'The Walking Dead' star didn't know about the big twist to his character until about 5 minutes before filming his first scene
Warning: There are major spoilers ahead for "The Walking Dead" season 10, episode eight, "The World Before." Juan Javier Cardenas tells Insider he didn't know about the big twist to his character, Dante, until five minutes before his first day on set. He auditioned for the show using scenes that were based on the comic version of the character from issues No. 131 and No. 160 that referenced the character's feelings for Maggie. "Dante is a character that we've been wanting to introduce at various times over the past few years, but it's never been quite the right time where it felt like we had enough of a story," showrunner Angela Kang told Insider. Kang and "TWD" crew came up with the idea to have Dante become a Whisperer at the start of 2019. Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
Juan Javier Cardenas was moments away from filming his first scenes for "The Walking Dead" when executive producer and director Greg Nicotero pulled him aside. "He kind of patted me on the shoulder and he goes, 'Let me ask you something. Has anybody contacted you about what your character is about this season?' And I go, 'Uh, no," Cardenas told Insider. "'Yeah, why don't you take a five minute walk with me?'" Cardenas recalled Nicotero telling him. Cardenas was cast on the show earlier this year as Dante, a popular character from the Robert Kirkman comic of the same name. In the comics, Dante's charming (and a bit cocky), but a loyal member of the Hilltop and an eventual love interest of Maggie (Lauren Cohan), who will return to AMC's "TWD" as a series regular on season 11. He's a pretty straight-laced, by the books character. Now, on his first day on set for "TWD" season 10 premiere, Cardenas was ready to go. He went through makeup and was mic'ed up, but episode director Nicotero was putting the entire set on pause to speak with him about his character. "So we walked off the set and he goes, 'OK. So here's the thing. You're a mole,'" Cardenas said of how he learned of the major twist to his character that was recently revealed on the season's seventh episode. "You're working for the Whisperers at a year or two," Cardenas said Nicotero told him. "So dissension and suspicion in Alexandria and corruption from the inside. [Showrunner] Angela [Kang]'s going to come later and tell you a little bit more. So, OK. Five minutes. Here we go. Roll." A twist not even Cardenas saw coming. He auditioned using scenes inspired by comic-book material for Dante's character under the name Angelo.
While auditioning, Cardenas' first impression of the character was that he may be playing a version of Dante similar to the one seen in the comics. "The material that I was given to audition with actually reflected a significant scene in the comic books that Dante was a part of," said Cardenas of his audition material. "There is a scene in one of the comics where Dante is taking a sip of some homemade moonshine at Hilltop, and he's kind of sharing with these two younger guys," he said. "The Maggie character walks by and his character in the comics kind of starts referring to her and you see that kind of the blossoming attraction between him and Maggie, and he kind of expresses that a bit." The scene Cardenas is referring to is Dante's comic introduction in issue No. 131. There, he tries a batch of some alcohol a few Hilltop members concocted ahead of Ezekiel's fair. Maggie pulls him aside to send him off to look for a missing person.
Cardenas wasn't acting out any of these scenes as Dante though. He described the audition process as under a "cloak of secrecy" where his character wasn't even referred to as Dante in writing. "There was a different name listed on the script, different characters in the script," said Cardenas of his "TWD" audition script. "Oh man. I think it was Angelo." A fake name isn't unusual to use while casting on "TWD." When casting was underway for Negan, Jeffrey Dean Morgan's character was referred to as Orin. Cardenas read more than one Dante comic scene as Angelo. He also recalled a scene that sounds very similar to one shared between Dante and Maggie from issue No. 160 where Dante professes his love to the character at night. "Further down in the comics, Dante has a great monologue where he's trying to express to Maggie, kind of the reason why is expressing himself to her and wanting to be with her," said Cardenas of other audition material he received.
"He kind of talks about how in the pre-apocalypse that he was never one to really kind of take stock in the days and kind of put things off. But now that they live in a place where immediacy and action are really necessary, because tomorrow's not guaranteed, he wants to make the most of the time that he has left," said Cardenas. "That actually was in the original audition materials. There was a section where the character, Angelo, was kind of expressing that to his friend and referencing a female character that wasn't named in the script." Cardenas said it was cool to be able to play out two different versions of the character, even if fans only ever get to see the TV version of Dante on screen. "In a way what I auditioned for actually did not end up being part of the world of the character that I portrayed in the series of "The Walking Dead," he said. "But I was actually given a chance to kind of inhabit a bit of the character from the comic during the audition process." How "The Walking Dead" came up with such a big twist from the comics: A huge gamble. Of course, that's not the version of Dante fans saw on screen. Instead, Alpha planted Dante into the Alexandria community after beheading 10 characters at the end of season nine. On Sunday's mid-season finale we learned Dante's job was to infiltrate the community, blend in, and then create a sense of paranoia among the group. Fans learned Dante, not community members, was responsible for painting the words, "Stop the Whispers," throughout Alexandria. He also had a hand in tampering with the water supply to make people sick. When Siddiq figured out his real identity, Dante had no choice but to kill him.
Showrunner Angela Kang told Insider the "Walking Dead" crew started working on the half season's twist at the very beginning of 2019. It was very much inspired by the Cold War theme Kang told us about at the season's start. "I came into this season feeling like, OK, what I want with the Whisperer War is let's play into a Cold War," said Kang. "And then we were like, 'Well, what are ways that we can play into those types of stories? What marks that kind of a war?' And we were like, 'Well, espionage has to be part of it,' right?"The next problem was figuring out who could be a spy, which wasn't easy. "Our people are so smart. How do the Whisperers plant somebody? Our audience is so smart. How are we going to not have everybody just ahead of this?" Kang said of the obstacles they faced when trying to figure out how to balance making it believable while surprising viewers. Kang and the crew started asking themselves about the types of people who are normally trusted, ones you would never assume could possibly be a Whisperer. "We're like well, you know, the Whisperers seem so grungy and culty and weird, but what if the guy was a doctor?" said Kang of who they could make a Whisperer. "We tend to want to trust people in high positions, even though there's sociopaths who are CEOs and really accomplished people."
"Dante is a character that we've been wanting to introduce at various times over the past few years, but it's never been quite the right time where it felt like we had enough of a story," said Kang of deciding to make Dante the character who would become the Whisperer spy. That may help explain why there were already comic scenes written out for the character for the audition process. But then Chandler Riggs and Andrew Lincoln left the show during season eight and on the first half of season nine. Though she'll return next season, Lauren Cohan, Dante's potential love interest, also left the series in the middle of season nine. Kang said the crew saw an opportunity to remix the character. "Maybe if we merge these two characters and you play those aspects of Dante from the comic, which are both charming and roguish and funny. If you look at it, he could also be kind of inappropriate and boundary-pushing," said Kang. In order to preserve the twist, Kang said they were careful about how many details and clues they dropped about Dante's real identity. It was also important to play scenes from Siddiq's point of view. "It's just doing something unexpected with this character who is actually a really fun character to read in the comic book, and playing with those twists of what if there's something darker that's underneath those little bits of personality that are slipping through," Kang added of how they built on Dante's existing personality to create his Whisperer persona. "Maybe I push what I'm saying a little too far. It was all a gamble from our part, and we hope that the audience likes the twist." What Cardenas thought when he learned of the twist to his character and how he transitioned into his mole role so quickly.
After Nicotero told Cardenas about the change to his character, he only had a few minutes to gather his thoughts before the cameras started rolling for his first scene. "What I had to do within a very short amount of time is kind of reevaluate and reanalyze the material that I was given under this new context of what the character's true motives were or what is his ulterior motives were," said Cardenas. "That affects everything that you're saying and everything that you're presenting in a scene. These kinds of characters sometimes can be some of the hardest characters to interpret." "There's different layers to how we're acting and talking and interacting with other people because we have a secret. We're trying not to let the other person know," he continued. "But whatever we're saying out loud, you're trying to convince the audience. You're trying to make the audience wonder, what I'm speaking, is it something that I actually believe? Is this a lie? Do I really care for this person? What's the motivation for me saying it? Is this all a ruse? Is this part of the charade?" Though some comic fans may be sad they won't see a comic version of the character on screen, Cardenas wasn't frustrated or upset by the change to Dante. "I was kind of made aware to kind of expect the unexpected with 'The Walking Dead' and to never to not walk into this gig thinking that things are going to be clear cut and laid out in front of you and to expect that there's going to be twists and turns along the way as far as how they're interpreting the material," said Cardenas when asked if he was originally under the impression he would be playing a version of Dante similar to one in the comics.
Instead, he was excited by the idea of Dante having a huge impact throughout the first-half of the season. "I understand that there can be people that are really attached to the kind of representations of certain characters in the source material, in the comic literature, and might not understand or see where the show's coming from when sort of things are changed or certain additions are made for the character," said Cardenas. "But, as a performer, I love it... I love the improvisational aspect of acting." "It keeps you on your toes. It keeps you a little bit honest and more kind of grounded," he added. "So when things change underneath you or there are certain new developments, you're experiencing that kind of newness the same way as an audience member experiences that newness... So, it's actually really exciting. It's not a frustrating thing. It's a liberating thing... I never had an issue with that. I always enjoyed it about the process." You can follow along with our "Walking Dead" coverage here.
Read more: 'The Walking Dead' showrunner says the mid-season finale is not Michonne's last episode 'The Walking Dead' showrunner teases the Whisperer War will 'come to a head' when the show returns 21 questions we have after 'The Walking Dead' mid-season finale 'The Walking Dead' showrunner explains why Father Gabriel made a big decision on Sunday's mid-season finale Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: How to find water when you're stuck in the desert
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