Words: Will Stroude
The Walking Dead is the gun-toting, zombie-slaying US TV behemoth that's kept an audience of millions across the world baying for blood and guts. But after eight seasons, countless deaths and more human misery than Attitude HQ at 9am on Monday moring, the TV adaptation of Robert Kirkman's graphic novel series has proved that when it comes to diversity, there's plenty of meat on the bones.
British actor Tom Payne, 35, has been busy setting hearts aflutter as Paul 'Jesus' Rovia The Walking Dead since 2015, and long-time fans of the series were thrilled when scenes aired during season 7 confirming that Jesus - like his comic book counterpart - was gay.
Having fought off the encroaching hoardes to survive into season nine, Jesus remains one of several openly LGBT characters on a show where many viewers are probably more familiar with headshots than homosexuality, and former Waterloo Road star Tom is keen to point out it's a position he takes seriously.
Ahead of The Walking Dead's return to US screens next Sunday (7 October) and with season 8 out on DVD this week, Attitude caught up with Tom to talk changing hearts and minds, what's in store for Jesus after the show's 18-month time-jump, and how, as a straight man, he feels about recent controversy about casting straight actors in gay roles...
Well, congratulations Tom - you’ve survived three seasons of The Walking Dead, which is not something many people can say.
[laughs] I know! It’s been a good chunk of my life. And in that time I’ve met thousands of people around the world who are super engaged with the show, and I’ve met many people who’ve come up to me and told me how much my character’s sexuality has helped them in their life, which is really amazing. Sometimes at the end of a day when you’re like ‘God I wish had a bit more to do, or a better scene or whatever’, and it just takes one person to come up to you and tell you the impact you’ve had on the rest of their life and it changes everything. It’s amazing. You can get stuck in your own little bubble but as soon as you meet people you realise the impact it has. And I’ve been involved with GLAAD in America and I’m on the committee of the Elton John [AIDS Foundation] November fundraiser and I’m really happy about that.
Photography: Leigh Keily
So it's really given you an opportunity to connect with the LGBT community off-screen, too?
Absolutely. It’s given me amazing opportunities to get involved. I spent a lot of time growing up among the gay scene and I realised once I was in this position with the show why that was; I realised in a lot of ways it’s a very free community [with people] being themselves. When everyone feels in a safe environment – obviously there are a lot of challenges that comes out of it in the big bad world – but when you’re just in a room with a bunch of people celebrating who they are, it’s fantastic. It’s a wonderful, free place to be and that’s how I always want to be in my life. So now to be able to contribute is a real gift.
Jesus definitely feels like the future of LGBT roles on television in the sense that his sexuality has never defined his character arc: There’s been no big coming out or homophobia storyline, it’s just been an incidental part of his characterisation.
It seems like an odd thing to say when it’s ostensibly about the apocalypse and zombies, but at the heart of the show is the idea of family, and your family can be people of all different colours and creeds and sexualities and it doesn’t matter because we’re all trying to fight against this situation that we find ourselves in. It's an allegory for the world. If this person is going to save your life, who cares? And I think that gets to a lot of people across the world with this show. Like, even if you do have racist inclinations or homophobic inclinations you’ll at least be able to go ‘Oh, he’s a good guy actually’. I think for some people that’s a huge step, to go ‘I’m a bit afraid of this person’s background but at the end of the day they’re a human being like I am’.
Photography: Leigh Keily
You touch on an interesting point because it can’t be denied that a big proportion of The Walking Dead’s fanbase are quite conservative, action-loving men in middle America. There was some backlash over the show’s first kiss between two men a few years back, but the show hasn’t shied away from putting those storylines on screen.
They have an amazing platform, and if you’re going to do it on any show it’s going to be The Walking Dead because they’ve had up to like 20 million viewers. You’re never going to lose every single one of them. I think they’ve used their platform well in that sense. They said ‘we’ve got all these eyeballs, let’s not shy away from it’. And again, it’s a strange conversation to have, like ‘you won’t show a gay kiss [on TV] but you’ll show someone being brutally murdered with a pair of scissors?’ America is a very interestingly puritanical society where saying ‘fuck’ [on TV] is a really big deal but killing someone is not. But yeah, you’re right, there is the middle America thing, which is great because we can get these storylines into households that would never ordinarily have anything to do with a lot of the conversations that happen in the show.
Photography: Leigh Keily
The debate about casting gay actors in gay roles really taken off in the time you’ve been on The Walking Dead. As someone who identifies as straight, how has that conversation affected you? Is it something you’ve thought about?
It’s an interesting place to be right now. I followed the whole Jack Whitehall in [Disney’s] Jungle Cruise stuff that just happened and I actually thought that was a more difficult situation, because it seemed from the press release that he was playing some sort of stereotypical gay character. I’m not sure what he’s doing, and of course we’ll see when the film comes out, but that can come out as a pastiche of a gay character – and of course there are thousands of gay actors out there who could have done that. But at the same time, because sexuality is not a huge part of [my] character, for me going into there wasn’t any… I mean, I didn’t think twice about it – it’s a job at the end of the day. But honestly I think at this moment the representation side of it – just having an openly gay character on a television show – is a massive step in the right direction. I think in a lot of cases it’s just the best person for the part, whoever that ends up being. I don’t think The Walking Dead gives a f**k whether you’re gay or not, they just want the right person for the part. But it’s a legitimate conversation to have obviously, and for years in Hollywood there’s definitely been prejudice against gay actors in TV and film. [But] I know gay actors who’ve played straight guys and vice versa - it goes both ways. But there’s definitely been discrimination in the past and that should always be talked about.
The Walking Dead's Aaron (Ross Marquand)
We’ve mentioned how Jesus’s sexuality is pretty incidental to the character, but in the comic books he does embark on a relationship with Aaron later down the line. It’s interesting that on the TV series they’ve not been thrust together purely because they’re the only two gay men, but do you think that’s something that could make it to the screen at some point?
Yeah, I mean I’ve said in the past that it’d be a bit lazy if the only two gay male characters on the show ended up getting together. I think that might reinforce some stereotypes. You know, like as if gay men fancy every other man around! I think it might be a bit of a cliché to put that in, but if it was handled in the correct way and it was organic, then I don’t see why not. But you’re right, they don’t really know each other these characters, and it’s not like in normal circumstances every guy and girl that know each other get together. We’ll see in the future. Last year I was saying I don’t think there’s time in the middle of a war for Jesus to go ‘Oh I fancy Aaron and we should hang out’. There’s a time and a place! I think the door’s always open, but I don’t think it’s inevitable.
Photography: Leigh Keily
Season 8 really closed the door on a whole chapter of The Walking Dead – what can fans expect for Jesus in season 9 following the time jump?
There has been a time jump after the war of about 18 months, and so all of the societies are putting themselves back together after the events of the war and getting themselves functioning the best that they can. The Hilltop has always been the place that grows and provides food and livestock, so they will retreat back into that, and it becomes more about how the communities are working together for the future and the common good. But of course there are some communities which might not be doing as well as other communities and might want more from others. And Jesus is back at The Hilltop assisting Maggie [played by Lauren Cohan], and Gregory [Xander Berkeley] is still there ferreting away and being annoying [laughs] I think [Jesus] is not someone who likes to stay in one place for too long, so as much as The Hilltop is his base I think he might end up getting a bit frustrated and wanting to go out like he was doing before. He’s quite a reckless character in that regard I think.
Tom Payne as 'Jesus' and Lauren Cohan as Maggie
Fans have obviously been sad to hear about that Lauren Cohan [Maggie] will be departing the show this season. Obviously you’ve shared a lot of your scenes with her over the years, how has the news affected both you as an actor and as well as your storylines?
Well Lauren’s not completely out of the picture at the moment, whatever happens with her. She’s still there hanging over everything that Jesus is doing from the very beginning of the season, and he is always his best to live out her vision at The Hilltop. But yeah behind the scenes, it’s funny; looking back a lot of my stuff has been with Lauren, and it’s been a nice brother-sister kind of relationship. And it’s not over - there’s still more story to tell!
The Walking Dead: The Complete Eighth Season is available on Blu-ray™ and DVD now, courtesy of Entertainment One.