The zombie apocalypse shambles ever nearer.
On Halloween, AMC will finally debut the series premiere of “The Walking Dead,” the new hourlong drama based on the Image Comics series from Robert Kirkman. Written and directed by Frank Darabont, “The Walking Dead” tells the story of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), an injured lawman who wakes up from a coma and finds himself trapped in a new nightmare – the world he knew is gone, replaced by a savage wasteland where the dead are walking and every surviving human is a full course meal in the making. Left alone in this broken landscape, Rick is a man with only one goal in mind: tracking down his wife and his son, and ensuring their survival at all costs.
Rick’s journey is complicated by the fact that his wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), has fled their hometown with son Carl (Chandler Riggs) in tow in the wake of the zombie apocalypse. Luckily, they’re not defenseless, as Rick’s law enforcement partner and best pal Shane (Jon Bernthal) has vowed to protect them every step of the way.
Lincoln, Callies and Bernthal spoke with CBR News and a group of journalists at New York Comic Con last weekend to discuss their work on “The Walking Dead,” deviations from the source material, the importance of honoring the fans and the choices facing their characters in this bitter post-apocalyptic world.
CBR News: “The Walking Dead” is very character-driven, but it’s also loaded with a bloody high concept. How do you fit yourself into this world?
Jon Bernthal: Look, this last year, the whole pilot season for actors is a busy time. My agent sent me all of the scripts and I wrote back a separate e-mail just based on [“The Walking Dead”] and said, “This is the best thing I’ve ever read. I would be thrilled to be an extra on this thing. Just let me be a part of it somehow.” The writing was so good. That was before I even knew who was involved, and for me, it’s just been a whole sequence of unbelievably fulfilling and satisfying surprises.
In the comic book, you die pretty early…
Bernthal: I sure do. [Laughs]
Not that you’re going to give any spoilers, but how did you feel approaching this with the fact that this character is sort of doomed?
Bernthal: I hadn’t read the comic, I read the script. Again, I was completely blown away. Actually getting the job was a quadruple wow. Then I’m reading the comic and it’s like, “Wait a second!” [Laughs]
Andrew Lincoln: But he’s not alone in the fact that there is a quick turnaround with a lot of the characters.
Bernthal: There are things in the book that we stick to and there are things that we don’t. I think that the comic offers this unbelievable template, and it’s our job to sort of fill in and add things and take away things. I don’t think it’s going to be a simple sort of diagram of the comic, you know? We want to surprise the fans, we want to satisfy the fans and we want to shake things up a little bit. I think we’re doing that. Having [Robert Kirkman] involved definitely helps with that.
I’m sure Andrew is hoping he gets to keep his hand.
Lincoln: Yeah, it was a concern of mine. You’re right. [Laughs] When I got the gig, I got the [“Walking Dead”] compendium, and I hadn’t read that far. I went, “Who is the guy with the stump? Is that me?” Nobody mentioned that during the meeting!
Sarah Wayne Callies: The timing of it is funny. We shot six episodes and it takes place over about four or five days, so it’s hard to get a sense really for how long it might take to get to that point. I don’t know if we’re going to even necessarily adhere to the timeline that’s in the books, so, who knows? It could be years before [Rick loses his hand], or it could be season two, episode one – chop!
Did any of you have any apprehensions at all about being involved with a zombie TV show?
Lincoln: I think I had anxieties. When the breakdown came via my agent and it said AMC, I was like, “Yes!” Then it said, “The Walking Dead,” and I thought it was a great title for a show. Then it said it was a zombie survival horror series, and I went, “Right…”
But when you see the people involved, the immaculate Hollywood cast, the producer, the director, Greg Nicotero – I suppose it was only when I read the pilot episode that I just got it. I started reading the graphic novel and I was surprised. It’s rare to be surprised at any point in my career. It did things that I really didn’t expect. I kind of anticipated the thrilling horror aspect, the action aspect, but I didn’t necessarily [expect] the wittiness and the humor, and particularly Morgan’s story, which was the reason I did it.
Callies: I was very anxious about it, because I read the pilot episode and felt physically ill and didn’t sleep for two nights. I’m not a genre person, so I sort of thought that I was going to be tired at the end of this thing. I’m going to have nightmares. I still do! We wrapped August 19 and I still have nightmares about twice a week. My anxiety was based less in, “Is this somehow going to be less because it’s genre?” And more, “Am I going to be medicated and in therapy by the time we’re finished shooting?” [Laughs] That’s awesome.
Well, aside from being able to sleep at night, what are some of the challenges of being an actor in a program like this?
Callies: The heat.
Lincoln: Yeah, just practically filming in Atlanta. Have you guys ever been to Atlanta in the summer? It’s brutal. It was all on location.
Bernthal: During the apocalypse, you don’t go indoors.
Callies: And when you do go indoors, there’s no air conditioning. [Laughs]
Lincoln: Just making it real, that was the big concern for me: making the world feel as truthful as we could possibly make it. That means we have to work harder at making the emotions ring true. Otherwise, we don’t sell the zombies. Everybody works together to make the rules of the show work, you know? If we get the emotional content right and big enough and strong enough, then hopefully we’ll carry people with us.
Bernthal: But it was freaking fun, man. Challenges, look, there are snooty ass punk actors, “Oh, I’m getting tired,” but you’re working for [Frank Darabont], man. He’s the freaking man. Anybody who is around him is so psyched to be there. We’re all psyched to be there.
Lincoln: I threw myself under a tank for Frank! My wife said at the end of the job, “You quite literally worked your ass off.” I walked through bodies of zombies, dead bodies. It was a wild, wild trip, this one, like nothing out there.
Callies: I was going to say the same thing. Yes, there are special challenges – I don’t like being scared out of my wits most of the time – but this is one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I’ve never seen so many people give so much of themselves with such courage and grace and lack of ego. If you’re going to do this, you’ve got to be willing to look really stupid, you’ve got to be willing to look terrible, and you’ve got to be willing to take a lot of risks. You’ve got to run off the cliff as fast as you can and kind of go, “Well, I’m going to fall or I’m going to fly.”
You can’t half-ass this. You can’t try and be like, “Oh, let’s try and look heroic.” There’s none of that. To have so many people willing to take that risk was beautiful, from the people who cooked breakfast in the morning up to the executive producers. Gale Anne Hurd, she was there every day, virtually, except for the day she sent her daughter off to college. There was such a sense of community, being involved with this. I’m in awe of the work that everybody’s done. I’m a better actor for having worked with these guys.
Bernthal: Coming here and coming to [Comic-Con International] and seeing how much it means to people, it’s like, we really want to do right by everyone. Hopefully we have. Like [Lincoln] said, we really worked our asses off, and I think everybody cares. Everybody really cares that the fans, it’s a really loyal fan base, and we want to do right by them.
Callies: And we’re now of their number. I’m a fan of the show, I’m a fan of the comic, so I want us to do this right for me too, because I dig it.
If you were bitten by a zombie, what would you do?
Bernthal: Shit, man. After you get bit, it’s just like, it’s no good.
Callies: Bullet. Bullet to the head. I wouldn’t want to eat my kid. It’s that parental instinct.
Bernthal: I think that’s what it is, looking at this show from the super real… when you said it, you kind of ruined my day with that question. [Laughs] Shit, man. It’s really a heavy question! That’s kind of the point of this. There’s nothing campy.
Callies: But you would never get bitten by a zombie.
Bernthal: Oh, no, no. I would bite that sucker back. [Laughs]
The 90 minute series premiere of “The Walking Dead” airs at 10/9 p.m. central on AMC this Halloween.