Is Eugene Porter now on easy street? In Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead, the mullet-haired member of Rick’s crew was taken hostage in Negan’s headquarters — only to discover that he would be living like a king. Instead of getting tortured in a cell like Daryl, Eugene gets his own room, eating pasta and pickles, and playing Atari video games. By episode’s end, he even sounds the Negan loyalty oath by announcing, “I am Negan.” The question, of course, is whether Eugene is actually Team Negan or if he’s just playing the long (survivalist) game. Vulture got on the phone with Josh McDermitt, the actor who plays Eugene, about stepping out of the ensemble for his big The Walking Dead episode, nicknames for his mullet, and how he’d feel if his character got killed off.
This is a Eugene-centric episode. On a big ensemble show like The Walking Dead, do you feel a lot of added pressure to deliver on an episode that’s focused on your character?
Yeah, I did feel a lot of pressure. This is my favorite show; I was a fan before I started working on it. When I started working on it, I didn’t want to be the guy who screws up his favorite show, and I still feel that way, even though I’ve been on for four seasons now. Especially in an episode like this. I mean, this is the most attention we’ve given to Eugene in any one episode. He’s basically the sole focus of the A-story. I didn’t have Michael Cudlitz, who played Abraham. I didn’t have Christian Serratos there, who plays Rosita, to lean on. Andy Lincoln wasn’t there — all these people who I’m used to doing scenes with. At the same time, as much pressure as I felt, it wasn’t that difficult because I was able to lean on guys like Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Austin Amelio, who plays Dwight. They’ve been a part of the show for a while now too and they definitely know how things are done. We worked together as a collaborative effort, as a cast, as an ensemble.
Sometimes, you watch a show and you can smell the ego on some people. I don’t think you get that with this show. From the very beginning, way back in season one, they all got together and were like, “Are we going to put story first, or ourselves first?” and they made a conscious effort to make sure they were putting the story first and doing things that served it and not the individuals. That goes all the way back to Sarah Wayne Callies and Norman Reedus. Jon Bernthal isn’t on the show anymore, but they laid that groundwork, that foundation, and we’re still able to build upon that today, which is awesome.
So you’re saying you’ll be fine if your character gets killed off?
I’m not saying I’d be fine with it — I’d like to have a job! But if it serves the story then, oh well, that’s the bed I’ve made.
You mentioned Michael Cudlitz. Was it difficult to lose him as an actor and as a character after the premiere?
Michael Cudlitz is like my brother and it was so hard to lose him. He is such a leader in the cast, and such a professional. But even in the last couple seasons, our story lines started to move in separate directions, so we weren’t necessarily working together much as [we were]. We talked a lot on the phone, we’re great friends, we still see each other at fan conventions and hang out. But in a weird way, he left the show and it didn’t feel like he really left. I still talk with him just as much. I was literally just texting him right before you and I started talking.
Did you have a farewell?
Gosh, we’d been saying good-bye since … it seemed like months. He told us months and months before we ever shot it, so it felt like every time I saw him was another farewell, you know?
Did you have to do any crazy secret keeping?
Yeah, I was lying to everybody. My friends and family were getting asked, “Who did Negan kill?” and so if I didn’t throw them off, then they’d accidentally spoil it and not realize it. If I told them I was in Georgia then they would know that I’m alive, so I was making plans in L.A. while I was in Georgia, saying “Hey, let’s go out to dinner tonight,” and then I’d cancel at the last second and say, “Something’s come up, I have an audition to prepare for,” which would throw them off even more! Like, “Why is he auditioning? He’s already on The Walking Dead!” I destroyed a lot of relationships in my life, but I’m okay with it.
The state of fear you convey as Eugene is remarkable, especially during the premiere and this episode. How do you exude that?
I think Eugene spends a lot of time crying. Mostly I was crying because I was tired of being on my knees and I was just praying to God, “Let me get off my knees.” Nah, it’s all boring actor talk. Basically that’s just stuff you rehearse and practice on your own. When it comes time to go to those emotional places, you go there. Unfortunately, it’s not a fun place for us to live, because nobody likes to live in the unhealthy portions of their brain, but that’s what we’re called upon to do at times. It never gets easier. The more you do it, it still never gets easier.
What do you think motivates Eugene?
At this point in the series, he’s motivated by not wanting to feel the fear that he’s felt, especially in episode one where he lost two people right off the bat — no pun intended there. He was horrified and just has this fear living inside of him. All he wants to do is not have that fear. It’s this weird thing that I have been thinking a lot about. I feel like a lot of the characters, even if they never talk about it, are trying to hold on to something in their past, some sort of pre-apocalyptic idea of what life should be like. Most of them know it’s never going to come back to that, but they’d love it if they were like that again. I think Eugene wants things to go back to normal as much as he can. Whatever normalcy that is, it’s what he’s hoping for, and I think that’s what drives him these days.
What do you think he’s holding on to?
Look, the apocalypse is good for some people. [Laughs.] It makes them grow. It makes them come into their own and become people they wouldn’t otherwise be. But it’s bad for other people — bad for someone like Shane. It allowed him to devolve into a monster, because when we first met him, he wasn’t. For Eugene, it’s forced him to grow into something better. He wants to become a better man, but he’s holding on to this life that “used to be” where he would probably go home, sit on his couch, play video games, and not be bothered by people. He wouldn’t have to exert as much emotional energy as he does now. His emotional spectrum is about the width of a pencil tip, and yet he cries all the time now. It’s completely justified, but he hates that. He hates that feeling. He wants it to go back to what it used to be. I think that’s what he’s hanging on to: what life used to be, what he used to be. Unfortunately, circumstances are forcing him to change and adapt into something else on his trip to being a survivor.
At the end of the episode, Eugene says, “I am Negan.” Has he joined the dark side or is he just conning Negan? I know you can’t spoil anything, but how do you approach that as an actor, playing that kind of ambiguity?
I’ve had to make decisions for myself because being an actor is all about making choices. So I had to make those choices and I’m going to keep them to myself because I don’t need to reveal all the tricks of the trade. But I did ask Scott Gimple, our showrunner, not to tell me what Eugene’s intentions are — if he’s Trojan horsing this thing or if he’s full-on Team Negan — because I don’t want to know. I love being surprised at certain parts of the show.
This was certainly a surprise to me, but the thing that’s more important to me than when he says, “I’m Negan,” was the line before Negan asked him “Who are you?” He said, “You don’t have to be scared anymore.” There was just that calming voice of Negan, this ruthless man who, in that moment, is saying, “Hey, you are kidding yourself. I get it, but you don’t have to be scared. This is your way out.” That moment is a hit of crack for Eugene. All he wants to do is not feel the feelings that are burning inside him every time he’s around this man. That’s the more important part of that scene, the fact that he came to that realization before he even had to say, “I’m Negan.”
Is the desire to not know what happens maintaining the viewer in you?
A little bit. I love reading scripts as a fan. I’m excited to know what’s happening before anyone else. But there’s a bit of me wanting to maintain my viewing habits and not know and still be surprised. I also think if I did know anything, I’d start playing that, and I don’t want that to happen.
Have you all named the mullet?
Yeah, we call it “the mullet of life.” Our hairdresser, Vincent Gideon, came up and said, “This is the mullet of life. It’s a hard show to shoot, man. They say if you’re tired, if you don’t know you can last another day and you just need to recharge, just go to the mullet and drink from the mullet of life.” So I ring my mullet sweat into a Dixie cup and someone pounds it like a shot of whiskey! It may be gross, but that’s what makes the show great.
Would be the beginning of the end for Eugene if he got a haircut?
I’m about to hang up on you man, that you would even suggest we do a haircut with this guy! I don’t know why everyone asks me this question about the hair these days! “Is he ever going to get a haircut? Change his style?” I just feel like I’m under attack! I don’t think he would ever change it. In fact, they wrote that he would try to pull it into a ponytail, which would be part of his going-to-work thing. But if they ever wanted to do something other than the mullet, I would fight that so hard. I think it is an iconic hairpiece. I love it so much. I love looking as stupid as possible.
It would have to signal some deep character change if he actually changed it.
Yeah, he likes it and it’s something he had before the apocalypse, so we get back to the deeper issue of trying to hold on to something in the past. That’s what he’s trying to do.
Did you and Austin have a good chat before you had to bite his crotch?
It was basically like, “I’m Josh, nice to meet you. Where am I biting?” It was so quick, not a way you want to meet someone. “I’m about to bite your dick, you mind standing a little closer? What was your name again?” It was funny. Austin’s a great guy, a tremendous actor, and what a way to come into the show — to do one episode with Norman and the next episode you get your dick bit.
That feels on brand for the show.
It’s iconic, man. It’s as iconic as the mullet.
This interview has been edited and condensed.