‘The Walking Dead’ Star Ross Marquand on Exploring Aaron’s Dark Side

The Walking Dead - Season 11 Episode 5 - Ross Marquand as Aaron
Spoiler Alert
Josh Stringer/AMC

[WARNING: The following contains MAJOR spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 11 Episode 5, “Out of the Ashes.”]

Ross Marquand has given us a new nickname for Aaron: “The Hardass with a Heart of Gold.”

In “Out of the Ashes,” Alexandria’s ever-diplomatic, kindhearted-to-a-fault leader leaned hard into the first half of that title. Desperate to keep Alexandria going and enraged by the realization that the Whisperers were still out there and could still be a threat, he tortured one of the former baddies for information—and he even let a walker bite the guy. Season 5 Aaron would never!

We chatted with Marquand about what it was like to explore his character’s dark side, why Aaron’s so determined to remain in Alexandria and, just for fun, where he thinks Aaron would fit in the Commonwealth.

the walking dead season 11 episode 5 ross marquand aaron

Josh Stringer/AMC

Last time we talked about Aaron, you said you thought he was coming to realize that you can “be a nice person, but also be a bit of a hardass.” How do the events of this episode jibe with that philosophy?

Ross Marquand: That’s a great question. I think that is a perfect example of where he’s at. I think in previous years, Aaron had tried to lean a little too hard on his diplomacy — to be a little too forgiving, too diplomatic. Once he sees this band of Whisperers in this place he and everyone had worked so hard to defend, he is absolutely livid. That nice-guy persona is stripped away, and he is all about finding answers and determining threats. The “hardass with a heart of gold” is definitely coming out there.

I thought it was interesting that at the end of that nightmare sequence, Aaron sees Mays (Robert Patrick) yell, “Stop!” How much is what he went through with Mays and Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) still weighing on him?

I think it’s weighing on him quite a bit, because he loves to give people the benefit of the doubt. At the cornerstone of who he is, he’s all about forgiveness and mercy. When Gabriel uses Aaron’s mace arm to dispatch Mays so violently and quickly after Mays is deciding to let Aaron out of his restraints—[Mays] seems to be making the decision to forgive and let go of prejudices against men who have broken into his home and eaten his food, and I can’t say any of our group would do any differently in his shoes—I think Aaron was shocked that Gabriel would be judge, jury and executioner of this man when there was no need for that.

That’s going to be Aaron’s conflict moving forward: If a man of God and one of his best friends is so willing to give up on humans, should he adopt that same mentality for the betterment of our community? Is that the mindset he needs to have, moving forward?

the walking dead season 11 episode 5 ross marquand aaron

Josh Stringer/AMC

In that dream sequence, why doesn’t Aaron defend himself? He kills the walker, but when his old enemies walk up to him, he doesn’t really fight back. Why is that?

I don’t know. It’s certainly a dream, so — [laughs] I actually don’t know how to answer that! That’s just how it was scripted. But yeah, once he realizes Gracie (Annabelle Holloway) is gone, he kind of loses all hope and he gives in to the threats around him and decides to be engulfed by those blades.

I’m wondering how Aaron’s past affects his response to Rosita (Christian Serratos) when she suggests living elsewhere—because Aaron has been at Alexandria pretty much since the start. Does that make him even more determined to save it, because it’s the home he has known?

Yeah. I was just talking about this, that he is one of only three remaining Alexandrians from when we first see Aaron and the group in Season 5. Literally, as soon as he brings Rick and the group back to Alexandria, that’s the beginning of the end for the Alexandrians. [laughs] So, who knows if there’s a cause or correlation there? But once Rick and the gang assimilated into Alexandria, that’s when the bad stuff started happening to them.

For Aaron, it’s a source of genuine pride. He is stubborn about leaving because it’s his home. It’s the home he worked tirelessly to defend well before Rick and the gang got there and well after they got there. It faced wave after wave of Whisperers, Saviors, Wolves and zombies, of course, for several years. His thinking is, ‘Why would we give up on this place?’ There’s no other place we can really go that affords this level of security, and even though the solar panels are damaged, they have decent access to fisheries and running water. It doesn’t make sense for them to give up, and he’s shocked, I think, that Rosita would suggest that.

the walking dead season 11 episode 5, ross marquand as aaron

Josh Stringer/AMC

What was it like to explore Aaron’s darker side in this episode? We don’t see it all that often, but oh boy, when we do, we really do.

I loved it. We never really get to explore that, like you said. I personally love it, because I’ve been pushing for a darker version of Aaron for quite some time. I think at a certain point, after losing all the people he’s lost and the harsh conditions he’s lived through, you’re going to get a little darker. Any person would. You’d have PTSD, you’d have deep-seeded trust issues and resentment of new people. I love that we’re getting to see that side of him in a big way this season.

Were you surprised by how dark he went? As a viewer, I was shocked when he allowed that walker to bite the Whisperer.

It didn’t shock me, because I’d been wanting to do that for quite some time! [laughs] But I’m sure for a lot of people watching it’ll be a bit of a shock, because we’ve never seen Aaron go quite so dark. But again, I think it’s rational. I think it makes sense for him to do that, especially when their community is stretched to the limit: They’ve lost so many people and they’ve lost all their food. He is desperate to protect his daughter and the entire community. I think it makes a lot of sense that he would go a little over the edge.

Josh Stringer/AMC

Had Carol (Melissa McBride) not stepped in and killed that walker, do you think Aaron would’ve killed the Whisperer he was interrogating?

Oh, I think so. Most definitely. He was definitely in that place of “kill or be killed,” and protecting his community at all costs even if it meant torturing this man to death and letting him become a walker. All he cares about in that moment is getting answers. How many Whisperers are out there? Do they still pose a threat to Alexandria? He is a man on mission at that point, and I don’t think he cares about that Whisperer at all—especially after what [the Whisperers] have done to them. I absolutely think that if Carol hadn’t taken out that walker, he would’ve been happy to let this guy die.

I’m curious — the Commonwealth has a political aspect to it, and Aaron has a background in politics. Where do you think he would fit in there, if he ever made the trip?

To your point, he did work with NGOs in Africa and was political in D.C. long before the world ended. I certainly think he could take on a number of roles if there was any sort of diplomatic missions or something like that where he could be utilized. He’s certainly great at dealing with people in many different communities. I also wonder if he would be better suited in a defense perspective. I think he’s proven himself a soldier for many years, and his background in fighting and being a pseudo-general against the Whisperers could be very attractive to the Commonwealth as well.

What can fans expect from the last three episodes in 11A?

Oof. A lot of darkness! I know that’s pretty normal for The Walking Dead, but I really do think we are seeing some rather scary threats in these Reapers and other threats on the horizon that I can’t really talk about. But I think that’s going to be a lot of fun for fans to explore.

The Walking Dead Season 11, Sundays, 9/8c, AMC