theMusic.com.au: EXCLUSIVE: Backstage At Australia’s First-ever ‘Walking Dead’ Convention

Published in The Music on theMusic.com.au, Feb 2018

day one

A horde of cosplayers lingered around the gates of Alexandria (once known as The Dome), anxiously awaiting the doors to open for Australia’s first ever Walking Dead convention, Walker Stalker.

Fans had flown and driven from all around the country, including myself, and with a gripping mid-season finale airing only weeks earlier, the event couldn’t have come at a better time.

As is the chaotic film and TV industry, big-name acts Norman Reedus and Jeffrey Dean Morgan were forced to withdraw last-minute, but with a new season of Ride in the works and a little baby Negan on the way, dedicated fans were understanding.

The recent season eight cliffhanger involved Carl Grimes revealing he’d been bitten by a walker, so Chandler Riggs was a fitting headline act in Sydney.

As an avid fan myself, receiving a phone call from Walker Stalker asking if I’d be interested in moderating panels across the weekend was met with overwhelming excitement and waves of horror – meeting some of your favourite actors is one thing; doing it on stage with more than 1000 people watching is a completely different thing.

As I enter the green room, I’m greeted by an affable Nick Floyd backstage, the nicest guy ever and a touring Walker Stalker crewmember. He usually moderates, among a million other things, but is still recovering from the convention’s annual cruise. One of his first pieces of advice was to talk about things outside of the show as the fans will have plenty of questions about it. Well, there goes all my prep.

But the cast of The Walking Dead are prolific, and with skating, one-man shows, music and more on the menu, rejigging the line of questioning is an easy task.

My first glimpse at the inclusive and welcoming nature of TWD family comes from Khary Payton, aka King Ezekiel, who’s just as friendly on the screen as off it.

The green room is quiet and we strike up a conversation that leads to a game of table tennis.

We talk the convention and how the show differs from his extensive voice acting work as Cyborg and more across games, film and TV.

He’s a legend, but it wasn’t until he scored the larger-than-life role on the AMC hit that things really took off. We didn’t keep score, but with Shiva out of the picture (too soon, I know), I won’t hesitate in saying it was a close game.

Warmed up and slightly out of breath, I was more than ready for the first panel of the day.


the heart of the walking dead

If you were scanning through the line-up trying to pick the ideal opening panel, you’d struggle to pick someone as perfect as the show’s executive producer, director and special effects creator Greg Nicotero. The icon helped shape the industry as we know it today and gave us some of the show’s most gory highlights.

My first ever gig as a moderator and I was sitting on stage with Greg Nicotero.

He’s so casual and down to earth, it’s hard to imagine he’s worked on more 800 films and is now a driving force behind one of television’s biggest shows and its spin-off, Fear The Walking Dead.

It’s like chatting with an old friend and everyone in attendance is made to feel welcome as he fires through fan questions and recalls hilarious anecdotes on his work with Spielberg and secrets from behind the scenes of TDW. We reach the panel’s end and although we’re running slightly over time (and he has a busy signing and photo schedule throughout the day), he takes the time to answer one last fan question.


alexandrians

There was an early indication that the Alexandrians panel was going to be full of inside jokes as Ross Marquand (Aaron), Alanna Masterson (Tara) and Tyler James Williams (Noah) congregated backstage and chatted like best pals.

“You guys are just too good friends,” I said as they took their places on stage. “There’s three of us,” Masterson responded with a dry wit. Well played.

Despite the crowd’s best efforts, we were unable to pry a Daryl Dixon impression from Marquand, who is amazing at such, but we are treated to a Russell Crowe impression among others before Masterson talks about her childhood soap opera career and Williams recalls the time a fan bit him.

A curious character with a hat covering his face approaches the mic during the fan Q&A section and it quickly becomes apparent that it’s a former Alexandrian and the man behind one of the show’s most polarizing characters, Michael Traynor.

He’s quick to throw his character, Nicholas, praise while the three on stage dish out a series of snarky and fun remarks. He then disappears into the crowd after a whirlwind of confusing and charming humour. Traynor had literally just landed after being invited last minute in the wake of Pollyanna McIntosh cancelling due to filming commitments.


sitting in a tree

The Walking Dead cast are a talented bunch, with a few also dabbling in musical endeavours. After carefully tuning her ukulele backstage for a pre-panel performance, Katelyn Nacon, aka Enid, arrived on stage to a rockstar reception.

As soon as her voice began to bounce around the Dome, it was evident she had some serious talent and it wouldn’t be surprising if she’s one day just as well known for that side of her skillset.

Her mini-set included a captivating rendition of Radiohead’s Creep and new song among others. Here’s to hoping we see a follow-up to her 2015 EP, Live In May, soon.

The room was packed by the time her performance had ended and there was an epic roar as Riggs emerged from behind the curtain. With Rick Jr set to make his exit from the show when the show returns later this month, Riggs had already cut his hair and looked completely different.

He breathed a sigh of relief when quizzed about not having to wear the Carl Grimes eye-patch anymore, admitting it made filming hard at times and he’d often drop things and miss the mark with impaired depth perception.

So, given Riggs is now looking to further explore his career in EDM, is there a chance we might see a collaboration between him and Nacon? They’re quick to shut the idea down, given their different styles, but fans remain hopeful they’ll see some form of Carl and Enid reunion down the line.

In scouring the internet prior to the event, I discovered that Nacon had starred in Adult Swim viral video Too Many Cooksback in 2014, so I was sure to include a question about such a bizarre addition to her IMDB; a credit she’s wildly proud of and received a mighty cheer for as well as a follow-up fan question.

Before the panel is through, we get a breakdown of what else is in store for Riggs post-TWD and discover his favourite shows are currently Mr Robot and The Flash.

After we wrap Sitting In A Tree, fans are gifted a video message from one and only Jeffrey Dean Morgan, explaining his absence and apologising. It was surreal standing next to Carl and Enid while watching Negan pour his heart out.


trouble makers

The video message was a fitting bridge between the show’s good and bad guys. Behind the stage, Steven Ogg chowed down on BBQ Shapes and enlisted the help of Austin Amelio for pre-game stretches. I doubt we’ll see such comradery when and if their onscreen personas, Simon and Dwight, face off.

I invite Traynor on stage before the next panel, and quiz him about the last minute arrangements and his willingness to wear a wig and take on a European accent in place of McIntosh. He’s all in.

The two other aforementioned troublemakers burst onto the stage in a blaze of glory and begin what has to be described as one of the most sincere, awkward and hilarious man-hugs of all time.

The chaos continues, and a question about Amelio’s skating career sees Ogg embark on a long-winded anecdote poking fun of the way he acts on the streets with his deck, to the point where he jumps off the stage and begins miming. “I’m sorry, do you have any questions over there?” Ogg asks me.

A lot of fans aren’t too fond of the character of Nicholas – one of his only saving graces being he inadvertently saved Glenn in season six – but after his Walker Stalker appearance, everyone was a die-hard fan of Michael Traynor.

Before we know it, 45 minutes is up and as we leave the stage I finally get the chance to talk to Ogg about his appearance as a seedy locksmith in Broad City, to which he laughs.


day two

While there weren’t as many guests scheduled for panels on day two, the talent that was set to appear on the stage was some of the show’s most beloved; and not just because most of them had met gory deaths in past seasons (partly in thanks to Nicotero).

The green room was buzzing as day two kicked off, with guests getting to meet snakes, lizards and more.

I was making some final notes for the day’s first panel when IronE Singleton, aka T-Dog, approaches me and starts chatting. He was one of the most upbeat people I had come across all weekend. Wearing an Akubra, he talked about the shortage of Tim Tams the previous day and his plans to stash some for later.

He had also just met some local reptiles, but there surprisingly wasn’t any drop bears there. One of the Walker Stalker crew brings up an image search and his reaction is one of pure horror, that is until we finally tell him they’re not actually real.


the king & jesus

After a larger than life introduction the previous day, I knew this panel was going to be a highlight of the convention, and from the moment Khary Payton and Tom Payne ran on stage there was no stopping them.

Payton was wearing ridiculous novelty sunglasses with a small crown attached and immediately schooled the fans on the anatomically incorrect Shiva that sat on stage. For starters, female tigers don’t have balls.

We’re all still hurting from the loss of the Kings’ faithful companion – including Payton’s father – but a surprise onstage visit from a koala (Shiva 2.0?) lightened the mood and made for some adorable photo ops.

The King and Jesus are the show’s moral compasses in a lot of ways, and thus the fan questions directed at both rendered interesting results; including one about who would win in a fight, of which it was widely agreed upon that Jesus would surface victorious in such a circumstance, given there’s no tiger on the scene. Another fan question that had the crowd wooing was whether or not Carol and King Ezekiel would ever get together. As Payton pointed out, if the fans want something to happen in The Walking Dead and the showrunners find out about it, they’ll play with emotions as long as they can. Ultimately, he didn’t think we’d see such a plot point emerge.

Pic by Walker Stalker


abraham: michael cudlitz

Abraham may have suffered a brutal fate at the hands of Negan, but the man behind the catchphrase king is alive and well, and the crowd went absolutely insane when Michael Cudlitz strolled on stage. It was the only panel of the weekend where a guest was left to their own devices on stage (“That’s the way I like it,” Cudlitz told me prior), but given how adored he is and the long lines of fans who had questions, there was no need for a moderator. In person, he looks quite different to the redheaded warrior he portrays on-screen.

He didn’t hold back when it came to his answers – whom would he kill off if he had the choice? “Baby Judith,” he joked, pretending to throw a baby in the air. There was also a decent mix of questions about his other works, Band Of Brothers, Southland, and more. And, of course, he bestowed some iconic Abraham catchphrases on the crowd, including crowd favourite “Bitch Nuts”.


og crew

We haven’t seen Hershel Greene or T-Dog for a few seasons and that’s perhaps why so many fans were keen to cram into the OG Crew panel. Both IronE Singleton and Scott Wilson left the show in brutal way, but given they’re still able to travel the world with their former co-stars, it’s not surprising they were both smiling ear-to-ear.

There’s a bit of time to kill backstage before I jump up for my final moderating gig of the day and in chatting with Wilson’s wife, Heavenly, I discover she’s spent a lot of time living in Perth, where I’m from. Singleton tunes in when I tell the story of how I ended up moderating panels at a Walking Dead convention on the other side of the country. I’m getting married in June and my best man, Jacko, as a ridiculous wedding gift, decided to fly my fiancée, Sarah, and I across the country to attend. It was because of that I got offered the role and got to spend the weekend hanging out with the crew from one of my favourite shows.

Singleton’s larger than life personality is immediately on display when the pair hit the stage, and is nicely balanced out by Wilson’s more calm and collected nature. Their panel is funny, inspirational and sees Singleton open up about his troubled childhood, offering hope and words of wisdom to those in the audience who might also be struggling, while Wilson, who is now 75, talked about what it’s like to be thrown into TWD fandom so far into his career. He’s done countless other projects across his career, but now he’s known as Hershel.

Singleton pointed Heavenly out in the crowd and then jumped off the stage for impromptu musical number; he laid down the beat and she rapped over the top.

Singleton would remember fans names as they approached the mic and had a witty answer for everything, even, “How did it feel to get beat up by Merle?” That attention to details and memory caught me by surprise at the panel’s end. “Is there anything else you’d like to add before we wrap things up?” I asked. Singleton stood up, put his arm around me and asked Sarah and Jacko to stand up, before telling the audience the story I had told him backstage and wishing us the best of luck. He is the nicest guy ever, and made my final panel one to remember.


Walker Stalker hits Exhibition Pavilion at Melbourne Showgrounds this weekend. Head to the event’s website for all the details.

http://themusic.com.au/news/all/2018/02/07/backstage-at-walker-stalker-sydney/

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