The Walking Dead’s Big Gay Love Story: Ross Marquand on Aaron’s Coming Out Party

The actor who plays Aaron on AMC’s zombie drama talks about what to expect inside Alexandria and the story behind Aaron and Eric, the show’s first gay men.

Ross Marquand’s introduction as Aaron on last Sunday’s The Walking Dead was met with equal parts fanfare and confusion. The stranger showed up out of nowhere after a monster storm, asked for Rick by name and promised “good news.” In Sunday’s episode, “The Distance,” we learned a little more about the mysterious newcomer: He’s a do-gooder ex-NGO worker who delivered food and medicine to the Niger River Delta before the apocalypse. He currently resides in a place called Alexandria, a heavily fortified “community”—and he wants Rick and the group to “audition” for membership.

But considering that every clean-cut rando promising sanctuary so far has turned out to be either a psychopath or a cannibal, Rick, understandably, is not down with the idea. It takes an executive decision from Michonne to overrule the Ricktatorship before the group can set out to find Aaron’s home. Rick insists on using a walker-infested highway instead of the safe route Aaron keeps talking about—an idea so horrendously bad that it nearly costs Glenn his life and splinters the group in half. Happily, they all reunite near an abandoned building and that’s where we meet Eric, Aaron’s boyfriend and fellow Alexandria recruiter.

Aaron seems fiercely protective of Eric, who easily makes him laugh, and the two share a passionate kiss, relieved at finding each other alive. Later, as the group pulls up outside Alexandria’s walls, they hear something that instantly sets it apart from either Terminus or Woodbury: the sound of children playing. Life inside is thriving, just as Aaron promised, and that’s a very good sign.

The Daily Beast caught up with Marquand to talk about what to expect inside of Alexandria, Aaron’s true intentions, the backstory to Aaron and Eric’s love, and the conflicts that lay ahead for the group.

Aaron is the first gay man featured on the show and we watched him and Eric together for the first time on Sunday in an intimate reunion scene. What did it mean to you to take on that scene?

It’s been a great deal of responsibility to do it justice with respect not only to our gay fan base, but to the viewers in general. My boyfriend, who’s played by Jordan Woods-Robinson, and I met as often as we could before we shot that scene and tried our best to get to know each other on a personal level. It was one of the most beautiful scenes that I’ve had the pleasure of shooting because it dialed into what I think the theme of the show is. This is not a show about zombies; I think it’s a show about relationships and the real human connection that we have to one another. When you lose someone, or you feel that you have lost someone, it doesn’t matter what the situation is, you mourn them and you miss them and you want them back and you will do anything in your power to protect the ones you love. I hope that that’s the focus of our characters, that it’s not hung up so much on our sexual orientation.

What did you guys do to bond before shooting the scene?

We sat out on the balcony of the hotel we were staying at. We didn’t get a whole lot of time—he was just coming in from Orlando that day, the night before we shot. So he got in around 8 o’clock and we stayed up for quite a few hours, just getting to know each other.

Did you guys come up with a backstory for Aaron and Eric?

We really did our best to create a backstory for these two men. It’s not expressly laid out in the comics how long they’ve known each other. Did they know each other before the apocalypse began? We wanted to think they did. We thought it was a stronger choice that they had known each other before everything went to hell. It’s a really endearing love story that way, that these two men had bonded beforehand and then stuck together and protected each other throughout this really difficult time in human history. It’s not unlike any other relationship—there’s fights that occur, there’s little squabbles about how to approach a group. “Should we approach this group? What do you think of these people? Can we trust them?” There’s going to be disagreements. It was enormously helpful to discuss that with each other before we shot any of those scenes.

How did you get cast on The Walking Dead and what had you been working on before?

Before that, I was focusing primarily on voiceover work. I do a lot of voice-matching work for different actors and also animated stuff [with] different cartoon characters. I’ve been a hired gun for different animated shows and whatnot. I had just come off Phineas and Ferb, the Star Wars special where I played Han Solo.

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Phineas and Ferb is awesome.

Yeah, it was so much fun! Then right after that, it’s ironic, I had actually made the decision to move out to New York around September to pursue theater. Then I got the call in mid-August that I was gonna go in for The Walking Dead again. I went in, they described the role to me a little bit and we sat down and taped it a couple of times. I left the office and was about 15 minutes away from home when they [called and said], “Hey, can you come back? There’s something about the character that we think we kind of missed the first read.”

So I came back and that’s when [casting director] Sharon Bialy and [casting associate] Gohar Gazazyan said that there’s a bit of a humorous quality to Aaron that I wasn’t previously grasping, this sort of tongue-in-cheek quality to him. He’s a nice guy and a sweetheart, but he’s also got a bit of a smartass side that may register as a slightly dubious character trait.

And he hates applesauce.

Yeah, he is so disarming because he is so flip with people. People are not sure if they can trust him, especially coming off experiences with the Governor and Gareth, who were both very, very nice people as well. (Laughs.)

Have you read Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead comics or brushed up on Aaron’s role in them?

I have. I spoke initially to Scott Gimple about that; I wanted to make sure that I was honoring the fan base and honoring Robert Kirkman’s incredible work, especially because the fan base is so enormous—not only the people who’ve read the comics but also the people who are watching the show. There’s a great deal of expectation. I’ve been a massive fan of the show since the beginning, so I was putting a great deal of pressure on myself to make sure I was doing the character justice. So I ran out to the nearest bookstore right after I got the part, got all the compendiums I could find, and just read up as much as I could on the character. I wanted to go back to the source material as much as possible just to get a feel for what makes Aaron tick and why he does the things he does.

What does make Aaron tick?

I think at the end of the day, Aaron is, for whatever reason, just absolutely desirous of helping people out. He really wants to do right by people; he wants to be the guy who can be a bit of a savior to people who might be struggling out in the world after the apocalypse strikes. He does believe that there is a safe haven to be had and he wants to give that to the people that he believes will contribute to that community and make it safer.

“Savior” is kind of a loaded word for Walking Dead fans. People are half-thrilled that Aaron’s here because it means the group is moving to Alexandria, and half-terrified because it means a plotline involving Negan and the Saviors might be in the works.

Oh, right. (Laughs.) That’s a good point. Whatever Aaron’s true motivations are, I think he shares this mentality with Rick: You cannot survive on your own. You can try, and you can certainly do your best to carve out a life for yourself on your own. But I love the line from last week’s episode where Glenn says, “We can do it together but we can only do it together.” It’s such a telling moment.

How did the cast welcome you in?

Amazingly. [They’re] just the sweetest group of people I’ve ever met. It’s been a strange… (laughs) I’m still a bit delirious, still pinching myself about this group of people that I’ve admired for so long, not only for their work just on this show, but from other work as well. I recognize Danai [Gurira] from her work on The Visitor and, of course, Andy [Lincoln] from all the work that he’s done, Norman [Reedus] from Boondock Saints and other films. And then you get to meet them and realize that they are all some of the sweetest, most hardest-working people. I mean that genuinely. You don’t always get that. You sometimes go on a set and not everyone is getting along or there’s a kind of negative vibe—this is the furthest thing from that. As far as I can tell, everyone genuinely does get along with each other and they all love working together.

It sure seems like it. You and Danai Gurira even did a play together last week at Yale Rep. Did you know her from before The Walking Dead?

I met her on the show. We share a background in theater and we were talking one day about her play, so she was like, “I’d love to get your notes on what I wrote and see what you think.” Like, “Yeah, of course!” Afterwards, we were talking more about it and I was like, “I really love this play, I really like this character Chris.” She said, “Well, I was hoping you’d say that, I really want you to audition for it.” So it was fantastic and it all worked out great.

So the next thing everyone is excited to see is what’s inside the TV version of Alexandria. What can you tease without Scott Gimple sending a team of assassins to hunt you down?

I think the viewers, as well as Rick’s group, are going to be in for quite a surprise. It’s going to be interesting to see how they react to this small microcosm of a very particular civilization, a very specific group of people that has decided to come together at this very trying time in human history. And that’s probably all I can say. (Laughs.)