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Walking Dead Week: Chad L. Coleman on Playing Tyreese

Better Late Than Never

Oct 06, 2014 The Walking Dead
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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.

Though The Walking Dead‘s TV version instantly earned high marks from readers of the graphic novel when it debuted in October, 2010, fans still had one question. Where was Tyreese? One of the most memorable characters from the show’s source material, the hammer-wielding warrior was conspicuous in his absence from early episodes, and readers couldn’t comprehend how the show’s writers could leave out such a central character. It wasn’t until season three that viewers had their answer: the writers had different plans for him.

When Tyreese finally showed up, leading a small group of survivors into the prison where Team Grimes had set up camp for sanctuary, he wasn’t exactly the same character from the comics. For one, he was no longer traveling with his teenage daughter but with his sister. For another, he was not immediately accepted as Rick’s right-hand man as he was in the books but was rejected by Rick and sent back into the wilderness. But the similarities were obvious.

Played by Chad L. Coleman, best known for his heartfelt portrayal of ex-con Cutty on The Wire, the TV version of Tyreese is similarly burly and courageous as his comic counterpart. Perfectly cast, Coleman brings a quiet intensity to the character, maintaining the original’s sense of loyalty but coloring him with a sense of sadness and doubt that adds another layer of emotional complexity. And for those wondering how Tyreese fits in a cast crammed with heroic alpha males, the answer should come soon. Still grieving the loss of his girlfriend, he was last seen on the road to Terminus, with Carol and baby Judith in tow, the only group members not currently waiting for rescue in a dimly lit cattle car. Here, Coleman recalls his expectations when he joined the cast, explains how working on The Wire prepared him for The Walking Dead, and examines just what kind of character he’d like to see Tyreese become.

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): Since you’ve now been on The Walking Dead for three seasons, would you say this season has a different character than the previous seasons?

Chad L. Coleman: It’s got a scale to it. It’s bigger on all levels than any other season. Just across the board, the pace of it is nonstop and relentless. In season four, we ramped up into it. It didn’t just come out the box and it built up to big dramatic moments and amazing visuals with the walkers. We’re coming right out of the box with it this time, like no holds barred.

When you joined the cast, did you have any particular expectations?

Having had the opportunity to binge watch the DVDs, there was an aesthetic there and a work ethic and the way they go about doing business. You have to be all-in. And I pride myself on being that type of actor, so I knew when you put your hardhat on and you go to work, you’re going full out. I wanted to meet that and continue to participate in that growth.

The Walking Dead has the reputation for having a very family-like atmosphere. Did you find that right away?

Yes. Absolutely. Everybody loves what they do, and they’re passionate. Everybody respects that this is a plush gig. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of something that’s reaching so many people and with storytellers who want to tell stories with such rich characters? So we all have a profound appreciation for having the gig, and it’s an environment where everyone loves coming to work. People just have great personalities. It’s like you’re hanging with the cool kidsthese actors are incredibly smart, passionate, and funny, so it makes it really easy to be around them.

Did it take you long to get used to the Atlanta environment?

No, not really. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and it gets pretty hot and humid there. It’s certainly turned up a couple extra notches [in Georgia], and I certainly do my share of complaining about the heat. [Laughs] I tell people, you’re constantly saying “It’s hot!” as if it’s going to change. But it’s so damn hot you can’t stop complaining about it. That’s just how it is.

Going into your audition, had you read the comic books or know much about the Tyreese character?

No, I hadn’t. So I go online, and the first thing I see is that we look alike. We’ve got the physicality down. Then I began to read and talk about it to [Robert] Kirkman and the showrunner Glenn Mazzaro, and it just began to unfold. I began reading, and right away I find out there’s a shiftSasha is going to be my sister, not my daughter. So I knew that Kirkman and Gimple had an opportunity to retell the story and revisit some areas and pay homage to the comic but also go off in a different direction. They were like, “Just trust me. Be all-in. We’ve got the godfather here. Kirkman is here with us, so whatever you need to know, we can get you the information. Feel free to read the comics.” I’ve been making my way through it slowly.

And your Tyreese is quite a bit different from the one in the comics, wouldn’t you say?

Yeah, absolutely. And that’s the beauty of television. We’ve got to respect this medium, and also I like the complexity of him on the show. I think it’s more immediate for me, because I don’t know where this guy is going to go. I like thatit keeps people guessing, and it keeps you engaged to figure out where he’s going. He’s got so many different qualities to him, that he’s a very rich, complex guy to play. I love it.

So you think he’s the kind of guy you’d like to hang out with and talk to?

Oh, absolutely. We’d have a lot to talk about, and he has a wonderful perspective. The only thing you don’t get a lot of from him is humor. He has small moments where he can be kind of funny. But it’s hard in this post-apocalyptic world to find much to laugh about.

Since you relate to him, do you find that you have to reach really deeply to play a particularly emotional scene as Tyreese?

Absolutely, but that’s what I’ve been gifted to do. I’ve been doing it on stage and throughout my career, and I’ve always been drawn to dramatic acting. That’s not to say that I don’t do comedy, because I have, but I’ve been drawn to [dramatic work]. You can have an out of body experience when delivering a scene. It’s pretty amazing.

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

First of all, as a child we all like being scared. Or maybe you didn’t like it, but you had some relationship to a scary movie. Either you loved it or you were terrified, but you were having some visceral experience with it. I think that’s where it starts for us all, and you don’t ever lose that. I think if you start there, it appeals to the little kid in all of us. We like being scared. And then you go from there, and now you’ve got this rich storytelling and great acting, and you put that all together, there’s something for everybody. It’s like gumbo. Somehow along the way, there’s going to be a demographic that it’s going to hit. It’s a wide swath, and I believe it’s because it appeals to that little kid inside of us that likes to be scared.

What have you thought about the intense reactions of fans?

Yeah. It happens to us all. I do my best to say “Hey, I’m human. I’m just here. This is what I do for a living. Thank you for your passion.” I’m just a normal guy, and I’m fortunate to be involved in this profession and this show. I do appreciate your passion, but I’m just a regular guy. Sometimes it lands; sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you just have to let them have that. It’s pretty intense.

At this point, would you say more people recognize you for The Walking Dead or The Wire?

I’ve got to say, at this point, it’s about 50-50. The Wire is the amazing gift that just doesn’t go away. It resonates in a different way, but [The Wire fans] are just as passionate. You just don’t have the same volume. They’re like, “That was the greatest show ever! I don’t care what you say.” The Walking Dead fans are more like, “Oh, man! Tyreese!” The Wire fans, their passion is their appreciation that it was something they feel will never be replicated. [The Walking Dead] is growing in its passion for storytelling and that novelistic approach. I think we’re continuing to evolve with that, and that’s really exciting. You’ll visit one character, and you may not hit that again until three or four episodes later. But it still resonates with people. That’s very hard to do, but I think we’re in that wheelhouse now. This show is just going to keep getting richer and richer.

It’s quite a privileged place to be. You’ve been in two of the greatest shows of the past 20 years. I guess only you and Lawrence Gilliard, Jr., can say that.

Yeah, and Seth Gilliam. It’s still unique company. There’s only three of us on the face of the earth that can say that. I love it. That’s why I’m trying to fuse The Wire fans with The Walking Dead fans. I’m trying to get those two together. Norman [Reedus] has his Boondock Saints fans, and that’s a perfect mix for the subject matter and the genre, whereas The Wire fans are a little bit different. It will take some time, but I’m like, “I want to see you guys come together. I want to build this into a big club.”

Right! When you auditioned, was there any concern that you had no idea how long you’d be on the show, given that almost everyone meets their end at some point?

Yeah. The Wire was not completely unlike that, though. I remember coming in, and I was like, “There’s no way they’re going to kill Idris Elba’s character, Stringer Bell.” And the very next day I got the script, and I couldn’t believe it. They were actually going to kill this dude! After that happened, I was like, “Well, where can I go? All bets are off now.” No one goes unscathed. I kind of carried that with me. There were other similarities. I came into The Wire in season three, and I came into The Walking Dead in season three. And on The Walking Dead, a major character had just been killed off, just like on The Wire a major character had been killed off. So I was seeing these parallels. I know the expectation is to not have any.

When you think about the future of Tyreese, where do you see him going? I guess it’s not really up to you, but what would you like to see happen?

On one level, I’d like to see him to continue to emerge as a leader with an amazing conscience, not unwilling to weigh the difficult decisions and give them the amount of time they’re due. He’s going to try to think it out and do whatever he can to reduce the harm to people. That’s not always an attractive place to be in, because people make demands and don’t agree and misperceive what you’re trying to do. I love that struggle in him and his willingness to carry that mantle. I would like to see him open up his heart again and find love, because I think community is so important to him. And in order for it to grow, you’ve got to be involved and feel safe enough to bring a child into the world. I’d like to see him go down that road. I know it’s harsh in the post-apocalyptic world, but I think his ultimate belief is that things will return to normal. So who are you going to be when things get back to normal, if you’re willing to do all of this stuff to survive? What does that do to you inside?

Do you think differently about him now than when you started playing him?

Yeah. When I first started, I thought he was sure of who he was. And I was drawn more to his physical strength and his protective quality, but I didn’t realize how there’s a tortured soul in him. I don’t think I completely knew that at first.




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