‘The Walking Dead’ Star Khary Payton on that Shocking Ezekiel Twist

khary payton ezekiel the walking dead
Q&A
Josh Stringer/AMC
Josh Stringer/AMC

[WARNING: The following contains MAJOR spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 10, Episode 20, “Splinter.”]

If you were utterly baffled or even upset by Ezekiel’s (Khary Payton) actions in “Splinter” up until the final act of the episode, you weren’t alone: So was Khary Payton.

Turns out that twist involving the former King — who for most of the episode was nothing but a figment of Princess’ (Paola Lazaro) imagination — had the actor fooled, too. We chatted with him about what it was like to bring Princess-Ezekiel to life, why he thinks Princess ended up seeing Zeke rather than a different member of their group and, in honor of their conversation about love, where the real Ezekiel’s relationship with Carol (Melissa McBride) is headed.

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You’ve been a king on this show and, in this episode, you were a princess! How was it, playing Princess’ version of Ezekiel?

I loved it. I wished I had more time to play with it, because princess is such an ebullient character. She’s full of light and life. I kind of left Ezekiel by the wayside and thought about who the people in Princess’ life that she would want to manifest for comfort and protection might be. I thought there would be someone who was family, maybe a cousin or someone she could talk to, and maybe someone a little older, who was more of a protector. I put these ideas together, stirred it into a little stew, and put some dreadlocks on it, and boom!

khary payton ezekiel the walking dead

Josh Stringer/AMC

How were you reacting to Ezekiel, when you read the script? Did you see the twist coming?

No! I was so pissed. Oh my God, I got halfway through the script and went, “What the hell are they doing? Ezekiel wouldn’t say that! Ezekiel wouldn’t do this!” I was so mad and then I got to the end. They got me so good. I was really happy by the time I got to the end, because I was absolutely duped. I hope that when you watched it, you got the same sense. I didn’t want to give it away too early, because I loved the feeling I got at first, that, “Why is Ezekiel being kind of a d**k? Why is he doing things that Ezekiel is usually more thoughtful about?” I thought they had totally written the character wrong. Vivian [Tse] and Julia [Ruchman], who wrote the script, did an incredible job.

I was fooled, and one reason was when Ezekiel he tells Princess, “No one’s going to hurt you anymore.” That felt like a very Ezekiel thing to say. Did you have any input into the writing or the delivery of that?

They left me alone as far as the delivery of the line, but I didn’t change a word. That script, to me, came in just about perfect. I felt like they played the rhythm of the story so well. There was a moment that I wanted Ezekiel and Princess to say a line together at the same time, but I’m glad they didn’t, because I don’t think they needed another hint as far as knowing this was the same psyche. I think that moment, that you’re talking about, was a happy coincidence. It is very much a protective feeling that I think Princess got from Ezekiel, but it’s also what Princess needed in the moment. It works both ways.

Why do you think it was Ezekiel, and not Yumiko [Eleanor Matsuura] or Eugene [Josh McDermitt], that Princess ended up seeing?

I think Ezekiel, of the three of them, understood her immediately. Yumiko was like, “I don’t know about this person.” Eugene was more concerned about getting to this rendezvous point than whether Princess should come or not. But I think Ezekiel saw a kindred spirit. He sees the world differently — he literally took on the persona of royalty, because that helped him be able to navigate this world that was so full of darkness.

Paola Lázaro Princess The Walking Dead

Josh Stringer/AMC

That’s what Princess did. She said, “I’m going to see this world differently, so I can get through this.” Because to see it as reality is too much. I think in that way, it’s like Ezekiel sees the first new member of the Kingdom in Princess.

Princess and Princess-Ezekiel had a conversation about love, which got me thinking about the real Ezekiel’s relationship with Carol. Where does he stand on that? Is he still hoping to fix things with her?

I think when you decide to leave town, that you’re making a decision that it’s better for your own psyche and well-being to leave that behind. If it was something he wanted to pursue, he wouldn’t have struck out the way he did on a new adventure. After all the time he spent pursuing Carol, it’s not like he was one to give up on the relationship. He fought hard to make her his queen, and he thought, “This journey has come to an end, but I need to put my energy somewhere else.” Not to say it couldn’t happen again, but you don’t want to live your life waiting for something that might never happen.

At the end of the episode, we see the group with bags over their heads. Can you preview at all where that story, or Ezekiel’s story in general, might head?

The bags will eventually come off, I’m pretty sure about that! But there’s bags over their heads for a reason, you know? You’re not supposed to know where they’re going. I’m going to leave it at that. You don’t get to know, because I don’t get to know, because they put a bag over my head! You’re just going to have to wait with me.

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