Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead, “Who Are You Now?,” was the first without Andy Lincoln’s name in the opening credits, but Rick Grimes’ presence still looms large with his family and friends, six years after (they think) he died. Michonne is running the show in Alexandria, the baby Daryl nicknamed “Lil’ Asskicker” is growing up to be just that, Carol has become the frighteningly vengeful queen of The Kingdom, and Eugene Porter, spurred on by the last conversation he had with Rick, has become a brave, walker-whacking survivor.
Porter portrayer Josh McDermitt talked to Rotten Tomatoes about Eugene’s new ‘tude, his mullet-less new look, what the big time jump is allowing the show to do with the storyline, and how Eugene is going to overcome his fear to figure out why walkers seem to have developed the ability to talk.
The actor also previews the rest of the season, including the return of his friend and former co-star, Michael Cudlitz, as the director of next week’s episode.
Kimberly Potts for Rotten Tomatoes: Season 9 started with a year-and-a-half time jump, and then this very surprising six-year time jump happened. What did you think when you found out that’s how the storyline was going to move forward after Rick’s “death”?
Josh McDermitt: I loved it, because we’ve told the story many different ways. The war didn’t take place over years, even though it took place over two seasons within our show, but in The Walking Dead universe, it took place over a couple of weeks, maybe — it was a very short period of time. So to do a big time jump like that was exciting. Think about who you were a year ago, two years ago, even 10 years ago. We were different people, so it allows us to change things, and we definitely see in this episode that some things have happened in that six-year time period. We’re still affected by the loss of Rick, but these other things are impacting our lives as well. And so it’s fun to unpack those things and to figure out what’s making these people tick at this point in their lives.
Speaking of changes, Eugene has this spiffy new haircut, and more importantly, this badass attitude now. What’s been most fun about playing that evolution of Eugene?
McDermitt: It’s really cool, because I’ve been sitting on the sidelines in a way, watching everyone else kill walkers, getting their hands dirty, while I’m the corner going, “Protect me, protect me.” I know the technical things you have to do to stab a walker in the head. I know these things, but I just haven’t been able to do it myself. So the most exciting thing was to get a little more physical on the show. And it’s cool to see the evolution of this guy. He’s more confident than he’s ever been in his role as a survivor. He’s using a knife — that’s a very close-quarters weapon, and he’s not afraid of the zombies when we first see him, this new iteration of him. He’s able to go up and just handle business. He takes on three walkers at one time. If it was one walker, that’s not a lot. But as I was talking to Eddie Guzelian, who wrote the episode, and Larry Teng, who directed it, we decided that we need to show that. We needed to go from basically seeing Eugene kill one walker to going, “Holy crap, he just killed three! The last time I saw him, he was running away from them.” So we took that to (showrunner) Angela Kang and she was like, “Yeah, I love it. Let’s do it.” And it was exciting to see that he’s basically a badass now.
We also see that Alexandria is thriving in certain ways; more crops, more organized, new structures and buildings, and they’ve got a pretty well-oiled society going on within the walls. Can we assume Eugene has been a big part of engineering all that as well?
McDermitt: Yeah, we saw that in the first five episodes. He was working on the plans for the bridge. He is the big brain that brings it all together. But the communities are definitely working together to make that happen, not kind of like just one person, which is awesome. Each community is six years older as well, and it’s possible that we have other survivors that we’ve come in contact with that maybe know a thing or two about building a pizza oven or whatever we were going to add. It’s not all just on Eugene, so that’s allowed him to continue to build his confidence as a survivor, learn how to be proficient in knives and that sort of thing.
His last big interaction with Rick was Rick telling him how important he was to their family, to their community, at a time when Eugene was apologizing for not having done more. You could tell, visibly, it meant a lot to Eugene to hear that from someone he respected so much. How much of that evolution of Eugene and this new confidence in him is a result of having gotten that praise, that recognition, that respect from Rick?
McDermitt: I think you nailed it perfectly. I think that’s exactly it. He’s received the recognition from Abraham back in season 6 when Eugene stepped up to take the RV and try to lead the Saviors away. Abraham said, “You are a survivor,” like, you are a person who can live in this world and be self-sufficient. That was huge for them, that moment. And then as we see him get kidnapped by Negan,
Negan starts to (spark) more and more value within Eugene. I think Eugene needs that affirmation; he needs people to say, “Hey, you’re not just this guy that’s annoying me. You actually add value to this group.” And I think to finally get that last piece from Rick was awesome. It was something that he’d never had, and he had been with Rick a long time. Not that Rick was mistreating him or anything, but it was this thing: Eugene said, “If I could have done more —” and Rick said, “Don’t say that. You did all this, and after everything, that is everything.” That’s a huge moment for Eugene. I think without that, we may not have seen Eugene, who he is after the six-year time jump.
His new confidence allows him to try to take his friendship with Rosita to the next level, too. Do you think he’s always been in love with Rosita?
McDermitt: I think he’s always been girl crazy, and I think with her, she is probably the person that he’s closest with who’s left within this group of survivors. He’s just always had an eye on her and been attracted to her, but also, they have a brother-sister relationship more than anything, so maybe he’s never really stepped up to do anything. But I think what’s really driving this is seeing that Rosita and Gabriel are together, Eugene maybe feeling left out, like, “How come I didn’t get a chance?” He says, “Look, I get it: Machete-wielding men of the cloth aren’t exactly a dime a dozen. If that’s your thing, that’s your thing. But there’s other people, people who’ve known you longer, people with a different set of skills that —” And as he’s evolving and growing into this bigger survivor who can be extremely self-sufficient — we see Daryl off living on his own. It wouldn’t surprise me if Eugene feels like he could do that, too, if push came to shove.
I think he’s been wanting to not be left out for his whole life. I don’t know that he would necessarily settle down if the apocalypse didn’t happen. He’s just comfortable being him, but he’s grown so much it’s like, OK, maybe I should try a relationship. And who’s the person I know the best? And that would be Rosita.
What do you think Eugene’s romance history is? Do you think he’s ever been in love before? Had he ever dated before? Or as you said, that just wasn’t something that was really important to him before the apocalypse?
McDermitt: I’ve always assumed that he’s never really dated. He was just comfortable being — I always thought he lived with his mother — just comfortable being in his own world, playing his video games and eating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and stuff like that.
Is there a possibility that there is going to be a little love triangle with Eugene and Rosita and Gabriel?
McDermitt: I will say that there’s more story to tell as it pertains to Eugene and Rosita and their relationship, and maybe his pursuit of their relationship. We have more story to tell there. I’m not going to mention other characters and what might happen there. But really, what we see at the end of (“Who Are You Now?”) is just that the walkers are starting to talk, and Eugene has injured himself and he’s getting away. And even though he feels like he’s going to die, he still stops to just say to Rosita, “Look, I have to say this now —” and she’s like, “Don’t make this weird,” which I absolutely loved. It’s one of those things where it’s still on his mind, and he just needs to get this out, and he definitely feels like he’s going to die at this point, which is a scary place to be.
That scene with the talking walkers is, in nine seasons, the creepiest, scariest walkers have ever been. What can you say about that new development? Is this an evolving zombiedom, or — something else?
McDermitt: I think we see that it’s something completely different, and it’s throwing them for a loop. It’s a different kind of threat and scare. And I think that Eugene, as comfortable as he’s become around walkers and killing them with his knife — all of a sudden the game’s been turned on its head. Maybe everything that he knew is not true. Walkers don’t move that fast, but what we know of them has changed. He’s trying to get to safety now, but I think there will come a time where he’s going to figure out what’s happening, because he is a man of science, at the heart of who he is.
A lot has happened in six years. Carol has way more hair, Eugene has very different hair. Siddiq is hinting to Luke that something happened to make Michonne and the Alexandrians less likely to take people in. We see briefly Michonne has this giant scar on her back that looks like it might have come from some surgical procedure. Are we going to find out some of the things that the group has experienced in these last six years?
McDermitt: Yeah. We’re just starting to unpack that, and I don’t want to say too much about it, because I don’t know exactly where we’ll get more information. But this isn’t the kind of show that just leaves things unanswered. I know that we will unpack that story a little bit more.
We also don’t know why Daryl is out there in the woods by himself.
McDermitt: Yeah, for sure. And I’m really excited about where the story is headed, because Angela and her writers, they’ve all just done an amazing job with the story. I was a fan of the show at the start, and this feels like the early episodes, even though the world is bigger, the cast is bigger. It feels very rich emotionally, and it’s very story driven and character driven, not necessarily all like, “Kill!” or things like that. Our show has done that in the past, and any other show could easily just go into that full time, but this show’s done a good job of continuing to put the story first, and develop these characters and push them forward, because from that we’re going to get new storylines. That’s the cool thing: It’s like, “Yes, something has happened within this six-year time jump, and all of these people that you thought you knew are different, they’ve changed.” We’re going to see that played out more, and that’s what’s exciting.
Jumping ahead a bit to next week, Michael Cudlitz is returning as the director of the episode, “Stradivarius.” You and Christian Serratos came into the show with him as Abraham, “Abraham’s Army.” I know you guys are close. What was that like to have him back as the director?
McDermitt: It’s so exciting to have him around. This was his first time directing, and he’s great. For the last few years, probably even longer, but as long as I’ve known him, he’s been shadowing directors, learning from people, and he’s been waiting for the right time. And there was a moment where he was shadowing, maybe it was Ben McKenzie over on Gotham, because they worked together on Southland, and I texted him, and I said, “How’s that going?” and he said, “You know what, all my instincts are there, I’m not worried about anything. I’m comfortable. I’m really ready to direct an episode of The Walking Dead.” And so to have him there, a man who’s completely confident in his abilities, was exciting. And everybody who’s seen the episode, I haven’t seen it yet, but everybody who’s seen it says it’s amazing and that he did such a great job. I would hope that we get him back next year for multiple episodes.
And here’s another thing: He knows a lot of the actors, and he knows a lot of their crutches, things that they fall back on, and he can get in there and needle them a bit, and get them to give a different performance at times, instead of falling into the same old rhythm. I’m guilty of it myself, and that’s what’s great about someone who knows the people and knows the show so well: They can do that. So it was awesome that Angela was able to give him an opportunity to come and direct.
Did it feel like especially good timing to have him back? He is such a leader kind of guy. Just as Andy Lincoln was wrapping up his run on the show, did it feel good to have Michael return?
McDermitt: Absolutely. And I don’t know if there are specific episodes that certain directors are requested for. I don’t know if he was specifically requested for episode seven, or if it was just that’s how the schedule worked out. But it ended up being great, because Mike is a leader and, again, he knows everybody. Not that the wheels were coming off the bus at all, but to have someone there after Andy left, someone that we all knew and felt comfortable with, it was great.
For you, what’s the biggest difference on set without Andy Lincoln there?
McDermitt: The biggest difference honestly is off set. He and I would golf a lot, and hang out and chat, and I’m missing not having that guy there to make fun of and for him to make fun of me, and talk about life and things like. That’s the biggest difference. His fingerprints are all over this show. This has always been a collaboration, and … there’s a lot of people on our crew that were here season 1, episode one, and it’s still the same show. Also, this season was the first time I really worked with Andy in any capacity. I’ve been in group scenes, but to not have him there didn’t feel like he was gone in a weird way. It’s only seeing him outside of the show — we saw him at the premiere and things like that where he just looks different. He looks rested. He looks like the Andrew Lincoln that we knew way back before he ever started the show. That’s been the hardest part, to just not see him as much outside of set.
Who’s the better golfer, you or him?
McDermitt: He’ll tell you it’s him, but I take lessons and I’m really good — that’s all bullshit. He’s won so much money off of me. He’s ruthless.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8C on AMC.