WARNING: The following article includes spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 10, Episode 5, "What Is Always Is," which aired Sunday on AMC.
In The Walking Dead Season 9, immediately following the departure of series lead Rick Grimes, a new group of characters arrived, which included Eleanor Matsuura as Yumiko. Since then, the group has joined the community at Hilltop. And in Season 10, Yumiko has stepped into a leadership role after a crisis in which a fallen tree caused a building to collapse and catch on fire. In the most recent episode of the series, major revelations about her long-time girlfriend Magna (Nadia Hilker) sent Yumiko reeling.
Matsuura, who's arecently appeared in Into The Badlands, Wonder Woman and The Rook, took time out from shooting the series in Georgia to talk to CBR about joining the sprawling cast of The Walking Dead, stepping up as a leader at Hilltop and that shocking reveal from Magna.
CBR: Why did you want to join The Walking Dead nine seasons in?
Eleanor Matsuura: Oh my gosh, it was crazy and a real honor to join such an established show, a huge family that's been just like slaying it for nine years. I mean the fact that we're on our tenth season now is just an incredible achievement. I feel so proud to be a part of it.
But I really joined at such a pivotal time as well because it was the departure of Rick, the departure of Andrew Lincoln, and the same episode that he left the show is the same episode as we arrived. So, it was this kind of very unique moment that we joined. It was very sad in a lot of ways for a lot of people, of course, saying good-bye to that beloved main character. And it was also a new beginning in so many ways, not to mention that being the arrival of us for the first time, six years ahead in the time jump. So, it felt very exciting.
It still feels exciting. I'm incredibly honored to be part of this amazing show.
What drew you specifically to the role of Yumiko?
Well, the thing with Yumiko is that in so many ways I feel like she's the character that’s most like me that I've ever played. There’s so many times in my career where I’ve played lawyers and doctors and powerful women in suits. And this time I feel like with Yumiko the way that they’ve allowed me to approach my character and live with my character, I’m bringing a lot of me to her, which is really awesome.
I think what we're seeing is Yumiko is a natural leader, and she can be a boss in many, many ways. She’s the first on the frontlines of fighting. She's very tough and very resilient, but she also has this calmer side to her, this more human quality, which is she’s thoughtful and she takes a step back and she can be very pragmatic with how she approaches situations…
It’s exciting to me to play a fully grounded character and not just a cliche of a woman who’s in the apocalypse. She makes mistakes. She puts her family first. She hurts and she cares and she loves… Human beings are complicated and I think with Yumiko I’m allowed to show all the different sides of a character that I perhaps haven’t been really allowed to play before.
What is it like to be part of this huge cast with so many storylines going on? Do you sometimes feel like it's hard to keep track of what's happening?
Oh, yeah, sure, that can happen sometimes. For sure. You know what's really interesting about this season is that our group is kind of evolving now. So we’re breaking off and meeting other characters in the show, characters that we haven't previously done a lot of scenes with. We haven’t had a lot of stories that have melded together in the way that they are now. So it's so exciting to actually be part of such a huge cast when our characters get to cross over and, for me, I get to do scenes with actors that I haven’t worked with before.
So that's great. It always keeps it interesting. It keeps it exciting, There’s always new ground to cover. Like this season being able to work with Christian [Serratos, who plays Rosita] and with Ross [Marquand who plays Aaron] and with Eugene and with King Ezekiel. The world’s now starting to mesh together because in the story we have to really become a group again in order to defeat the Whisperers. So that’s been really exciting on a personal level that we all get to kind of blend in together in different formations where last season I was much more in my personal group. We're really expanding this season.
It’s hard to keep track. Like, I’ve never really been to Alexandria. I had a couple of episodes shooting there in the first season but this season, I haven’t been to Alexandria at all so there’s a whole other world there, which is just untapped for my character. Which is so interesting when we all see each other on set. We’re like ‘Oh, hey, how is Alexandria doing over there?’ It keeps it really fun.
In the last couple of episodes your character has really been stepping into a leadership role, like you said, at Hilltop. Is that a natural extension of your character that she's always had or is this a new part that we're seeing?
I think it is definitely new…. In the comics it’s very much Magna’s group. But the way we've always played it in the show is that Magna and [Yumiko] are kind of two sides of the same coin. We’re the mothers of our group. And whereas Magna’s much more of a passionate and hot-headed leader, she’s the first to fight…on the frontline, with a more aggressive, passionate quality, Yumiko has always displayed her leadership skills in a slightly different way, which is just take a beat, be calm, think strategically about how to survive.
And I think those skills this season have become really important because we’re [facing] a different kind of enemy now where we need to have a strategy in order to defeat the Whisperers. So I don't think it's something that was pre-planned on Yumiko’s part to step up to be any kind of leader in Hilltop but when [she does] it’s because we’re seeing Hilltop in a very unusual position. We’ve lost Tara. We don't know where Maggie is yet. She's not around at the moment. Ezekiel, who is there, he’s going through his own stuff. It leaves Hilltop in this vulnerable position.
I have a line in episode [four of the tenth season], ‘when the shit hits the fan, someone’s got to step up,’ and I think for Yumiko she just feels like she’s ready to take on those responsibilities even if it wasn't something that she planned. She knows that she can lead and she's ready to do so if called upon...
Will she continue to grow in that leadership role?
Well, I’m not sure. I guess I hope so. I think what happens in the latter half of the season is -- I don't want to give anything too much away about what happened -- but I think we’ll definitely see Yumiko leading but in a different way. She's not necessarily bound to Hilltop in the latter half of the season. Circumstances take [her] in a different direction. So, it may not be bound to Hilltop, but [she’ll] definitely be being able to show [her] skills in a different way.... Those qualities that [she's] displaying right now of taking charge definitely will be explored…more.
Speaking of your relationship with Magna, in the last couple of episodes things have sort of fallen apart a little bit and that's been difficult. From a bird's eye view were you excited to learn about that relationship with Magna to begin with?
It’s funny because when Nadia [Hilker] and I got the scripts and found out where we’d be going, we were like ‘Oh no! What’s happening to Magniko or Yumagna’ or whatever they call us. We’re like ‘Oh, guess we're going to be going through some hard times.’ But I think it's very realistic. It's inevitable that relationships will evolve and will go through some hard times. It's hard having a relationship in the apocalypse.
We find out that we’ve been in a relationship for 13 years, is how long we’ve known each other, which is a really long time, especially in the show. I think we might be the longest surviving relationship within the show. So it’s tough because we came in as such a unit and we've always bounced off each other and made decisions always with the other person in mind and always with our group in mind because we’re so tight.
But I think what we're exploring is something really beautiful. It’s really human… It’s hard to maintain a relationship in the apocalypse. There’s still so much love there between us but because of circumstances and the way things are evolving, we might not always be able to function as we once did. We both have our own ways of doing things and we're going to have to make sacrifices in order to grow and change and be a part of a new community....
CBR: because of that length, there's constantly this reminder of the pre-apocalypse part of the relationship. How is that constant reminder affecting Yumiko, especially in light of the revelations from Magna?
Introducing the past into this episode was really helpful for me in terms of the scene… [Magna’s] so upset and [Yumiko doesn’t] know why and [her] worst fear is that it’s [her]. And I think that when it’s revealed that… actually [Yumiko] was her lawyer and [their] relationship was based on the fact that [she's] always loved Magna and believed that she’s this innocent person and she was locked up for a crime that she didn't commit, and actually she did commit the crime.
I think that's just so heartbreaking to Yumiko. That the foundation of their relationship has been based on a lie. So, it's less about the crime itself, it's not about the fact that she killed someone because Magna has that line of well, ‘We’ve all killed now,’ we've all done terrible things in the apocalypse. I think it's more about the fact that it’s the mistrust because Yumiko… loved her family… and Magna’s been the heart of that. So I think to find out that that’s been a lie for this long is just incredibly, incredibly hurtful to [Yumiko] and it really sort of changes everything for [her] in terms of where [she goes] forward from here.
I can imagine. I gasped [at Magna's revelation].
Yeah, [Yumiko’s] just really heartbroken about it. But also they know each other so well that [Yumiko knows] when Magna seems to be distant with [her] and moody with her, [she feels] like, well, that’s just Magna. She gets in these moods and [Yumiko knows] how to handle her. So when [Yumiko finds] out that it's actually that she's been sort of holding a bit of resentment towards [her] for loving her despite her actions I think it just changes everything for [Yumiko]…
Is there anything you can tease about what's next for Yumiko that you haven't mentioned already?
Well, I would say that... because of the circumstances with our communities being attacked in the way that they are from the Whisperers that we’ll definitely see Yumiko step up into a new and unexpected role.... I think we’ll see my character move in new and interesting and exciting ways.
Recently you've appeared in a lot of very action-heavy TV shows and movies. What attracts you to those roles? Is that by design?
It’s never really by design. It’s usually where a job will take me and what opportunities arise.... I’ve been very lucky with the roles that have come my way that they have been quite action heavy. I guess people like seeing me kick some ass. I don’t know why. But it's been … fun.
I’ve been very blessed with the kind of roles that I have been getting, but as I mentioned to you before, I felt like Yumiko’s the first character that I’ve got that has a bit of everything. She’s great at kicking butt but we also see that she's a much more thoughtful human being and she's got feelings and she’s sensitive. And I’m glad I get to show that human side of an ass-kicker as well.
Last question. This is just for fun. Yumiko has survived in the zombie apocalypse, but if you, Eleanor, found yourself in the zombie apocalypse, do you think you'd survive?
Oh, yeah… I've got an almost-two-year-old so when I started this show I was a new mom. And I just feel like if you can get through those first early years as a parent with a small child you can handle anything.... I feel like as soon as you know what you’re fighting for, you can survive anything. So if I can survive this, I can survive the zombie apocalypse.
The Walking Dead stars Norman Reedus, Danai Gurira, Melissa McBride, Josh McDermitt, Christian Serratos, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Seth Gilliam, Ross Marquand, Khary Payton, Cooper Andrews, Avi Nash, and Samantha Morton. It airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.