Matthew August Jeffers reacts to Nat's “The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live” fate

"I immediately went to YouTube to search 'How to die on screen.' It's literally in my YouTube history."

Warning: This article contains spoilers about The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live episode 2, “Gone.”

It’s been a big week for Matthew August Jeffers. His new Broadway play, Enemy of the People (with Jeremy Strong and Michael Imperioli), just began performances on Feb. 27. And then, on Sunday night, he made his big debut as Nat on episode 2 of AMC’s The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live. Unfortunately, it appears as though Jeffers’ zombie apocalypse debut will also be his finale.

Nat burst onto screen as a community member sick of leaving others behind. So when Danai Gurira’s Michonne showed up after saving two of those community members who had been discarded, Nat decided to join the katana-wielding warrior on the mission to find her husband. The two became close — especially after they had to spend a year recovering from a CRM gas bombing — and he even seemed to convince her that going back home to her children did not mean abandoning her husband: “You can know when to go. You can do both. It’s not giving up.”

And then, fate struck. Spotting a CRM helicopter, Nat shot it down with one of his rockets. When Michonne discovered Rick was aboard and survived the crash landing, she had her reunion at last. But there were casualties, as Nat was shot and killed by one of the CRM soldiers.

It was an all-too-quick ending for an electric character with a deep backstory. We spoke to Jeffers to get the scoop about his wild one-episode ride upon The Walking Dead rollercoaster and how he felt about Nat’s untimely death.

<p>Gene Page/AMC</p> Matthew August Jeffers on 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

Gene Page/AMC

Matthew August Jeffers on 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What kind of insight or background info did Scott Gimple, Danai Gurira, and Andrew Lincoln give you about Nat when you signed on?

MATTHEW AUGUST JEFFERS: I had done a bunch of backstory on my end of kind of flushing out who this character is just from what I gleaned on the page. I have a whole diary of Nat's journals from when he was five years old and 10 years old and 20 years old, and where he was in the world when the world fell apart. And then a few weeks later, once I got into the room with Scott, it was actually beautiful how closely they were aligned.

Working with Scott and Andy and Danai was just so lovely because I felt that I had the freedom and the voice to be like, “No, I think this is where he went to school,” or “This is when he lost his mom.” And as an actor to feel that kind of creative freedom, it's really valuable to have that and be able to feel like you can really collaborate to paint this canvas together.

What was it like working so closely with Danai — and this time on screen as opposed to on stage?

I'm going to tether this with Enemy of the People because I think that there's a lot of similarity that I'm just noticing with Danai and Jeremy Strong. These actors, they've reached the heights that they've reached because they are serious about the work. They approach the work with a level of dedication and scholarship and I want to be in those rooms with those people.

I'll give you one little story that I hold dear to my heart. There's a scene that we did in Richard III every night where we would both cross each other under the audience every night. And it just naturally happened that every night we would cross, we would give each other a fist bump. And it just became this unspoken ritual that that Danai and I did in that moment of like, “We're in this together, we're telling this story.”

And then crossover to The Walking Dead, and by the second day of shooting, we had developed this ritual where right before we did a take, we would give each other an intense high five three times in a row. And that became a ritual. So when you have actors that take the work seriously, that are dedicated to the work, that are open to playing and exploring, you just kind of fall into each other's orbits of how you work.

<p>Gene Page/AMC</p> Danai Gurira and Matthew August Jeffers on 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

Gene Page/AMC

Danai Gurira and Matthew August Jeffers on 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

Did you know Nat’s fate when you took the job?

I wasn't certain. I think my agent said there's a possibility that he would continue, but as it got closer, it was looking more like a one-episode guest star. I was like, “Okay, great!” But I didn't get the script until after I had signed on.

So once you got the script, were you immediately going to the end to see if you made it out alive?

No, I get really overwhelmed when I sign on for new projects, so it takes me a little time just to open page one. There's a lot of doubt and a lot of self-conscious things that creep up on me when I take on new roles. But once I finally flipped the page and I read through and I was like, “Oh my God, this character! This beautiful, beautiful man!”

There's a scene toward the end at the campfire where Nat says, “I can come with you. We'll do it.” I was like, “Oh my God, we're going to make a whole life together and it's going to be a happy ending!” And, of course, because I'm so optimistic, that did not happen. Six pages later I read it, and I was like, “Oh, okay.” I immediately went to YouTube to search “How to die on screen.” It's literally in my YouTube history. I was like: I've never done this, so this will be interesting.

What did you think about the way Nat went down?

Painful, but I think it's poetic. I think the whole symbolism of Nat keeping Michonne’s fire going and having that lighter carry on is poetic and stunning and deeply upsetting in a beautiful way. And yeah, I think that it was really well-written that Nat was kind of underneath the initial meeting of Michonne and Rick, that Nat helped Michonne get to this point. And when he knew that that point had arrived, he realized that he had done his mission.

And I think it goes back to the core of who Nat is, which is loyalty and making sure that the ones that you love, whether you've known them for two days or 20 years, get their dreams fulfilled. And it’s because his dad helped him fulfill his dreams when he was young. So when Nat sees Michonne in unison with Rick, it's like, okay, I can walk off into the sunset in this kind of beautiful, tragic ending.

<p>Gene Page/AMC</p> Matthew August Jeffers and Danai Gurira on 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

Gene Page/AMC

Matthew August Jeffers and Danai Gurira on 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

I love that you were YouTubing how to die on camera. So tell me about actually doing it and filming your big death scene.

I shot this episode in the middle of splitting up with my ex-fiance of eight years, and I'm going to get emotional, but there was a beautiful, sad death occurring in my life. And when it's that relevant and when it's that real in your life as an actor, it's all about finding the breadcrumbs in your real life to take into the role. And so for me, it was kind of this quasi-blessing that I was able to have this happening at that time so that I could feel what it was like for having something that I love deeply being laid to rest.

And so it wasn't necessarily so much about, how do I physically die? It was like: How do I lay this beautiful thing to rest in a way that honors what that thing was and what that thing meant? And I did what I thought was the best that I could. And it was a beautiful day because we were out in this wooded park, and it was light snowfall. I think the only thing that I was worried about was the snowflakes were falling in my eyes. I was like, “Don't blink. Don't blink.”

Are you little bummed you didn’t get to play a zombie version of Nat? Or are you happy you didn't have to sit in makeup for five hours to do that?

Yeah, no, I'm good. I did a commercial in 2015 for this app video game, and it was all prosthetics. And I sat in that chair for four or five hours and I was like, “I'd be so thrilled to never do that again.” So I'm good seeing all the other zombies.

<p>Gene Page/AMC</p> Matthew August Jeffers on 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

Gene Page/AMC

Matthew August Jeffers on 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

What was your favorite scene to shoot?

I'll give you two quick things. The first quick thing is that since 2014, since I moved to the city, I have this very oddball warmup routine where I play air basketball and I'll do layups and do free throws. I grew up playing basketball, and that's kind of my way of bringing the competitive drive when I get ready to perform. And we shot at the Izod Center, which was the home of the New Jersey Nets for years. And so suddenly I find myself in the center of this basketball arena doing my basketball warmup to shoot The Walking Dead.

And then the other anecdote is we shot that night scene around the campfire right along the bank of a river, and the distance was an unobstructed view of the New York skyline. And it was kind of a moment of being like: I moved here 10 years ago to do this, and I looked around and at all these really, really hardworking, talented artists telling this story. So there were a number of moments like that over the course of this shoot that I had that felt deeply rewarding to be a part of. And I'm so thrilled and honored to be a part of it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live airs 9 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.

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