Executive producers Scott M. Gimple and Robert Kirkman told Entertainment Weekly that we will be meeting several new characters in season five of The Walking Dead—some from the comic book and some not. Well, we’ve got your exclusive first look at one such newbie right here, and it is a big one: Father Gabriel Stokes. Introduced in issue #61, in the comic Father Gabriel offers the survivors shelter in his church as he attempts to atone for past sins. Will his introduction on the TV show mirror that of the comic, or could Gabriel somehow be connected to the folks at Terminus? Viewers will find out after season five debuts on Oct. 12. But in addition to this first look photo, we also spoke to the man who will be playing Father Gabriel, Seth Gilliam, about how he landed the part, whether he read the source material, and what it’s been like to join the show.
EW: Why don’t you start by telling me about the casting process and how you ended up on this show as Father Gabriel.
SETH GILLIAM: I actually did not realize I was reading for the role of Father Gabriel during the casting process. The sides were for a school guidance counselor named Michael, who had an issue with a couple of his students. I had not seen the show before I was cast on the show. So I just thought, Okay, I guess they’ve discovered some guy who’s holed up at a school or something like that and was carrying around this horrible exchange that he had with his students. [Laughs]
That’s hilarious. So when were you informed about whom your character actually was?
I got a call from Gale Anne Hurd after the offer was made to me to explain who I would be playing. And that was about maybe a week after I had auditioned.
So once you found out about this character, did you go and read the comic book to familiarize yourself, or did you just say, Hey, I want to approach this TV version fresh and not worry about that?
I only read the comic book where Father Gabriel was introduced, which I think was episode 61 in the comics. I didn’t read anything before that, and I haven’t read anything after that. I discovered from reading about the show that often times characters’ names and journeys are kind of crisscrossed and mismatched, so I thought if I did read too much I might be giving myself a lot of information that would be useless, or just outright wrong. So I figured, like with everything, I’d just take the script and try to fill him out the best I possibly can.
Did you go back and watch a lot of episodes?
I watched the first three seasons on Netflix in a week. And season four was not available on Netflix at that time. I watched season four on a weekend when I got down to Atlanta and started working. And I actually started working before I was able to watch the fourth season.
What was the binge watch like?
The binge was intense, man. It was intense. I thought, well it’s a zombie show. It’s a show about zombies. And then I watched and I was like, this show is not about zombies at all, really. The show’s about a whole lot more than just zombies, which I was really excited by.
You have a little bit of a Wire reunion going on with Chad Coleman and Lawrence Gilliard. And I remember joking with Robert Kirkman a few years ago after they cast Chad, and he said, “Hey, I just want to get as many Wire characters on the show as possible.” I thought he was kidding, but apparently not. Did you three have a little Baltimore bonding session, or what?
We definitely did have a Baltimore bonding session when I got down there and saw Chad and Lawrence. I had dinner with Scott Gimple when I first got down there, and he said, “You know, after we had cast Chad, I made a promise to myself that I wasn’t going to cast anybody else from The Wire. But I love the show so much, and, you know, they just turned out to be the best people for the jobs. So I guess I’ve gone back on that.”
What was it like joining what may be the biggest show in the world? The cast rotates a fair amount because a lot of characters die, obviously, but there are also established stars there, like Andrew and Norman. What’s it like coming into that?
It was pretty intimidating because it’s a well-oiled machine. But Andrew Lincoln was the first cast member that I met. And the guy has got a heart the size of the Grinch at the end of the Dr. Seuss story where it just grows and grows and grows. So he made me feel instantly welcome, and instantly a part of it. And everyone after that, I mean, they’re the warmest people and they’ve done everything they possibly can to make me feel like I’ve been part of it from the very beginning. But yeah, I was pretty intimidated by it, by the immensity of the show, the popularity of it, and also the depth of it.
Have you gotten a little taste of the fan base yet and how rabid it is?
Yes, I have. I have an Instagram account that had maybe 29 followers on it before I got cast on The Walking Dead, and I think I’m now at 3,859. [Update: now 4,071.] And it grows daily. You know, there are some times the fans camp out outside locations where we’re shooting, waiting for people to come by. And they’re rabid for it, but they’re lovely people. So it’s interesting because a lot of people that stop me on the street now and they talk about The Wire, and they all have the same question: “How come they took that show off the air?” Because you guys weren’t watching it when it was airing! [Laughs] And you come to it On Demand or on Netflix or whatever else. So this is the first time I’ve actually been on a show where it’s popular while it’s airing. And I was not prepared for that, and I’m not sure that I ever will be actually.
I remember before the official announcement was made that you were going to be on the show and whom you would be playing, and you’d see those sort of fan spoiler photos of you in the priest collar. Did you see those, and you were like, “Uh oh…”
I did see them. And I spent the first week kind of creeping around from my trailer to the set, trying my best to cover myself. But then I noticed, some of those shots look like they were taken from, like, six blocks away with telescopic photo lenses. There’s really nothing you can do about covering that. I mean, I could look down the block and see that there’s nobody there and go, “Okay, I’m gonna step out now.” And then see a picture of myself stepping out, and be like, “Where did that come from?” There’s got to be somebody planted on a roof somewhere five blocks away. I don’t really get that, the whole spoiler thing. It’s kind of confusing to me why you’d want to give things away.
For more on Father Gabriel and season five, you can buy any or all of Entertainment Weekly’s special ‘Walking Dead’ collector’s covers right here. And for more ‘Walking Dead’ scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.