Interview: Tom Payne (Jesus) talks 'Walking Dead,' Gregory & his hair

This was posted Monday, November 21, 2016 by Rodney Ho on the AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Tom Payne, who plays the hirsute Jesus at the Hilltop on "The Walking Dead," is British. Yup, just like seemingly half the cast.

I spoke with him today, a day after his first appearance on the show this season. He also appeared on "Talking Dead."

His character, as befitting his name, is kind, smart and well meaning. So when Maggie and Sasha turn up with the dead bodies of Glenn and Abraham, he instantly jumps in to ensure they're safe and helps bury the two men.

The Hilltop leader Gregory isn't so keen on them being around - even after they help him out with the Savior-induced zombie attack.

Payne did clear up a couple of things that were not readily apparent in the episode. He said the Saviors were able to do what they did by capturing the Hilltop guards (who don't have guns) and tying them up. That scene was shot but the editors didn't like it after the fact.  ("It looked like a barbershop quartet all strung up," he said.) The Saviors also locked all the residents inside their homes to make it more difficult for them to deal with the walkers.

Plus, most of the Hilltop residents are not trained to fight. So Simon, the Savior leader/Negan understudy, was genuinely surprised when he came back the next day and found everyone alive and well and the walkers all gone and cleared out.

Payne said he got the role of Jesus despite being clean shaven.  Last season, he had to wear a fake beard. Between seasons, he decided to try to grown one himself. He wasn't sure it would work but it looks good. "I have real hair all over my body," he said. 

He hasn't been on the show long enough to be recognized all the time but someone at the airport said he looked like Jesus, despite the fact she had never seen the show. "It's a very interesting time for my life," he said. 

Payne is enjoying his character so far.  "He has a lot of empathy and understanding. He's also looking for the best person to lead the Hilltop. He understands it was in imperfect situation [under Gregory] but they didn't want to upset the apple cart until another plan was in place. The arrival of Maggie and Sasha could be a turning point for the community." 

Jesus, he said, has had some warmth toward Gregory, a hands-off leader who doesn't even know the names of everyone in his flock. "Gregory isn't some warlord," Payne said. "He's no slave driver. People allowed him to be the leader. He was fine with that. I think he's been harmless but when things got serious and the stakes got higher, his cowardice comes out. He becomes a danger. It was very apparent when he was willing to send Sasha and Maggie to possible death to save his own hind." 

All he cares about, Jesus said, "is his position, his painting and his prized whiskey." 

Also, the reason the Saviors didn't find Maggie and Sasha is because they came to just take their 50 percent of food and provisions. They weren't seeking furniture and clothing (although Simon took Gregory's prized painting just to spite him.).

Why isn't Jesus taking more of a leadership role? "I think he's more effective in a behind-the-scenes role. All great leaders choose great advisors, people they really trust for their governance. He can sit back and look at the situation and work out the best route to take without the pressures of making a decision now. Having said that, Sasha does push him. What does he want? He needed that. He got a bit comfortable. She really pushes his conscience. It wakes him up. He realizes now is the time to change." So he jumps on a Savior truck to find out where Negan resides. 

Jesus' ability to stay under the radar and get out of sticky situations will certainly be to his benefit when he goes over to the Saviors Sanctuary. "He recognizes he's more valuable to the group than Gregory," Payne said. "It serves him not to show all his cards to the Saviors."

There is not a lot of information about Jesus' back story except he's a bit of a loner. But he connects with Sasha and Maggie. He sees them as "reasonable with a bit of fight in them."

As an actor, Payne really enjoyed all the "ninja" moves he got to use to kill off the walkers this past episode. "It's really fun and brings a different energy," he said.

And as Josh McDermitt told me last week, Payne had to wear some heavy clothing in the middle of the Georgia summer. "I'm wearing 25 layers of all different sorts of material," Payne mused. "I have a vest over a shirt and a hat. It was really nice last night that I was just wearing a shirt and we were shooting mostly at night. It made it easier. I just take it as part of the character is he's always incredibly hot."

Payne said if the show follows the comics, we'll see a lot more of Jesus. "He's a favorite in the comic books for good reason. He's a pretty solid character and nice guy with all these cool skills. I'm looking forward to exploring more of him on the show."


"The Walking Dead," 9 p.m. Sundays, AMC 

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.