‘The Walking Dead’: Tom Payne Talks That Shocking, ‘Big Surprise’ Ending For Jesus

Jackson Lee Davis/AMC

[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for the midseason finale of The Walking Dead, “Evolution.”]

Paul “Jesus” Rovia disobeyed his friend Aaron’s Rule Number One of Fighting, which is “always be mindful of your surroundings.”

In The Walking Dead‘s Season 9 midseason finale, “Evolution,” that mistake — though unavoidable — proved deadly, costing the leader-elect of Hilltop and kung fu-fighting badass his life. We spoke with Tom Payne about what it was like to film his final episode, what storylines he wishes had translated from comics to screen and whether it’s likely Jesus will rise from the grave.

It’s great to talk to you, though I wish it was under different circumstances! We’re really gonna miss Jesus. When did you get the news that the midseason finale would be Jesus’ last? How did you react, when you read that script?

Tom Payne: We find out the episode before, because that’s when we get the script. I think July, maybe that was? And I actually missed a call from Angela, and I was texting with my girlfriend and I said, “Oh, I just missed a call from Angela. Maybe it’s the call, hahahahaha.” And then I called back and it was the call! So it was a surprise, genuinely. I was like, “Well we should do something cool with this character, otherwise I don’t really understand,” because he’s so cool and he does all this cool stuff.

But she called me and I was actually super laid-back about the whole thing, which was nice for her, because I think that was the first time she’d ever made that phone call. So I think it was nice that I was pretty chill about it and like, “Oh, okay, cool.” Just as long as Jesus has a ton of people take him out, or it has to be a big surprise, which is what it ended up being. Because he’s so capable, and there’s no way he’s gonna die in just a regular fight. I was really happy with that episode, and how it happened, and the fact that I got to introduce how dangerous the Whisperers are. It’s just great to be a moment, in that show. If you get a cool sequence or a turning point in the show, I think that’s one of the best things you can have. I was lucky when I joined, to have all that cool stuff with Norman and Andy, and then at the end here to introduce the Whisperers.

What was it like to film those scenes, in the graveyard?

It was great. We actually shot those scenes on a stage, and there were two levels of fog; like a low-lying fog, and a mist that filled the room up. So for us, it was great because it provides you with an atmosphere immediately and then there’s all the trees everywhere and the gravestones. It was very claustrophobic. So it was one of those where there’s no acting required, really. You’re in the situation. Mike Satrazemis…really liked the character as well and wanted to give him a really cool ending, he told me, “You know, I keep wanting to come over to you and give you a hug and say I’m going to miss you, but you look so happy the whole time!” And I was.

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Another thing I was wondering about with Jesus’ character — was there anything from the comics that you wish you’d been able to do? Since in the comics, he’s alive and well.

Yeah, I think that was kind of my frustration a lot with the Saviors situation. In the comics he has this big fight with Negan, and he catches a grenade and throws it back, and has all this cool stuff that he does. And none of that stuff happened. And I was like, “Okay, I don’t really understand why we even introduced the character if you’re not going to use him for all the cool stuff that he does.” You never really got to see how badass Jesus is.

And then yeah, going forward in the comics he’s still alive and he has a lot to do with the Whisperer War. But it had been three years, and that’s long enough for me to be doing one job. So I was kind of at a point where I was like “Well, if that’s what it is, that’s what it is.” But then to be given a great ending like that, that’s enough for me.

A lot of fans were kind of hoping for that Aaron-Jesus pairing from the comics, but the show left it pretty ambiguous. Is that something that you wish had been explored further?

Yeah. I mean, I wish Jesus had explored friendships and relationships with a bunch of other people on the show. As much as I loved working with Lauren and Andrew and Katelyn and Sonequa, some of the best times I had recently were in that last episode, working with Ross and working with Josh.

So yeah, I worked well with Ross and I felt like we had some really cool moments in those last two episodes. I think it’s a shame that it was only those last two episodes. We had a little bit in the premiere, but in the story that was seven years ago. And I’m sure in that six-year jump they became friends, because they were the same people in their communities. They were the explorers, they were the people who went out and recruited people. And so they connected from that, and I think, other things. Yeah, it would have been nice to explore that a bit more. But now, I’ve just given Ross a lot more to work with because he’s lost two people he really cared about now!

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What do you think Jesus’ legacy is, on the show? What will other characters remember about him?

I think he’s a good voice of reason. I always thought he was a good judge of character and a good ear for people. But then I think you saw his frustration at not being able to go out and explore, and that was such a huge part of him and his character.

Another part that kind of frustrated me a bit was that he was so playful when we first met him, and then when he was back at the Hilltop, trapped at the Hilltop, he kind of lost a lot of that. I missed that. I missed his sense of adventure and his sense of fun, and being out there and causing mischief. And I think we got a bit more of that, coming into (Season) 9. But I still get spoken to about those first few episodes, because that was fun. He came in and he brought a bit of fun to the show…I think when that wasn’t there anymore, we kind of felt its loss. And then at the end — he’s a very dynamic character when he’s let loose, and that’s why I trained so hard, because I’m like “No one else on the show can do what he does.” So I think it was really fun to be able to showcase that in his last moments, and it’s a shame that we didn’t see more of it.

In an alternate future, how do you think Jesus would have handled that leadership position? He was sort of reluctant to take it on, in a show where people seem almost eager to be leaders. If he had lived, do you think he would have warmed up to it?

I don’t think so. I think his frustration — I mean, that’s why he left Hilltop. I think he would have engineered it, maybe he could have been a figurehead, but I think Tara would have ended up doing it like she was, pretty much. He could have been a figurehead for the community, but he would have worked out a different way of it. I just don’t think it was good for him and his soul and him as a person to be trapped like that.

Without getting too far into spoilers, was this the last we’ll see of you on The Walking Dead? Clearly, something happened between Alexandria and Hilltop…might there be a flashback or two featuring Jesus?

So there was six years of stuff, and Angela said there may be flashbacks and different things that happen. And Jesus was an important part of the communities, so I think, yeah! Everybody knows him, he could turn up sometime in the future or on one of the other shows, maybe, that they’ve been talking about.

The Walking Dead, Returns, 2019, AMC