Walking Dead Week: Josh McDermitt on Playing Eugene

Fears of a Clown

Oct 07, 2014 Web Exclusive
Bookmark and Share


This week is Walking Dead Week on Under the Radar's website. Season five of the wildly popular and critically acclaimed post apocalyptic zombie drama starts this Sunday, October 12, at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. Central) on AMC. In anticipation of the show's return, for this special theme week of coverage we have interviewed around 10 members of the show's current cast and will be posting one to two Walking Dead interviews every day this week.

Since the demise of irascible redneck Merle Dixon in season three, The Walking Dead hasn't had a character you could turn to for (admittedly dark) comic relief. Enter Dr. Eugene Porter, a self-proclaimed brilliant scientist with a mullet and an ability to make every social situation awkward simply by his presence. Played by Josh McDermitt, a comedian and actor best known for his work on sitcoms, Eugene was introduced as the stone-faced misfit who holds the keys to unlock the zombie virusif only he can get to Washington, D.C., to work with other scientists on a cure. Along the way, he accidentally shoots the gas tank out of his group's only transportation and clumsily flirts with his female traveling partners, but it doesn't matter. "He's a giant brain shrouded by a mullet," McDermitt says, and he will be protected.

Not that he isn't intelligent, but McDermitt doesn't seem to have much in common with his character. He's talkative and quick-witted, where his counterpart largely observes and analyzes, then doles out unintentional insults. A former contestant on Last Comic Standing, McDermitt has an eye for the absurd, something that both permits him to see the lighter side of the zombie apocalypse and occasionally causes him to wonder if Eugene's lines are intended to be jokes. But as a devoted fan of the show before joining the cast, he knows the tone of the show allows for previous few moments of levity. Here, on a day off from shooting, McDermitt explains how he landed the role of his dreams, his subsequent inspiration for Eugene, and how he'd like to see his inelegant scientist end up as the last man standing.

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): So I was wondering, are you told ahead of time what kinds of things you can talk about in these interviews and what you can't?

Josh McDermitt: Kind of. They really let us use our own discretion, and no one wants to be the person who spoils it or screws it up. There have been a few times where one of the cast members has slipped up or alluded to something, instead of coming out and saying it, and they've gotten in trouble. But you can't fault them, because we've all got a lot of secrets we're trying to keep, and we want to talk about it and publicize the show, so it gets a little tricky. But it's not like they say, "Here are your talking points." They just say "Don't screw it up." Plus, no one wants to screw up a bunch of stuff and get killed off the show.

It must be difficult not to be able to tell your friends and family what's going on with your character.

Yeah. What was really difficult was when I came on the show last season. I have blonde hair normally, and they dyed my hair brown and gave me that mullet. All of my friends are actors, and you don't change your hair unless you've booked a job. So everybody knew, but I couldn't talk about it. The really weird part was that [The Walking Dead] was my favorite show before I came on, and all of my friends had watched the show. Now I had to leave town, I couldn't talk about it, and I had a mullet. But because I have a comedy background, most people thought I was doing a comedy. I only had one friend guess that it was The Walking Dead, and I threw him off by saying, "Oh, yeah. That'll be the day that I book a dramatic role," and he said, "Yeah, you're right." It is difficult, but people don't want me to spoil things. They want to see it when it airs.

Since you were such a big fan of the show, what was it like being in the running to be a character on the show?

It was exciting. I'd say half of the auditions I've ever done is for something that I've never seen or something I don't watch. If it was a Nickelodeon show or whatever, I'd audition for that stuff, but I wouldn't watch it. And then I'd audition for things that I do watch and am a fan of, so it wasn't anything more intimidating in that regard, except for the fact that it was my favorite show. I think that helped me. I really knew the tone, and I knew what they were going for. The whole audition process was really secretive, too, and the material they give you to audition with is not from the show. It's all backstory stuff that takes place before the apocalypse. I think that helps, too, because you're not in an audition room trying to pretend a zombie is coming after you, like, "Did I look scared enough? Do you want me to do it again?" But it was a fun process. There were several moments where I thought I didn't get it, because it took a while. And it was a little scary coming into the set. Here I am, walking onto the set of my favorite show, and instantly Andy Lincolnhe had a day offhe came down to chat with me and meet me. He didn't have to do that, but it really put me at ease and made the transition pretty smooth. And there are still moments where I'm like, "Oh my gosh, there's Daryl! There's Michonne!" Being a fan, it's really fun.

Would you say your experiences have matched your expectations for joining the show?

I didn't know what to expect. I had several people say, "Hey, this is a great cast and crew, and they're all like a big family. It will be awesome." I didn't really expect anything but what I'd been told. If I had showed up and everyone was a bunch jerks, I would have hated it. But they were right; everyone was super cool. I've worked on other projects where people are for the most part great, and there are a couple stinkers in the bunch, and you end up not liking the mood on the set. You have to move on and ignore that aspect of your day. But [The Walking Dead] is an incredible experience from top to bottom. I don't know what my next job is going to be when my time here comes to an end, but I know it will suck because it's not going to be this show.

Since you do have a comedy background, do you think that influences the way you approach your character?

A little bit. I try and approach every character in the same way, just from a place of reality and looking at the behaviors of the person. And sometimes behaviors of a person are funny, even if it's a serious person. They have little quirks and ticks that make them humorous. So I try to approach things that way. But if you're doing a sitcom or something, there are obviously jokes written into the script that you want to be able to hit and sell more than you do with a dramatic thing. I think with Eugene, there's some humor in him, just because he's a quirky guy, but I'm not trying to be funny. I'm not approaching it that way. But there was a line in a script that I went to Scott Gimple, our showrunner, about, and I said, "Is this a joke? Because I read it that way." And he said, "Oh, of course not. Why would you see it that way?" Well, that's my comedy background. I saw it as a joke. Obviously, that could get in the way a little bit, but it doesn't necessarily influence anything I'm doing, and I've been able to separate it pretty well. The last thing you want to do is stick out like a sore thumb because you're delivering everything like you're on a sitcom.

Since Eugene has a somewhat flat personality, is it difficult to play him? I assume you're more extroverted in your everyday life.

Well, I come from a family of people who don't really communicate. We all love each other, but we're just bumps on a log. We sit there at family parties and it's awkward because nobody really speaks. That's all in me. It was easy to pick that up. I've made jokes in the past that I'm just doing an impression of my little brother, because he's extremely dry and extremely sarcastic and extremely smart. So it has just been this fun thing to make jokes that I'm doing him. But it hasn't been too hard, because it has been in me already. It's not like it has been a stretch, and the more I do interviews and talk to people, I'm becoming more extroverted to show people I'm not a weirdo like Eugene would be. Trust me: my neutral face and how my teeth look, I look like I'm angry. So if I say something dry and sarcastic, people are like, "Man, this guy's a jerk." So I purposely try and smile as much as I can or try and have fun, so I can be more approachable and people can come up to me and say "Hello" instead of being like, "Oh, he's angry. I don't want to talk to him."

Do you think fans of the show are surprised when they meet you that you're a lot different than your character?

There have been a few. I do a lot of fan interaction on Twitter, and they realize right away that I'm pretty snarky and sarcastic and like to have a good time. So when I meet those fans, they expect it. But then there are other people who are like, "Man, I thought you were just this socially awkward dude." So I put them in a headlock and give them a noogie and say, "No. It's just me. I'm pretty normal." The fans are rabid and they're crazy, and it has been a great experience just to talk to them. With a fan's perspective, which I still have, I get excited to talk about the show with them and get a picture with them.

Are there any cast members you would say are very similar to the characters that they play?

Hmm. Yeah, Michael Cudlitz is pretty much Abraham. He's this larger than life character. He's a sweet guy and I love him to death. He's one of my best friends out here. But he's not really stretching too far to play Abraham. [Laughs] I think there's a little bit of each actor in the characters that they play, and that's why these people are the best for their roles. I can be dry and monotone with no affect in the way I speak. Danai [Guria], who plays Michonne, can be a bit mysterious at times. The same with Norman Reedus; he can be this lone wolf on set, and it's like, "Oh, you are Daryl." But as for someone who is extremely like his character, it's got to be Cudlitz.

Who would you say is least like their character?

Well, there's two answers there. There's Alanna Masterson, who plays a lesbian, but she's straight. And then there's Christian Serratos, who plays this badass as Rosita. I'm sure I'm looking shallowly at her, but in real life she's not a gun-wielding chick. She might be slowly moving toward that, but she wears sundresses and likes all things Disney. She's almost childlike in her excitement for life, and Rositathat character is a badass as a woman. But the cool thing about Christian is that she has picked up archery in her off time. She's really growing into that role. Ask me that question again in a year, and she won't be the answer. She will be Rosita.

It seems like everyone is changed in some way by being on the show, whether it's the elements in Georgia or the harshness of the material.

Absolutely. It's brutal to be shooting in the woods when it's 105 degrees, with all of the humidity and snakes crawling up your leg and ticks and everything. If that doesn't change you, for better or worse, you're not human, because it affects everybodyeven the crew. But we're all in it together, so no one complains too much about it. That's good, because it would be tough to be shooting with a bunch of whiners.

Before you read for the show, had you been familiar with the Eugene character from comics?

No. I didn't know him. I knew [The Walking Dead] was a comic, but I hadn't really jumped into it. So I started doing some research on my own after I auditioned and found that they had changed the names, but the character I had auditioned for was Eugene. I got really excited, because he's really pivotal to the plot of the comics. I think it would be fun to play a character like Abraham or Darylthese badass dudes who can kill a bunch of zombies, but Eugene doesn't like to get his hands dirty. I wasn't too familiar with the comics at all, but I got caught up completely, just because it's such a great series to read.

Why do you think the show connects so deeply with viewers?

People don't watch this show by themselves. They watch it with their families and friends. Not every show can do that, and there's something nostalgic about the way our show is viewed. I think that's really special.

So I read that we're going to have some flashbacks for Eugene this season.

I don't know if I'd call them "flashbacks," but we're going to jump into his backstory a little bit. We'll discover a little more about who he is, what makes him tick, and where he comes from. We didn't really have a chance to do since we showed up in the middle of season four, and we didn't have time to talk much about the cure or how long we'd be on the road to Washington. Those were the sorts of things we couldn't worry about. So it's great that we're about to do that and talk about Abraham's backstory a bit, too, and that will help shape the storylines moving forward. It's always great when you're able to learn more about a character, because you start to see them in a new light. Like the character of Daryl, we learned a lot more about him last year, and people are going to look at him through that prism now. That's pretty rad.

So how does it feel to be the one character who at least holds the potential to unlock the mystery of the zombie virus? The hope for survival is ultimately pinned on Eugene.

Man, there's a lot of responsibility on my shoulders right now. [Laughs] I've had people say to me, "Man, you better not cure that thing, because that means the show will be over!" I love the show, too, and I want the job. I don't want to cure it and have the show end because of me. But it's fun. It means that people care. I'm really excited to play that character.

So when you think about the future of the show, do you think about how you'd like to see Eugene die on the show? Or are you focused on him surviving and being there to declare victory at the end?

Yeah, I've never thought about what would be a good death for him. I know some of other actors have [thought about that] for their characters, but Eugene likes to have other people do the killing for him, just because he can't. People think, "Well, it will be Daryl at the end." Or Rick or some other badass. Of course, that person would survive. But I'd love it if everybody died and it was just Eugene at the end by himself. It would be like, "How did he get there?" That would be pretty cool. I'd love that. [Laughs]

I guess no one really knows, other than maybe Robert Kirkman, where this is all going.

At least from a fan's perspective, they don't know. I know the producers are already thinking about season six, seven, eightbecause they have to set stuff up now for storylines that are going to pay off down the road. But they don't share that with anybody. As secretive as the cast can be with spoilers, the producers are even more secretive when talking to the cast. I know they're setting stuff up for seasons down the road; I'm just excited to see what they are.

When you get a new script, are you scared it will be the one where Eugene dies?

There have been a few times. Not just Eugene, but last season Alanna Masterson's character, Tara, was caught under a rock and a bunch of boulders trapped her leg, and I was flipping through to the end of the script to see if she made it. I don't want to see anybody die on the show, because we're all friends and we're all family, and we love working together. From talking to some of the cast members who have been killed off from previous seasons, they say the worst part is that you can't come to work and hang out with your friends. We'll all get jobs after thiswe're not worried about that. But you can't see your friends anymore. That's the part that stinks.

www.amctv.com/shows/the-walking-dead

www.twitter.com/JoshMcDermitt

 



Comments

Submit your comment

Name Required

Email Required, will not be published

URL

Remember my personal information
Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

There are no comments for this entry yet.