When it comes to crack TV, AMC’s massively addictive series “The Walking Dead” reigns supreme. The shorthand description would be “zombie-apocalypse survival thriller,” and that’s true enough, but it goes deeper too. If you take away law, religion and society — what’s left? Can such things as compassion or morality exist in a brutally Darwinian world? If all that’s left is killing to survive, then what’s the difference between us and the ravenous undead? In that sense, “The Walking Dead” is intensely concerned with what it means to be human.
While the zombie special effects are wonderfully gnarly and the suspense is at times unbearable, what really hooks viewers is the performances from the show’s remarkably strong ensemble cast. Its two most popular stars, Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus — who play morally conflicted cop Rick Grimes and bad-ass biker Daryl Dixon — were in Tokyo recently to promote the Japanese airing of Season 4, which begins on Fox on Sunday, and sat down to chat with The Japan Times.
As Season 3 moved into Season 4, characters were killed off with such impunity it began to feel like a very real possibility that the series would end when everyone was dead. The loss of beloved characters always comes as a shock to the viewers, but how is it for the cast?
“It sucks, man,” says Reedus. “It’s like real life, you always feel like you have more time with someone. And we don’t really know in advance when people are gonna die. We get a script and we find out. I think they tell the person involved a little in advance so they have the opportunity to deal with it. But we’re so busy on the set and you get that script and someone dies, and then they’re gone, and you’re kind of in shock, because we’re all real tight.”
Lincoln concurs: “It’s the only bad thing about being in this show. Because you make these great friendships. But we don’t want it to turn into “Survivor”; that’s not what this show’s about. If you get into that situation, it becomes more about shock than a coherent story that we’re trying to tell.”
“The Walking Dead” is well into fantasy territory with its plague of flesh-hungry “walkers,” but Lincoln notes, “You have to play it as real as you possibly can for it to ring true.” When asked what it’s like to play the same character for four straight years, Lincoln says, “You get to breathe with this person a lot longer, and that’s really exciting. If they keep pushing my character the way they’ve been pushing him, I’d be more than happy to do this for another few years. Or as long as Rick’s alive. (Laughs.)”
Reedus — who used to live in Chiba as a teen, and admits to some “crazy stories” that he’d rather not see in print — points out that “there have been things with (the character of) Daryl I didn’t totally agree with and fought to change. I mean, there were early scripts where Daryl took drugs and said racist things, but I always wanted to play him like an Al-Anon member, like he grew up sort of embarrassed by his life. And that gave him so many more layers than just doing whatever his brother (violent redneck Merle) does. That’s something I called Greg (Nicotero, one of the show’s producers and makeup artists) about, and he helped, in a very generous way. I think if an actor feels that strongly about their character, you can manipulate it a little bit and make everyone happy.”
It seems plausible that having explored a post-civilization world of total anarchy for four years could have affected the actors’ view of human nature. Do they have faith that in the event of a pandemic, asteroid strike or some other cataclysmic event, people wouldn’t revert to savagery? Lincoln is an optimist.
“We wouldn’t be here if we were inherently murderous, bestial beings,” he says. “History would have ended a long time ago if there wasn’t something inherently good in us. We are both. And I love the idea that a lawman (Lincoln’s character), the visible embodiment of law and order, gets everything stripped away, and what does he stand for? He’s making it up as he goes along.”
Reedus, true to his character, sees the apocalypse as “the opportunity to be the person you want to be. Your clock is ticking; who do you want to be and what do you want to stand for? What will you put up with, and what fights will you pick? I think that’s a huge reason why the show is popular.”
As to what we can expect in the second half of Season 4, Reedus is chuffed: “I think the second half has our best episodes yet, I really do. You really get a sense of what this group means to each other, and you get the fear of having none of the security they had before. I can’t wait for it to come out, because I can’t wait to see the reaction.”
“We’re thrilled with this season,” agrees Lincoln. “I think the writing is the strongest we’ve had since Season 1. I think probably three of my most favorite episodes are in the back eight, one of which I was so shocked when I read it, I had to call Norman just to hear another human voice.”
The second half of “The Walking Dead” Season 4 starts Sun. March 2 (11 p.m.) on Fox.