'The Walking Dead' star Josh McDermitt: 'Eugene is definitely haunted right now'

Kimberly Potts
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

Warning: This interview for the “Time for After” episode of The Walking Dead contains spoilers.

At last, it’s clear: Eugene Porter, Dr. Smartypants, is 100 percent committed to being a Savior. For now, anyway. “Time for After” allowed fans the chance to see exactly what makes Eugene tick — what “cranks his shaft,” as he told Dwight — and that is being safe. Eugene thinks loyalty to Negan and #TeamSaviors is his current best chance to stay safe, so that’s what he’s chosen.

Josh McDermitt, who’ll spend his TWD downtime this winter starring in the off-Broadway play Amy and the Orphans, talked to Yahoo Entertainment about the fun of getting to unapologetically put Eugene’s cards on the table, what’s still nagging at Dr. Smartypants as he makes it his mission to take care of number one, and the surprises that await the audience in next Sunday’s midseason finale.

This was the Eugene episode we’ve been waiting for. We’ve been getting bits and pieces about him forever, but it’s great to spend this solid chunk of time getting to really dive into his motivations.
I think so too. I was excited to read this episode that Corey Reed and Matt Negrete wrote and Larry Teng directed… It was just fun to mix it up with those guys and really dive deep into the material. All the actors on the show, we’re lucky to get two scenes, because the cast is so huge. I like Eugene episodes, not just because I play Eugene, but I think he’s such an interesting character. He’s someone who shouldn’t be alive at this point in the apocalypse, and he continues to surprise people. We know he’s a coward. We know he’s trying to do what he can do to survive, and yet he’s still angering people and having people question his allegiance and his motives. That’s a fun element to play with this character.

As you said, this episode is a deeper dive into his motivations and just how committed and even open he is about them. He’s never really hidden them.
You go all the way back to Season 5 with Tara, and the bus flipped over because of Eugene. He was afraid to step up, and she said, “You just have to do it. It’s scary, it sucks, I know, but you have to do this.” Then we keep seeing that message repeated in his life. “Hey, when are you going to step up? When are you going to do this?” We saw it with Rosita in Season 7. We saw it with Sasha at the end of Season 7. We’re starting to see it with Father Gabriel now. He just melted down on Father Gabriel and said basically, “Look, this is who I am. I’m taking care of myself, and I’m not going to feel bad about it, because I’m alive.”

It’s fun to see that friction between those characters, instead of it just being Eugene [as] this guy who’s just going to go do whatever he wants and be in the background of our lives. They are bringing that fight to him, forcing him to confront it, but I feel like he’s very justified in his actions and saying, “Look, I’m just trying to survive.” He doesn’t want other people to die, but if it comes down to him or them, it’s going to be him. He’s going to survive, and he’s not apologetic about it.

Is that at the core of what really makes him so angry towards the end, when Daryl drives the truck through the Sanctuary? He likes a lot of the people at the Sanctuary, and doesn’t want to see them harmed, but also, that was an attack on him. Rick and the others know he’s there, but they still attacked and put him in harm’s way too.
Yeah, I think so. I think there’s a big element of … he even said it to Dwight in so many words: “You need to stand down. Stop creeping and colluding. Halt all your backstabbery,” or something like that. “If you don’t stop this, more people are going to die, and that’s the one thing I don’t want.” There are all those workers. There’s a bit of compassion that Eugene has, which is cool. He’s like, “Me being alive means a lot of other people get to stay alive.” He’s really referencing those workers and the people that are going out and bartering and trading and doing all the things so that he can get his video games and keep living his semi-comfortable life. Then when the truck comes and hits the building, he doesn’t know what the plan is. He doesn’t know that that’s Daryl and Tara going off on their own. He thinks this is still a part of Dwight’s plan. At some point, Eugene feels like he’s going to die, and so he’s really angry that they’re not listening to him. I think a part of it, too, he feels like everyone can live in harmony. Sure, Negan’s a bad guy, but let’s just all go to our own respective corners and not talk to each other anymore. Let’s let everything just be how it is. This f***ed-up normal.

Photo: AMC

You’re talking about getting to the heart of it, to the heart of his anger … I think he’s a little upset that these people that he’s traveled with are coming after him and coming after the Sanctuary, because when he went back with Sasha [in the Season 7 finale], when Sasha came out of the coffin, he was trying to say to Rick and the others, “Listen, you guys are screwed. Trust me. I don’t want anybody to die. Why don’t you give up? No one has to get hurt.” He’s trying to do something good for them. He just doesn’t want anybody else to die. And then this plan keeps being enacted in his face, and I think he’s getting really pissed off about it.

He’s also got to be wondering to himself if he could even go back and join the group in Alexandria if he chose to. If he chose to abandon Negan and the Saviors, would the Alexandrians even allow him to go back at this point?
Not only that, but I wonder if he even wants to. There’s no video games in Alexandria. In Alexandria, he’s just one of many. At the Sanctuary, he’s kind of a big deal. He’s got Negan’s respect now, and Negan even says, “This isn’t something I give to people. I have a lot of respect for you.” That’s awesome. Not that Rick was ever mean to him, but Rick never pulled him aside and said, “Hey, I really appreciate your brain.” Rick’s got other things to do. Rick’s trying to keep people alive himself. Not that Eugene was resentful of that, but it is something that he didn’t have in Alexandria. Even if he decides, “Maybe I can make it back,” you know Negan’s going to come after Eugene and try to kill him.

That’s something that I hear all the time. “Why did Eugene go and live with the Saviors?” I go, “He was kidnapped.” He was forced. He was confronted with a decision. You either work for Negan or you die. He’s not the type of guy who’s going to stand up to Negan, so he’s just going in line with what he needs to do, and there you go. That’s what he’s trying to do: just stay alive. I don’t think he’s necessarily thinking about going back.

How much does it mean to him when Negan sticks his hand out, shakes his hand, and tells him it’s not something he does very often?
It’s huge for him. This is the bully who’s now said, basically, “I’m not going to bully you. You’re on my side.” That’s a big deal. I myself, in my life, have been bullied. If one of those bullies just said, “You’re pretty cool,” that would have meant the world to me. Which is a really f***ed-up thing.

Do you know more about Eugene’s backstory than what has been revealed, or have you imagined for yourself what it is?
I’ve had to imagine for myself. There are conversations that I’ve had with [showrunner] Scott Gimple about it, and I’ve had to fill in the gaps on my own. They’re pretty much in line with the conversations that I’ve had with Scott. I don’t know that we’ll ever dive into that and explore it fully. I think the little glimpse of Eugene at the Sanctuary that we see is basically a curtain pulled back into his life before the apocalypse started. I think he was a guy that liked to keep to himself and play his video games. I think he was maybe even more introverted than he is now. He’s been forced out of his shell a bit, but he just wants to be left alone. That’s the kind of guy he is.

He’s read a lot, obviously, but not just for how-to knowledge, but his way of speaking and word choices, which is so much of his charm. Do you think those are phrases that he has made up, or are they maybe the result of someone he grew up with? A grandparent or something like that?
I’ve always imagined it being a product mostly of people he was surrounded by growing up in Houston, Texas. The thing with Houston is they don’t really have much of an accent anymore. It’s become that kind of standard dialect, but Eugene has retained it, and when you have that accent, there’s a bit of a sing-songy lilt to the way he speaks. I think it works with rhyming. He likes to rhyme and beat around the bush … he never gets to the point. I think in a weird way, he likes to take people for a ride. Not in a bad way, but like, “Let’s just go on this journey with my words.” I’ve always imagined it being a way in his mind that’s something he read and went, “Oh, here’s a way I can be charismatic.”

Photo: AMC

Do you think Eugene is rattled by what Father Gabriel says to him, that he’ll know the right thing to do when the time comes? Does that make Eugene doubt himself at all?
Yeah, I think that’s the inner struggle. He knows that he needs to do the right thing.

Does he think he isn’t doing the right thing, but he doesn’t care, or does he really believe what he says, that the right thing for some is probably the wrong thing for maybe a lot of other people?
I think that’s exactly what he’s thinking. What he feels is the right thing is him staying alive. “Me staying alive means other people get to stay alive, so great.” Being confronted by it through Father Gabriel, he’s reminded that he can go further with this. He can do more. I think he knows Father Gabriel’s right. Not right of what specifically he needs to do, but just in that he can do more. When the time comes, he’s going to know what he needs to do, and he doesn’t like that. That’s change. A lot of people don’t like change, especially in this world. He’s comfortable here. “Let’s just sit around, and maybe we’ll have some medication in the marketplace later if I get a cold, and I’m going to play Pac-Man and do my thing.” But then Gabriel confronts him with, “Do the right thing.” That’s an inner struggle he can’t really quiet. That’s why he comes and melts down on Father Gabriel, because again, he knows Father Gabriel’s right.

He’s been driven to drink to be able to sleep. It’s weighing on him.
It’s weighing on him big time. There’s a lot of pressure on this guy. This is a guy who’s sipping wine out of a shot glass most of the time, and then towards the end of the episode, he shoots it. He’s just not in a good place.

So many things are up in the air at the end of the episode. Clearly Eugene has a plan, and Negan says it’s going to cost them a lot of their ammunition. Then we see Eugene in his room, very upset, crying, about to down the wine. It sounds like he’s hearing gunfire. Is that real or is he imagining the gunfire?
That’s what we don’t know. Could it be in his mind? Could it be that they’re shooting at the walkers? Going to have to find out… He’s definitely haunted. Eugene is definitely haunted right now. Whether or not those [gunshots] were real or in his head, it doesn’t take away from the fact that he is struggling big time with how things are being confronted in his life.

I love the line when Negan says, “You are magnificent,” and Eugene says, “I am,” in a confident way that we’ve never seen Eugene be, especially around Negan. Then we see him go back to his room, where he’s very shaken. Is he trying to “fake it till you make it,” pretend that he is this confident guy in front of Negan?
I love that you brought that up, because that was one of my favorite moments. He’s always been a very confident individual in his intelligence with anybody, but you’re right, around Negan, it’s taking a minute. There’s still that threat of, “Here’s this guy who could just take this bat and crush my head with it.” He’s been pressured into making quick decisions that can impact the well-being of others. He had to quickly come up with the idea of how to fix the walkers to the fence using molten metal. That was a high-pressure situation. Anytime he’s around Negan he’s scared, but if he starts getting some affirmation from Negan, not just threats, it’s like, “You’re a great individual … as long as you keep doing this for me, I won’t kill you.” That’s not a good thing. To hear, “You are magnificent” — Eugene’s confidence and a bit of his arrogance come out then, but you are right in that he doesn’t do that to Negan very often. I don’t think it’s a fake it till you make situation, I think it’s a “Yes, I am great. I’m a magnificent guy,” but the struggle is, “I got to keep this up. I can keep performing for this guy, but at some point, my luck may run out.”

Why does Eugene decide not to tell Negan about Dwight? That was clearly a switch from what he had planned to do.
I think he was absolutely going to tell him, but once Dwight walked in, it threw off his plan. I think his plan was to tell Negan without Dwight coming in and refuting what he’s saying.

Photo: AMC

Why do you think Dwight decides not to shoot Eugene when Eugene is launching the drone?
I think Dwight’s a good guy. I think he sees goodness in Eugene as well. I think that he doesn’t necessarily want to kill this man either, because, this is the thing: It’s like North Korea and South Korea. They’ve got all their weapons pointed at each other, but no one wants to launch a weapon, because that’s going to be really bad for everyone. Dwight kills Eugene … then the question is, why? What are you covering up? Or Eugene outs Dwight, then Dwight knows things about Eugene. We just have to play this out more. I think that Eugene definitely wanted to have that private conversation with Negan. Or before Dwight walked in, at least put it in his ear, “You need to be watching for this guy, because I don’t think he’s right.”

Do you think Eugene really means it when he says that Rick, Daryl, Rosita, all the others, are really just his former traveling companions, nothing more?
I think that’s how Eugene’s had to characterize everybody in order to remain emotionless. Then he’s a science guy. If he can make decisions just based on logic, without emotion, he’s just going to continue with those decisions, and they’re going to be easy for him to make. The moment you start injecting a little bit of emotion into it, he’s not good with that. “Hey, weren’t these your…” “No, just traveling companions. Let’s leave it at that, because that’s all they were to me.”

 

Eugene wishes he had some Razzles. Do you expect to get many, many packages of them sent to you now?
I had to look them up just to see what they were. I don’t remember them. I just remember Nerds. My older brother and sister were into Nerds and Pop Rocks, so that’s what I would eat.

You left social media earlier this year. Any thoughts about coming back? Or are you happy that you aren’t dealing with that while the season’s airing?
I don’t know if I’ll come back, but I’ve said all I’m going to say about that.

What can you say about next week’s midseason finale?
People are going to be surprised.

What will be our feeling at the end of the midseason finale, and we wait for the second half of the season to premiere in February?
I think some people might be excited, some people might be really sad. In terms of Eugene’s storyline, there’s going to be some surprise there. There’s going to be some surprise in other areas, as well.

The Walking Dead midseason finale airs Dec. 10 at 9 p.m. on AMC.

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