‘Walking Dead’ star Andrew Lincoln aims for Gary Cooper in zombie hell

Oct. 26, 2010 | 9:27 a.m.

Oscar-nominated writer-director Frank Darabont is gearing up to unveil his new AMC series “The Walking Dead” on Halloween, and over the next few days, Hero Complex contributor Gina McIntyre will be talking with some of the show’s key figures about bringing Robert Kirkman’s respected graphic novel to the small screen with a big splash. Here, she chats with English actor Andrew Lincoln, who plays Rick Grimes, the small-town sheriff who wakes up from the coma he suffered after being shot in the line of duty to find that the world he knew has been overrun with the undead.

"The Walking Dead"

"The Walking Dead." (AMC)

G.M.: What most intrigued you about the idea of playing Rick Grimes in “The Walking Dead”?

A.L.: I thought it was a terrific title, and then I found out it was about zombies. I thought, right — AMC, zombies. Then I saw the people involved, and I was intrigued. I read the script, and it blew me away. I didn’t know anything about the graphic novel, so that’s when I got really hooked into it. I just loved the extremity of the world and how people react to that. The way that I see it is it’s an unflinching look at the greatness in humanity and also the worst in humanity. At the heart of the pilot episode and the reason why I wanted to do it is, there’s a story, a very human, quiet story in among this  sort of operatic world. Frank, when we first spoke about it, said it’s these pockets of humanity in the middle of this hell that kind of keep it alive, basically. That was one of the most endearing things about the character of Rick. I didn’t want him to be this impenetrable, impervious hero. He just finds himself in situations. There’s a quote, a hero is a man who does what he can. I absolutely feel that Rick is an everyman that’s forced into a position, and he seems to keep coming up with what it takes.

G.M.: You have a lot of time alone on screen in the pilot. Was that an exciting prospect for you as an actor, or did it seem daunting?

A.L.: I like to think of it as me and my horse. I spend most of my time talking to a horse or a CB or the undead, and I don’t get much back from them. We have to work very, very hard at making the world real. It’s one of the great things about the show that I really responded to; it’s almost Greek because it’s life-or-death situations continually. You have incredible combustible scenes between all the characters because of the situation, and it makes for great drama. It’s wild is what it is. Most of the work we did on it was all about grounding it in truth, and because a lot of it was silent, it had to be felt, and each beat had to be hit, otherwise it just becomes one emotion, and it becomes dull.

G.M.: The images of you waking up in the hospital and wandering into the city are very reminiscent of “28 Days Later.” Did you watch any earlier horror films to prepare? Or did you intentionally avoid those kinds of influences?

A.L.: I read the graphic novel and then stopped reading it just because I didn’t want to get ahead of the game, and I didn’t want to know too much. Rick is almost the audience in one sense; you’re introduced to the world through his eyes and ears. I didn’t want to know too much because I think it’s very important that he discovers through the characters he meets what has happened, and I didn’t want to play anything that wasn’t there. To get a sense of place, I went out [to the location] early. The way that I get into a culture, I read Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full,” which is all about Atlanta. I read “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” “The Last of the Savages,” a Jay McInerney [novel] about the South. I will use fiction and other cultural influences to get into a place but not necessarily the genre because then I think you start replicating, and it becomes a bit boring. I’m all about trying to make it as real and truthful, me and my character, as possible.

G.M.: Had you ridden horses before?

"The Walking Dead"

Andrew Lincoln and Blade in "The Walking Dead." (AMC)

A.L.: My wife is a very good rider, and she would say not really. In [2009’s] “Wuthering Heights,” I rode; on my honeymoon, we went to South America, and with gauchos I did a bit of riding. I had a horse called Blade. I went to work, and I put on cowboy boots, a Stetson, a bag of guns and got on a horse called Blade and rode into an apocalyptic Atlanta. That was my job for the day, and it was astonishing. He made me look good, that horse, he made me look extremely good. When you call his name, he comes to you. He’s like a dog. I had passable riding skills, but he made me look more Hollywood than I deserved.

G.M.: I read that Frank Darabont said you reminded him of Gary Cooper in those scenes.

A.L.: I was watching Gary Cooper movies as a preparation. I watched a lot of Gary Cooper. There’s an old-fashioned sensibility that I think is part of Rick that I really admired, that’s kind of honorable, honest. He feels like a moral compass for the show that gets eroded through time; that’s where I looked to that era in Hollywood as a reference point.

G.M.: How would you describe the journey your character undertakes in this first season?

A.L: It’s pretty intense. I think it’s no secret that he gets shot at the beginning and he’s in a coma and he wakes up into this Kafkaesque nightmare. He doesn’t know whether or not he’s still dreaming. You follow him through Atlanta, and it’s desolate. He meets a man and a boy, and they sort of save his life, and he discovers that this plague, whatever it is, this thing has happened to humanity, this pandemic. His first instinct is obviously to find his wife and child, so he heads to his house — that’s where he meets the guy — and then he heads into Atlanta because there’s a refugee center, apparently, and then it’s the search. … Eventually he finds them. It’s an odyssey. That’s what it feels like. It’s the continuous search, and then in Episode 3, it becomes this fascinating rebuilding of society. It’s about who takes control, who becomes the leaders. Is it led by power? Is it led by guile? Is it led by maternal instincts? It’s how do we start again when nothing’s left. It’s almost like going back to the Stone Age. It keeps evolving.

It’s a very difficult one to place, the show. It does feel like it’s a continual journey because [the characters are] constantly under threat. Emotionally, it begins in a very, very intense, bewildering place, and it only gets worse. Within it, there are moments of incredible beauty and hope and humanity and dignity but, all the time, almost suppressed and oppressed by the situation. There are a couple of laughs — not many, I have to stress. But when I was doing … looping, it made me laugh. When you do it, you forget what you’re in, and then you see it and you go, “Oh my god! We’re in that.”

G.M.: So you were surprised to see the way the zombie gore plays out in the middle of the drama?

A.L.: One of the most important factors is the makeup and special effects. It’s so real. I said to Frank Darabont, that was one of my first questions, I went, right, zombies. He said, don’t worry, it’s under control. Two words: Greg Nicotero. Rightly enough, it’s spectacular what they achieved. I knew what was coming when I saw a couple of the scenes, and I laughed out loud because it’s that terrifying, macabre, but it’s so out there it’s hilarious. You have that nervous laughter that comes, which I love. I adore it. You’re so shocked and so bewildered. It’s so incongruous with some of the scenes that are so beautiful and moving, and then it cuts to some real humdingers, I tell you. There’s a couple of spots where I was just flabbergasted. I really couldn’t believe it. Frank’s editing, he’s just got impeccable timing, which makes for great comedic moments. Some of the shots he got were brilliant.

G.M.: How do you think audiences will react to a series that blends hardcore horror with character-based drama?

A.L.: The thing that I hope for the series is that people don’t see it necessarily as a genre piece. I hope people have the same reaction that I did when I first read the pilot. The overriding thing that I really got from the script I was just surprised, it surprised me and it felt new. And it keeps changing, the show, which was really impressive. I loved the way every episode kind of kept moving on and shape shifting.  One never knows what it’s going to end up as, and that’s one of the most exciting and enticing things about my job — particularly starting new shows — is that we don’t know what we’ve made yet. The world doesn’t know what we’ve made. I can talk the hind legs off a camel, but I don’t know. I’ve never been involved in anything quite like it, and that alone, because I’ve been working for 16 years as a professional actor, that makes me excited, whatever the outcome. I hope people have as much fun watching it as we did making it.

– Gina McIntyre

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