Xander Berkeley, known for his slick portrayal of Gregory on AMC’s hit TV series The Walking Dead (TWD), not only has an impressive acting resume, he also happens to be an accomplished artist. As a big fan of The Walking Dead and an art aficionado, I could not resist the opportunity to speak with Mr. Berkeley about his artistic inclinations. It was during his guest appearance at Walker Stalker Con in Nashville a couple weeks ago that I was able to catch up with Xander.
Linda: It came to my attention that you are an artist as well as an actor. Could you tell me about your recent gallery opening.
Xander: I had a gallery opening in Atlanta and then right around the same time I had a show back in Orange County in LA. I’ve shown in Los Angeles before and for the most part people have collected my work privately. Because what I do as an actor is so public, I have had the liberty of doing my work on my own terms and not have to acquiesce to what a gallery expects or demands.
Everything an actor does is contingent upon the opinion of others, the decisions that others make before that, when they work, how they portray a character, how they manifest their creativity and when they get to do it. Having my studio in my world has always been such an incredibly important, intrinsic part of my creative life as an actor because I could always be creative as a painter or sculptor instead of being ‘at the mercy of’. I could always control my own fate and when I wanted to work and how I wanted to work and feel like I was creatively fulfilled. It took up all the slack because I worked consistently enough as an actor to support myself. When I have had shows where I had produced, it incentivized me to finish things because one of the luxuries I’ve had is to experiment with, not obsessive compulsive but, things that nobody else had gotten to do.
So that I don’t just build a massive collection of too many paintings, I had this idea years ago. Since I sculpted and painted, I wanted to build up many layers of oil paint to [create] a surface that would be dimensional, that I could carve with Japanese wood carving tools to reveal and excavate so that you see the color fields but also see this incredible layer of time compressed into these slices. I was always very attracted to artifacts from ancient cultures in museums that you could never afford. I would do films in different countries, I was in love with a lot of the sacred art and the feeling of it, they built up many layers and repainted things. Even old buildings in Europe where you see hundreds of years of paint and you just see this patina of time. So I kind of wanted to create that in my world and I knew that it was something that only a person not having to make their living as a painter could ever afford to experiment with.
I’ve done that, as well as I’ve worked with the speed of life. I draw incredibly quickly because I’ve sat in cafe’s all over the world watching people trying to capture gestures to study human behavior as an actor and as a director. So, I’m drawing as quickly as I can before they move and without them noticing. One of my little rules is whenever I get busted, I give the drawing away.
Xander: Yeah. If they come over, they go “What are you doing? Why are looking at me?”, and [I say] I’m drawing you, do you like this? They’re like, “Oh my god.” I discovered in different countries where I don’t speak the language that my drawings were, a ‘get out of jail free pass’. They were a ‘get into wherever I wanted to get into’, even in communist China where there was a guard standing there [and] only VIP of anoited, initiated levels were allowed past this curtain. These guards were the perfect models because they didn’t move and I could sit at a distance and get them down and when nobody was looking I’d go over and I’d show them this drawing, offer it to them and some of them would start crying because nobody ever acknowledged them as a person because they were like an artifact just standing there as a guard, in a uniform, having their identity stripped away from them. For someone to capture their features [and] make them feel like that’s ‘them’, they would let me into anything, anywhere.
Calligraphy and painting with the Sumi brush is so much a part of the respected Chinese culture. Unlike any other place where people would respect our personal space, [in China] I’d be drawing somewhere, someone would catch on… I could have six guys, different ages all hanging me, literally like arms around my neck looking a foot away from the drawing, “Oh. Ok, ok it’s good”. They wanna bring me close. So, it’s been an incredible thing to have.
Linda: Has the acting and the artwork always been together?
Xander: Yeah. My father was an artist, my mother… they were both spiritual seekers and I think my mother had hoped I would be something other than an actor, maybe a diplomat or an ambassador or something in the foreign services. She knew I wanted to travel but she thought a dignitary would be more in keeping with my education. It turned out that I was able to do a lot of that kinda of work without getting mired in bureaucratic red tape. Working within the system I could work around it because the embassy would always invite whatever the film was in town to the embassy to encourage more film production.
When I would sit at a cafe, I’d sit there with my drawing. When I’d go to a new town, I’d go to the art store and the artist’s cafe, I would station myself there. Often times that’s where the poets and the cinephiles would be hanging out in any given country and that’s where they recognized me because the cinephiles have seen the movie more than once and they’re the ones that knew me from specific art films. I have done a lot of art films over the years. That to me was always a better game plan than becoming famous where everybody knew who you were everywhere you went. Where you could go sit in a public domain as opposed to having this sort of, sounds elitist, but this sort of entrain into the artist’s crowd in any city.
Being able to fly just under the radar allowed me to be the observer rather than the observed. In all these worlds you get this sort of balance because you’ve got to make your living as an actor and you’ve got to establish yourself and, this day and age, celebrity is almost a pre-requisite to getting any kind of work. I’ve gone kicking and screaming into that realm because I’ve really cherished and valued my anonymity to a great extent. My muse continues to be, as an artist, drawing people everywhere I go. I’ve been a mask maker since I was 18 and so I studied the bone structure, 28 different physical human types in every nationality around the world. That’s why I wanted to be everywhere, so I could see each culture’s version of the mathematician, the artist, [etc].
I can read faces and know what somebody’s predispositions are just by looking at their nose. (Linda hides her nose and they both laugh). It’s still there, and usually, if it’s not, I could still tell what it would have been using their other features, I could probably draw what their nose was like before. You just study. I’ve done all these molds of actors faces to make masks. It’s just been such a fun journey. Now I’m really looking at possibly semi-retiring as an actor so that I can paint. I’m starting to show my work and this has been a great time working with these guys to both support them because I think they’re just fantastic.
I love Scott [Spillman]. Anything I can do to help him, and it helps me [too] because a lot of people online see that I do artwork and wanna buy, so I’m finally getting my act together to do this. (Note: Xander Berkeley was a featured guest artist at The Senoia Dead Bash co-run by Scott Spillman this past weekend) It’s also tied to the fact that my sister was a painter, she’s older than me, she staked out the turf. I had success as an actor and I didn’t want to have my success as a painter [be because of acting], she didn’t get the success that she wanted.
Linda: The artwork is one of my favorite aspects at any convention. I actually met Scott [Spillman] when I interviewed him last year, he was the one that told me you were also an artist. I’m glad you were willing to take some time and share that part of your life and your future.
Xander: Yeah, I’m making that move [artist].
At the conclusion of our interview, Xander showed me photos of his paintings and sculptures as well as examples of his photographic creativity. I found myself in awe as he spoke about each image with pure passion. Many thanks to Xander for allowing us a peek inside his creative realm and I wish him well with his future artistic endeavors. For more about actor and artist Xander Berkeley, check out his website, www.xanderberkeley.net. Be sure to follow him on social media Facebook: @xanderberkeleyoriginal Twitter: @xanderberkeley and Instagram: @xanderoriginal