'Fear the Walking Dead' Star Garret Dillahunt: 'There's a Decay Happening in John'

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Q&A
Ryan Green/AMC

[WARNING: The following contains MAJOR spoilers for Fear the Walking Dead Season 6, Episode 4, "The Key."]

The once-hopeful characters in Season 6 of Fear the Walking Dead have been pretty lucky in love recently. In the October 25 episode, viewers saw the long-awaited reunion of Dwight (Austin Amelio) and his missing wife Sherry (Christine Evangelista). And in the November 1 installment, fans get another welcome reunion, even sooner than anticipated: John Dorie (Garret Dillahunt) and new wife June (Jenna Elfman), who had tied the knot mere minutes before between torn apart and put into separate communities by Pioneers leader Virginia (Colby Minifie) in Season 5's ender.

"The Key," follows gunslinger John, who has been spending the last 200-plus days in Lawton under the watchful eye of Virginia. Things could be better, sure, but he seems happy enough and tells June as much in one of their secret letter exchanges. However, the death of a fellow ranger leads John down an investigative rabbit hole — one that doesn't end well for him. By the end of the episode, John, who was once drinking the Pioneers' Kool-Aid, is now extremely suspicious of the community, and in particular, its leader. While on the verge of fleeing, he opens the door to find June immediately pulling him into an embrace — her transfer to Lawton being a gift from Virginia.

Below, Dillahunt dives into John's power struggle against Virginia, reuniting with June, and what's to come.

First, I want to talk about the rotten tooth. We see this thread throughout the entire episode of John suffering from this painful, blackened molar, which he eventually pulls out himself. What was the idea behind that, and what do you think the tooth symbolizes?

Garret Dillahunt: I kind of hope people think about it themselves, but to me, it was just a little bit about, something’s rotten. Something’s off. Something’s rotten in Lawton. And something is off in John himself. On the one hand, it’s something you might’ve expected from all the candy he eats, but at the same time, it’s the apocalypse and no one’s going to get their teeth checked up regularly, [which is] probably not the smartest move. But also, I think it’s something larger. It makes this nagging pain. It might throw his judgment off the whole show. It makes him irritable. And I think it’s symbolic of someone who’s got to get out of himself, right? He’s got a problem. There’s a decay happening in John, in his soul, here in Lawton. I think he’s got to find a way to excise it, otherwise, he’s going to be in big trouble.

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In this episode, we see him go up against Virginia a few times. How badly would you say she has shaken John’s core beliefs?

It’s a real trip to insanity for John. He really wants to believe in something. He’s never trusted Virginia much. I tried to work in last season, 'Why is she so scary?’ [But] I think he falls for it, falls for her con. He says it’s been over 200 days since he’s been working as this ranger and he’s proud of the fact that there have been no deaths on his watch. She knows his weakness. She knows that he needs to be of service. He has a strong sense of right and wrong and probably misses being a police officer. So, she’s given him kind of the perfect job to keep him at bay, and I don’t think either of them expected that he’d be so dogged about what Virginia thought was an open and shut case. It’s an episode about failure. John fails at just about every endeavor he’s trying to accomplish.

Moving forward, are we going to see more of John’s rebellious side, or has Virginia scared him into staying in his lane?

I don’t think it’s an easy fix. I think it’s going to be a struggle for John for a while. But there are people who love him. And people who won’t give up on him. It’s weird, we’re finding both the strength and the weakness in John, aren’t we? I appreciate the boys [writers] for writing this storyline for me.

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2019 was a big year for me. I was dealing with a long illness in my father, so among other things, the boys, meaning [showrunners] Andrew [Chambliss], Ian [Goldberg] and [exec producer] Scott Gimple, with all of the other logistics they had to deal with, they organized the season in such a way that I could spend so much time at home with my father in his last days, over the last seven months of his life. Not saying this is the reason for the anthology idea, but it was certainly helped by it, and it was the gift they gave me that I’ll never be able to repay. And they worked in some father elements into the storyline too, in his honor.

That’s so lovely. I’m so sorry for your loss. And it’s beautiful the way they work it in, hearing about John’s relationship and his father. I love whenever we get anything pre-apocalypse with any character.

Yeah, you get to know them a bit too, ‘cause people change. They get to be whatever they want to be in the apocalypse.

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Ryan Green/AMC

Now, we also got to see June and John reunite in this episode, which is such a happy moment for fans.

Wasn’t Jenna great? That’s hard to do. She didn’t have a lot to do in the episode, she just kind of appears, but I thought that scene was great, she just drops right in and it defines them as a couple. It would’ve been weird if she didn’t notice that something was wrong [with John].

Can you say anything about what’s in store for them down the line?

They’re in a relationship, and now they’re together, in Lawton. Ginny’s manipulation is clear to John, I think in that look out the door. He’s scared now. What has she got up her sleeve? Why did she bring [June] here? It underscores his certainty that he’s been manipulated this whole time, and still is [being manipulated]. There’s danger ahead for the two of them, but they’re a strong couple.

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Ryan Green/AMC

Now, there's been loads of comparisons between these episodes in Season 6 with movies. Was there a film in mind while shooting this episode?

I’m not sure what was in mind — I know what was evoked in me. I got some Chinatown vibes, and some Coen Brothers in there, from a lot of the angles. Ron Underwood, the director of this episode, took a lot of time and allowed the characters to sit and trust the audience to be smart and want to go on this journey with John. I think there’s enough action in it, that it keeps that segment of the audience satisfied, but I think everyone’s going to appreciate the attempt to go a little deeper. I guess it’s just a zombie show, I suppose, but there’s no reason we can’t tell really intricate stories here that are affecting.

Absolutely, the style is so different, too. Even with the closeups in the episode — this might've been the first time the cameras have ever gotten that close to your face before.

[Laughs] I’m not sure that anyone needs it, but yeah, exactly.

As you said, it’s more than just a zombie show, but regardless, tell me about the zombie scene we do get that was so harrowing, with John wrestling away walkers, literally, in the grave. What were the challenges behind that, mechanically, to shoot?

It was more maneuvering than anything else. It was a very cold night. We got to know each other pretty well down there at the bottom of this grave, but that was actually kind of nice because it was so cold. It was mainly difficult in a camera angle kind of way. It was a small space, and [it was about] how do we get that story told, and we don’t want the bloody zombie head to bleed out too quickly, hurry, hurry, roll, smash it — go. The stunt team did a great job. I really liked how all of the violence in this episode has a story of its own. It was clear to me when I watched it, the story of this fight.

Fear the Walking Dead, Sundays, 9/8c, AMC