Warning: There are major spoilers ahead for “The Walking Dead” season nine, episode eight, “Evolution.”
“I was texting with my girlfriend and I was like, ‘Oh, Angela called me. Maybe it’s ‘the call.’ Hah hah ha.’ And then I called her and it was,” Payne told INSIDER.
When a character is about to die on “The Walking Dead,” the actor receives a call from the current showrunner letting them know their time on the AMC series is coming to an end. If you follow the show closely, Jesus’ death was rumoured for months. Still, it was a shock to many when Jesus was stabbed from behind on Sunday’s mid-season finale since he’s still a prominent character in the comics.
But Payne felt it was his time to go.
“I was kind of frustrated with what I had gotten to do on the show and I was kind of a bit bored with it,” Payne said of his role as Jesus. “If I wasn’t being given anything, I was kind of ready to go. And then when Angela called me, I was quite chill about it. I was like, ‘Oh, OK. Great. Cool.'”
Payne had a request for the way his character went out on the show.
“Let’s just make it really cool because he’s a tough character,” Payne said of what he asked for Jesus’ departure on the show. “If he goes out then it has to be in a really tough way with a ton of people or it has to be a complete surprise, which is what it was.”
And a cool death he received.
Jesus kills at least a dozen walkers that we see on screen before he gets taken out unexpectedly by a Whisperer.
“I actually loved it,” Payne said of how his death scene turned out. “He goes out in this creepy way that no one was expecting and in that moment, just after that fight, I think he’s having fun with it, killing all those walkers. It’s so simple for him with this sword. It’s really easy and so then he’s just walking towards the fence and is like, ‘Oh, I’ll just take this one out,’ and [instead] it’s, ‘Oh no. Now, I’m dead.'”
“I was pretty happy with the whole thing,” he added. “I just want to tell a good story and be part of a shocking moment on the show. I much rather be that than hang around at the Hilltop for another few years.”
Payne couldn’t say enough about how much he was excited to just be off of the Hilltop and get to be in a sequence with others.
“For me, [it was] really fun to work with other actors on the show,” Payne said of his final scenes in the cemetery. “After having been on the show for three years, I worked with a lot of people at the beginning, but then, and I love working with Lauren [Cohan], Xander [Berkeley], and Katelyn [Nacon], and Sonequa [Martin-Green], but that was it really. I was kind of stuck at the Hilltop. So, for me, it’s just the opportunity to get to work with Josh [McDermitt] and Ross [Marquand] and Norman [Reedus]. That was really fun.”
A mutual decision to leave the show
Payne received his phone call from Kang late in the summer, but discussions about his exit were discussed long before that.
“It’s something that we started talking about at the beginning of the year. There’s a lot of factors that go into how we decide what character is being written out,” showrunner Angela Kang told INSIDER. “This has been a year where we’ve written out a lot of different characters.”
“We knew that to introduce the Whisperers storyline, there’s a cost to encountering this group. It’s a brutal, frightening group. They are unlike anything that our group has ever encountered before,” Kang said. “There is a death in the comic book as a result and so we knew that there would have to be sort of this epic fight that led to it and we also knew that whoever ended up dying, their life is a life that should have mattered a great deal, whose death makes an impact.”
“Jesus was somebody who really carried a torch of togetherness and unity for our people at a time when they may be more split apart than they ever have been before,” added Kang, noting what Jesus’ life meant to others on the series. “This is something that definitely plays into the season as a whole. He’s somebody who had a great impact on the people around him.”
I asked Payne if it was his choice to leave the show because of his frustrations with his role. He insisted it was a decision between both him and the show.
“I think it was kind of a mutual thing. They knew that I was a bit unhappy and I had said, ‘I don’t care what happens. We just need to kill some more people. Just kill me,'” Payne said. “There are so many characters on the show that it’s difficult for everyone to get their spot and I completely understand that. So I was like, well, let’s just kill some more people. We’re in the middle of the war with the Saviors and then Carl [Chandler Riggs] was really the only person, out of consequence, who died that season so I thought that was a bit weird.”
Concerns over backlash from fans
Anytime a really big character is killed off a show there’s always a fear that there’s going to be some sort of backlash from fans, especially if the character is gay. There are plenty of thinkpieces written about TV writers killing off strong gay characters on shows. Though Jesus is gone, the show still has four main characters on the show who are gay – Aaron, Tara and the newly-introduced Magna and Yumiko.
“Part of the thing with this show is that characters die. The show deals with issues of life and death and the cycle of life and what it means to be human. Dead is in the title and we never take a death, we don’t treat them lightly,” said Kang. “These are people that we work with and that we like. Some groups are more vocal than others. Every character has a very strong fanbase.”
Regardless, Kang knows Jesus’ death will sting with readers of the comic book.
“Obviously, for comic-book readers who love the character of Jesus, this will be a big blow. But we’ve often deviated from the comic in deaths throughout history. Rick is still the lead of the comics and we had to write out Andrew Lincoln this year.” Kang continued. “We have a very good record of diversity both on screen and behind the scenes. Our writers room is incredibly diverse. At this point, so many of our characters fall into some sort of a minority or underrepresented group that it’s kind of hard to say that any particular group is off limits. What we want to do is just show that there is a variety of people just like there is in the world and we’re proud of that representation on screen.”
Payne, who has gotten involved with the LGBT+ community since landing his role on the show, doesn’t expect to see a lot of backlash over the fact that his character was killed off. However, he believes fans will be upset for a different reason.
“I think there will be backlash because he’s such a popular character in the comic books and I don’t think he quite got the storylines that people might have been expecting,” said Payne. “I think there would probably be a bit more of a backlash about that to be honest. I think the way he goes and how it happens and what it does for the story is really strong.”
Payne mentioned some of the major moments his character received in the comics that never made it to screen. In particular, he recalled a moment with Negan during the war with the Saviors.
“I didn’t get… Jesus has the other fight with Negan,” Payne referenced. “He catches a grenade and throws it back and has all this cool stuff. I was a bit put out, despondent, at the end of that season. I was like, ‘Well, let’s do something next year.'”
Another moment Payne believes people will be vocal about is not seeing more of his character with Aaron. The two characters start a relationship in the comics after years of knowing each other. It’s never made clear on season nine whether or not viewers were supposed to infer the two were a couple meeting behind Michonne’s back.
“I know,” Payne said of the uncertainty between the Aaron and Jesus dynamic. “Honestly, that’s the one part of the story that I feel is slightly unfair on the audience. Because we have the season premiere this year, but that’s like seven years ago at this point. And then, yeah, we had these two episodes now. I mean, they put in what they could. I think that was a nice little nod toward the comics and their potential relationship.”
For those hoping for a confirmation on the couple, both Payne and Kang agreed that the two were just really good friends. You’ll have to stick to the comics for more of Jesus and Aaron.
Payne is keeping his long hair, for now
Now that Payne is off of the show, what becomes of his long locks that he grew out for Jesus? If you’re worried, Payne says they’re staying, at least for now.
“That’s the thing,” Payne said while laughing. “It’s been two-and-half years now and there aren’t that many male actors with long hair so I’m going to keep it because it might give me a bit of a leg up into certain roles. It would take a long time to grow back and I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to do it again. I’ll keep it for now.”
Of course, that could always change.
“The beard, I can change around,” added Payne about his long facial hair. “Having said that, if the right role comes along, I’ll shave everything off but I think I’ll keep it just to see what’s around the corner.”
At the end of the day, Payne says he’s happy to leave the show knowing his death meant set up the start of the next big story and he’s excited to see what’s next.
“They were really nice to me and gave me a really cool ending. I just realised the other day my character introduced the Saviors and has now introduced the Whisperers,” Payne said of introducing two big groups of villains to the show. “So I have these two moments in the show, as much as I didn’t get a huge amount to do in the middle apart from that fight with Lennie [James], which is awesome. I had a big impact, actually.”