How popular is “The Walking Dead?” At Fan Expo Canada, hours before the panel for AMC’s hit zombie show’s panel was slated to begin, the line to get into the event zigzagged through the convention hallways. Once the doors opened and people shuffled in, the room quickly filled to jam-packed capacity. However, fans would have to wait — for some unknown reason, the talent was running late.
Twenty minutes past the official start time, moderator Richard Ouzounian, the theater critic for The Toronto Star, welcomed five “Walking Dead” actors on to the stage: Lauren Cohan (Maggie), Norman Reedus (Daryl) and Danai Gurira (Michonne) are all current cast members, while Michael Rooker (Merle) and David Morrissey (The Governor) represented deceased characters.
Season-five questions were off limits, Ouzounian, or he would have his “nails ripped out.” Instead, he got the ball rolling by praising Morrissey’s Governor as one of the best television villains of all time, and asking what “The Walking Dead” experience was like for the British actor.
“The thing for me is, I’ve known Andrew Lincoln (Rick Grimes) for a long time,” said Morrissey. “I was a big fan of the show. I watched the pilot. Andrew was in it and so was another great friend of mine, Lennie James, who played Morgan. I came to the show as a fan. I just thought that first season was fantastic. When I went to L.A. to visit a friend of mine, they asked me if I’d like to join the show. And I was like, ‘Yeah, definitely.’ I was very nervous about joining the show, because I always am, but as soon as you get there, everybody is great. We all got along very well. It was a great character, and I worked with Michael [Rooker]. We had a laugh, so it was great.”
“You calling me a whore?” quipped Rooker.
“I remember, the first thing I was doing was driving a truck,” Morrissey continued. “I was in the driver’s seat, and Michael had to tell me which side of the field to drive on.”
The conversation turned to Rooker who was asked, as the other departed character on the panel, what was the most arresting part of being on the series?
“There wasn’t one,” Rooker replied. “I enjoyed the first three episodes on the rooftop, brutalizing ourselves. And it had gotten worse. I didn’t come back, really, until the third season. In the second season, I came back towards the end there, with Norman. It was really a jungle out there. The ticks, snakes and bugs, they were crawling in your ear, up your nostrils. They were getting in your hair, in your underwear. That kinda stuff is the hardest part.”
Romance hasn’t thrived during the zombie apocalypse, but Maggie and Glenn [Steven Yeun] are an exception to the rule. The couple have endured pain, loss and separation, but their feelings for each other have never been stronger.
“At least for the character, it helps keep you sane,” Cohan said of the unconventional love story. “It’s so funny. Even during the show, you need a hug a lot of the time from the emotional [strain] that it is. It is important to see these things and that people find love.”
One big curveball was recently featured on a “Walking Dead” comic book cover, where Maggie was holding her baby in her arms. Asked if she believes this to be her character’s future, Cohan laughed.
“I don’t read the comics that far [in advance], so don’t spoil it,” she said. “I actually intentionally don’t. I read the comic books up until we got to the prison, and so many things differ with the characters. [If you read the comics,] you kind of get hooked on the storylines, or excited about the storylines, and you don’t really think too much about it.
“There are probably a lot of people who do read the comics,” Cohan continued. “I think you can appreciate how the show diverts from the comics, because it keeps us surprised. I know our writers like to mix it up. Sometimes you’ll see things happening to one character in the comic that will end up happening to somebody else on the show. That helps keep it fresh on a lot of levels — fresh, when you’re talking about ‘The Walking Dead.’ There’s definitely a lot in store for all of us. It’s interesting when people say, ‘Oh, your character has changed a lot from year to year.’ I think this season there’s been more monumental change for most of us.”
On the show, Michonne wields her sword with deadly accuracy. Asked how long it took her to feel comfortable with the weapon, or whether she owns any of her own, Guirra responded, “I do have a few in my house, but they aren’t quite as stellar as the one on the show, which I can’t walk two paces off the set with. The props guys are like, ‘Okay, Danai, can I have that? You can’t go home with the mother sword.’
“It was interesting,” she continued. “It was something I had to get attached to. I learned more about her as I was training with it in the very beginning, before I started shooting. It was really something I could understand. ‘Oh, I see. This is an extension of her power. She found a new identity in this weapon as she is stepping into this new apocalyptic realm.’ It’s a very powerful and fascinating weapon. You watch a lot of the films where the experts are using it — I’m constantly learning more about it, and I have to, because there’s so much to learn. I’m nowhere near an expert at it. It’s been really awesome to connect with Michonne through the weapon. It helped me understand her and how she didn’t need to talk much in the beginning. It wasn’t about talking. It was about getting the job done.”
Ouzounian noted that Daryl was once “the mystery man, the wild card,” whose importance and depth has increased since day one, and Reedus addressed how it felt becoming a fan-favorite character and having Daryl grow in the series.
“The whole job has changed me in a bunch of different ways,” the actor said. “I really like this job, and I like all these people. They are really my family. I have more friends in Senoia [Georgia] than anywhere else. It’s been interesting for all the characters. Steven [Yeun] is not the same Steven he was when he started. None of us are.”
As the crossbow has become Daryl’s calling card, to hone his skills and make it seem more authentic, Reedus practiced regularly.
“I’d wake up every morning and I’d make a coffee and I’d walk downstairs to the woods, where I live, with a compound bow and in my tighty-whitey underwear,” Reedus said. “I had targets set up on my trees. I’d have a coffee and I’d shoot the targets. Sometimes I’d miss and they’d stick in the trees. But they would stick so far in the trees, I can’t pull them out. All the trees around the back of my house have arrows sticking out of them.”
Taken at face value, “The Walking Dead” is a zombie survival series, but there are deeper themes woven in, such as how it reflects society and where mankind is heading. Ouzounian pointed out that destiny may not be a zombie apocalypse, but a different kind of apocalypse.
“It’s the idea of disconnecting,” Cohan concurred. “We can all relate to the fact you can just walk through [life] mindlessly. You can disconnect and be a walker. You can be a zombie. But this group that keeps trying to survive, despite the odds, knows there’s something more and doesn’t want to succumb to the darkness. Not that social media is the darkness, but I think we do want to throw our phones away and be disconnected.”
Last season, the cast found themselves separated into smaller groups. For Reedus, the focus shifted on Daryl and Beth. It was an unlikely pairing, but it also allowed a more sensitive side of Daryl to shine through.
“It’s exciting to work with Emily [Kinney],” Reedus said. “She’s such a good actress. She’s a musician. She’s a listener. She’s a performer. Everything she says is so honest. You wouldn’t normally pair those two up, so it was really interesting. We were high-fiving before every take. It was a good bonding moment for the two of us.
“That scene on the porch, listening to her tell stories and give that speech, I didn’t have anything to do,” he continues. “I just had to listen to her. She was so good at that. At that point, with everything that had happened in the story, with everybody separated and that dude [points to Morrissey] coming in with his big tank — which, I blew up that tank, by the way, with the big wimpy layup I did. At that point, I think she’s this little flame of hope at some long tunnel. And then it gets taken away, just like everything on this show does.”
“I can’t answer those questions, but it’s interesting,” Reedus said, responding to a question about the recent rumors regarding Daryl’s sexual orientation. “It was on Howard Stern the other day. They go, ‘The big news is that Daryl might be gay.’ Then Howard goes, ‘Yeah, you know, I think so, because he was in that house with that pretty blonde girl. All he did was pee in the corner.'”
The event concluded with each of the panelists reflecting on their favorite moment from filming the series.
“One of the most special moments was in the beginning of season three, when we were around a campfire and had just gotten out of prison,” said Cohan. “We sat around the campfire and Emily and I sang a song for Hershel [Scott Wilson], not even knowing at that time he was going to be going later that season. I look back at that, and it just felt like family.”
“I remember rehearsal, day two,” Reedus recalled. “The whole crew had suspenders on. It seemed like a thousand people were wearing suspenders. It was kinda awesome.”
“Dude, my favorite moment is still happening,” Rooker offered. “Look at all these guys. I have my surrogate brother [Reedus] right here. We’re still pals. It’s beautiful. Life is good.”
“I was thinking, and I can’t locate one thing,” said Gurira. “What’s really great for me is the spirit of ‘The Walking Dead.’ It is an astounding gift to be a part of this. I don’t take that for granted, or I try not to. I know that’s not the case for a lot of shows where you have a cast like this.”
“I could pick so many,” Morrissey said. “The experience of being there, as a whole, is such a great thing. It was an hour for me from my front door to the studio. Every morning, I got in my car and I was happy to go to work. You can’t always say that, but I did. I really loved going to set. I love being with people.
“Just sitting here, I remember one thing, “Morrissey continued. “In Michael’s last episode, which I thought was fantastic the way it turned the character around, we had this fight at the end. There are some great locations there, but they discovered this location which they thought was fantastic. There was this warehouse that hadn’t been used for 20 years. I was like, ‘No worries.’ Michael went, ‘No, hang on. You have to clean this place. You can make it look dirty, but we’re not going to fight. There are rats in here.’ I wasn’t thinking in those terms, but it was great that somebody else was. He was doing it because we were going to go for it. We weren’t just going to go in there and pat each other. And we were going to go for it many, many times, so we were going to be breathing very deeply in this place that was full of crap. And not artificial crap. Real crap. It was crazy. So, I want to thank you [Michael] for that. We really went for it. And then I bit his fingers off, just as a thank you.”