Actor Khary Payton has come a long way from his days as a theater student performing Shakespeare at Southern Methodist University. He’s still playing majestic kings, only these days he’s doing it on The Walking Dead, where his role is King Ezekiel, a benevolent ruler who keeps a tiger as a pet.
Payton, a native of Athens, Georgia, says it’s a familiar role since he spent the early ’90s playing all manner of medieval royalty at Kitchen Dog Theater and the Dallas Theater Center.
“I’m weirdly qualified for this job,” he says. “From all the voice-over work and all the Shakespeare I did and all these guys I did in Dallas and just the nature of theater to sneak to the back of the room kind of lends itself to Ezekiel’s manner of communicating.”
Since he departed Dallas, Payton has amassed an impressive IMDb page of roles in movies, TV shows and video games. In addition to his role on The Walking Dead, he’s worked as a voice actor on Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans and the Batman: Arkham games, and he’s the new voice of Rafiki in Disney’s Lion Guard series.
Payton, who will be at the Fan Expo this weekend, says he enjoys the complexity of Ezekiel’s character. Some viewers might see him as someone who totally snapped in a world overrun by zombies, but Payton says Ezekiel is smarter and saner than he appears.
“I would say he’s keeping his sanity by going a little overboard,” Payton says. “I would say he might just be the sanest person there, but he’s just not doing a good job of calling attention to his sanity. He’s kind of like keeping order to keep himself from going nuts.”
Payton spends a lot of time traveling between sets, recording sessions and attending conventions such as Fan Expo. He says he knows that on a show like The Walking Dead, his character could die or get eaten at any time. So he tries his best to make the most of his time when he’s filming and promoting the show.
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“You can’t get too complacent,” he says. “Something can come up and bite you at any minute, but I know he does have some work to do before he’s done. I just hope they’ll miss him when he’s gone and I’ll be enjoying this ride. It’s a great character study of a guy who’s playing two sides of himself.”
Fan conventions allow Payton to interact with his fans face-to-face, an opportunity he misses now that he’s moved away from theater.
“It feeds your soul because the people are really connected, of course, to The Walking Dead but also the cartoons, because it’s something they grew up with,” Payton says. “It made them laugh or helped them through difficult situations. It’s amazing the people who come up and talk about the impact it had on them growing up. There’s something pretty awesome about that connection.”
See Khary Payton at Fan Expo through Sunday, April 2. Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, 650 S. Griffin St., $10 to $129, fanexpodallas.com.