He sees a bit of himself in Ezekiel given his own mottled career path. "Things don't always work out but you've got to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move on to the next project," he said. "Ezekiel is not in the best of circumstances surrounded by walkers and the Saviors. But he focuses on the good stuff."
His character became a leader more by happenstance. As a zookeeper as the apocalypse went down, he found solace taking care of his tiger Shiva. Shiva then provided him cover and immediate respect as he built a society and used his community theater skills to become a benevolent "king."
Over the years, Payton has done plenty of voice-over work for Atlanta-based Cartoon Network although he has never visited the offices in Midtown. "His voice makes a big difference," Payton said. "I think that gave me a leg up."
Payton said Ezekiel has only shown his "true" self to Carol (played by Atlantan Melissa McBride), who he connected with immediately. His character "has become an extension of himself," he said. "It's become a kind of natural cadence that he falls into. He has to consciously tell himself to drop it."
Carol, he said, thought at first that he was a big joke. Ezekiel proved to her that he is a good leader. "He's working a job," he said. "He takes his job seriously. It has kept his people safe. She didn't take him seriously, but she turned out to be wrong."
Ezekiel, despite the pomposity, is a likable guy. And he leads with benevolence, tiger or no tiger. "What's not to like about the guy?" Payton said. "He steps up. He doesn't shy away. He sees problems, he tries to solve them. Although the world is dark and dangerous, he's not living his life thinking he has to just try to survive. He is trying to enjoy himself."
That may be why he has chosen goofy Jerry as his right-hand man. "He's like a human version of Shiva," Payton said. "He's trying to teach Jerry how to play a role. But Jerry is not an actor. He's going to throw out puns and have a big old smile when Ezekiel would prefer he be a more intimidating presence."
Will he and Carol ever get it on? "He has a special place for her. He admires her survivor's strength. He knows she could help him or his people. But I'm not going to make any predictions as far as where they go. I honestly couldn't tell you which way the winds are blowing."
Ezekiel is in a bit of a bind, having fallen into the clutches of the Saviors. For now, he has been able to keep it a secret from most of the Kingdom but the meetings where Ezekiel provides the Saviors goods have become increasingly tense. This upcoming episode, based on the description provided by AMC, indicates this situation is about to become untenable and may ultimately drive him to join Rick and the Hilltop into war against the Saviors.
Entering Sunday's episode, Ezekiel is holding off on declaring war on the Saviors himself.
He has pacifist Morgan providing counsel: "Morgan is a quiet warrior. He's a powerful guy who knows how to handle himself. He can fight but fighting isn't his first thought. I think Ezekiel respects that. I think he sees a kindred spirit in Morgan. If anything happens to Ezekiel, he sees Morgan as someone who could lead the kingdom and put the kingdom's interests ahead of his own."
On the other side is Richard, who is very hawkish. "Ezekiel respects Richard and love Richard. They've been through some fires together. He's a bit of a hot head. But Ezekiel knows there are old people and kids to protect. If you go to war, people will die and someone won't have a dad anymore."
He is also mentoring teenager Benjamin, son of a warrior who had died in an earlier battle. Benjamin also supports war. Ezekiel, Payton said, "wants the human race to survive and go on. After he's gone, he sees Benjamin carrying on. He is happy to see moments where Benjamin is becoming a man. It's a big deal for Ezekiel."
Although it has been a month since the Atlanta Falcons blew the Super Bowl, Payton said he can't quite let go of the pain. "I'm still hurting," he said. "But we are going to lick our wounds and come back strong. We should have won that game. They didn't win it. We gave that game up!"
Born in Augusta, Payton grew up in Athens and graduated high school there. His father Victor Payton is a pediatrician who started a practice there. Payton himself said he wore a Falcons jacket for much of his childhood, from the time it was too big for him to a time when it becametoo small. He said he was unable to make a Falcons game this past season but hopes to do so when the team debuts at the new stadium.
His father was a little wary at first when Payton wanted to pursue acting. "He came and saw me do 'Hamlet' when I was in my early 20s," Payton said. "He loved that show. Ever since, he's been my biggest fan."
Regardless of how long King Ezekiel's character lasts, Payton said it's a wonderful role for any actor to have as an audition for any future jobs down the road. "He's kind of two people in one," he said. "People hopefully will give me a little more leeway to play some different, exciting roles."
"The Walking Dead," 9 p.m. Sundays, AMC