EXCLUSIVE: Walking Dead's Josh McDermitt teases Eugene's survival, new role with Grimes Gang

Josh McDermitt is the man behind the mullet of deception on The Walking Dead. As Eugene Porter, he was supposed to be a genius scientist with the know-how to stop the zombie apocalypse, but instead revealed himself to be a fraud with a haircut that’s business up front, party in the back, and lies in between.  

As if Eugene weren't socially awkward enough, things are about to get a lot more uncomfortable for him when The Walking Dead returns for the second half of season five this Sunday on AMC. During the first half of the season, Eugene’s confession led to a nasty beatdown at the hands of Abraham (Michael Cudlitz). Now McDermitt’s character must face the other survivors who sacrificed so much, including lives, on a quest to get him to Washington, D.C. 

Luckily, Eugene’s saving grace is that he’s quickly become a favorite character on the show. He’s nerdy and pretty weird, and is actually incredibly intelligent, if not a genius. And McDermitt, a stand-up comedian and performer with Los Angeles improv group the Groundlings, has crafted in Eugene a character who is tragic, but with a humorous demeanor. He’s not trying to be funny, but is. Moreover, Eugene is relatable: He has a desire to live in the walker-ridden world, but not much in the way of survival skills ... which leads him to tell a helluva lie that defines his existence.

I recently had the opportunity to speak at length with McDermitt about Eugene, and the upcoming TWD episodes. Along with the nature of lying, and how to rehabilitate a character who has lied so much, we, of course, discuss Eugene’s signature mullet -- and McDermitt’s desire to see more fan mullets. We also examine the phenomenon of Walking Dead tattoos and how the licensed hot-air balloon pilot might use one on the show's series finale.

Photo by Isaac Sterling

In the teaser for the season, we see a couple shots of Eugene holding a knife, but looking tentative about it. Are you excited for Eugene to get in the action more, or is that not what he would ever do?

The foundation for Eugene’s entire life was that he didn’t feel like he had the skills to survive on his own, and needed someone to protect him. That’s why he went out and got Abraham, then Rosita. Now he’s on their s--t list for lying to the group, and for people dying in order to get him to D.C., he’s on his own island of survival. He had a little encouragement from talking with Tara last season. He said, if he didn’t have the cure, there’s no way they’d protect him. She said that’s bulls--t, but that assurance came before the admission of his lie. Now it remains to be seen if they’ll step up. At this point, Eugene is having to do things on his own. He wasn’t doing it before the apocalypse started, and is having to do it while everyone kind of hates him. He is still scared, doesn’t have the skills to survive, and it is going to be exciting to see if he is able to overcome it.

Well, Eugene is back with the larger group, and has to go through this confession all over again. Will we see him interacting with more individuals? How will the others react, because this has cost lives?

Yeah, Eugene is not everyone’s favorite person right now. That is going to be a fun thing to explore. How does he fit into the group? Not just from his point of view, but everyone else’s. The cool thing he has going for him is they’ve all committed atrocities, and this is by no means minuscule, but he didn’t bite someone’s throat out like Rick. Everyone has to answer for some of their actions, and that is a fun dynamic to explore. Every time we pick up the season and check back in, the dynamic has changed. And they have to deal with the loss of Beth. That could play off on how they interact with Eugene, or say, “To hell with this guy” and kick him to the curb. It is all going to be explored. 

If the Rick Grimes Gang as it is now came upon Eugene on the road, and he didn’t lie, do you think they’d take him into the group?

I don’t know. If you look at the season three episode ("Clear"), they’re cruising down the road and see a hitchhiker. He waves them down, but they keep driving and ignore him. On the way back, he’s dead and they pull over to rummage through his knapsack, then leave. That is such a brutal thing to do to someone. These characters are not even who they were then. They were trying to maintain some civility at that point. Now, can they even get back to that point? Coming upon Eugene now, they’d probably keep going. They’d go, he’s harmless. But then you look at someone like Father Gabriel. They ran into him and take him in -– not necessarily willingly, but he did have shelter for them. But they didn’t trust him, and I don’t think there is anyone you can trust in this world. I don’t know. I keep thinking about that episode where they left that guy. Did they not stop because he posed a threat? Because they were on a mission? Because they knew he’d get eaten and they could grab his backpack? 

The irony is that guy was probably the real genius who actually knew how to solve the apocalypse ...

I know! They’re like, “Here’s a piece of paper with a bunch of computer calculations on it. Whatever. Oh, a can of beans!”

Does Eugene now feel the need to prove his worth more to Abraham, or himself? 

That’s a great question. I think, from an outsider’s perspective, you’d think it’s more important to prove it to himself. But I think, from Eugene’s, he wants to prove it to Abraham and the group. In turn, that will end up proving it to himself. But he has to figure out how. He is at a loss and doesn’t know how to prove it. The cool thing is, when Rosita and Glenn were off fishing, she starts filtering the water and says Eugene taught her. He has the brainpower. He is very smart; that’s how he was able to lie. He lied, so get mad about that. But he is smart, and has to realize his brain is his biggest asset.

Well, the truth will set you free. Now that the lie is out in the open, can he find comfort in being smart and providing assistance without the pressure of having to be a savior? That is a lot to carry around, even if it is legitimate.

I don’t know, because, with where this group is, they’re on the road. They don’t have the prison or the church. The people that survive in that environment are the Michonnes, Daryls, Ricks, Abrahams -- the people who can step up physically and kill walkers. Eugene is better suited, brainwise, if he is able to get some space, take a breather and analyze a situation. He does the math quickly in his head, but there aren’t a lot of moments where he can sit back and assess things. Until he finds that, it will always be a struggle with him.

There is this relatability to Eugene with his lie. He tells a whopper to save his ass, then needs to lie more to cover it up, and keeps lying, and keeps going and gets swallowed up by these lies. It reminds me of a moment from when I was in grade school and a lie just consumed me. Was there ever a moment in your past where that happened to you?

I didn’t lie much when I was a kid. I was a horrible liar, and people would see right through it, and I wouldn’t try to cover it up. I would realize it right away, realize it is easier to come right out and admit the wrongdoing. I was one of those kids where my friends thought our parents were stupid and would never find out what we did, but I was always like, “Our parents are pretty smart.” I wasn’t a goody two-shoes that didn’t get in trouble, but I was very realistic in my approach to being parented. When I was in second grade, we were having a party and my mom was the homeroom mom for the week. She came in to help host, and there was a chalkboard on wheels. It was two-sided, and I just learned what the F-word was, and wrote it in the biggest letters possible as I could. I saw her coming over and changed the “C” to a “G” and put an “E” at the end of it to pretend I was spelling “Fudge” – because kids write fudge in three-foot letters on chalkboards all the time! I got in trouble, and lied, but my mom gave me a look of, “Don’t bulls--t me, man.” I knew if I continued to lie, I was going to get in more trouble. From that moment on, I kind of admitted if I was fibbing. But I’ve never, thankfully, been put in the position that Eugene was put in. I always thought about the stakes for this guy to live. That’s how I approached it. 

Thanks for throwing me under the bus, by the way. I started the question by sharing something from my childhood, and you just say you weren’t a liar. So, I’m going to look like an ass here.

Hey man, you shouldn’t lie! [laughs] Maybe I’m lying now and I was a huge liar as a kid. 

This interview has become like a very important after school episode of The Walking Dead and the importance of not lying ...

I had an older brother and sister -- there were six kids in my family -- that I idolized. I’d watch them lie and get into trouble. It was easy to not repeat their mistakes. That was beneficial for me as a kid.

You’re from a comedy background, and on the show, you get some funny moments. And Steven Yeun’s Glenn gets subtle comedic beats. Would you like more humor in the show, and is it important as a survival tactic to be able to laugh?

I always find humor in the show to be really funny. The laugh moments in the show probably wouldn’t be as funny in another show, but within this situation they land a lot better. It is such as a serious environment. Steven comes from a comedy background as well, and the writers recognize that. They give him those beats because he is able to do it from a real point of view. That’s all I’ve ever tried to do. As long as it comes from a place of realism for me, I’ll do it all the time. The humor with Eugene is in the behaviors. It is character-based, and it is simple for me to be humorous with behaviors instead of trying to be funny. 

What are some odd fan interactions you’ve had since portraying Eugene?

I love the fans, and I was a fan before I came on, so it’s exciting to interact with them and see their fervor for the show. But there are a few people with tattoos I’ve met. One woman in Texas named Catherine got a line of dialogue I spoke from last season tattooed on her arm. It was, “Trust me, I’m smarter than you.” Body ink, man. It’s not weird, like restraining-order weird, but you love this so much you got body ink! That is a weird moment to step back and see that. I made this joke on Twitter that my nickname was Bunny, so please only refer to me as that from now on. So, they all started drawing pictures of a bunny with a mullet. This lady Karina went and got that tattooed! It’s so crazy, fun, cool ... then you’re like, someone has permanently put a piece of you on their body.

Daryl Dixon has his angel wing jacket, which has carried over to real life on jackets, as tattoos, etc. Is the Eugene mullet carrying over?

Yeah, people have really latched onto the mullet as it is. I have met a lot of fans with mullet wigs, but I haven’t seen too many people commit to growing out the mullet. When that happens, it will be a definite paradigm shift. People love to connect with the actors, and they give amazing gifts. They go out of their way to know what my favorite bottle of Scotch is, then bring me a bottle of Scotch. That’s sweet. That’s the first level. The second level is the tattoos. For me, it’s the cartoon versions of Eugene. I’ve seen Norman’s actual face tattooed on bodies. When I reach that level, you’ll start seeing more mullets and that sort of thing. Then, you know people really care!

Well, it takes time to grow out a mullet. There’s growing taking place right now! Maybe by next San Diego Comic-Con.

If they take Niacin, it will make their hair and nails grow quicker. It makes things go a lot quicker. People are slacking, Aaron! The mullets aren’t long enough yet! We need a full army of Eugene mullets.

You’re a hot-air balloon pilot, so how is a balloon as an escape mechanism for the zombie apocalypse? How much prep time do you need as a horde approaches, how far can you go, etc?

Oh man, it would not be my first choice of an escape route; it would be one of my last. To inflate balloon, and let’s say it’s already out of the trailer and you don’t have to set it up, it takes about 15-20 minutes. If a horde is coming for you, you’re screwed. Once it is up in the air, it depends on the wind to determine how far you can go. If you have a couple tanks of propane, you can be up there for a few hours. But the wind is going to push you in different directions. You also don’t know which way the wind is blowing, so it might blow you back where you came from, towards the herd -- or towards a firefight or war zone you just escaped from. 

How many people could you fit in there?

It depends on weight and the size of the basket. The colder it is, the more people you can fit because the heat from the burners makes the balloon rise, and the release of the heat makes you fall. So, if it’s colder, you can fit more people because it won’t take as much to make it rise. If it’s warmer, the difference of the air temperature and the inside of the balloon won’t be that great, so you won’t get that much lift.

It would be cool to not attach the balloon to the basket and just have the burners there, and use it as a mega-blowtorch against the walkers, a giant flame thrower and just blast everyone. I’m going to talk to [showrunner Scott Gimple]! I’m going to pitch that! It is a new way to kill zombies. Thank you, Aaron!

Maybe the last shot of the entire series is Eugene floating off in the sunset, the lone survivor in his hot air balloon -- off to new lands, maybe off to Oz. Pitch that to Gimple!

I would love that, man. I just hope I live through this season first. If I live through this season, I’ll definitely pitch that for the final scene of the series!

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