Ryan Hurst made his long-awaited debut in Sunday's episode of The Walking Dead, "Guardians." The fan-favorite actor from Sons of Anarchy took on the role of fan-favorite comics character Beta, the hulking right-hand man to Samantha Morton's Alpha, the leader of the Whisperers. Hurst's casting was announced at San Diego Comic-Con last year, and his arrival has been one of the most anticipated events of Season 9. We didn't get the full Beta experience in "Guardians" — his big battle debut is coming next week — but we were introduced to his truly imposing physical presence and began to wonder about why he doesn't challenge Alpha for supremacy over the Whisperers.
Hurst told TV Guide that he didn't know about Beta before he got the part, but a few months before he signed on he had a premonition that he was going to be on the show. It wasn't based on anything, really, he just had a feeling (talking to Hurst, you get the sense he's a spiritually plugged-in guy). So he had his people reach out to The Walking Dead and say that he was interested in being on the show, which is very funny, because it's not at all how the casting process works. There's a thing called an audition, you know? The show didn't have a part for him at the time, and a few more months went by. Then late one night he got a text from his friend Jeffrey Dean Morgan that said something to the effect of "Duuuuuuude, congratulations." Hurst was like "What?," but Morgan wouldn't explain himself. It turned out Morgan was hanging out with executive producer Greg Nicotero and found out Hurst had been cast as Beta before even Hurst himself knew. Hurst's deal wasn't closed, Morgan was talking prematurely, and Nicotero was like "You can't tell him!" So a few days later, Hurst found out he'd gotten the part, and texted Morgan back "Duuuude, I'm so excited." His premonition had come true.
His first day at work was rehearsing the fight with Norman Reedus that's coming up in Episode 13, which was a day that departed star Andrew Lincoln was back on set shadowing a director and hanging out. Hurst said he'd heard all the stories about what a great guy Andy Lincoln is, but he was amazed that Lincoln went out of his way to make him feel welcome even though he wasn't even on the show anymore. So Hurst can confirm that the rumors about Lincoln are true, and he's a little bit in love with the man behind Rick Grimes. Hurst echoed the sentiment that so many people involved in the show share, which is that they've never been part of a project so welcoming and familial.
Hurst started on the show in late summer, when it is blood-boilingly HOT in Georgia. And Beta wears a trench coat and a mask and has a big bushy beard, so he's even hotter than the average Walking Dead player. But Hurst didn't mind. He even kept his mask on between takes. Keeping the mask on at all times is true to the comics character, who will kill anyone who tries to unmask him, and Hurst has clearly thought deeply about the character and the world he inhabits. ("You need good boots, and layers," because it's harder for walkers to bite through layers of clothing, he says of dressing for the zombie apocalypse.) He said since Beta barely speaks, he needed to be visually interesting, and details came to him while he was meditating, and he worked with the show's costume designer Elaine Montalvo to make them reality. The half-face mask and trench coat are taken from the comics, but the gold teeth were Hurst's idea. Not only do they look cool, they're practical, because they'll decay less than actual human teeth, which would be a serious concern for Hurst if he were in this situation. "If I were in the zombie apocalypse, the first thing I'd do is go to the dentist," he said.
In the comics, Beta is about seven feet tall. No spoilers, but the character's height and the reason he never takes off his mask are related. Asked if Beta is "NBA-sized," Hurst laughed and said Beta is exactly as big as he is, which is "6'5" and some change." So he's really big, but not Shaq-sized. And he looks especially enormous next to Alpha, which of course begs the question why he doesn't overpower her and become the leader of the Whisperers himself, since in Alpha's Darwinian philosophy, the strongest member of the pack is the leader. If Beta were to physically challenge her authority, he'd win, but he doesn't. Obviously there's a reason for this, and Hurst says the interesting relationship between this hulking man and this small, fearsome woman will be explored this season and next.
But in the short-term, the next thing for Beta is his knock-down, drag-out fight with Daryl, which Hurst is excited for fans to see. The fight is these two fierce fighters showing the other what they're capable of, and it unfolded over three pages of script. It's going to rule.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC. Previous seasons are available to stream on Netflix.