'The Walking Dead': Michael Cudlitz on That Big Kiss & a 'Compassionate' Negan

Emily Hannemann
Q&A Eliza Morse/AMC

[WARNING: The following contains MAJOR spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 10 Episode 4, "Silence the Whisperers."]

Wisecracking military man (and noted lover of the ladies) Abraham Ford long ago smoked his last cigar on The Walking Dead, but Michael Cudlitz is happy playing a new role on the zombie drama: Director.

Now taking part in the creative process on the other side of the camera, Cudlitz has stuck around after Abe's untimely passing. He directed last season's "Stradivarius," and returned for Season 10's "Silence the Whisperers" and "Open Your Eyes."

We chatted with Cudlitz about how directing Season 10's fourth episode compared to his first directorial outing in Season 9, whether he was as shocked as Twitter was about that Michonne-Ezekiel smooch and what fans can expect from the next few episodes.

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Congratulations on returning to direct again! What was it like coming back for Season 10?

Michael Cudlitz: Thank you! Yeah, I laughed to my wife when I got the call. It’s like, “Well, the first one’s a favor. I guess I didn’t s**t the bed, so they’re going to bring me back.”

How did directing this episode compare to last year’s “Stradivarius?” Did you face different, or unique, challenges?

This year I don’t think I got rained out—last year I got rained out and lightning-striked out quite a bit. I think I was probably more afraid and nervous the second time around.

Oh, really?

Yeah, because the first time you don’t know what you’re doing at all. The second time you know, and you’re still choosing to do it! [laughs] It’s a big show with a lot of elements, and you’re in charge of a lot of people. I’m still figuring it out, honestly. I don’t come in here and pretend to know everything. It’s very clear to me the areas I’m not most confident in, but that doesn’t mean I don’t make decisions in those areas.

I’m working through it, but there’s things I wish I knew and understood better, and I do know and understand them better every day with the help of the crew and the professionals in their area. I learn every day about lenses, I learn every day about more efficient ways to work and what kind of coverage evokes what emotion. I’m still figuring all of that out. I think when you stop learning, or stop trying to figure that out, that’s the death of you.

Last year, you said you used old westerns as inspiration for certain scenes in “Stradivarius.” What inspired “Silence the Whisperers?”

I think the Western thing was more of a thematic deal for the show as a whole. For “Silence the Whisperers,” there was a different feel to it. I felt like emotional connections needed to be made, more importantly than any visuals.

Though in the visuals, there was a lot of concurrent stuff going on as far as the Daryl-Lydia scene and the Negan-Daryl scene in the jail cells. Those are almost shot for shot the same setups, because it’s sort of the same scene. I wanted the audience to process that in the same way. I worked with the actors to make sure I wasn’t crushing anything they were doing from a creative standpoint, and we were able to shoot those two scenes in a similar way. Two scenes shot in a similar way, but they give you two completely different emotional outcomes.

What was your favorite moment from this episode? Did you have a favorite scene, or a favorite moment from directing that really stood out to you?

I had a lot of favorite moments. My favorite visual was Carol walking out on that balcony, with that windmill going on in the background. I could shoot in front of that windmill all day long! [laughs]

Norman is so available, and complicated. The Daryl character over the years, for me, has grown into such a wonderful, unpredictable conglomerate of everyone he’s met and everything he’s learned. There’s so much thought that Norman puts into Daryl. I love the moments when we watch Daryl think and figure stuff out and work through things. Melissa McBride’s amazing, and Melissa and Cassady together are just gold. There’s this moment when Father Gabriel’s inside the community center and he says, “We’re going to wait and see in the morning what’s going to happen,” and that’s like a masterclass in taking your time. With Seth, you’re with him the whole time and he takes control of the scene. You believe him fully.

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I also loved the fight. The kids really kicked a** on that, and our effects guys kept everybody safe. It was a pretty brutal fight, and I wanted it to look like a fight; not a bar brawl, not a choreographed, “safe” fight.

Yeah, it was terrifying to watch.

Yeah, and it came out great! There’s a lot of stuff [I liked]. I was happy!

Talk to me about that Michonne-Ezekiel kiss. I was surprised by it. Fans were surprised by it. How did you feel, when you read it? Were you surprised?

Yeah, sure! You know, I’m surprised when anybody kisses in our world because they don’t do it a lot. And I feel like there’d be a whole lot more kissing and rollin’ around going on in the zombie apocalypse than happens on our show. I said that from day one. I said that when I was acting on the show. That’s why I loved where they took Abraham’s character, because he was — there’s an element where people live life like it’s the last day, and there are things that come with that. I feel like we’ve been doing that more lately, and it’s been exciting to see more relationship stuff because I, personally, feel like that would be going on.

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Let’s talk about one of the most important aspects of 'TWD': Daryl Dixon’s (Norman Reedus) love life.

The kiss comes out of that intense emotion and connection that these two have, so it’s completely believable. For me, it made perfect sense and it’s that longing for human connection. Michonne hasn’t been touched in any way by an adult [for a long time], since she’s got a bunch of kids running around her. Any parent understands that. You get to be a mom or dad, but once in a while you want to be an adult male or adult female and remember what that’s like. It was very powerful for [Michonne and Ezekiel] to go through that, but it’s also a reminder for her. She’s reminded that she’s got other things going on besides raising her kids. There’s life out there to be had, and it spurs on, arguably, what happens in the next few episodes for her… as I deftly dance around not telling you! [laughs]

I also thought it was funny that this was a big episode for Negan, since his introduction meant Abraham’s exit seasons ago. What was it like exploring these moments that show Negan has a heart?

I think everybody has a heart, and I think he’s already shown it. I think it’s human nature. Everybody likes to paint somebody as the good guy or the bad guy, but Rick, as the good guy, did some really s**tty things. Negan, as the bad guy, is compassionate. Nobody’s drawn in any one particular way, and I love that the writers aren’t afraid to show that the human condition can be complicated.

As f***ed up as the relationship is with Alpha and her daughter, depending on what scenes you look at, you realize she believes she’s doing everything she’s doing out of love for her daughter. But the way she’s doing it, if you’re on the receiving end of it, that’s not particularly what love looks like. Again, it depends whose lens you’re looking through. To me, the “humanizing Negan” stuff just makes sense for good storytelling down the road. All of these characters need to be cared about. We have to understand them, so we can go on emotional journeys with them. And Jeffrey’s just terrific. He’s fun to work with.

I saw you’re directing episode 7 as well. What can you say about what’s to come from these next few episodes, and in “Open Your Eyes”?

I think that Angela’s doing a phenomenal job with the season. I think the fans are going to be really satisfied and continue to be satisfied, and surprised. The show is still the show. We’re going to make you laugh, and we’re going to disappoint you, just like we always have. [laughs] It’s really exciting to be part of it during this time for me, because we’ve veered, in my opinion, so far from the graphic novel that any comparisons of it fall away and the show exists on its own.

Fans now get to enjoy the show for the show, and nobody gets to go, “Well, in the graphic novel…” It’s like, yeah, we know. We’re so f***in’ far from that, who cares at this point? You either enjoy the show, and you watch it, or you don’t. Personally, I think people who have always loved the show, and who fell in love with the show, are going to love these episodes. Everything we do is being done at its highest level. I couldn’t be happier.

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