Season Three of AMC‘s “The Walking Dead” premiered October 14, continuing the battle between Rick Grimes’ band of survivors and the undead hoards. But before the episode aired, the show’s cast and crew, including creator and writer of the comic Robert Kirkman and star Andrew Lincoln, discussed the new horrors viewers can expect to see in season three, new character appearances and the possibility of a feature film.
In season three, “The Walking Dead” beats “Game of Thrones” at its own game, fast-forwarding the setting to winter, the cold slamming down on what remains of humanity. Chandler Riggs, who plays Carl Grimes, thinks the passing time changed the characters in drastic ways. “They’re starting to forget what the old world used to be like,” Riggs said. “All they know is to survive, now.”
Lincoln agreed with his on-screen son. “Once we start the show, we don’t cover much ground because it’s so immediate, time-wise. In the space of two seasons, we’ve only covered almost two months. Jumping forward is a great thing for the story, putting pressure on the group because of the baby and Lori’s imminent birthing.”
“This season asks questions about civilization,” David Morrissey, who joined the cast this season as the villainous Governor, added. “Questions about how humans interact and go forward in this new world. Leadership, community, sense of responsibility, collective responsibility, individual responsibility — it’s those types of themes we want to play with.”
Killing his first walker last season was a big moment for Riggs, both on screen and as an actor. “It was during season two and it was cold. It went by so fast — we shot over and over and over again in 16 degree weather. It was cool to change into a different character, to see the evolution from the kid in season one who doesn’t do anything — he just stands there and cries — to having to kill one of his best friends.”
Riggs’ transformation continues in the new season, as Lincoln said Carl grows from “the child to the boy soldier.” “I’ve never seen it done so dramatically on television. It’s a brutal world. Parenting in the apocalypse is not the same way we would do it otherwise. We don’t have the iPads or iPods or other distractions.”
In many ways, the father/son relationship between Rick and Carl is one of the strongest in the show. Lincoln described it as a “finely tuned team — they are almost telepathic with each other and they have to be to survive in this world.”
Actors on the show have to become used to change, Lincoln said, since the frequent on-screen deaths mean cast members are constantly leaving. “A definition of the zombie genre is survival horror. I didn’t realize you make really intense friendships with brilliant actors you create a show with, and then invariably I have to stab them and [Riggs] shoots them in the head!
“We have ‘death dinners’ for everybody where we say goodbye to them. We’re a family, but what we’re shooting is about surviving. It’s a family drama set in hell.”
The show, however, must go on, and season three promises to up the stakes ever higher for the troubled band of survivors. “The first season was about discovering the world, finding family and a safe haven,” Lincoln explained. “The second season was very much about the struggle for leadership and the third season is a clash of two camps. It’s about opening up the show and realizing it’s just not this group of survivors — there are other people out there who are more frightening and more dangerous than the threat of the walkers.”
The introduction of other groups promises to shake the show to its core. “Opening with another ideology, run by some guy called the Governor is the clash I find interesting,” Lincoln said. “It turns from a zombie survival horror into a clash of culture.”
Executive Producer Gale Anne Hurd describes the third season as “really intense. The characters are no longer in this sort of Shangri-La environment. They’re on the road and on the run, living pretty much hand to mouth. Even the prison location is never completely safe.”
The prison, a famous setting from the comic, holds threats of its own beyond the obligatory undead. Norman Reedus, who plays the crossbow toting Daryl Dixon, spoke on his character’s thought process going into season three. “There’s a lot of tension in the walls, even as much as is happening outside of them. Toes are being stepped on and there are a lot of loyalty issues going on. I think at the heart of it, both brothers want to be with each other. It’s very complicated at this point.”
The raised stakes come directly from the characters learning that people turn into zombies when they die, regardless of whether or not they were bitten. Because of this, Hurd said, “there are a lot more walkers in the world.”
“‘The Walking Dead’ is set in a world where there was no such thing as a zombie — that’s why we call them walkers or biters,” Riggs explained. Hurd added, “We really want to keep it grounded. It’s why we don’t have clown walkers or cheerleader walkers. We don’t go the campy route.”
In addition to the Governor, season three adds the katana-wielding fan-favorite Michonne, played by Danai Gurira, to the cast.
Coming in to an established ensemble cast like the “The Walking Dead” didn’t prove a challenge for Gurira. “It was great. They’re an amazing group, and they embraced us very quickly. I got instant phone calls from Lauren Cohan; she helped me figure out a place to live and came to see a play I’d written, running in Los Angeles at the time. You felt very much like you were already part of a family; there’s no ego. When you encounter artists working at the top level, it’s not about ego — it’s about the work. I love that type of environment.”
Morrissey also felt at home with the cast right away. “It’s an odd thing to say, but they want you to be good,” the actor said. “They want you to be great and work, but sadly that’s not always the case.”
Gurira comes to the show not only as a talented actress but as an established playwright. Her play “The Convert” is up for 11 Ovation Awards, the Southern California award for excellence in theatre. Despite her writing success, however, don’t expect to see her name on a writing credit for “The Walking Dead.”
“My brain can only focus on one thing at a time,” Gurira said. “Right now I’m focused on bringing Michonne to life. I’ll let the writers do what they’re paid to do.”
Gurira’s writing brain did lead her to plenty of research before coming on to the show, however. “I did read the comics. I’m a bit of a researcher that way. I did want to know what the world of ‘Walking Dead’ was. Michonne was popular before I knew she existed, which was only at the first audition. I like reading the graphic novels, but in the show, she’s an adaptation; she isn’t exactly how she is in the comics. Nothing really is.
“There was something very interesting to me about how she is drawn on the page,” Gurira added. “How she has no expression on her face as she kills things. Sometimes it’s calm, almost chillingly so. There’s also this kind of sadness in the way her eyes are drawn.”
Morrissey’s character, the Governor, comes pre-equipped with a legion of fans. “It wasn’t really until they announced the role that this wave of fandom came at me,” Morrissey said. “That was when I became aware of him.
“Before I came to the show, I was a big fan — I’ve known Andrew Lincoln for a long time. In the pilot was Lennie James, who is also a friend of mine, playing Morgan. I watched it because those guys were in it and I was hooked. When I came to L.A., they said I was wanted for the show but didn’t say for what character — I was absolutely kicking the door in.”
Morrissey already had experience a different type of rabid fandom, having guest-starred on the immensely popular “Dr. Who.” “The anticipation for ‘Dr. Who’ was whether I was going to be the next Doctor, and that went on for about a year,” Morrissey explained. “I wasn’t allowed to tell anybody, not even my kids, which was really awkward. It was a different thing to ‘Walking Dead’ because [the fans] have the graphic novels and they know what it is. They have the look of the guy and wanted to know all those things. It was different, but I wouldn’t say it was more anticipated.”
The Governor is at the head of a brand new type threat for Rick Grimes and his crew of survivors: another group of humans who need the same resources. “With the zombies, you know to not go near them and build your defense around them. With human beings you have to have a different sense of security,” Morrissey said.
To prepare for the role of the Governor, Morrissey found Kirkman’s prose novel to be more helpful than the comic book series. “Leading up to starting in the TV series, I read the comic and was like, ‘Well, I want to leave that,’ because I had already read ‘The Rise of the Governor.’ It’s fantastic, a great novel. That’s where my character lives as opposed to the graphic novels.”
Another returning character is Merle Dixon, who hasn’t been seen in over a season, played by fan-favorite character actor Michael Rooker. Rooker loves “Merle” and was pleasantly surprised when he got the call his character would be returning.
“Any actor would love to play this role,” Rooker said. “I’m completely blown away by having the opportunity to bring Merle to life and keep him current, exciting and ever-changing. Never knowing what’s going to happen next is very cool.”
Rooker isn’t the only one who’s happy for Merle’s return, as an entire sub-culture of fandom has sprung up around the character. “The fans are just unbelievable. They are loving Merle. You have More Merle Mondays, More Merle Weekends and Merletober. Everything is Merle and Derle. The Dixon Vixens and the Rookerholics. Merles Girls! These are all fan groups that have developed, and sometimes they go after each other, making you step in. Merle is for everyone!”
Of course, Rooker has his own theory of why the character is so popular. “They’re digging Merle because he can do what maybe other characters can’t do or say. It’s a very interesting deal going on. Needless to say, we are in a medium where we can’t really do and say everything we want to, but we are able to do a little bit more with a character like Merle.”
He also thinks Merle’s detractors have given the rebel a bit of a bad rap for beating up T-Dog before being left to die during season one.
“What makes you think Merle is awful? I’ll give you an example of why — because I beat T-Dog up in the beginning,” Rooker said. “I called him a bad name. Big deal. You know what? It’s the post-apocalyptic era — politically correct doesn’t exist anymore. Here’s another newsflash for you — it could have been anybody coming up on top of the rooftop, telling Merle to shut up, and he would have been in their face right away. Another thing — Merle didn’t throw the first punch. I didn’t start the fight. As a matter of fact, it was a fair fight and then when three or four other people jumped in, it became even more fair!”
Kirkman said the storyline of the show “moves in and out of the comic book. Sometimes we stay very on point and adapt things directly, but every now and then there’s a tangent we go off, doing stuff that has never happened in the comic. I like that fans of the comic book series never really know what we’re doing.”
Hurd also commented on the differences between the comic and show, saying, “There are some pretty big departures, actually, but there’s such fantastic iconic imagery in the comic book and you’ll always see it. At the same time, if we played to exactly the same plot points or some of the more over-the-top characters, that wouldn’t be our show, either.”
The result of these differences between mediums causes even the actors to not know what will happen next. Reedus said a recent gory character death in the comic book caused the actor playing that character to wonder if this is indicative to where his role is headed.
“He was taken aback, like it had really happened to him in real life. He was really depressed,” Reedus said.
The comic series recently reached the 100th issue milestone, a rare feat in today’s comic market, and Kirkman doubts the show will ever catch up to the comic book’s timeline, “just because the comic still comes out monthly, and we’re laying track far ahead of the show. I don’t plan on ending the comic anytime soon. I actually like the idea of the show running its course after ten or twenty seasons, or however long it goes, and still doing the comic because it’s something I love doing. I love the idea that one day the comic will be selling five copies, the show’s been off the air ten years and people are like, ‘What are you still doing?!’
“My life has exceeded all my expectations,” Kirkman continued. “All I ever wanted to do was a long-running comic book series I could support myself with. A series where I could do whatever I wanted and just keep telling stories month in, month out. I had ‘The Walking Dead’ hit issue 100, I’ve got ‘Invincible’ hitting issue 100 in January and I have this stupid TV show thing that’s beyond all expectations I could have had. I feel like I’m incredibly fortunate.”
The comic also affords Kirkman much more creative freedom than the television series. “I wake up in the morning and go, ‘No, I’m going to write the story this way instead,’ and then I do and it’s a lot of fun. Then I have the television show, where I work with an infinite number of extremely talented people, and I have to be able to share and listen. To go in to the writers’ room and say, ‘No, no, no, no, something I wrote when I was 24 that I’ve forgotten is better than something you guys are coming up with in the writers’ room’ would be completely insane. I love working with those guys and crafting this television show together.”
The idea of a writers’ room is something Kirkman embraces wholeheartedly, to the point where he’s also begun using the method in his comics work, starting with “Thief of Thieves.” Kirkman’s comic book/television creative crossover doesn’t stop there, though.
“We’ve actually talked about bringing comic book writers in to the TV show writers’ room. There might be a little bit of that in ‘Walking Dead’ season four. We’ll have to see, because there are some comic book writers out there Glen Mazzara and I are fans of — it might be neat to play around with some freelance episodes and similar stuff. It’s really just a matter of timing.”
Rooker added, “The mediums are totally different. Although visually they are very much the same, the writing styles are very different. It’d be interesting to see happen.”
Kirkman also wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to adapt “The Walking Dead” beyond television and comic books into a feature film, though it’s not something he’s currently pursuing. “I would be open to it because I have kids who will hopefully someday go to college, and by the time they go to college it’s going to be 100 times more expensive than it is now. So I’m cool with that kind of stuff. For right now, though, we’re just focusing on the show.”
Hurd also commented on the prospect of a film, saying, “A lot of people have to weigh in on that one. Robert’s initial thing was this is a comic book series, and you can’t just have one movie.”
“The Walking Dead” has been described by Kirkman as a never-ending zombie film, but adapting it to the TV format also allows the creators to stretch the story longer than a movie would ever allow.
“When you think about a feature film, you have two hours, maybe three, and it takes you five years to get that going,” Hurd said. “How much character can you really put in to those two hours? You really just can’t. This season, we have 16 hours and an ensemble cast. The last two seasons there were 19 hours. It’s honestly like being a kid in a candy store.
“The AMC mandate is, ‘Make it complex, make it deep, don’t do surface and don’t do something just to shock the audience.'” Hurd continued. “There are a lot of shows who jump the shark because it’s honestly what the writers’ room is doing, asking, ‘How can we top that last shock?’ That does not work for this show.”
“The Walking Dead” airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.