‘Fear the Walking Dead’ Postmortem: Ruben Blades Talks Daniel’s Return, Frienemy Strand, and Ofelia

Warning: This interview for the “Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame” episode of Fear the Walking Dead contains spoilers.

Grammy-winning singer, Emmy-nominated actor, former Minister of Tourism for Panama, and one-time contender for the presidency of Panama (who also earned a degree in international law from Harvard), Renaissance man Ruben Blades has just resumed portraying apocalypse survivor Daniel Salazar on Fear the Walking Dead. And it’s no coincidence that his return comes in the season many fans are calling the series’ best.

Blades, whose Salazar had been presumed dead in a barn fire by his daughter, Ofelia, and the post-apocalypse cohorts they escaped Los Angeles with in Season 2, talked to Yahoo TV about fans’ response to his return; how pleased he was with “100,” the Season 3 episode that spotlighted Daniel, his past, and how he survived since Season 2; and the importance of “100” unfolding in Spanish and subtitles.

Blades, who will tour this summer in support of his new album, Ruben Blades Salsa Big Band, also breaks down Daniel’s adventures with Strand, including what Daniel believes and what he doesn’t from the con man, whether or not he really believes Ofelia is alive, and where, exactly, he’s headed after leaving Strand, well, stranded, at the hotel.

He also, like many a FTWD fan, shares how he’s hoping for the reappearance of Season 1 favorite Tobias.

It’s so good to have Daniel back… you have been missed. And you really didn’t know when or if, for certain, you were coming back when Daniel was in that fire in the Season 2 midseason finale?
Nope, I didn’t. It was left ambiguous, so it would be possible to return, but you never know. You never know because it all depends on so many different circumstances. One is, where is the story going? Number two, what do fans say? That’s very important, and I don’t… because this has been a series that is not based on a comic book, there’s really no plan, no preconceptions or a direction that has been predetermined by what the comic book does and says. So you’re always in doubt of what is going to happen with it. It’s a decision that is made by writers, and it’s a decision that is then vetted by the people in charge, producers, and AMC. Until you’re in front of the camera, you don’t know if you’re going to come back.

Ruben Blades as Daniel Salazar in ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ (Photo Credit: Richard Foreman, Jr/AMC)

Did you keep up with the show in Daniel’s absence?
Yeah, of course. This is like a family. It really becomes a family. The time that you’re here working, everybody depends on each other. I like the people that are working in the series, and I think they’re very, not just talented, but good people. So yes, I did continue to follow what was going on.

I had continued to ask showrunner Dave Erickson after the fire in Season 2, when/if Daniel would be back, and he kept saying, “Just stay tuned. Just hold on.” And when I asked him at the beginning of this season, he indicated episode 4 was going to be memorable. It really was a spectacular return. When you read that script, how it was all really Daniel’s story, did you feel like it was worth the time away?
I felt that it was a great way to bring Daniel back, because it was a very complex episode, probably one of the most complex episodes that the series has had to date in that, not only was it the return of Daniel, but what his motivations were, the changes that he experienced, the fact that he was spared so many times from death that he began to apparently make a connection, a spiritual connection, that didn’t exist before. The fact that he’s obsessed about finding Ofelia, but is having doubts whether she’s alive or not. Then, the twist where he all of a sudden finds the possibility of advancement in, not just security, but advancement by the offer made for him to become the security chief of the guy who’s running this dam. Then, the turning of Salazar in terms of the way that he reacted to the people that had helped him and befriended him, and he ends up hitting and torturing one of them. And towards the end, a change… the better angels of his character seem to overcome the dark side, at a very crucial moment. I mean, all of that, plus the incredible fact that the whole episode was in Spanish. With the exception of the conversation he has with Strand, which is pretty much a continuation of a flashback, the whole episode is in Spanish, which I didn’t think… it’s certainly not a common occurrence in primetime television in the United States. I don’t even know if it was ever done before. So, all of these elements made for a tremendous reading joy. Also, I was very curious to see how people would react to this.

The consensus seems to be that it is one of the series’ best episodes. Is that the feedback you’ve gotten?
Yeah, people seem to love the episode, and some people did complain about it being in Spanish. But I found that argument sort of wanting in that, if Mexicans had been talking French, that would’ve been weird. But we are in Mexico, and what else are they going to speak but Spanish? This is an allowance that people should make. I mean, the episode is being done in Mexico and Salazar’s first language is Spanish. The subtitles… somebody wrote that if they wanted to read, they would’ve gotten a book. I’m sure that this is the kind of person who wants the omelet, but doesn’t want the eggs broken. So you know, I thought in general, the response was good. I think in general people are very, very happy to see Salazar back.

It was also a testament to how universal good storytelling is. Those subtitles didn’t detract from what was a great story unfolding.
Absolutely. And also, we can’t forget the fact, which is very important but it’s usually not mentioned, that Fear the Walking Dead is being shown in over 100 countries. That’s a lot of countries, and all of those countries are reading subtitles or are being dubbed to Romanian or Nigerian or French or German or Russian. It doesn’t destroy the episodes. People are not complaining about it because that’s the nature of the program. But the fact that we have such a large following abroad in places like Spain and Latin America, just to mention the Spanish countries, gives you an idea of how popular the show really is. It’s not just the amount of people who see it in the United States. It’s the total amount of people who follow the show. The whole thing, the people that are being represented, are human beings. They’re not people from a specific country, which is why it has worldwide appeal. It has to do with people. How do we react as human beings when facing the collapse of all the structures that have kept our lives in order? And this is a question that is valid in any language, in any nationality, in any country in the world.

Colman Domingo as Victor Strand and Ruben Blades as Daniel Salazar in ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ (Photo Credit: Richard Foreman, Jr/AMC)

Daniel and Strand weren’t really friends; they were kind of forced by circumstance to become part of the same group. Now they’re working together, sort of. Strand has a bit of information, which Daniel knows isn’t totally true, but he also senses could be true in part, something that may help lead him to his daughter. Would Daniel have had anything to do with Strand otherwise?
I think only under a situation of emergency. Because the problem with people like Strand is that they are totally tied to the idea of the con. Strand, at this point, is old. I don’t think he’s going to change. There’s a line that [Daniel] says at one point, that people really never change. So, the fact that he’s a con man is something that makes it impossible for Daniel to trust him. He will always, always be on the lookout for a better offer. So, he’s not a friend of anything, and he’s never in one place for a long period of time guaranteed. He’ll be there for as long as that suits his purposes and his interests. Therefore, he’s not the kind of person that you would want to have next to you in a situation as filled with maybes and questions as an apocalypse. You just don’t know what’s going to happen, and you have this guy who is totally unreliable because he’s always looking out for himself. Although Salazar can also be that way — and this is why in a way also Salazar respects and understands Strand and even may come to the point of admiring his skills — he would not place his life or his interests in Strand’s hands, because he understands that he is just unreliable.

Until he sees a body or hears she is dead from someone he trusts, like Madison, does Daniel really believe Ofelia is alive or is it more about him hoping she is?
He’s just hoping. He hopes that she is. I mean, he knows how hard reality has become. He already has gone through this. This is, like I said, his second apocalypse. His first one was when he was in El Salvador, in the midst of all that craziness out there, the civil war. The Ofelia he knows, the Ofelia he raised, was a sweet person, was not someone who would be involved in violence. Therefore, in an environment that depends on violence for survival, he doesn’t really feel that she is prepared or she has the tools or the character to really make the decisions that need to be made in order to survive. He’s hoping that she’s alive somehow, based on the fact that he’s alive and doesn’t understand how he survived all these things. So, there’s a chance that she might be alive, but he is not sure.

There’s some humor, dark humor of course, in “Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame,” with the cat and mouse game Daniel is playing with Strand. He’s almost daring Strand, at several moments, to just tell him the truth. Did you feel that humor while you were filming it?
Well, yeah, because Colman [Domingo] is such a great actor. He is also very intelligent, so, we both understood that there could be some humor extracted from a series where you don’t find humor that often. I’ve always been asking for more humor, so we try to extract humor from all circumstances we can. For instance, that whole thing about Salazar saying, “I need to pee.” That in itself is very, very funny. It’s one of the few times when you see anyone doing anything like peeing in this series. People don’t go to the bathroom. One person made love, I think, in three [seasons]. I think it was Nick. People, in general, we don’t take showers or laugh. So, it was… yeah, we both understood there was some humor in this thing. Also, not to make the whole scene heavy, it had to have that sort of light thing in there. Otherwise, then it would become more of the same, and it wouldn’t really be normal. I mean, I do believe there’s humor, even in the apocalypse, there needs to be humor. That’s a way to keep your sanity.

It’s a shame the two of them are at odds because they are a very formidable team.
Yeah, and I always hoped that we would end up finding some common ground. Unfortunately, like I said before, I have my goal, which is to find my daughter, and his goal is to survive at all costs and see where’s the next con. He lives for it. So, maybe in the future we’ll be able to find a reason to work together, but my forecast is that’s going to be a very, very, very bumpy road because his nature is such that I just don’t know how that can happen.

When they pull up to the hotel, is Daniel at all surprised? Again, he knows there’s some truth, probably, to what Strand is telling him, but not everything. So did he really expect that there even was a hotel?
Yeah. He knew that there were some true elements. For instance, there was a place, and this place could very well be a hotel, that Madison had been in it, and he had the understanding that these things did exist at one point, because the story that he was given was just too… the particulars about Madison were just too precise. [Strand] lied, but within the lie, the structures of the lie had some elements of truth. So, when Daniel arrives, he’s kind of taken aback by the fact that Strand doesn’t seem to know which way to go. He doesn’t see anybody at all. So, it’s kind of like, maybe, maybe yes, maybe not, but he does think that there may be some truth to it.

Is that what makes him ring the bell then, even though Strand is begging him not to? That he just needs to know if there’s anybody there at all?
Actually, no, at that point he rings the bell because he wants the infected to come. Yeah, at that time he figures, you know what, this is all nonsense. There was a hotel, but maybe there was no Madison here, and Ofelia probably is not here either, because Strand is just hemming and hawing too much. He’s not really giving Daniel any reason to believe what he said was true now because he didn’t even know which way to go. I asked him. I said, “Now what? Which way?” Then he comes up with some nonsense, and at that point Daniel realizes, “You know what? He’s full of sh*t.”

What does Daniel say to Strand as he runs out of the hotel?
He says, “You are a master of negotiation. Negotiate your way out of this one.” Because Strand’s got all of those [walkers] coming at him.

Then Daniel gets in the car. He takes off. Does he believe any part of the story at that point? Does he believe Ofelia and Madison and the rest were there? Strand mentions that detail about Ofelia having taken off in a truck. Is Daniel maybe going to just get on the road and follow it to see if he can spot a truck? What’s his plan when he takes off in the car?
His plan at that point is to go back to the dam, I think. He doesn’t think any of this is real. Again, it was Strand’s way to get out. He wanted to get out, and he wanted to use Daniel for that purpose, but Daniel clings to the same hope that Ofelia might be alive. That’s all he needs. That’s all he actually has to cling to in order to continue, but things don’t look very good at that point for her because she’s not there. And as he has feared, Strand lied. But who knows?

Maybe, in the back of his mind, Salazar is always aware of the fact that the water has something very crucial for life. Just as Strand all of a sudden gravitated towards the water, maybe others will too, because it is a commodity. It is a currency. So, he’s better off at the dam than anywhere else, because he really doesn’t know where to go and his mind still resonates with what Dante said to him. He said, “Well, I’ll lend you a Jeep, but where are you going to go with it? Which way would you go?” And Daniel understands that, really, his search is hopeless, based on his ignorance of where to direct his steps. So, I think he’s beginning to say, “You know what? I’m going to stay at the dam, and from the dam, something’s going to pop up.” Just like Strand popped up, maybe Ofelia will pop up or someone who knows where she is.

And Daniel’s very patient and strategic.
Yes, he is, because he’s an intelligence officer. So, he deals with facts and he knows how to bide his time. He knows how things go up and also come down, and then go up again. So, yes. He is patient.

Ruben Blades as Daniel Salazar in ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ (Photo Credit: Richard Foreman, Jr/AMC)

You’re still filming on Season 3 right now?
Yes, we’re doing the last two episodes, 15 and 16.

What can you hint at for the rest of the season?
Well, I tell you this: One of the characteristics of the third season that has impressed people is that it really flies, it moves, and that it’s all very… everything is unexpected. It’s not as if you can forecast what’s going to happen. It’s going to be like that until the end, many surprises. But I mean, people are going to be just very surprised about where this is going.

Do you think this is the best season so far?
I think that this is probably one of the most action-packed seasons of all. What happens is that, in the beginning, there were some complaints about it going slow. But it was necessary for it to go slow to see… this whole series was not exploring what The Walking Dead was exploring. This was exploring how people reacted to the beginning of the infection, of the apocalypse. So, people didn’t have the same information that was gathered up to six years of Walking Dead or five years of Walking Dead. Also, this was concentrated on the family. How do families react to the appearance of this collapse?

So, now, our third season, we’re getting to probably around three and half months after this whole thing started, and people are reacting differently. We understand what’s going on much better, and everything now is moving forward, because there’s a purpose. Whereas before, there was a doubt that maybe this was going to last maybe a week and things were going back to normal. We didn’t understand it. Maybe these [walkers] have a shot to be alive again and get well. Now it’s obvious that’s not going to happen. So, now everybody is going to another level, and that, I think, makes for more interesting situations and scenarios, which is why this whole thing is now flying the way it’s flying. People are now more active and more risks are being taken. Right now, this whole season is just flying.

I love that you recently tweeted that Tobias, from Season 1, should also return.
Yes, I do think that. I mean I’m hoping. I’m hoping he does come back. I mean, I like him very much, and one way to bring Tobias back, I think, it has to do with the dam maybe. That would be great. But again, this is just my wishful thinking. I really hope that at some point our paths intersect, because like everyone else in the Fear of the Walking Dead universe, we all miss Tobias.

Fear the Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.

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