'The Walking Dead' postmortem: Seth Gilliam talks bonding with Negan and what's ailing Gabriel at the end

Kimberly Potts
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Seth Gilliam as Father Gabriel Stokes in The Walking Dead. (Photo: Gene Page/AMC)

Warning: This interview for “The Big Scary U” episode of The Walking Dead contains storyline and character spoilers.

Sorry, TWD theorists … Father Gabriel has not been secretly plotting with Negan, as we found out during the duo’s bonding session in that trailer at the Sanctuary in “The Big Scary U.” But the two fellas did learn quite a bit about each other during their time waiting out the walker herd, and Seth Gilliam, who gave one of his all-time best performances as Gabriel, talked to Yahoo Entertainment about outsmarting Negan, why Gabriel wasn’t afraid of Negan, and what might have caused the illness that has Gabriel shaking in a Sanctuary cell at episode’s end.

Congratulations, Seth. This was a great episode for Father Gabriel, really showing how much he has evolved since we first met him. One of the big fan theories this season was that Father Gabriel had been secretly working with Negan against Rick. How does it feel to have that shot down with this episode?
It feels great! I was like, Father Gabriel perhaps wasn’t being seen as clearly as I’d hoped, but as you know, you let the fans run with their feelings. In this case, they were off-base, and I’m happy for it.

What is Gabriel’s state of mind when he’s trapped in that room with Negan? Because he doesn’t really seem to be afraid of him. I think you could even say he’s defiant when he’s talking to Negan.
I think Gabriel’s of the mind that everything’s happening for a reason, which means that there isn’t time to be afraid. He has to figure out why, exactly, he’s there, and see if he can complete that mission.

Do you think that earns him a certain amount of respect from Negan?
I think Negan is not really sure what to make of Gabriel, and that alone gives Gabriel enough room, enough space, to perhaps gain a little bit of Negan’s respect. But I think it’s also kind of like, maybe he’s discovered some new creature at the zoo, and he wants to see what it’s made of, you know? So that alone, I think, is enough to be a bit of a buffer for Gabriel to survive.

That’s no small thing, to puzzle, to interest Negan, because he goes around as if he thinks he has everything figured out.
Yes. Which is great because he winds up with Gabriel in this situation, and I think with anybody else, it would have been a bloodbath right off the bat.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan and Seth Gilliam as Father Gabriel in The Walking Dead. (Photo: Gene Page/AMC)

Gabriel tells Negan maybe his purpose of being there with Negan is to hear his confession. Negan doesn’t exactly confess, but he tells Gabriel about his wife, which was a very big thing, and I think by the end Gabriel has a better picture of how Negan works, the reasons behind his leadership philosophies. Do you think that was maybe Father Gabriel’s purpose for being there?
In a sense, I’m not really sure what the answers are. I think in the moment, Father Gabriel feels very much that that’s why he’s there.

Do you think Father Gabriel believes, after everything he witnessed and talked to Negan about, that maybe it’s true Negan saves lives in some ways, by the things he does?
I think probably Gabriel can see that Negan definitely has a place amongst the Saviors, in that they do idolize him in a way that may keep danger away, but that Negan himself is so dangerous now.

Why does Negan punch Gabriel after he confesses how he treated his wife, his only real wife, as he puts it?
I think it’s frustration and knowing that Gabriel got the jump on him, you know, and since he was trying to kill him. It’s just a little bit of payback for it. I don’t know that Negan will ever acknowledge it, but I think the punch might be the message in itself … I don’t think Negan is the kind of person who will ever say out loud that [Gabriel] got the best of him.

Gabriel has been in these scary packs of walkers before, covered with walker guts to get through them, but here he’s just with one other person instead of the whole group like he was in Alexandria. How was filming that scene?
It was far more claustrophobic, from our end, just Jeffrey [Dean Morgan] and I, and I don’t know how many extras we had around for that, but it seemed to be about a thousand of them. Those high drama, claustrophobic moments are fun to play. You get your heart racing through them, you get your blood going, and you start sweating … it’s fun stuff.

Gabriel’s story continues to be such a remarkable one, and unique in this world. He lost faith in himself, he lost faith in God, other people lost faith in him, and he’s managed to turn all of those things around. That’s quite a bit of redemption for one character.
It really is. This has been an incredible character arc that I’ve been able to play with Gabriel. I [initially] thought that Father Gabriel would be gone after two or three episodes; I thought that he really was gonna be a device to get someone else killed, that someone with his makeup would not be able to survive in this world. But he really has been able to, and it’s been an incredible storyline, tons of twists and turns emotionally and psychologically … it’s been a great deal of fun.

Seth Gilliam as Father Gabriel in The Walking Dead. (Photo: Gene Page/AMC)

Is there anything on your wish list of what you want Gabriel to be able to do?
I could see him riding on horseback with some walkers up in front of him.

Maybe he gets to use Michonne’s katana while on the horse?
Maybe, yes, he is riding along on horseback with Daryl’s crossbow until that empties itself, and then he crawls out with his Beretta, empties that, and then finishes with the katana. He should take out all those walkers with everyone else’s weapons.

I love it. That should’ve been Rick’s plan. Why wasn’t Father Gabriel just set loose on the Sanctuary?
[Laughs.] Just put Gabriel on horseback and set him loose amongst the Sanctuary, with everybody’s weapons.

At the end of the episode when Eugene visits Gabriel in that creepy Sanctuary cell, we see that Gabriel is sick, he’s shaking, but we aren’t sure what happened. Do we think he got sick from those gnarly walker guts? Or do we think there’s a possibility that he was bitten while walking through the walker herd?
I don’t know. I mean, it’s not looking particularly good for old Father Gabriel at the end there, but I can’t really say for certain what it’s about or what the end result will be.

OK, that’s scary, and especially in this season when we’ve already had some big, bad surprises.
Yeah, and there are more to come.

The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.

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