Looking back, Andrew Lincoln can only laugh. But on an infernally hot morning last summer in Atlanta, when the star of AMCÃ¢â¬â¢s zombie survival saga The Walking Dead found himself hacking up a corpse and smearing his sweat-drippy body with its pulpy entrails, the 37-year-old classically trained British thespian really did find it all rather disturbing. Ã¢â¬ÅI remember thinking, Ã¢â¬ËPlease! This is not what I signed up for!Ã¢â¬â¢ Ã¢â¬Â says Lincoln of the audacious moment from the second episode, in which his heroic lawman, Rick Grimes, hatches a plan to escape the zombie horde by trying to lookÃ¢â¬âand smellÃ¢â¬âlike one of them. The wickedly bleak work was so exhausting and unsettling that the actor says he improvised the line that effectively stops the scene (Ã¢â¬ÅWe need more gutsÃ¢â¬Â) only because he wanted the scene to end. Not that it got any better the next day, when Lincoln and young costar Steven Yeun had to zombie-walk through downtown Atlanta with intestines and severed feet draped over their shoulders. Ã¢â¬ÅAfterward,Ã¢â¬Â Lincoln says, Ã¢â¬ÅSteven asks me, Ã¢â¬ËIs this normal for Hollywood?Ã¢â¬â¢ And I said, Ã¢â¬ËFar from normal, my friend. Far from normal.Ã¢â¬â¢ Ã¢â¬Â
To be clear, no real persons alive or undead were harmed in the filming of that scene. (Your fake-guts recipe: faux blood, Vaseline, K-Y jelly. Mix and enjoy!) To be even more clear, The Walking DeadÃ¢â¬â developed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Frank Darabont from an acclaimed comic book by writer Robert KirkmanÃ¢â¬âis a monster smash, one thatÃ¢â¬â¢s being hailed as the yearÃ¢â¬â¢s best new series. Debuting on Halloween to record-breaking ratings for a basic-cable drama, this great and gory end-of-the-world epic has stunned industry observers by holding strong, averaging 5 million viewers a weekÃ¢â¬âmore than twice the average of AMCÃ¢â¬â¢s now-second biggest hit, Mad Men. The network has already ordered a 13-episode second season that may not arrive until next fall. That may sound like an interminable wait for fans (call them Undeadheads), especially since the first season concludes on Dec. 5 after only six episodes. Then again, Halloween does seem like the most wonderful time of the year for a zombie saga. In the words of exec producer Gale Anne Hurd (The Terminator): Ã¢â¬ÅWhy mess with a good thing?Ã¢â¬Â
Please: DonÃ¢â¬â¢t. While itÃ¢â¬â¢s way easy to define The Walking Dead by its outrageous horror-genre violence and viscera (never has a TV series more indulged a blood-splattering head shot), what makes it a cut above is its brainy envisioning of a terrifying apocalyptic meltdown that leaves human characters struggling for physical and spiritual survival by snaring them in one moral quagmire after another. Your beloved spouse is now a zombie. Do you put her down or wait in hope for a cure? A member of your community needs to be rescued. HeÃ¢â¬â¢s also a vile racist. Is he worth the bullets and manpower to save? What is the value of a human life? Who makes the rules when the world breaks down? Into the maelstrom rides Rick Grimes, an idealistic Southern sheriffÃ¢â¬â¢s deputy who awakens from a coma to discover civilization has imploded because of an inexplicable pandemic that has turned human beings into shambling cannibals. After a harrowing search, Rick reunites with wife Lori (Prison BreakÃ¢â¬â¢s Sarah Wayne Callies) and young son Carl (Chandler Riggs) and joins a camp of survivors led by best friend and partner Shane (Jon Bernthal). The final two episodes of the season will see the survivors trek to the Centers for Disease Control. Ã¢â¬ÅThe end of the season brings our charactersÃ¢â¬âand the audienceÃ¢â¬â to key questions,Ã¢â¬Â says Darabont. Ã¢â¬ÅAre there answers? Is there hope? Is there any structure or authority or government working on our behalf?Ã¢â¬Â Pause. Ã¢â¬ÅThatÃ¢â¬â¢s a pretty legitimate question even without a zombie apocalypse.Ã¢â¬Â
As Darabont prepped the pilot and developed scripts with other writers, he and Nicotero fleshed out their vision for the showÃ¢â¬â¢s flesh-chewing revenants, known in the series as Ã¢â¬ÅwalkersÃ¢â¬Â or Ã¢â¬Ågeeks.Ã¢â¬Â They took their visual cues from the comic bookÃ¢â¬â¢s zombies: long necks, pronounced teeth, faces gaunt from starvation. Each zombie bears marks of an individual history; a deereating zombie in episode 3, played by Nicotero himself, had hideous facial lacerationsÃ¢â¬âmachete wounds, he explains, from an offscreen skirmish. The zombies of The Walking Dead are victims of tragedy, not metaphors for social satireÃ¢â¬âhence youÃ¢â¬â¢ll never see cheeky caricatures like Politician Zombie or TV Newsman Zombie or Glee Club Zombie. Ã¢â¬ÅWe didnÃ¢â¬â¢t want them to become a parody of anything, or even themselves,Ã¢â¬Â says Nicotero. Ã¢â¬ÅOur ambition was to make the audience actually feel and care for the zombie, not merely be frightened by it.Ã¢â¬Â
The actors who play The Walking DeadÃ¢â¬â¢s not-undead characters all tell variations of the same story about becoming involved in the series. Ã¢â¬ÅI got an e-mail outlining the project,Ã¢â¬Â says Lincoln. Ã¢â¬ÅThe first thing I read was Ã¢â¬ËAMC.Ã¢â¬â¢ I went, Ã¢â¬ËGreat! IÃ¢â¬â¢ve been waiting for an AMC opportunity!Ã¢â¬â¢ Then it said Ã¢â¬ËThe Walking Dead.Ã¢â¬â¢ Terrific title. Then the names. Ã¢â¬ËFrank Darabont.Ã¢â¬â¢ Ã¢â¬ËGale Anne Hurd.Ã¢â¬â¢ Great. And then it said Ã¢â¬ËZombie survival horror.Ã¢â¬â¢ I think I actually did a literal double take. I was like, Ã¢â¬ËReally?!Ã¢â¬â¢ I was a bit reticent. It was only the next day, when they sent me this top secret script, that it really dawned on me what the show had a chance to do, and I got very excited.Ã¢â¬Â
Darabont had never heard of Lincoln (perhaps best known to American audiences as the Guy Who Was in Love With Keira Knightley in Love Actually) when the casting directors suggested him for Rick Grimes. Ã¢â¬ÅI was like, Ã¢â¬ËAre you kidding me? IÃ¢â¬â¢m looking for a cross between Gary Cooper and Sam Shepard and youÃ¢â¬â¢re giving me the Love Actually guy?Ã¢â¬â¢ Ã¢â¬Â Darabont says he became a convert after flying Lincoln out to Los Angeles and filming an audition with Bernthal in the garage of his house. Ã¢â¬ÅWhatÃ¢â¬â¢s weird for me now,Ã¢â¬Â says Darabont, Ã¢â¬Åis that whenever I hear him talk with his English accent, IÃ¢â¬â¢m like, Ã¢â¬ËWhereÃ¢â¬â¢s Rick? Stop pretending youÃ¢â¬â¢re British!Ã¢â¬â¢ Ã¢â¬Â
But before he begins hashing out next season, Darabont says heÃ¢â¬â¢d like to figure how the series will ultimately end. ThatÃ¢â¬â¢s an ironic concern, considering The Walking Dead was conceived as the never-ending zombie saga. That may work in comics, but not so much in the category of serialized television that The Walking Dead occupies, where viewers can grow weary and even cynical about stories if they sense they lack Ã¢â¬Åmaster planÃ¢â¬Â direction or purpose. (Just ask Team Lost.) Darabont gets thisÃ¢â¬âand heÃ¢â¬â¢s working on it. Ã¢â¬ÅMy next big conversation with Robert, now that weÃ¢â¬â¢ve gotten through the first six, will be: Ã¢â¬ËWhat is your endgame, Robert? I canÃ¢â¬â¢t believe I have not asked you this!Ã¢â¬â¢ I kinda wanna know RobertÃ¢â¬â¢s idea, for my own sanity and purposes,Ã¢â¬Â says Darabont. Ã¢â¬ÅIÃ¢â¬â¢ll let you know what he tells me.Ã¢â¬Â No worries. WeÃ¢â¬â¢re not in a rush for The Walking Dead to die anytime soon.