Xander Berkeley has had a long and diverse career in Hollywood, and this trend continues with his latest role of Gregory on The Walking Dead. Berkeley was the perfect choice to bring this leader of a newly found community, The Hilltop, to life. A well-known role of the comic series, Gregory is an integral part of the next chapter for The Walking Dead, and we (being big fans of the show) are excited to welcome him to the family.
I was lucky enough to have a chance to speak with Xander, and wanted to get to know the man behind the characters he portrays. He was kind enough to chat with me about his career, his favorite music and the one thing he could never live without.
Q&A with Xander Berkeley
PC: Can you tell me about your acting background?
XB: I preferred cozzies to toys as a tot, not to perform for others particularly, but rather to wander off in the woods, ‘making believe’. Any play I ever heard was casting I would tend to read for and get cast in along the way and by high school I was taking it pretty seriously. Lucky enough to be taken in by an experimental theater company at the ripe old age of 15. Tried to get a good liberal arts education but left college after two years, with the encouragement of my father in fact, to pursue the profession in New York. I did repertory theater, summer stock, regional theater, off-Broadway plays.
I took private classes in voice, movement, dance and acting with a wide array of renowned teachers from the Moscow Arts Theater, Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, HB Studios, before being brought west by and agent and staying in LA since. The only classes I took after arriving here at 23 was to intern at the Actor’s Studio before Lee Strasberg passed away. Glad I didn’t miss out on that. I did work with a few improvisation companies in NY, which I actually credit with preparing me for the film acting career I’ve had as much as any of the teachers I worked with in terms of really listening and being in the moment as well as mining for versatile characterizations.
PC: How did you land the part as Gregory in The Walking Dead?
XB: Landed Gregory by having kicked around this dirty old town doing a halfway decent job of playing bad men with big egos. Frankly I think it has something ironically to do with a willingness early on to sacrifice my vanity and ego in the portraying of characters who are meant to be unappealing. Turns out most people become actors to be liked and admired and have people find them attractive etc. and it goes directly against the grain of those very natural tendencies to appear otherwise, convincingly. I add the last word because what actors often opt to do is distance themselves either consciously or unconsciously from behaviour that is truly unappealing. And I can’t blame or fault them, because once you do convincingly portray a despicable character people have an increasingly difficult time picturing you any other way.
I remember sitting with a dear friend of mine who was directing her first feature after having been a production designer, and she wanted to cast me as the husband, but as she said “we really have to like him”. And I said, plaintively, but darling… You Like Me! and she said “of course, I DO, but the audience has to, and they’ve all seen you be so horrible and unlikable so many times…” And it was and continues to be my belief that the minute I would have appeared in that film they would have liked me, because the character was supposed to be liked and I would have played it that way, as opposed to what I had done when serving the story differently. Oh Well.. in any event It appears to be out there in the collective unconscious that I am a prime candidate for leading a community of people in a post apocalyptic dystopian future. Whether in Allegiant which just came out or 12 Monkeys on SyFy (in which I have a recurring role) or The Walking Dead as Gregory. It’s a dirty job, but someone’s gonna have to do it (in the dystopic future).
PC: Which actor and director do you admire most?
XB: Would love to work with Daniel Day, and be given a good solid fraction of the time he gets to prepare for a role beforehand, so I can give him something worth coming up against. But he and Christian Bale are about as good as it gets for going all the way in (psychologically, emotionally) and simultaneously being able to go all the way out in terms of transformation and physical characterization. Directors… Coen Bros. Please God boys, hire me! Martin Scorsese, really? Nothing? What’s a guy gotta do? But recently I saw this guy Andrew McKay (The Long Short) talking and I liked his film and his ideas about film making SO much, so him, too!
PC: Can you tell me more about the first album or single you bought and do you remember where you bought it from?
XB: Herman’s Hermits Greatest Hits, first album purchased with allowance $ when I was 10 at Robinson’s Drug Store and Soda Fountain in Mendham NJ, oh yeah, feeling pretty grown up and almost a teenager baby! British Invasion 2.0 for children! “Windy”, by the Association, first 45rpm purchased at the same place. Had to blast that one before school and as soon as I got home as it would blow my grade school blues away! Just put me in this insanely ebullient, hopeful and dare I say, ten year old, slightly romantic, frame of mind!
PC: Which song do you just have to play at full volume?
XB: So if “Windy” was the first song that compelled me to turn up the volume, I would leap forward to high school and recall the impulse surging again with The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly”. The newness of the synth keyboard, the impeccable Townsend lead and Daltry’s voice in it’s prime, unwaveringly hitting the high notes with ‘… teenage wasteland, only teenage wasteland, they’re all wasted,’ whilst one was experiencing the euphoric joys of marijuana for the first time with your sister and your mutual friends. The third floor of our house was a kind of sanctuary in town since my parents were bohemian leaning and didn’t want us ‘experimenting’ elsewhere. So the music and the mary jane were flowing up there, where my father had built an art studio for himself and bequeathed it to us during our last years in the house before going off to college. Bless his heart. Other top volume faves I can recall Pavarotti with Eno and U2 on “Miss Sarajevo” under the band name Passenger. When Luciano blows the lid off on a good sound system if you don’t tear up, get goose bumps, or wet yourself (if you’re a woman post child birth), then you ain’t alive! Also, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Do You Love Me”, when I first discovered him on the record Let Love In.
PC: Which song or album soothes your troubled mind or heart?
XB: So funny the immediate associative link with ‘soothing a troubled mind or heart’ having just waxed nostalgic about the ‘70s, of course evokes old Art Garfunkle’s “Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water”, another pretty voice in it’s prime back then. But a bit sentimental for my tastes. Classical Music like Erik Satie, or Chopin’s Nocturnes, or Mahler’s 9th would be the soul nourishers and balm for hurt minds in my books.
PC: Three pieces of music you adore or three styles of music you are drawn to?
XB: The first two records by The Band, Music From Big Pink, and the eponymously titled The Band which followed it, which came out of the perfect storm of having toured with Bob Dylan as his back up band in America and the UK when he was being booed out of every arena for having ‘plugged in’ and gone electric, and then after his motorcycle accident when he used his convalescence to get off the ‘success treadmill’. When they were all living in Woodstock and Big Pink was the clubhouse where they could play music and hang out and try new things and old things and see what stuck. The exploration of their shared interest in Americana and history in combination with the genres of folk and blues and soul and old school rock and roll, allowed them to become mystic time travelers and chanelers of everything I was into at the time. While all of the rest of music, great as it was in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was so ‘of its time’ and hence, temporal, The Band tapped into something almost primordial in those combinations of storytelling and genre bending. It was like watching or feeling a movie inside your head with every song. And the songs like great poems could and still do bear up under endless repeated investigations. So I am eternally grateful to that particular scene that went on up there, and you can’t take Dylan’s influence out of that mix, there are a slew of his records I could reel off from around that period which hold up in much the same way for me. Desire being the last of them which came out after The Band had broken up and gave me great solace at the time, to know that the great storytelling tradition in songwriting was continuing.
I was introduced to David Bowie by an girlfriend at College around about that time and it made for a radical shift out of the country pastoral Americana into the city and it’s glamorous decadent scene. Starting with Hunky Dory and into Ziggy Stardust and Spiders from Mars, and again with the combined influences of artists working together and rubbing off on each other I include Lou Reed’s Transformer, which Bowie produced as a part of that trio of brilliance.
Years later, after shooting Sid and Nancy, Alex Cox rounded up the musicians who had contributed to the score of Sid and Nancy to be in a Spaghetti Western on the old Sergio Leone sets still standing in Almeria, Spain. And there I was acting with (and providing insights into the craft for) these musicians who at the time constituted my contemporary musical heroes. Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello and The Pogues. Well, not because of my having become friends with all of them, because I was obsessed with their music before I met them, but to this day I put some of their best recordings up there with anyone else’s. The Pogues, again with the timelessness and deeply poetic sense of storytelling and, like The Band, heart-wrenching white soulfulness.
But having said the word ‘white’, I will list a few I grew up listening to my father play that all of the above were influenced by the likes of Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and on and on with all the gut wrenching black soulfulness out there.
PC: My guilty music pleasure would be a bit of ‘80s soft rock or ‘70sDisco, what would yours be?
XB: My guilty pleasures… hmmm, I’m a little too cool for school to let myself indulge in anything too corny (something I consider a flaw about myself by the way), but I counteract this with my children by singing show tunes in a basso profundo or belting rich baritone. Songs like “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” from Oklahoma and “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady, etc. So I guess that’s my guilty pleasure, and little sly reminder to the girls to celebrate being weird and silly forever!
PC: Which movie soundtrack do you never get tired of listening to?
XB: Il Postino still blows me away, love that one. Anything Nino Rota did for Fellini works wonderfully for either preparing the house for a big party or cleaning up after one! And if I were ever going to take mushrooms again, I think I would want Peter Gabriel’s score for Last Temptation, because I always felt like I was on them whenever I heard that score… I saw God, or ‘felt His presence’ in and around me interpenetrating all things, everywhere. Which is pretty good for a piece of music, right?
PC: What was the last concert you attended and which concert was the best you have ever been to?
XB: Last Concert attended was Beck’s tour for the record he won the Grammy for last year which he played in its entirety and was so beautiful and powerful and perfectly played. Favourite is tough: I saw the Exile on Main Street tour at Madison Square Garden, where ‘little’ Stevie Wonder, made his debut as ‘grown-up’ Stevie Wonder and rocked the stadium to within and inch of its life! And then we got to hear all of Exile. Peak experience.
Along with 4th row, same venue, dead centre for Bowie’s Heroes tour. He was my hero at the time after all, so that one was pretty hard to beat. But the U2 Elevation tour – right after 9/11 – that was like watching a magician channelling energy from the audience into himself, and on up into the sky to the suddenly dislocated souls hovering just above, then back down and out to the audience and on up to the stars and back again. The boys had game that night alright. Bunch of friends are posting how great Bruuuuce was last night. There’s another generous man who generates power for the people and then some on any given night at work.
PC: What would be your most frequently worn band T-shirt and is it an original?
XB: I don’t wear T-shirts with writing on them. See too cool for school even about things that are commonly accepted as cool. Maybe I am dick-ish after all…
PC: I am taking piano lessons, do you have musical abilities, if so please elaborate?
XB: I have struggled with the guitar since high school. As I told you I got to do a short film last year in which I play a dissolute rock star from the ‘80s who gets his mojo back unexpectedly when he’s forced to care for his 5-year-old niece. The film is called Pony and the guy who does my website at xanderberkeley.net really likes the song I wrote and performed for the film and has it up along with the many (29 to date) laurels the film has won so far. I was always very shy about singing and playing in front of people for some reason, so it was a great challenge and breakthrough for me. It’s why I did the film in fact, so I was tickled beyond pink that it won awards for best original song.
PC: How would you describe your perfect day?
XB: My perfect day is painting in my painting studio while orchestrating my two artistically inclined daughters to be harmoniously engaged in creative endeavours there in the studio while I do so.
PC: Finish this sentence I cannot possibly live without…
XB: My wonderful creative friends and family.
To get to know Xander Berkeley better, follow him on Twitter to keep up with his latest projects!
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Any opinions or views expressed within the interview are the subject’s own and publication does not imply endorsement of any such opinions or views by Absolute Music Chat or its personnel.