The actors involved with “Fear the Walking Dead” admit, as great as it is to have gotten the gig, they’re totally prepared to find a (hopefully great) death scene in their script pages at any given moment.
Three of the up-and-coming stars of “The Walking Dead’s” spinoff/prequel show joined a small gathering of press prior to the show’s debut: Frank Dillane (“Sense8”), who plays Nick, the drug-addicted, downward-spiraling son of series co-lead Madison (Kim Dickens); Alycia Debnam-Carey (“The 100”), who has the role of Nick’s overachieving sister Alicia; and Elizabeth Rodriguez (“Orange Is the New Black”), playing Lisa as the free-spirited ex-wife of series co-lead Travis (Cliff Curtis) trying to build a new life just as disaster strikes Los Angeles.
The actors, through the course of the conversation, reveal their thoughts on and hopes for the AMC franchise’s latest installment — including, if it comes to it, welcoming a juicy death scene.
Frank and Alycia, you’ve both done heavy-duty genre projects. Is this genre something that you like, personally?
Alycia Debnam-Carey: For me, I guess kind of go where the parts have been. I never thought of myself as this genre, specifically. But it seems to be kind of all that I do, so it looks like I found my niche.
Frank Dillane: It’s a good thing, regardless of genre or anything like that. As long as the character’s good, and the writing’s good, it doesn’t really matter… I had never watched “The Walking Dead.” I like the show because, well, anything, it seems to me the role of television, it’s more about entertainment, these days. It’s very rare that you get a good part. I find it’s very rare that I get…something that’s somehow relevant to today’s society. It seems to me that there’s something in the zeitgeist at the moment about, the end of the world is coming. So it’s great to be a part of this generation’s theme.
When you signed on, one of the things we know about “The Walking Dead” is that it kills off characters — a lot. So every time you get a script do you go, “Oh, my God, am I still on the show?”
Debnam-Carey: Are we worried about being killed off? It seems like television likes killing off lead characters, at the moment.
Dillane: As long as I get a good death, like proper Marlon Brando [in “The Godfather”].
Debnam-Carey: Totally. If you get a good death, it’s all right. I’m not too worried at this stage. Maybe in seasons to come.
Do your characters represent the two different sides of this fractured family?
Dillane: Probably, aesthetically, storytelling-wise, that might have been an idea. I suppose we do.
Debnam-Carey: Siblings normally often compensate for one another, too. If one sibling does something, the other will fill the opposite role. I found, at least for my brother and I in real life that seems to be a thing. So yeah, I guess it definitely makes this dramatic storytelling. It’s always fun.
At least from the first episode, it seems be as much a family drama than genre fare. Is that how you feel in working on it at this point? Or are you now far enough in blood and guts that it does feel like “Walking Dead?”
Debnam-Carey: No, I found that it is heavily character-driven — even more so than the original “Walking Dead” first season. You’re immersed in that world pretty automatically. For us, one of the joys is that we do get to explore these characters, and you get to be attached to them before everything falls apart. Which, I think, is really lucky for us.
Dillane: That last episode, a lot of things happened really quickly that you definitely get a sense of — there’s a slow burn, and you still have these family dramas, but things go downward spiraling really, really fast at rapid speeds.
Elizabeth Rodriguez: The fact that our show started with these broken families coming together… Like, “Breaking Bad” started as a family drama. They take time to break down the characters and the dynamics between people, which drives, like, the choices I make, the choices Madison makes in this story. The choices Travis makes are based on families. Opposed to, like, a workplace drama.
The thing that’s different about this “Walking Dead” is, you guys are starting at the beginning, before it really is the full-blown apocalypse. What are you finding really interesting about that angle on the journey?
Rodriguez: I think what’s interesting about the journey is that we think we can be prepared, we can only fantasize about what we would do. And you take for granted that you would have communication or electricity or food or even know what’s going on in the outside world, particularly now with the kind of social media we have; the fact that these things we don’t think about; the fact we don’t know if it’s contained; we don’t know how far spread it is.
You assume that the government’s going to take care of it. You can only connect it to natural disasters, especially in America, more so than terrorism or ISIS. That’s where you go to when you think of these things. For me, it made me think of the day-to-day of people that survived these things in the world since the beginning of time. How do they have those days just to sort of feed their children, not get into fights, just have the basics. And how quickly is it that we go from having everything and taking everything for granted, to having almost nothing.
It gets gory pretty fast, though. Is that hard to stomach when you’re there on set?
Debnam-Carey: It’s pretty theatrical on set, because it’s so broken up. It’s very technical. But at the same time, it’s really cool. The job they do on set is amazing. Greg Nicotero, he did all the special effects on the show. He’s just amazing. But yeah, it’s kind of fun on set.
Rodriguez: There are moments of things that were gruesome while you’re shooting it, or when you first see it, you’re like, “Oh, that’s so gnarly!” But then, I go straight into broad comedy, so I’ll go over to something and want to kiss it. Just sort of like, to really break anything that might be stuck in my conscious of it.
How did each of you connect to your character? What do you see in your character where you’re like, “I know that, I feel that, I can play that?”
Debnam-Carey: For me, what I actually originally connected with the character, the scenes I had to shoot, some of the real scenes actually in the show, they were very edgy and it really brought out this kind of L.A. street quality. A real urban-ness. Maybe it coincided with the time, I’d been living in L.A., I finally had found the grittiness but the charm of that city the first time. And that connected me with Alicia in quite a distinct way. I guess I liked her edginess. There’s a power within her that’s quite strong that I hope you get to see evolve.
Rodriguez: For me, I feel like what I connected with her was she’s a strong woman. I’m not a mother, but I’m very nurturing… When I did research as to what qualifications one needs and everything that goes into just prerequisites to go into nursing school, there were more than I would do. But I realized that having empathy and being sensitive were qualities that are really great for being a nurse, and I have those. And because I also was playing a mother, the guy that plays my son, it’s really easy to love him and have that mother thing for him.
I think she’s also a little bit — there’s no B.S., and I have that quality, too. I’m sort of a straight shooter. So I was excited to play her. I found that she was a really amazing, strong, independent woman. And also, the fact that I found out that Travis didn’t leave her, that it was a choice that Liza made, was a breath of fresh air, because it was like, oh, she’s not a victim. She’s not just a scorned woman. That’s not something that’s part of it. She’s just really independent and a single mother that was burning the candle on both sides and making things happen.
Does doing a show like this make you look at strange things that you see out of the corner of your eyes a closer?
Rodriguez: For me, it does, absolutely. Especially when we were shooting in Vancouver. There’s a whole area where they have a lot of homeless people because they’ve closed down all these mental institutions. I couldn’t walk through there without being like, “All these people right here could be Walkers.” Everything about it felt like an apocalypse. The way they live, the energy. You just think, there’s no way that we would take for granted that they’re just what we see in a big city on a day to day. Absolutely. My brain was like, “They could all be infected.”
Debnam-Carey: Yeah. It’s crazy when they block off huge intersections or roads or parts of downtown. Then, it is completely empty. That is a weird feeling. We did a Sunday straight after Comic-Con. We all arrived at 5 a.m. and we did all these scenes. It was just empty. That’s bizarre to see: L.A., downtown, and to feel like you’re the only person there.
Rodriguez: Right. There’s no way of thinking, I’m not connecting it, I think to, oh, this would be a quality that would be part of our real world. Of an apocalypse world.
You get the part, you learn your lines, you shoot the scenes, and you’re kind of still in a bubble in production. And you go to something like Comic-Con, and you probably get a bigger sense of how huge this project really is to a lot of people. Has that sunk in? The anticipation and the built-in fans?
Debnam-Carey: For me, it still hasn’t sunk in. Even doing this. Especially doing the panel at Comic-Con, we were preceded with “The Walking Dead,” and then “Game of Thrones” and “Star Wars.” So we were like wedged in the middle, and no one knows who we are. No one’s seen it, yet. They don’t know what questions to ask. It was so awkward and everyone felt like they were on their best behavior. Like, “Don’t say anything too risky.”
Rodriguez: We can’t say anything.
Debnam-Carey: “Don’t laugh. Just breathe.” Even then.
Dillane: It’s difficult as well, this thing of talking about character is a new thing, I think. It’s only in the last few years. You don’t get Al Pacino talking about while he was filming “Scarface,” the things that made Scarface do this or do that. It’s like, talking objectively about your character while it’s happening is a weird, new thing. A magician wouldn’t tell his tricks. So it’s a weird one… Those are the questions an actor asks himself, so if you tell the questions to the world, you kind of have nothing left. Even with directors, I often find I say something about the character, and I’ll suddenly wish I hadn’t said anything. I was giving something away and can never take it back. So this talking objectively thing, while it’s happening — it’s great because we finished now. It’s great to talk to you guys. But while it’s happening, you’re picking it all apart while you’re doing it.
These characters didn’t exist in comic books, right? Did Robert Kirkman give you anything to start with beyond the script?
Rodriguez: Nothing. We were left — we didn’t need it. Even if we were, like, we can talk about every single character in every single episode of every single “Walking Dead,” it doesn’t apply to what we’re doing. We’re in a world that exists prior to that. We’re human beings. We’re a motley, broken, diverse, family unit being put up against an apocalypse with rules that we don’t know, with a lot of questions and figuring it out as any other human being would.
In fact, the best thing is that the audience and all the fans are a step ahead. They’ll be the ones on their seats, like, “Oh, I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t do that.” I think it’s so exciting that they know what happens before we do. We’re in a world of grays and there’s so much unknown. That’s what’s really scary, the unknowns. So we didn’t need to know anything other than work the way we would with anything else we’ve ever worked on. What’s in front of us, and deal with what scenario, what scene, how we are and the dynamics of who we are.
Frank, with your character’s drug addiction, do they ever give you direction like, “Don’t do this because it’ll look like you’re a walker?” Or “Do this because we want people to think you might be turning into a walker?”
Dillane: It’s interesting, that question. A girl said that to me: she saw the pilot and she said, “Was your limp a homage to, like, a zombie?” I hadn’t thought of that. I just got hit by a car and thought, that’d probably fuck your leg up.
You mentioned this trend toward doomsday scenarios and dystopian futures and things like that in entertainment. Do you guys respond to that? Do you have any understanding why people are really intrigued by that at this moment in time?
Dillane: The world is ending, make no mistake. It’s coming to an end. This can’t go on for much longer. Capitalism has to fall. It has to. We’re coming to the peak, I think soon, before we have to come back to like humanity. Humanity needs to look, and it hasn’t been looking for so long.
Rodriguez: I feel like so much goes on in the world between disease, pandemics, terrorism, ISIS, that there is no way. It’s around us every second of the day. There’s absolutely an intrigue. How can there not be? Whether this is a genre or not, it is the looking into a microscope.
Dillane: In cinema, look what’s at the moment: “Mad Max,” “Tomorrowland,” every fucking thing in cinema was apocalypse.
Debnam-Carey: It’s all very relevant to our world.
Dillane: Our generation.
Rodriguez: The theme, the sense of, “What’s in the air?” What’s in the air every second? Whether we turn on the TV or not. With constant random shooters. With police brutality. I don’t watch the news because I wouldn’t leave the house. I would not leave the house. There’s not much different if you look at that and go from channel, channel, channel, to the world we’re living in, other than the fact that they eat people and they walk and we named them something else. Emotionally, I think it’s the same thing. It’s the same amount of trauma, anxiety, and fear of the world.
Dillane: All that needs to happen is Mother Nature needs to start knocking down buildings.
Debnam-Carey: It’s like, finally Mother Nature will take back what belongs to her.
What would you guys most like people to know about “Fear the Walking Dead?”
Debnam-Carey: I want them to make their own minds up about it. I think it’ll come under some criticism because it is very different. But I think it stands alone and it’s not trying to be “The Walking Dead,” and that’s what’s great about it.
How much does it feel like your own show, even though it’s coming with the “Walking Dead” brand name?
Rodriguez: It feels like it’s very much our own. The producers and creators were very much clear that that was it. When we were at Comic-Con and met the wonderful, gracious cast of “The Walking Dead,” they were so gracious and excited. They had heard about us and were willing to just talk us through what Comic-Con was going to bring and they were really excited about what this was. And it was very much themselves talking about that it’s its own thing. They wanted to push that too.
They didn’t walk in, like, looking down at their noses like, “Oh, what are you doing? We were the original.” It was so wonderful to have that be what they brought to us. It was very giving and generous. Everyone’s been very generous that way.
“Fear the Walking Dead” premieres August 23 on AMC.
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