As far as TV dramas are concerned, Chad Coleman has the taciturn tough guy role on lock. Best known for playing Cutty, the gangster-turned-gentleman ("He a man today.") on that G.O.A.T. series known as The Wire, Coleman's latest TV home is on another critically-acclaimed drama, as a character facing unimaginable circumstances in a similarly grim setting. No, it's not Baltimore, but it's damn close. Coleman joined The Walking Dead last season as the comic book fan favorite, hammer-wielding Tyreese, and now that he's officially been accepted into Rick Grimes' fold, the real fun can begin. With season 4 kicking off this Sunday, at 9 p.m. EST on AMC, we talked to Coleman about what's in store for him this year and which show is ultimately scarier: The Walking Dead or The Wire?
In your eyes, how has the role of Tyreese changed from comic book to your interpretation of him? What have you brought to him that wasn't there before?
I just think, and not in a disparaging way, he’s more complex in the TV version. He’s much quicker to violence in the comic book, whereas in the TV show we don’t always know exactly what he’s going to do for sure. He’s harder to read, which, to me, is more compelling. And, you know, as we move forward in season 4, you’ll begin to identify with some of the same character traits that he has in the comic book. We just wanted to layer it more. Keep drawing the audience in.
What’s in store for Tyreese this season? The trailer suggests he’s going to have an especially rough go of it.
[Laughs.] Well said, my friend. It’s going to be epic. It’s going to be gut-wrenching. No one goes unscathed. Tyreese is about to get opened up. I know it’s going to be quite a ride for the audience.
Are you still filming?
We’re over halfway, but we got awhile to go.
When you first joined The Walking Dead, Glen Mazzara was running things; now he’s out, though, and Scott Gimple is in. What’s the difference between their approaches to the production?
I didn’t have that much time with Glen, though I clicked with him quite well. But we were in the beginning stages of something. The experience with Scott—we’re going into the heart of the character now, whereas Glen was part of the set-up. I didn’t get enough time with Glen where I can compare the two. I like them both, they’re both talented and great personalites. But what Scott’s doing with this character this season is just amazing. Everything he said he wanted to do is happening with the character. Scott’s a very rich storyteller, Scott loves characters, and he loves the relationships between the characters, so it’s very, very rich when it comes to that. I think he’s doing a masterful job.
Last season, for people who didn’t have any background knowledge of the graphic novels, there was some confusion about the nature of Tyreese and Sasha’s relationship, and the people you were traveling with. Can you clear that up?
Well, in the graphic novel, it’s his daughter. You saw right away, they moved away from certain things. That should’ve been a cue for a lot of the comic book folks that we’re gonna take a different journey. Sometimes you’ll be familiar, sometimes you won’t. So, she was my sister, but, yeah, some people thought she was my wife or girlfriend. [Laughs.]
There was no affection between us like that, and I was so connected to Sonequa [Martin-Green, who plays Sasha] as a sister that I didn’t even think of that discrepancy until I started hearing it. The first reaction I had was, "Ewww." I think [with changing Sasha from daughter to sister], you can get some of the dynamics of a father-daughter [situation] because I’m her older brother. But they want her to develop her independence, and if I’m her father then it’s always this thing of how much independence does she really have. Whereas as a younger sister, there's her defiance and her being able to have her own autonomy. I think it’s a better dynamic and push and pull for the relationship.
And it’s not just repetitive of Hershel's dynamic with his daughters.
Well said. Exactly, it keeps it out of that lane as well.
Last season you and Rick butted heads, because he was crazy at that point. What can you tease about where their relationship stands this season?
[Laughs.] We did butt heads, right?
To say the least.
They had a tricky relationship in the comic book. I really can’t say too much. I can tell you I have an incredible experience working with [actor] Andrew Lincoln. I can tell you that you guys won’t be disappointed by what goes down.
Larry Gilliard, Jr. is joining the cast this season, and judging from the trailer you’re going to be sharing a few scenes with him. H’s a fellow The Wire alum, even though you guys never crossed paths on that show. What will his character bring to the show?
I can tell you that I was glad me and Larry hadn’t worked together. [Laughs.] Because he might not have gotten the role. They don’t want to pick from the Wire tree too much. But they love what Larry’s doing, and I’ve always been a fan of Larry and his work for a long time, so I was happy to be able to work with him. This dude’s coming in trying to find his way, and I’m trying to be there for him.
Going back to The Wire days, and Cutty, it feels like he and Tyreese share similar traits. They’re both good guys who end up doing questionable things because of circumstances. Is that the type of role that you’re most drawn to?
When you put something out there that people connect with really strongly, they begin to want you for those reasons. As an actor, you can see me on I Hate My Teenage Daughter, the comedy I did, or It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. I’m an actor, I’m an artist, I’m gonna bring to the table whatever’s required.
But I seem to be pretty adept at playing these characters that are conflicted in that way. And I do love that, because I think that’s closer to reality than some of the more one-dimensional characters. Even though they’re great fun and well-written, from the human experience and that come-on-let’s-be-realistic place, I think you’ll find more Tyreese and Cutty’s than some of the other characters you see out there.
Looking through your filmography, though, you haven’t really played "the bad guy" yet. Are you itching to play a Governor-type person?
Oh yeah, I would love to! I did once, on the small screen. You probably didn’t see it, but if you see it you’ll know. I did an episode of Criminal Minds where I played this really bad guy. People were like, “Whoa." They leave these comments on Twitter, like, “Can’t believe you played that role.” They re-run it a lot. If you see it, you’ll see.
A different side of you?
No doubt. But I don’t look at it as a "different side." Our instrument is human emotion. A piano’s got different keys, different notes you can play, and that’s what we do with the whole human emotion, human behavior thing. That’s what we do. Being able to play those notes, it’s all a part of my instrument. I'd rather call myself an artist, and my instrument should be full. There’s nothing that I shouldn’t be able to play. The only thing you run into, is making sure people understand what I just said. It’s not me—it’s the actor, and that’s fun for us.
And, I got to say, David Morrisey killed that role [as The Governor]. Whoo! I love the scenes with him—it’s like the guy’s looking right through you. He’s awesome.
There’s talk that he’s coming back, but you probably can’t say too much about that.
I hope he does. I think it’s unfinished business. I don’t see him just fading out. I hope he comes back with a vengeance, because that’d be more fun for us.
Getting into the hypothetical, if you were in the zombie apocalypse, which friends and family members would you want by your side?
[Laughs.] Wow, man. I got some tough sisters. I got three tough sisters I would definitely take with me, without a doubt.
They’d hold it down?
Without question, they’d do more than hold it down. They’d hold everyone else down.
Are you the older brother in real life as well?
Two older sisters and one younger sister. I won’t get too deep, but one of them, man—rest in peace to my sister Dee. I’ve got big brothers, but I always told her, “You’re the third big brother.” That’s how hardcore she was.
One of the core themes in The Walking Dead is how people change, or adapt, rather, to new settings and circumstances. What would be your breaking point if the zombie apocalypse ever happened for real?
My breaking point... Chad’s? The death of family members. The loss of family members would be that. I’m pretty sure that would take me to some places.
What about if Cutty woke up one day and suddenly the world was overrun by zombies—how would he react?
Oh, Cutty’s a survivor all the way. I’m not comparing the Baltimore hood to a post-apocalyptic world, but, hey, it’s a pretty challenging world in and of itself. To have done what he did initially to survive, that dude was willing to kill, no questions asked. And then to be able to reform himself, that's pretty awesome. In some way, shape, or form, Tyreese encountering this world, it’s almost like the reverse of Cutty. Tyreese is making that really tough journey.
Which is scarier/more depressing? Filming in actual Baltimore or the zombie-filled sets of Walking Dead?
Filming in Baltimore. We were doggone near dealing in documentary. Walking through those neighborhoods, you’re filming and you look over at this building—I don’t know anybody that lives there—and all of a sudden somebody pokes their head out the window and goes, “I am The Wire.” And that’s like, wow. That was always pretty rough, going to work with that. We were celebrated, rightfully so, in the entertainment world and even other venues-college campuses, sociology classe, and things of that nature, but we still always felt like, why don’t the real people get this level of attention. It was a tale of two cities for all of us, that experience, so we always wanted to find a way to give back.
[The Walking Dead’s] world is fun to examine. We can get as in-depth as we want to, but we can also have fun with it. Of course there are many who do believe, looking from a biblical standpoint, it doesn’t say zombies obviously, but we’re looking at the end of the world in a very kind of twisted way. I love examining it from that standpoint, and there is a lot to be learned, like you said, about what happens to people. The underbelly of the show beyond the zombies is that examination of the human experience and the horrific circumstances, and how we feel. That’s a part of what’s compelling about the show. I always say, I don’t think it’s the end of the world—I actually think it’s the start of a new world. So that’s cool for me.
When Robert Kirkman put this whole entity together as a comic book over 10 years ago, he was examining those things. The racial stuff was more overt with Merle and T-Dog. I always tell people to get into the human behavior. It’s all about the way human beings collide. It’s still somewhat of a metaphor of how we deal with the world today. If you look from Syria to the guy in D.C. who just took out how many people—you can make the case that the show does bring some of that stuff to the forefront.
You’ve been a big part of two major series with big followings and critical acclaim. What’s that like?
I appreciate people making that parallel, but, you know, the journey continues. [Laughs.] You know what I mean? That’s awesome that when it’s all said and done, you see that. But right now it’s all about becoming even more of a major presence in this show and then also moving into the feature world with a much stronger presence. I’m excited to have this be a part of my biography. A lot of people don’t get the opportunity to experience two shows like this, of this magnitude, and not in too long a period of time [between the two]. I hope people appreciate it, and that it continues to lead to bigger and better things.
You said earlier that season 3 was just the set-up for Tyreese. For fans of the character and fans of you in general, what would you say is that episode this season where you really come into your own and get into some heavy stuff?
I don’t want to give it away. We’re coming out the gate incredibly strong. It won’t be long before the jaws will be dropping. That is the truth—it will not be long, man.