Fear the Walking Dead’s second mid-season finale airs tonight, yet you’d be hard-pressed to find a fan who has quite figured out the mystery of Victor Strand.
The character, as played by Colman Domingo, flickers constantly between darkness and light, reluctant heroism and self-serving cunning. When faced with the central question all survivors of the Walking Dead universe grapple with—kill or be killed?—Strand never hesitates. He pulls the trigger.
Which is what made last Sunday’s heart-wrenching death scene so surprising.
Strand’s business partner and lover, a man named Thomas Abigail, succumbed to a zombie bite mere screen minutes after the group finally arrived at his cushy Mexican compound. Anguished and in tears, Strand vows to ensure a “Shakespearean” ending to their doomed love story: He offers to eat a poisoned wafer and follow his lover into death.
But when the moment of truth arrives and Abigail passes away, Strand’s hardline survivalist instincts overcome his sense of poetry. He places a pillow over Abigail’s head and fires a bullet into his brain, ensuring he doesn’t rise again as a walker.
The question of Strand’s sexuality—first depicted in a flashback in this season’s fourth episode—is significant for the show’s quiet way of weaving it into his story. It’s not a “coming out,” nor is it even really treated as a storytelling “reveal,” two options that might have been tempting for another show inclusive enough to write a non-stereotypical black man into a lead role.
Rather, Strand’s gayness is treated mostly as an afterthought. As it should be: There are more pressing issues at hand for these characters, after all (like that whole apocalypse deal).
Domingo, who is also gay (and has written about his experience growing up and coming out in an acclaimed one-man play), calls the show’s handling of Strand’s sexuality “brave” and “courageous,” but more crucially, “very normal.”
“I even wondered, ‘Is that a big reveal?’” Colman says. “Because I think if we’re talking about his true nature, well, why wouldn’t someone think that he could’ve been with a man? Why not? Should something [about him] tip them off or not? Because I think in the world, there are no tip-offs. People are people. You find out more as they reveal to you.”
Domingo, who will also appear later this year alongside his “brother in arms” Nate Parker in the hotly anticipated The Birth of a Nation, talked to The Daily Beast about viewers’ surprised reactions to Strand’s sexuality, what that says about television, and what to expect from Sunday night’s midseason finale.
When we first met Strand at the end of last season, he was an enigma--a cool, charismatic, fascinating guy, but inscrutable nonetheless. These days we’ve seen a lot more of his humanity, especially through his doomed romance with Thomas Abigail. What has it been like playing through all those phases of the character?
I love that Victor Strand has had an arc so far of being quite steely and seemingly—you can’t tell whether or not he’s dark or light. I think that that’s also part of his strength and what has helped him be a survivor for so long. He had some unsavory means of taking care of himself, but he was going to move forward and do good by others as well, because he’s obligated to them.
Going from that first scene in the holding pen in Season One to where he is now, we’re deconstructing Victor Strand in many ways. Personally, I feel like there’s a parallel between Victor Strand and [the fall of] Western civilization, the commerce, all the things you hold near and dear in American society. All of it has to be dismantled because the world has changed. Victor was all about the way he looks, his polish, his wealth, and now all that has no value in the world. That’s when you get to the core, the heart of who he is.
Right, we’re peeling away at that enigma.
Even in the last episode, even before Strand gets to Abigail, I loved playing the moment when he sees the van [that takes the Angelenos to Abigail’s compound]. In that moment, there’s a shift, I think. Maybe he cared more about Thomas Abigail than he even imagined. It wasn’t love, but then in that moment, he realized it was. And moments later, it’s gone.
We had such a good director, Kate Dennis, on that episode. She and I discussed [Abigail’s death scene] so much, we really had to go off to the side to discuss some of these moments, just to be sure that we were clear about what exactly we were playing. You can dial it one way or the other, but we wanted to make sure we were playing it with all of its complexities and for it to never have easy answers, to be honest.
Considering what a survivalist Strand is, it felt almost unreal to watch him in such a tender moment, considering taking his own life at his dying lover’s bedside. That would have been unfathomable seven episodes ago.
Exactly! Exactly. And I wonder as well, Colman has questions for Strand. You know, because of my history in the theater, I always go back to the character’s first monologue, [in this case] finding out that this guy said he was a “closer,” that he would close the deal. He was an expert at it. And you wonder, was Strand closing the deal to do Thomas this service, this mercy kill? Or did he really plan on it? I watched it, but I’m not sure. (Laughs.) We wanted to make sure it was a bit ambiguous that way.
So much of what he does is ambiguous in nature. He values his own life and safety above all else, yet he takes in this family who has absolutely caused nothing but trouble for him so far. That tough, smooth exterior does seem like just a facade.
I think so, absolutely. I know the people who are probably the most sensitive, who feel very deeply, are the ones who seem the most steely, in a way. You gotta protect that heart. The idea that he’s playing host to seven others in this apocalypse, that shows already that he’s got a big heart. After a few trials and tribulations, I think he starts to bond this family with Strand in a way.
I’m not sure if I’d call the first time we learn that Strand is gay a big “reveal” necessarily, but it was significant for the way it emerged so organically. What did it mean to you to have this romantic subplot folded into Strand’s story?
I think there’s something so incredible about it. We met Victor Strand in the middle of the apocalypse, dealing with these circumstances that had nothing to do with his sexuality at all. The idea of peeling a person’s layers away and finding out more, it’s brave and it’s courageous but it’s also very normal. I even wondered, “Is that a big reveal?” Because I think if we’re talking about his true nature, well why wouldn’t someone think that he could’ve been with a man? Why not? Should something [about him] tip them off or not? Because I think in the world, there are no tip-offs. People are people. You find out more as they reveal to you.
I always love the effect a “reveal” like that has on viewers: It makes you question what you’ve been assuming as the default. Most TV characters are straight, so unless we’re told otherwise, that’s what we assume.
Exactly. And I think those are fantastic questions. It’s very powerful that the writers are making sure that we keep turning the camera onto the audience as well, looking at our own questions and conflicts and internal struggles. Hopefully that’s what we’re constantly doing and what TV is most useful at doing. We’re coming into your living rooms and we’re showing you. You have all these things built up in your head about [a character]. You may have an impression of him, and then when you find out more, you ask questions.
Going into the season finale this Sunday, a lot seems to hinge on what Strand does now that Abigail is dead and his whole purpose in coming to Mexico has evaporated. What should we expect from him?
From the beginning of the season, Victor has been the man with the plan. He’s someone who follows through with the plan. But now he’s seeing that the plan has altered. So what will this survivalist do when it is the end of the world? Will he continue to go forward or will he fall apart? He’s met with an extraordinary opportunity: All the rules that he was so attached to in surviving no longer exist. He had this plan and this whole compound, this idea that he shared with Thomas Abigail, that’s out the window with the death of Thomas Abigail. Hopefully he’ll find some light.
You’re also in The Birth of a Nation, which is out later this year and got sold for a record-setting $17.5 million out of Sundance. What was it like being a part of that ride and making the film with Nate Parker?
I was the first person that he cast. This was seven years ago, he said, “Colman, I really wanna work with you on this piece.” And he told me we’ll make something special together. And I’m so happy his vision finally came to fruition. I play a character named Hark, who is the lieutenant-in-arms in the brotherhood with Nate’s character Nat Turner. He’s a slave, but he is all set and ready for justice by any means necessary. It’s a remarkable film in every single way. It’s one of the things I’m most excited about in my entire career. I loved watching and being part of this fresh, innovative voice in film that is Nate Parker. The way he will tell a story and get people onboard with that story and sell it at an extraordinary number. I feel very blessed to be part of this vision.
I didn’t know you were the first person he cast! Watching it come to life over seven years must have been extraordinary, but also a huge test of faith.
If you sit down with Nate for five minutes, you’ll know that he’s tenacious and you believe him. He’s like a reverend in a way—you believe he will get it done. But not only did he have the faith, he had the work ethic. He’s really someone who tries to bridge communities and bring people together. I do that in my work in the theater as well—we respect each other in that way. We were already brothers in arms and now we get to do that on film. I can’t wait until October 7th.