The Walking Dead celebrates 10 years of TV history on October 31, 2020. In celebration of this historic milestone, we I nterviewed several actors who have participated in the show over the years. These interviews started to be published in early September and run until the end of October, are being launched daily. When we will end with a big surprise that we prepared exclusively and with great affection for the fans.
Our guest today is Jayson Warner Smith, who played Gavin during seasons 7 and 8. The actor told us about how it was to work with Lennie James (Morgan), about how he shaped his character’s personality, about who are the real villains of The Walking Dead and much more.
Without further ado, check out our exclusive interview with Jayson Warner Smith:
It’s an honour for us to talk to you in such a special moment for The Walking Dead. It’s not just any show that reaches its 10th anniversary. Can you start by telling us how was the audition for the show? How did you hear about the part? Did you know the show beforehand?
Jayson Warner Smith: I participated in auditions during the first six seasons. And I had already lost hope of being part of the cast, and finally, at the beginning of the seventh season, they called me to audition for the character Gavin. I also auditioned for the character Jared, both at the same time. And, I believe Josh Michael also participated in the same test. We were lucky to be chosen, and we started working on the series at the beginning of the seventh season.
You gave life to Gavin, one of Negan’s trusted henchmen. How was it to be part of the group of the villains? What are your best memories of your character?
Jayson Warner Smith: First of all, the Saviors are not the villains! And yes, Rick and his group of nosy boys. End! (Laughter) I’m kidding. It was very funny. In the first season I didn’t have much to do with the other Saviors, so during our breaks between recordings I spent time with Khary Payton, Cooper Andrews, Josh Michael and the rest of the Kingdom guys, people like Lenny James, were also there. And it was really fun to be with them. But, in the eighth season I was with the Saviors and the whole group, if you watched the season you saw that. And that was a completely different experience. In the seventh season with the Kingdom and the group of “survivors”, we talked about art, music, movies we like, TV shows and politics, cool things like that. And in season eight, when I was with the Saviors group, and Xander Berkeley was also there, it was something completely different. The discussions were more about motorcycles, women and things like that, so I felt like a newcomer to a fraternity. I was no longer with my group.
What did you know about The Walking Dead before getting your part? Did you read the comics to get to know the story, even though Gavin was created for the show?
Jayson Warner Smith: No, I never read the comics. I just checked some illegal versions online to see if Gavin was a part of them, and found out he wasn’t. So, no, I didn’t know much about this world.
Tell us about how you prepared to develop Gavin’s personality.
Jayson Warner Smith: In fact, it happened by accident. I believe that at the beginning of Gavin’s creation they thought he would be like Simon. On my first day of shooting, Greg Nicotero was the director, and after I did it my way for a few takes, he said, “Do you know Simon, that character…?”, I said “Yes, I know Steven Ogg, I know who he is.”. “ You are not his brother, but you can be almost like his brother. You are more sarcastic and crazy like this guy.” I was a little skeptical, but said, “Okay, we can try this.” So, I did some takes trying to be a little more like that, and after two or three takes, Greg Nicotero said, “No, no! Let’s go back to what you were doing, it was good.” And I think that when I came back to do my next episode, Jeff January was the director and his comment to me between each take was “Grumpy dad with the kids at the amusement park. Grumpy dad.” And between each take he said, “Grumpy dad. Even more grumpy dad.” And that made Gavin appear to be tired, he just wants things to be sorted out so he can go back home and relax. Like, do your job and nobody gets hurt, nobody gets killed, I don’t need to get my gun, let’s get this over with. So it ended up happening naturally, they started writing something more like my style.
Gavin and Simon were both Negan’s henchmen, but Gavin seemed to be a bit more humane, less cruel than the rest. Are we right?
Jayson Warner Smith: Yes! Everything I said in my last answer confirms this.
Which memories can you share with us about shooting alongside Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Steven Ogg?
Jayson Warner Smith: Like I said, these guys are wild, they are like their characters. I mean, they’re not sadistic killers, but in other ways they’re just like the characters. Steven talks too much and is very funny, and is always busy doing his thing. He’s also a great voice actor, he does a lot of voice acting. I don’t know if you saw him in the Better Call Saul episode, but his scene is my favorite in the series, check it out. He was also great at Westworld. I haven’t seen Snowpiercer yet, so I don’t know what it’s about. And, as most of you already know, he is the main character in Grand Theft Auto. But, he is just like that, very friendly, very kind and caring, he is not sadistic like Simon, but he speaks the same way. I didn’t know Jeffrey Dean Morgan very well, not that he’s hostile, but he wasn’t super kind, like “Hey, Jason, tell me about your day.”, You know? He was nothing like that. It was a different relationship, it was just work. We did our scenes and that was it, we didn’t talk.
If Gavin had survived longer on the show, with which characters would you like him to interact with? Is there any actor you’d like to have worked with more closely during your time on the show?
Jayson Warner Smith: Yes, Cooper Andrews, Jerry! Of course, since he is still alive. That would be great, if we could have left the differences aside, and he hadn’t buried his ax in my head, it would have been great. Because we are friends now, we live close to each other, we keep in touch and he is one of the kindest, friendliest, most cheerful and dearest people I have ever met. So it would have been great to spend a lot more time working with him. Especially if we weren’t opponents, if we were at the same time, that would have been incredible.
An interesting discussion emerged lately on The Walking Dead: it basically says that when you have people opposing each other, every side thinks they’re right and the other is wrong. If you see it that way, there are no good guys or bad guys, but people trying to defend themselves. Do you agree with this theory? If yes, can Gavin, Negan and Simon not be considered necessarily villains, but actually just people trying survive in the new world?
Jayson Warner Smith: I agree with this theory. Absolutely! I always joke about it, when people ask me about what it’s like to be a villain, and I reply “Who is the villain? Rick is the villain. What are you talking about? They are the villains, we are the good guys, we are the Saviors.” However, Simon is a character who, without Negan’s control, becomes dangerous. For example, Alpha, the leader of the Whisperers, she is psychotic. She’s a psychotic showcase of mass murder. Negan is more of a sociopath, he is a narcissist, everything is about him. But, he was very good at dealing with groups of people and managing it, and Simon flourished under him, as he had control over Simon. Simon off the leash is dangerous, like a pirate, like Blackbeard. So we were villains out of necessity, because everyone is a villain out of necessity in this kind of world.
In a moment of the show, Gavin manages to capture Ezekiel and promises to kill him and stick his head on a stake in the Sanctuary. This happens on the comics, but in different circumstances, in the Whisperers arc. In the show, Ezekiel ends up being spared. What do you think Gavin would be like if he had survived? Do you think he’d join the Whisperers or take a different path?
Jayson Warner Smith: No, I don’t think he would join the Whisperers, that would be very scary for Gavin. If something were to happen to Gavin, if Ezekiel could overcome Gavin’s cowardice and help him see the light, and do the right thing at that moment, I think he would be able to redeem himself from his past and join the group of survivors, of Kingdom, Hilltop, Alexandria, Oceanside.
Looking back at your time on the show, which one would you say was the most fun episode to shoot? What about the most challenging? Why?
Jayson Warner Smith: The most fun and the most challenging were the same episode. Not my last episode, but my penultimate episode, where I know my Creator. Because, Lennie James basically turns into a monster in the John Carpenter movie, and I’m the victim. And I was able to do so much in this episode. I could be the badass, or at least think I was the badass, telling everyone what to do. And then I could be the captor, the guy who holds a hostage and does his job. And then the game is reversed, and I get into a fight. And that was fun, I was finally able to shoot my gun. And then, everything goes wrong when Lennie appears and becomes a monster, and I become the coward I really am, running and hiding, in fear. And finally, I know my Creator. So, that episode was the most challenging and fun. The second is probably the day after Benjamin’s death, when we returned to the Kingdom to pick up the last melon before Morgan killed Richard. This was a challenging and fun episode for me, because of the challenges during filming.
Do you remember your first day on the set? What about your last one? We’d love if you could share some details of your reception and farewell on the show!
Jayson Warner Smith: Yes, I recall. Well, I already talked about the first episode, I will not talk about it again. What I thought was my last episode, was what I just talked about, which was really fun. And my last shot of this episode, which I thought was my last, was the beginning of the episode where I’m driving the truck and the cameras are following me, and then they stop and I walk away, and you see Morgan appear from behind the tree and start running after me. That was my last shot of episode 9. And I remember it well, because we had to shoot four or five times to get the lighting and cameras right, and the timing with Morgan showing up at the right time. So when I drove the truck to the starting position, I stopped and Lennie climbed into the vehicle, and we went back to our marks. We were able to spend time together and talk, he called me “J-Dog”, which I always thought was the coolest thing in the world. It was fun. And that day I took pictures with everyone, I said goodbye saying “This is my last day, thanks to everyone”, and everyone was very kind. But they had more filming later that night, so there was no party or anything, they don’t do that with the smaller characters, just the main characters, as far as I know. But then, I had another day in the series, I think it was in episode 13 or 14, where I come back as part of a vision in Morgan’s mind. And I didn’t know anything about it. I assumed it was over, when I got a call from my agent saying “Hey, they want you to come back”, and I was like “What? To do what? I’m dead.” But then they explained it to me right, and it was a lot of fun and a little weird, because people said, “I thought you said goodbye!”, “No, I’m back.” So, I said goodbye to some people I hadn’t said goodbye to before, but that day was a little disappointing.(laughter).
Your last appearance on the show was in Morgan’s hallucination. How was it to record those scenes and working with Lennie James?
Jayson Warner Smith: It was great! It was really incredible. First, I had very easy lines, repeated things over and over again. And I was able to work with Lennie Jamens again. If you asked me five or six years ago “Hey, Jason, do you think that one day you will work directly with big actors like Lennie James, staring face to face on a TV series that is watched all over the world?”, I would say “No way! That will never happen.” And it happened. So, I’m not Lennie’s best friend, I have his phone number and we exchange messages, especially when I see him doing something amazing in a movie and he answers me, but it’s not like we’re great friends. But he is an incredible man, who had a very troubled start and was able to get up to get where he is today. He’s an incredible person.
Recently you won a Broadway World Atlanta Award for your acting in Our Town and The Laramie Project. How did it feel to be recognized for that? Can you tell us a bit about those projects?
Jayson Warner Smith: It was amazing! It was a tough competition, and I had this great surprise. I didn’t imagine that something like this would happen and, being honest, my fans on Twitter and Facebook made it happen, so thanks to you guys in Brazil and all over the world for making this happen, I think that’s the only way this would happen. It probably wasn’t fair to the local Atlanta actors, but man, I didn’t make it up. Now about the projects! We did two pieces in something called “Repertory”. One of the plays is about Matthew Shepard, who was a young gay boy from Wyoming, who lived in a small town and was tricked into getting into a truck with two more boys who were homophobic, and they took him to another city where they arrested him on a fence and beat him to death. Or at least that was what they thought. In fact, he didn’t die that night, he died five days later. A terrible story. I think it was reported all over the world, I don’t know if you heard about it in Brazil. But, Matthew Shepard, you can research about it. And this piece was written about the incident and what happened next, and it was done in a documentary style. And when they were creating the piece, they decided to use a format similar to that of the piece “Our Town”, which is one of the most popular pieces in the USA. I do not know if it is popular in the rest of the world, but in the USA it’s assembled all the time. It is about a small fictional town in the USA, in the beginning of the last century, the beginning of the 1900s. It is a three-act play that deals with birth, marriage, life and death, which is something that the “Larry Project ” also deals with, so they are very similar. We had a cast of ten actors, two different directors. We learned both plays and performed them for two days in a row, and received great reviews in Atlanta and it was one of the best theatrical moments of my life. If I could do theater and receive what we receive with films and series, I would never do anything other than theater.
We know the pandemic postponed a lot of projects and The Walking Dead fans are still suffering for the season finale. How did it affect you? Were any of your projects postponed? How have you been taking care of yourself?
Jayson Warner Smith: How did it affect me? Yes, I have been completely unemployed since March, I also teach acting classes here in Atlanta, so this had to be paused, because it just doesn’t work for Zoom. You can do some things, but you can’t teach acting or learn acting on the computer, so that was paused. I personally did not postpone any projects, but I know many people that did. I had not been scheduled for any project that was postponed. But, I am sure that many projects were postponed that I could have had the chance to be part of. And yes, I’ve been careful. I have kept myself safe, just like my family, no one in my family has contracted the virus, and I hope it will stay that way. So, I have nothing to complain about.
To wrap it up: here in Brazil we are particularly fond of The Walking Dead and all of its cast and crew, past and present. Brazilian fans are very passionate! Does this love get to you somehow, through conventions or social networks? Can you send a message to your Brazilian fans?
Jayson Warner Smith: Yes, absolutely. Brazilian fans have been loving the show, and my character, and me. In fact, I want to do it the right way, so I’ll even look over here to not talk nonsense, but there is a profile on Twitter called “We love Jayson Warner Smith” and I am 99% sure that it’s managed by a Brazilian fan. (Her twitter is @ Lynn_W999, billion dollar poison) I think she also manages a page for Josh Michael. She’s on the Saviours team, Gavin’s team and Josh Michael’s team, or Jared’s, team I think. Anyway, I would like to send a save to her. Follow her on twitter, she is a huge fan and I am almost sure that she is from Brazil.
Thanks for being interested in interviewing me and thanks for listening. Take care and I love you all, bye!