Since it's been a while, a quick recap: Jesus has been offscreen since helping with the Grimes Gang's assault on the Savior outpost in Season 6's "Not Tomorrow Yet." Before that, he educated the Alexandrians about Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and the Saviors, and introduced them to Gregory (Xander Berkeley), Hilltop's leader, after a chance encounter with Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Daryl (Norman Reedus) while the pair were out scouting.
We caught up with him back at the Hilltop in "Go Getters," where he helped Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) get acclimated, while advocating on their behalf to Gregory — who wants them to leave. Jesus doesn't consider himself a leader, and is willing to defer to Gregory on most issues of governance in Alexandria; but the situation with the Saviors, Maggie's pregnancy and Gregory's increasingly obvious incompetence pushed him to take a stand. By the end of the episode, he's changed from deferential to steely, telling Gregory that he's no longer in charge.
Oh, and he also karate-kicked a bunch of zombies in the face.
TVGuide.com talked to Tom Payne about where Jesus' head is at, the martial arts training he got for the role, and why he's so grateful for his beard.
Jesus got a lot to do physically and emotionally this week. Can you talk me through his emotional arc in this episode?
Tom Payne: Yeah, this is an interesting character in that respect, because I think he's quite a strong person in himself, but at the same time recognizes where he works the best in a group. I think he has been a bit of a lone wolf at the Hilltop, he has been helping any way that he can, but he doesn't consider himself to be the leader that Hilltop might need. And at the moment, Gregory — while not being the best person — is keeping the status quo.
At the same time I think he recognized that things would need to change and that the Savior situation was not going to get any better, and if not that, even get worse. When he encountered Rick's group, I think he did have in the back of his mind, like, "we're going to need help with this situation at some point." They were so confident about being able to sort the situation out and he didn't know how big it was. They left to take care of the situation, he helped a bit, and I think he came to the Hilltop thinking that it was done.
And then Maggie and Sasha showed up with the two bodies as well, and he realized that things have obviously not gone according to plan and are a lot more serious. With them being at the Hilltop, and in the time that they've spent together, he sees the kind of likeminded people that he wanted to meet... He sees a way forward for himself and the community that didn't exist with Gregory — because Gregory is not interested in doing anything that doesn't benefit him. He's happy just to sit on top of the pile and carry on, whereas Jesus realizes that something serious needs to change.
In the course of this episode, he gives Gregory the benefit of the doubt a little bit. He wants him to be a decent person and he wants him to prove himself and he keeps getting let down. At the moment he realizes — and he obviously suspected it, because he made sure that it didn't happen — when Gregory goes to give up Maggie and Sasha, that's when he realizes, "okay, this can't go on like this, because it's only getting more dangerous."
At the end of the episode when Maggie takes back Hershel's watch and they have that confrontation scene, he finally sees a way forward which can work for the community, because he's seen the end of the road with Gregory, and it's only going to get worse. And he's perfectly happy giving the stage up to Maggie, as he hints at the end of the episode that he can see leadership qualities that he doesn't necessarily have. He's seen a different way of existing with them. Gregory hasn't spent much time in the real world and he's not a fighter in the same way that Maggie and Sasha are. They're fighters, but they have a huge amount of empathy and are willing to work in a team. I think he sees the advantages that and wants to move it forward.
How do you see Jesus progressing as he finds his role as a more integrated member of the team, instead of a lone wolf?
Payne: That comes down to, you know, everyone has a past, and you'll get to find out more about Jesus' past as the show goes on. I think everyone has learned to cope with the world in a different way, and Jesus probably hasn't been that close — close enough — to people that he's felt the sense of loss that other people have. He's dealt with the world in a different way and at this point he's at peace in his own way with the world, like, "people live and people die and this is the world that we live in." I don't think he's been closely bonded enough with anyone to be really emotionally damaged by the world. He's always been on the outside.
What was it like to doing the fight scene? You got to do some really cool stuff.
Payne: Yeah, it was really fun. I was really pleased that we got to put that in. I actually watched it again today and was like, "I wish we had some more," because I worked really hard on all of that stuff for a few months. You'll see more of it, but obviously when you work on something really hard you want to show off what you're capable of. There were some really cool kicks I worked on that didn't end up in the show. Kind of frustrating. The flying kick is really cool, but it's only onscreen for like one second, and I'm like, "Why couldn't they do a big slow motion, leaping through fire kick or something?" But that's the nature of the show. It's enough for me to be capable. And in different situations going forward you'll see how capable he is.
It's really fun to start doing all that stuff and put it in the show because it hasn't really existed in the show before. Aside from Morgan and his stick, you haven't had any flying kicks or anything like that. Generally on the show, any fight is really scrappy and they end up on the ground. Jesus is much more efficient if he can be in doing what he does. And there's fighting walkers, and then there's fighting humans, which he would do in a different way.
What kind of training do you do for these martial arts sequences?
Payne: They hooked me up with a trainer in LA called Steven Ho, who trained Lennie James [who plays Morgan], as well. I was going to him twice a week for eight or nine weeks, and I also joined a boxing gym to help with my cardio and overall stance. I did some sparring with Steven, but we mostly worked on the kicks, because those are the flashy things that haven't really been on the show before. We put together kicks from all different disciplines — and obviously were like, "well, let's do this one because it looks really cool." I really enjoyed it, and I'm going to carry on with it, I think.
Had you done any martial arts training before you got the job?
Payne: Not really. It was all pretty new. I mean, I'm quite athletic, and it helps that I'm the right size, like a little compact ninja person. But I used to do gymnastics when I was younger, and I'm used to being physical. I'd been weight training before, but I hadn't really gotten back into being flexible and doing that bouncing around stuff. So it was nice to get back into my body in that way. I really enjoyed it.
I spoke to you last season about your beard, and how it was not your beard at that point. It is your beard now?
Payne: Now it is my beard, and I'm super happy about that. Actually, since I was so intent on it being my beard, I came back and I'd grown it really long. It was like twice the length that we ended up with, because I was so intent that I wasn't going to wear the fake one. My hair is pretty long, but we were still adding in pieces. But we didn't have to do as much as we did last year.
There are still some extensions, but you can't really tell that they're extensions. It was just to pad out my hair and add a little bit of length. But the beard was the best thing, because you can't move your face in a natural way when you have all that stuff stuck on it. You're always thinking about "I can't open my mouth really wide" or "I can't smile the way I'd smile." You're just a lot more natural, obviously, when it's the real thing. You feel less like you're putting on a mask. When you put on the fake beard, you're very aware that you're playing a role.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.