Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Sunday’s episode of “The Walking Dead,” “Stradivarius.”
Michael Cudlitz returned to “The Walking Dead” Sunday to direct his first episode of AMC’s zombie drama.
Cudlitz played fan favourite, Abraham Ford, for several seasons before he was killed off the show’s season seven premiere by Negan.
INSIDER spoke with Cudlitz at length about what it was like to be back on set, how he first mentioned directing an episode of “The Walking Dead” before he even joined the show on season four, how he’d be down for a “Walking Dead” movie or short, and much more.
It took Michael Cudlitz years to direct an episode of ‘The Walking Dead’ and almost cost him his friendship with former showrunner Scott M. Gimple
Kirsten Acuna: What was it like being back on the show, but as a director this time?Michael Cudlitz:It was great. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for about seven years now. Direct.Acuna:Oh, wow. That’s a long time.Cudlitz:Yeah. So I was supposed to, had “Southland” gone another year, I would have directed on “Southland.” So they knew that when I came in, and then Scott Gimple knew I was interested in doing it and he sort of made that happen. I’m very grateful and thankful for everyone over at AMC, and [current showrunner] Angela Kang, and everyone who trusted me with my first directing assignment on something so important as, not just the show, but this season in particular. With Andrew [Lincoln] leaving there’s a lot of concern about the show itself, so for them to trust me during this time was a huge vote of confidence.
Acuna: You mentioned Scott [Gimple] had helped you get on board with directing. Is this something that you talked to him about for a few seasons? Was it something that you maybe had considered a season earlier? Or was this always something in talk for this season?
Cudlitz: I talked to him in the very, very beginning, right before I came on board, just to see where my career was headed, what I was doing. And he was aware that I was getting ready to do it [direct] on “Southland.” And I said to him at that initial meeting, “Somewhere in the future, I would love to talk to you about that.’ And he was like, ‘That sounds great.” And then, a couple seasons in, we passively talked about it. He said, “I would not be opposed to looking at that.” He says, we had the same sensibility for storytelling. He said, I can trust your instincts. Whenever you come to me with notes or questions, they’re always very well thought out and they help the story and character, so I wouldn’t be opposed to that.
And then when I left the show and had my exit meeting, I said to him, “Hey, this might the perfect time for us to do this, but I would love to, at some point, come back and direct the show.” And I specifically chose to not put it as part of my contract negotiation, set to renegotiate my last year. My agent/manager at the time said, “Maybe we want to put this in and make it part of…,” and I said, ‘I don’t wanna be in a place where I’m being forced on somebody.” I said, “I would hate that.” I said, “The directing thing, as much as I want it to happen, has to happen on its own.” Everyone agreed to that.
We never brought it up until I spoke to Scott when I was leaving, and I said, “You know, I would love to explore this if it makes sense.” And once again, he said, “That sounds great, actually. Maybe in the next year or two, we can do that.”
And things with the show got so sort of hectic that it kept coming up and kept going away. So much to the point where I told Scott, “You know what? This is actually affecting our friendship, with you trying to make it happen, and we’re having all these conversations about it not happening, or when it could, or this.” And then I went, “I’d rather have a friendship with you that was just based on what it had been in the past, which was just us liking each other, and enjoying talking about story.” I said, “Every time we talk, it’s about this, and you telling me the actual reasons why it’s not able to happen now.” I said, “So let’s put that aside, and just not worry about it. You’re off the hook. Don’t worry about it.”
And then, about a year later, he called me when I was in New York, put Angela [Kang] on the phone, and they had arranged apparently that I was going to direct if I was available, and they were waiting for Angela’s deal to close over at AMC, so she had known for months. Once everything was closed up, and they knew that she was the new showrunner, they called me and offered me the position. It was pretty amazing.
What the show is like without Andrew Lincoln
Acuna: Was it a little weird for Andrew Lincoln to not be there while you were on set?Cudlitz:For me? No. I had been around the show and the people on the show for such a long time, I knew it was happening. Ultimately, when it happened, with everyone that they had lost up until then, I still think it’s a very smart move for the show. It re-energizes the show in not just a new season, or a new character way. The complete fandom was focused on everything that AMC was saying about the show, what was going to happen, and where it was going to head, so everyone is sort of on board in this episode, ready to experience what this is. I’m not saying that they like it, but everybody knows what’s going on, and I think it’s a really great reset for the show – to see characters that we love leave, how the characters that we know that are staying are processing this, and then to see all the new characters coming in.
We’re so far from the comic book now that people can’t say what they used to say. Sort of the battle cry of the die-hard comic fans was, “This isn’t how it was in the comics.” Well, guess what? We’re so f—ing far from the comic, you can’t even say that anymore. It’s like, no kidding. If that’s your argument at this point, you should go watch something else. But we don’t want them to do that. We want them to stay with it. And hopefully this world that Robert Kirkman has created, which all those rules still are in effect, and the world still exists, we get to see similar stories through different eyes.
Thoughts on Angela Kang running the show and the direction it’s heading in without Lincoln
Acuna: What are your thoughts on Angela Kang running the show now, season nine, and how it’s different or similar to when you were there?
Cudlitz: I think it’s great. I don’t know how far you’ve seen, you’ve probably seen up to [episode] seven.
Acuna: Yeah, that’s correct. I’ve seen what the Whisperers look like, but yes.
Cudlitz: There’s a difference in the storytelling this year, so far as that there’s a lot more movement of the camera. That’s by design, and by choice. And the previous way the stories were told was by design and choice as well. There’s a lot more movement in the cameras. I think she’s put a lot of focus on the… We’ve always had really, really, really strong women. I think the focus has shifted more on the women. Partially from choice, and partially from circumstance. We’ve lost a lot of men on the show.
The wonderful thing is we have really strong women coming in, and the great thing is now, we actually see conflict between strong women, which is something that has not necessarily been dealt with on the show. And I think that with the times they were in, not hitting any nail directly on the head, I think that it’s a long time coming. The stories are told in a thoughtful, intelligent way. And we have thoughtful, strong, intelligent women who are coming in making some different points of view, and we get to see those conflicts play out on screen, which is kind of new, I think, for what you see on television. There’s not just one set of women. Especially coming in the future we’re in, we see many, many strong women who have tremendous amounts of conflict with each other, so I’m excited to see where that goes.
And also … Again, this is not even an Angela thing, this is something that the show has always been very responsible about representing every lifestyle, and every walk of ethnic background on the show. And I think we do a great job with that too, representing people, and not making the storyline about their ethnicity or their sexuality. It’s about how they have moved through life. And when that comes up, it’s dealt with, but that is not a driving force. It is as it should be, these are all elements and pieces of things that make us who we are. They don’t define us, necessarily.
How ‘The Blair Witch Project’ inspired the opening sequence for season nine, episode seven
Acuna: I want talk to you about the opening scene of the episode. I think it’s the quickest opening that we get this season, so far at least. I love the little flashes of black in between Rosita running, to feel that panic and uncertainty. What was going through your mind to bring that moment to life, while she’s running away from these walkers that she hears that are whispering?
Cudlitz: When I first read that, I thought “OK, well this is too short.” We’re setting this up for the whole episode and for everything that’s coming, and leading out of what we just saw with Rosita and Eugene. And so we basically … I went in wanting to make a little mini movie with that. We shot a ton of footage. But the idea behind it was I didn’t want the audience to know what was happening at all. I want them to be discovering it as she was discovering it.
And one of the things that popped into my mind was “The Blair Witch Project,” and I wanted a “Blair Witch Project” feel to that opening sequence. Where you really felt like you were there with her, not watching it happen to her, but also having it happen to you. So we shot a bunch of stuff, where we were running with her, and following her, and tracking her in the woods. We had this rig that she ran with, that she was carrying a camera on her. Mostly because it was sort of all happening, but it was all happening in her mind, I wanted it to be very personal as well.
So we shot a bunch of footage, and I gave it to our editor and said, “I want you to basically make a little mini movie. Don’t worry about time. Put this together, and just tell the story of her being chased and passing out, and use everything we have. I want it to use certain traditional scares from horror movies, and I want us to be terrified for her.” And then once we did, I said, “Don’t worry about it, we’ll cut it out later. And we did. We boiled it down to it’s most terrifying moments for her. And it came out great. I think it really sets the tone and adds a complete WTF moment at the beginning of the episode, so you’re reminded that there’s this terror going on, within the midst of my episode, which is actually pretty calm, all things considered. It’s very much a character-driven episode. And that’s a reminder that the world is sort of insane outside of our immediate remit.
Acuna: Right. Well, I was glad that we saw that scene with Rosita running, and that we didn’t have to wait until the mid-season finale to catch up and see what was happening with her and Eugene. So I think that the fans will appreciate seeing that scene right in the opening. You said you shot a lot more footage for that opening scene, I think it’s 50 seconds.
Cudlitz: I think the one I put together was maybe two minutes. But again, this is the nature of a 42-minute [episode] format to fit everything. You take the air out of everything. You put things together, and you look at them, and then you go, “Yeah, that will make it better. How can we take time out that shows not only the story, but the audience and what’s happening.” I didn’t feel [like] we lost anything. I feel like it was a natural producing process that we go through.
Why the title of the episode is ‘Stradivarius’ and the reasoning behind that
Acuna: You mention that this is more of a character-driven episode. It is, so that we can learn more about Magna’s group. I want to talk about the title of the episode, Stradivarius. It’s probably one of the most eloquent, interesting episode titles the show has had. We see a violin in the episode get “murdered” by Michonne. What can you tell us about why that is the title of Sunday’s episode?
Cudlitz: Obviously I thought Stradivarius, probably the most beautiful violins ever made, certainly the most expensive. The juxtaposition of that fact in this world, always struck me. It’s something that in our world right now has a tremendous amount of value, but in that world [of “The Walking Dead”] would have zero value. Except for the fact that it’s connected to music, which has a tremendous amount of value.
So you have these things fighting each other. You can look at it and go, “Well who the hell cares? It’s Stradivarius, but who cares in this world?” And I think that Dan’s character [Luke] gives us that talk about music, what music, and art, and poetry mean. And it’s so significant to society. It is one of the first things that we lose when things get tight, either financially, or there’s not enough time to do something. The first thing that goes is what we consider these things that are extra, which is music, art, and poetry. But it’s one of the defining things that makes us who we are, makes it so we can survive as a people and come together as a group. And strive and, as he puts it, thrive as humanity.
Read more:Michael Cudlitz on the mystery “X” seen on Michonne and Daryl’s backsThat is what separates us from other creatures, is our ability to build things, to talk about things, to share stories, to make music. And our ability to do those things is only intensified by our ability to work with each other in doing those things, because we do make each other better. But for that part of the story, where we’re dealing with Michonne, where she has separated herself from the Hilltop group, and isolated herself with just Alexandria … We’re not exactly sure why, we will find out later. A lot of it’s tied to the ‘X’ that we see on her back, that we just revealed on Michonne’s back, that you saw on this episode. Now we see it on Daryl’s back. The audience will want to know what that’s about. They’re gonna find out what that’s about, but that is something that connects them all, even though they’re all separated right now, we’re gonna find out why.
On Daryl spending a lot of the past few years searching for his ‘brother’ Rick
Acuna: What do you make of Daryl still looking for Rick after all this time? Is that healthy, or at some point, does he need to give up and move on?
Cudlitz: Well, I think it’s pretty clear that he did stop looking. He said that he’s not. It’s pretty clear to me when I watched the episode, that he stopped looking. It’s at that whole scene when he talks with Carol about it, that he’s not looking. He looked initially, and he’s telling her that he’s not looking anymore, and hasn’t been. Because he thinks she thinks that’s why he’s still out there, and he’s telling her no, it’s not.
During the haircut, he tells her, “I’m not.” Because he realises that that’s what she thinks is going on with him, and he lets her know it’s not what’s going on. He’s just out there because it’s easier to be out there. But then he realises it’s not, because he realises as much as the Daryl character has through the years been a loner, that he now has people that he not only cares about, but he needs to be with. Henry helps point that out by basically saying, “Dude, what are you, a f—ing moron? My mum cares so much about you, and she didn’t have to go searching throughout when she needs you. That’s not what family does. That’s not what friends do to each other. That’s not what people who love each other do to each other.” And he hears him. So there’s some serious truth being laid down by young Henry. And to Daryl’s credit, he hears him.Acuna: I think that the one line that threw me off was just when Daryl had said that there was no body ever found. So I guess that that gave me the sense that maybe he, in the back of his mind, that he was still holding on to some sort of hope about Rick.
Cudlitz: Well, he still might be holding on to hope, but he’s certainly done looking. It’s like a parent, if you lost your child, they told you that there was an accident and they’re gone, but they never found the body. There’s always that sense of you want the body. The body is complete closure.
Cudlitz knew Lauren Cohan was leaving the show as Maggie, at least for now
Acuna: Lauren Cohan is away from the show right now. Her exit was left open-ended. She’s going off to her ABC show. Was it a bit sad to not be directing her at the Hilltop?
Cudlitz: I knew. I’ve been along with her for her ride of leaving. We’re both at ABC now. I’ve seen her at many events and we’ve spoken. Obviously, I left the show. So I know what leaving the show is like. I don’t mourn the loss of anyone in that way, because it’s so connected to other things, and it’s such a natural part of the show. I was glad I was able to direct the ones that were still there. That was exciting, and then to direct people who were new.
Read more:Rick Grimes isn’t the only beloved character who departed ‘The Walking Dead’ and fans are not happy with how it was handledCudlitz: Certainly, working with Norman [Reedus] and Melissa [McBride], and working with them together was great. You just watch those two go. You just stay out of the way. That’s the best way to direct those two. When they’re working with each other, they’re just wonderful together. Certainly, I would want to direct my friends, and work with my friends, because it’s just a fun thing to do, I think. It would have been fun to direct Josh [McDermitt, who plays Eugene]. But as I know by being on the show, we’re not in every episode even when they’re there, so the idea of knowing that I wasn’t gonna be directing all of them, that was always part of the deal.
Abraham on Negan being alive and talking about ‘what ifs’ in ‘The Walking Dead’ universe
Acuna: Something fans wanted to know was what Abraham would say if he knew that Negan was still alive, and would he be happy with that decision that Rick had made?
Cudlitz: Those are tricky questions because the “what if” game … If you’re like well if Abraham was still there, then Abraham would not have been killed by Negan, then who would Negan have killed, if anybody? So I try not to go into the “what ifs,” because it’s silly. It’s like, “Well what if Abraham would have gotten up and beat the sh– out of Negan? That’s not the story we’re telling, so I can’t even think of “Who would win between a fight with you and Negan?” Well Negan killed me, so we know the answer to that. But had it been more fair, had it been me and him in the octagon? It’s a different question.
Acuna: Definitely. I think that Abraham would have beat the sh– out of Negan, and would have tossed his bat aside.
Cudlitz: Exactly. Exactly.
Acuna: Negan even said, I think it was last season to Rick, if it wasn’t earlier this season, “You know that it wasn’t a random killing, and that I picked Abraham because I knew that he was the strongest, toughest looking guy.”
Cudlitz: Yeah. The guy [Negan] takes out the strongest guy [Abraham]. Then you know everybody else below doesn’t have a chance. It puts everybody in line. That’s a tactical choice.
What Abraham thinks of Rosita’s relationship with Father Gabriel
Acuna: If we’re not gonna play the “What If” game then what did you make of Rosita being in a relationship with Gabriel? I was very shocked by that, because I thought we were going to go the Rosita/Eugene route.Cudlitz: Yeah, Father Gabriel’s getting all the action this season.Acuna: Yeah.
Cudlitz: I think it’s great. I want to see where they’re going to go with it. And this, we can do a little “what if.” I think Abraham would be happy if she [Rosita] was happy. I don’t know if she’s necessarily the strongest. It’s interesting that she didn’t choose someone who was… He [Gabriel] certainly has evolved into a strong fighter, but I don’t know. I think he [Abraham] would be ultimately happy as long as she was happy.Acuna: OK. Well I mean, Eugene is certainly trying to change her mind, but he’s also hiding off in a barn or something now.Cudlitz: Yeah, we’ll see where that is.
Would Cudlitz return for a ‘Walking Dead’ movie or short?
Cudlitz: Yep. Yep, absolutely. I think they have hinted in that direction when they showed last year, on “Fear the Walking Dead,” the tapes that were made by the reporter that were inside the truck. One of the tapes, when they did a close-up insert on it said Abe/Doctor. That would be Abraham and Doctor Eugene Porter. So there’s an interview somewhere. There’s a story somewhere floating around out in that universe about us. So I would certainly be open to that. I had a great time with the people in the show. It by no means defines my career, so I’m not in any rush to run away from it. I would be fine with any of that.
Acuna: Have you been approached about any of that at all yet, or no?
Cudlitz: No. And if I was, I couldn’t tell you.
Would he return to direct another episode of ‘The Walking Dead’?
Cudlitz: Yes, I would love to. If they will have me, I would certainly come back. Everyone seemed happy. That doesn’t always define what happens on the business side of things, and the creative side of things. All those choices are made, decisions are made by other people. But I’ve let them know that I’d be more than happy to come back if they wanted me to. So we’ll see what happens.
You can currently watch Cudlitz on ABC’s “The Kids are Alright,” which was picked up for a full season.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.