We haven’t quite known what to make of Axel. Possible pervert for hitting on Beth, or a quirky and gentle soul that makes a fine addition to the group? Well, in tonight’s episode of The Walking Dead, the last remaining inmate of the West Georgia Correctional Facility got his close-up, playing a pivotal role in the episode. Stop reading right now if you have yet to watch Sunday’s episode of the zombie drama and don’t want to know more. [SPOILER ALERT! Seriously, stop reading now if you have not already watched Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead.]
Unfortunately, the pivotal role Axel played was that of victim, as he became the latest character to bite the dust when a bullet from the Governor blasted his brain to bits, kicking off a full-on assault from the Woodbury gang on the prison. I spoke with the man who played Axel, Lew Temple, about his all-too brief stint on the show. In this exclusive chat, Temple candidly discusses his reaction to the news that his character was being killed off, while also revealing the scene we did not see, and the futile effort by star Andrew Lincoln to keep Axel alive. Plus: Why a striking similarly between Temple and co-executive producer Greg Nicotero came in handy for the final scene. (Click through both pages to read the entire interview. Also make sure to check out my chat with Walking Dead showrunner Glen Mazzara about last night’s episode.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Well, that sucked.
LEW TEMPLE: The Walking Dead never wants you to get too comfortable with characters and cast members. I think about the time you feel fairly secure with your appreciation of a character is about the time the show will gut-punch you. And that’s my take on what happened with Axel.
EW: So how and when did you get the news that Axel was getting offed?
TEMPLE: I found out in August about two weeks before the episode was filmed. This was shortly after I met Glen Mazzara for the very first time in person. He had just come down to screen the season 3 premiere episode for cast and crew on location. It was great! It was a lovely evening. We celebrated an amazing kick-off to a great new season. And that particular night was the first time I had met Glen in person. We had a really nice visit about what we were doing with Axel, and he was so effusive and kind and lovely, saying “I really dig how you’re bringing Axel out, and the layers that are there. We can go in so many directions because you’re keeping things close to the vest and we’re not sure what he’s about.”
So I was fairly excited, and I got a call from his assistant the next day saying Glen wanted to speak with me, and I’m like oh, great!, assuming he’s going to want to speak more about character development. 15 to 20 seconds into the conversation he says, “Lew, this is really unfortunate but I’ve got to let you know that Axel is going to take a bullet to the head.”
EW: How did you take that news?
TEMPLE: I guess I received it similar to how I’m hoping the fans do: It was a gut-punch. And that’s exactly how Glen described he wanted it to happen. I certainly wasn’t expecting to leave this quickly. Clearly, Axel in Mr. Kirkman’s graphic novel, he does go down in the war at the prison. We knew that was happening. I just didn’t sense that it was going to occur this quickly, so it caught me off-guard for sure — particularly after we just had that conversation and had talked about really developing some more life with Axel.
So I processed it. And of course the immediate reaction is an appeal. “Whoa! Whoa! Wait! I know what you’re looking for. You just explained to me that the Governor needs to exact some revenge and retribution. I get that. But you know this new Allen guy? He looks like he’s going to cause problems. Can’t he take the bullet and we get rid of him instead?” He laughed. Of course, you do this in vain and you know the decision has been made. And you’re disappointed, clearly. I loved being on the show. But I was more disappointed for Axel. I know that sounds so actorly, but the reality is I felt that there was a lot more to do with the character. I thought all the nuance that we put into him and the little things that were barely visible and thinly veiled were starting to come into full color. I feel in this last episode we really become a bit interested in him. So my appeal was as much for Axel as it was for Lew Temple.
EW: You were the last prisoner standing! That whole group is toast now.
TEMPLE: I feel a little cheated for what we represent — the prison story. I feel like that didn’t earn us anything. But clearly it did. The prison has been a sanctuary, that is now not a sanctuary at all. It’s well worth defending, and in that defense, the prisoners are all gone.
EW: So what was the reaction of the other cast members when they learned your fate?
TEMPLE: I was the first to know among the working cast and crew. Glen asked me to keep it under wraps. Then about four or five days later he let the cast know. They kind of banded together and protested. Andrew Lincoln made a very kind stand for me to the producers and writers and said, “We can’t do this. I think this is a mistake because we’re bringing in and investing in players — and actors — that bring something to this world and we’re starting to connect, and their time is too short.” But in the wisdom of the show — and again, this is why the show connects so much — in life, sometimes just as we get to know somebody, they pass through our graces.
But sadness crept in among the cast. I’m a leukemia survivor, and I recall during my darkest days in the hospital when my friends would come to see me, especially the male friends —they had certain mortality issues with their visit. And I had to spend more time taking care of them because they would look at me and think, if this could happen to you, what could happen to me. And so there’s an element of that just in nature that occurs.
EW: I swear, about five seconds before you were killed, I was thinking to myself, I really like what this character is bringing to the show. Everyone else is in such a bad place right now and dealing with so much despair, but Axel is bringing a very different energy. And then BAM!
TEMPLE: Those were the tones that we were trying to give it, that I’m okay being in here, and I’m okay with what we got, and I’m okay being told how to live. I’m good in here. Axel was able to open up a lot in this last episode, and I think that endeared him to not just Carol, but the audience. So when that happens, I am very well pleased that he didn’t suffer and didn’t go down in a big fiery crash. Being shot in the head also takes the element of reanimating to a walker away. So nobody has to come and put a bullet through my head to save me from that fate. All of those things were things I had requested, and production was so kind to attend to those things.
EW: What was your mood like that day you shot the scene?
TEMPLE: I decided I was not going to show up morose. I did not want to drag my feet with a lot of sorrow or depression, because that would be playing all of the things that were someone else’s emotion on the front end of Axel’s day. I decided I was going to have a pep in my step and be very happy and give that whole scene a certain peace. You’ve been on set, so you know how people often listen to music on their iPods before a big scene. Andrew Lincoln is a big advocate of this as is Norman Reedus and Lauren as well. So I had a certain soundtrack for the day, which was a lovely song by Citizen Cope called “Bullet and a Target.” It’s a really upbeat, happy kind of tune with really heavy lyrics. So it’s a happy and sad kind of thing. It just served me for the day and got me into a certain bounce.