'The Walking Dead': 10 things you didn't know about Khary Payton

Victoria Leigh Miller
Khary Payton (Photo: Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Cirque du Soleil)

To celebrate the Oct. 22 Season 8 premiere of  The Walking Dead — the series’ 100th episode — Yahoo TV will be posting a new TWD-related story every day through the season opener.

He rules The Walking Dead as a self-proclaimed king named Ezekiel, a role that comes complete with a scepter and a pet tiger sidekick. But long before he portrayed the pre-apocalyptic zookeeper on AMC’s hit horror drama, Khary Payton was working hard to carve out an impressive acting résumé in theater and in animation. After digging up these 10 fun facts about Payton, we can confirm that he really gets into his roles.

1. He was born and raised in Georgia, not far from where TWD shoots.

Khary Payton was born May 16, 1972, in Augusta, Ga., and graduated from high school in Athens. After he moved to L.A. to pursue acting, he found himself back in Georgia for The Walking Dead, but he initially couldn’t tell his parents about it because his role had not been announced. “My mom can’t keep a secret to save her life,” he told the New York Post. “What’s crazy is I’m actually from Georgia [and] my folks still live in Athens. I was shooting this episode an hour and a half away from my mom and dad, and I didn’t even dare to go see them.”

2. He’s a Teen Titan.

Raven, Cyborg, Beast Boy, and Starfire (Photo: Cartoon Network)

While Payton is a familiar face on The Walking Dead, his voice is instantly recognizable to cartoon fans. Payton’s a prolific voice actor and can be heard on everything from the Batman: Arkham games to Disney’s Lion Guard series, where he provides the voice of Rafiki. With more than 140 acting credits on his résumé, Payton may be best known as the voice of Cyborg on the Teen Titans series of TV shows, movies, and video games.

3. He has a Shakespeare theater background.

Payton decided in high school that he wanted to be an actor, and he spent a lot of time as a theater student at Southern Methodist University and post-college time doing Shakespeare theater productions. “I did a lot of Shakespeare in college and in my 20s. In my 30s, I did a lot of voice-over work. Both of those aspects melded themselves perfectly for this part,” he told AJC.

4. His background as a voice actor also helped him with his TWD role in another way.

Melissa McBride as Carol and Khary Payton as Ezekiel in The Walking Dead. (Photo: AMC)

Payton’s background as a voice actor came in handy when he started shooting scenes with Ezekiel’s tiger, Shiva, who comes to life via a mix of animatronics and CGI. “I’ve done a lot of video games where there’s literally nothing standing in front of me,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “I’ve got to make it all up, so this is just another situation where my imagination gets to be used in another context.”

5. He auditioned alone for The Walking Dead.

Payton had an unusual audition for the AMC postapocalyptic drama. Instead of auditioning in front of a room full of producers or with future co-stars, he was given a long monologue to perform by himself. “It was essentially a four- or five-page monologue that they gave me, so I spent a good 72 hours pretty much by myself cloistered in a cave trying to get everything down,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “I didn’t audition in front of producers or directors or anything. It was all on tape, so it was just myself and the casting director.” While Payton wasn’t given the name of the character he was auditioning for, he admits that it wasn’t hard to figure out. “I knew that I was auditioning for The Walking Dead,” he said. “They changed the name and changed the tiger to a lion, but honestly, it doesn’t take a whole lot of detective work to figure it out.”

6. He modeled his Ezekiel character after one of his uncles.

Payton had The Walking Dead comics as a reference for his character, but he also drew inspiration from one of his relatives when he took on the role. “I modeled him on my Great-Uncle Nesbit,” the actor told USA Today. “He was a big, 350-pound security guard, but he spoke with almost a royal air. He reminded me of Ezekiel, a regular guy working a regular job but he didn’t carry himself that way.”

7. He has shaved his head to make it easier to wear Ezekiel’s majestic gray dreadlocks.

Payton told USA Today that he estimates the wig he has to wear as Ezekiel weighs five pounds. He also opted to shave his head to make it easier to wear the headpiece in the hot Atlanta summertime. “I shaved my head and that helped a lot. I had my mini Afro going, and I shaved that as soon as I got fitted,” he told Vulture. “I figured one head of hair is hot enough. You don’t need two.”

8. He played a doctor for 24 episodes on General Hospital.

In 2011, Payton turned up in Port Charles to play Dr. Terrell Jackson on ABC’s long-running soap, General Hospital. Chief of staff Steven Webber was so impressed by the mysterious pediatric doc’s quick thinking after a ski trip tragedy that he hired him. But this character was no McDreamy. Dr. Jackson’s real agenda was to seduce Robin Scorpio-Drake away from her husband, Patrick, as a favor to his ex! On the plus side, Dr. J performed a lifesaving kidney transplant on little Josslyn Jacks before checking out of General Hospital for good after a mere five months of employment.

9. He is married to an actress.

Payton has been married to actress Stacy Reed Payton since 2010, and they have two children together. Stacy has logged guest roles on a variety of TV shows, including Weeds, Private Practice, My Name Is Earl, The West Wing, and Criminal Minds.

10. He’s been able to use his TWD fame to impress his kids.

Payton gets recognized frequently, so when he took his young children to see the Harlem Globetrotters, they got to go behind the curtain and take pictures with all the team. But the actor doesn’t want his fame to go to his kids’ heads. “I took them to Disneyland, and we were standing in line for a few minutes, and my 5-year-old looks at me and says, ‘Daddy, can you just tell them that you’re King Ezekiel or something?’” he told SyFyWire. “I thought, ‘Oh man, you got to be kidding me.’ And I was like, ‘We’re waiting in this line. You’re 5 years old. You can’t start throwing out the King Ezekiel card everywhere you go.”

The Walking Dead Season 8 premieres Oct. 22 at 9 p.m. on AMC.

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