK; I get it now.” Or you don’t, but either way, you have an explanation, and it’s your choice for what you want to do with that.

But I love the fact that, when you first meet the guy [in season 4, episode 10, Inmates], everybody goes, “Well, what the hell is this?” He wants to do his own thing, and he’s getting into conflict with Rick [Grimes]. Is he against the group? Is he a bad guy?”

“If this were to happen in real life everybody would be dealing with massive psychological issues in how they processed it all.”

You gave Abraham a three-dimensional portrayal over his entire arc. He could have gone the full-on Punisher route and just turned off all of his emotions in the aftermath of what happened to his family.

Yes, but he did when he dealt with the people who did that to his wife. Then he was brought back into reality with the mission phase with delivering Eugene, and he clicked back into society. You have a mission, and you have something you can do to help people go on, and he was up for that.

But if this were to happen in real life, obviously, everybody would be dealing with massive psychological issues in how they processed it all. I’m glad they showed him being a mess, because I think a lot of people would be complete messes.

You were probably one of the most famous redheads who had some of the most iconic facial hair on TV. How does your hair look today? Is it back to “normal”? What is the normal hair color for you these days?

It’s back to blond, just the way it was when I was on Southland.

I see. Is there anything you can say about whatever projects you’re working on next?

Nothing that I can talk about.

But you can say that you’re staying… employed?

Oh yeah, well, yes — let’s hope I still have work! (chuckles) It’s all good. This is what I do for a living. All is well.

That’s good to know. Last thought on Abraham before we go — it’s often been said no character is truly safe on The Walking Dead. As much as we got attached to Abraham, we always kind of knew he probably wouldn’t make it to the end.

Yeah, and Kirkman has always said that as well. He wanted to remind people constantly that this world is not safe. And that’s why, in the graphic novels, he keeps taking out the characters you fall in love with.

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