Shirt, $850, pants, $795, and sneakers, $895, all by Valentino at Neiman Marcus, Lenox Square; belt, $275, at Neiman Marcus, Lenox Square.
Striped sweater, $285, and coat, $895, both at Theory, The Shops Buckhead Atlanta.
First of all, I love that you’re a Georgia boy! Tell me a little about your time growing up here.
My parents separated when I was a kid, so I was always in the inner city with my dad, and my mom was down in the country in McDonough. I had a great experience with both worlds—an urban upbringing and a rural one. I loved going to Stone Mountain and Lake Lanier. Seeing the way Atlanta has developed over the past years... it is such a global hub now, which is so exciting to be a part of. I remember dreaming about filmmaking and hating the idea of having to leave and go to Los Angeles. I always had the idea of bringing TV shows and films to Georgia. Everyone was like, ‘You’re crazy; it’s never going to happen.’ So, it is mind-boggling now to see that there are more films shot in Georgia than in California.
It sounds like you caught the acting bug early on.
Yeah, growing up, I was always obsessed with films. I was like Benjamin Button—I was a superold, mature kid! When I was 11 years old, I told myself that I wanted to be an actor. I started mowing as many lawns as I could and saving up money. I researched and found local headshot photographers and made appointments. My mom got a call and asked me, ‘Why is this guy calling saying you have a headshot appointment today?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I forgot; you have to drive me there.’ I would convince my mom and friends to drop me off on the sets, where I would pretend to be an extra. At the end of the day, I would meet the directors and actors, and they would say, ‘We don’t know who you are, but you worked all day, and we don’t want to get into trouble, so we’ll just pay you.’ That is how I made connections with casting directors. They would call me for other jobs because they thought I was cute. I started a town newspaper in order to interview all the actors and directors, really just trying to network. I was hardcore. At 15, I got Macaulay Culkin’s agent, and I went to L.A. for a month and worked a little bit. My family told me if I really wanted to do this, then do it when I get out of school. So I came back to Georgia and finished high school, then attended Yale University before moving to New York and Europe for the rest of the saga.
That’s an incredible story. And while you were in New York City you took up modeling, correct?
I got superlucky that there was a stigma that they never hired redheaded men. So, I started getting booked at Calvin Klein, and after that, it was Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior and Tommy Hilfiger. The greatest thing was to be 18 to early-20s and traveling the world. To see the ins and outs of Italy; live in Paris, England and Barcelona; and experience Japan... just seeing all these really cool cities and people.
After all that exploring, what brought you back to Atlanta?
I came back about three years ago; unfortunately, my mom was diagnosed with cancer, so I quit everything and moved back home to take care of her and go through that whole last year of her life by her side. It was a horrific experience, but it was the greatest blessing for me to have a wake-up call that this is the most important year of her life, and you get to experience every day and moment with her... to focus on what is important.
Ironically, I had auditioned for The Walking Dead many times and went up the ladder to callbacks with the directors, but I never booked anything. So it was strange that, while my mom was going through treatment, the agency called me and said, ‘You booked this role on The Walking Dead.’ I was like, ‘I’m not going to audition for a role right now,’ and they told me, ‘It’s not an audition; the creator wants you for this role, and they wrote this role just for you.’ I was blown away!
Is it surreal to be back in the city where you were raised and suddenly working on this megahit show?
It’s amazing. I hope I get to work on some Marvel stuff too because all of that is being filmed in Georgia. But it is a total dream come true. To walk around these enormous Hollywood sets that are built in Georgia and hiring local people is so cool.
Let’s talk more about The Walking Dead. How has your character, Daniel, developed since your first appearance on the show in season seven?
The Walking Dead is notorious for these long, drawn-out character developments. And they have been very kind with me—when I was dealing with my mom being ill, they did not overdevelop the character when I wasn’t available. Now, going into next season, we are trying to focus on developing the character and his storyline. Filming this next season has been so exciting!
I can’t wait! Can you give any hints about season eight and what fans can expect?
I can say it’s adrenaline-pumping! It moves at an incredibly fast pace. You are going to be on the edge of your seat watching this season.
I’m intrigued. What do you think is one of the show’s best aspects for which it doesn’t always get credit?
Diversity. Being the No. 1 show in the world, people are always like, ‘How? ... Is it just because of the zombies?’ Any fan of the show knows the truth: It is about humanity and these stories of being unified. It has all cultures, races, orientations, everything! It is an amazing melting pot. Then you have Greg Nicotero and Scott Gimple, who are geniuses and craftsmen, who work so hard. Not only to get to work in my hometown, but to get to work on the best show in the world and to have such a strong part in it next season is a blessing.
Speaking of diversity, earlier this year you came out as a proud member of the LGBTQ community in such a poignant way, sharing your story online in a heartfelt video. Did you expect all the positive responses that you received?
I didn’t expect anything. I didn’t want to ask anyone’s opinion or second-guess my gut. It was a long time coming, and I have always been open and honest with friends and family. The YouTube video I did now has more than 2 million views, and it went global. It was insane! I could not believe that my friends around the world were all seeing this. I was just helping out at youth shelters, and there was a gay girl that said, ‘Thank you so much for helping out the LGBTQ.’ I asked her why she was thanking me. She said, ‘Because you’re straight,’ and I said, ‘I’m not.’ Then she said, ‘Well, it’s important that people like you be open and visible because we need more young people to represent our community.’ I decided I’m not going to ask anyone’s opinion or advice; I am going to do it under the radar and very simple with grace and dignity, and hopefully it will touch some kids’ lives.
I’m sure you’re now a role model for many young people, especially the kids at that shelter.
They changed my life and made it so much more valuable, and I think that is the biggest thing—that we need to show much more diversity and humanity. Everyone can judge someone if they do not know them, but when you see them and identify with them, then you relate to them. We need more athletes and business leaders to realize how important it is for them to make a statement so that people can know that they are not alone, and that they have great role models.
I couldn’t agree more. By the way, what inspired you to get involved with homeless youth programs?
Most people do not feel like they have much value to give. I think that is the reason that most people do not volunteer. If they had any idea how important they are and how much just being there is valuable, I think way more people would do it. For me, I had friends in L.A. who were doing it, and I went along with them and got pulled into the conversation. When I realized I had something to offer—the ability to help people and to brighten someone’s day—all of a sudden, that triggered something in me; that it could have been me 10 years ago. I could have been the homeless kid that I am talking to. It wakes you up and makes you realize how blessed you are and how easy it is to give back and make a difference in your community.
You have quite a platform to share what you’re passionate about thanks to your large social media following (@danielnewman_). Do you enjoy connecting with friends and fans this way?
The Twitter aspect is cool, especially because, with a large following, you can get noticed by people who are impossible to get a hold of. So reaching out to CEOs and companies that we want to partner with is possible. You could never in a million years do that over email or phone. With friends and fans, it is a little wild. I recently had fans that tattooed my name and a photo of me! It was a little overwhelming, and I would not advise anyone to do that. But I thought it was a joke, and we did a fan convention and they came! ... Even having the ability to connect with kids in countries where it is illegal to be gay and talking about their stories is amazing. The Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD asked me to be an ambassador and do events in Hollywood and New York, and to do a billboard in Times Square. Social media is an incredible thing.
When you aren’t working, which I’m sure is rare, what do you enjoy doing?
I love making music! I have always written and produced songs. Also, I love going to Savannah and other beaches in Georgia. If I have time, I’ll just travel. I am also the CEO of a tech company, so I have been balancing both worlds at the same time. We haven’t launched the [tech] product yet, so it is very under-the-radar. But it is a lot of government analytics and data... I just don’t sleep anymore.
You’re such a jack-of-all-trades! What would you say is the highlight of your career so far?
By far, The Walking Dead. To go from shows that I did to having people in every country of the world messaging me... it is mind-boggling the size of the fan base of the show and the impact that is has globally. My other favorite, workwise, has been scripts that I have written—the stories, the research process, and developing them as well as growing into the person and artist that I am.
Since it is our 20 Most Eligible Atlantans Issue, I have to ask, are you dating in Atlanta?
I do, when I have time.
What would be your perfect date night?
It would be… well, I don’t want to tell you because it’s places I go all the time! I’m afraid to say where I am going to be every Friday and Saturday night. But, I would probably cook dinner to be romantic, or watch a movie and be nerdy and eat a bunch of junk food.
Wait—you can cook too?
Yeah, I love to cook!