The Walking Dead: Andrew Lincoln & Greg Nicotero interview

The Walking Dead star and director talk about what's coming in season 6, the future of Alexandria, and the raging grief of Rick Grimes...

Spoilers for anyone not up to date with The Walking Dead.

I’ve long extolled the virtues of Andrew Lincoln’s character in The Walking Dead, Rick Grimes, as one who immediately invoked sympathy. From Rick’s unwanted initial push to group leader, through to the tragic loss of his wife, his bitey, bearded rage and recent relapse into a one-man killing spree that inspired even the most timid of Alexandrians to take up arms and mush some zombie brains, it’s impossible not to feel for him. You may question Rick’s decisions over the years, but you certainly can’t question Andrew Lincoln’s fiercely committed performance. 

Joining Lincoln on this season 6B round-table interview was Greg Nicotero, best known for creating bloody murder (literally) since his early days as an effects artist on Day Of The Dead and The Evil Dead II. Nicotero continued his collaboration with Sam Raimi right through to the recent Oz The Great And Powerful, while working alongside pretty much every great horror director over the decades, including Wes Craven and John Carpenter. Since then he’s become one of The Walking Dead’s best directors, starting the mid-season premiere off in spectacular style, blending tension, character work, gore and RPGs into a seamless mix.

Here’s what two of The Walking Dead’s leading men had to say about recent episodes No Way Out and The Next World, the future of Alexandria, and Rick Grimes’ raging grief…

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The mid-season premiere was just fantastic, especially as it contained pretty much everything that’s great about the show in just one episode. Despite everything that happened in it, the dividing moment in our house came after Carl’s accident, when Rick decided to leave his side and inflict his own brand of rage on the zombie horde – my wife screamed obscenities at Rick for being selfish, whereas I was much more of the ‘unleash’ mentality. Where did you fall on that character moment? Did you both agree that Rick made the right choice?

Greg Nicotero: That sounds like an Andy Lincoln question!

Andrew Lincoln: Well, I obviously fell into the Rick camp because I had to do it. I know what you mean, but I do think that there is something about Rick and I’ve always sort of identified – he’s like a shark, he keeps moving forward, he has to be occupied. Maybe that’s a male trait, I don’t know, but I think if he gets too emotionally engaged by something or realises that he’s powerless, that is the ultimate… He had to hand over his son to somebody he didn’t know to try and save his life and I think it was unbearable and I think the trauma of what had just happened in the scene where the whole Anderson family bite it, quite literally! That was the only way he could process this trauma and it just got shaped into this fury. It’s also deeply cool to go on a rampage! When that is principally why I’m employed on this show, as a zombie slayer.

GN: And I don’t think there was any intent in his mind that anyone else would join him, he just goes! And we spent the first half of the season showing the Alexandrians and Rick’s group and the fact that there’s a perception that they’re not aligned and the thing that I talk about very often in the show is that it’s one thing to live day-to-day, it’s another thing to look at society and moving forward to next week/next month/next year. You can’t exist without other people and the whole end of the first half of this season was about that, was about making this group of people appear to be one unit.

So when we shot that slashing and the quick cutting at the end it literally morphs them from all these different people into one unit and that unit is now Alexandria and then from this moment on they will be bound together and their dedication to survive and move forward against whatever now future obstacles will appear.

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Will that give it a more hopeful tone?

GN: I think so. I mean I think it’s probably the closest we have to a happy ending when Carl squeezes Rick’s hand – we don’t really have a lot of happy endings on our show – even though my ten year old daughter thought Carl was a zombie!

AL: No! [laughing] I’m glad to see your day job isn’t affecting your children!

GN: She exclaimed “He’s a Walker!” and I was like “Yeah the next scene is Carl bites Rick and he’s dead and then the show’s over!”

AL: That’s absolutely brilliant!

GN: But no it’s a happy ending and it’s hope.

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AL: That’s right and that’s why it’s implicit in the speech, he says that’s the feeling for the first time, at the end of the battle for Alexandria, that he’s felt hope, since it began. I think it’s certainly a watershed moment in his leadership, he’s certainly going ‘Well wait a minute, I want you to see the new world’ that’s how hopeful it is, it’s a beautiful phrase and I think that’s certainly what we’re going to see. A lot of the show has been them looking inwards and the group dynamic and Alexandria and how can they assimilate, now we’re looking outside the walls and like you say the shots got bigger and wider and more expansive as this season goes on and I think in one direction we certainly see hope and then in the other direction we see something very, very bad coming…

GN: That’s a great analogy though, because it really is – and trust me when I say that from last week’s episode [No Way Out] onwards, the show has a different tone. There is a bit of a lightness in tonight’s episode [The Next World]. There’s a lightness to that episode that’s a direct correlation to that sense of hope that we experienced at the end of the last episode, and light in a way that feels very unlike our world, there’s a confidence and we’re moving forward.

AL: Well I think that’s right and I think what are we fighting for, if not romance, hope, love, laughter, things that…

GN: Mullets!

AL: But I do think that’s what this episode tonight [The Next World] is about, it is just hanging with these people in a new community that has begun to… It’s almost like that speech, the morning after the battle, is year zero, that’s the beginning. If they were writing history books it would begin there, that’s the first day of a real civilisation, of real potential.

GN: And Eugene even says that, he says “Listen, this is going to be the moment people talk about” when they all move out onto the street, so we weren’t kidding! It’s exciting guys, I’m telling you the next couple of episodes where the show’s going – tonight’s episode in particular it came from a very unique conversation between Andy, Norman [Reedus] and I, because when you have the show and you have a big cast and people spread out there’s some fantastic chemistry that we don’t always get an opportunity to rely on, or get to experience and we’re sitting having Indian one night and it was like ‘We need a Butch and Sundance episode, let’s get the band back together!’ kind of situation and it was great conversation that we had and looking back on it was like ‘wow’ tonight’s episode is a bit more light and…

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AL: Well Angela did a great job – Angela Kang, one of our great ‘go to’ writers – because tonally it’s a kind of seismic shift, we’ve never done what we do tonight and everyone, like the crew was a bit ‘Is this the show? Are we doing this?’ And actually I think it needs that, it’s an endurance test being a fan of this show – this is hardcore man! You go through a lot – we go through a lot, but you guys probably go through a lot more trauma than we do! [laughs] So you need laughter and that’s what I love about the returning episode, you know there’s a moment just before Glenn gets potentially killed for the third… fourteenth… eighteenth time this season, those guys show up and it’s hilarious, it’s a bad-ass, funny moment and that’s why I think that when we do it well, we can push the ante in that direction.

GN: There’s been a very, very deliberate effort made to make Alexandria a relevant place to live, because if you think about it the big concern last year was is it going to feel like main street USA, with these pretty houses and a little fence around it. One of the things we did when we established Alexandria last year was we wanted to feel the wall in every shot, we wanted to feel like it was a little closed in, then all of a sudden in this season we spend a lot of the time outside those walls and we’re seeing big, massive vistas, so we establish Alexandria is a little oasis in the middle of this gigantic dead world, so through this season and onward we show how this dead world manifests its threats, either in the form of Walkers, or the Saviours as we’ve seen already – they’ve shown up and then we’ve blown them up with RPGs!

How far in advance to have to plan each season, especially in terms of knowing the tone?

GN: I tell you Scott [Gimple] has a really good sense – he’s a brilliant guy, he gets the genre which I think is one of the reasons why the show is as strong as it’s been year after, year after year – he’s got stuff lined up for season eight, season nine and we’ll have a conversation where he mentions ‘Oh yeah that happens in season ten.’ Generally the way it works is they’ll pitch the first half of the season to us and then outlines will go out and then scripts will go out and then I’ll get a sense – probably next week – as to where the first half of season seven is going to go and you guys will also get a sense from the next few episodes as to where it’s going to go, because there’s a lot of interesting people that may show up…

Negan was mentioned!

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GN: People! I’ll say. But again it’s really about opening our world now, you know when Rick says to Carl “I want to show you a larger world” he doesn’t realise exactly how large the world is going to get, especially for our group and it’s a very exciting time. So next week we’ll start getting into it, then we’ll start shooting in May until November and then next February we’ll be here sitting at this table!

One thing you’ve mentioned before is the devotion and energy that the cast bring every time, for every episode. Having interviewed several members of the cast before, one of the things that’s often mentioned is that Andrew leads from the front, especially having been there from the start. Where does your drive and constant devotion come from? Is it a love for the show, or professional dedication?

AL: I think it’s… well there’s nothing quite like galvanising force of complete fear, to unify a cast and I think that’s what happened in the first season, we all linked arms and jumped off a cliff and hoped that the parachute would open. I think all I’m doing, if that’s what people are saying, is honouring he legacy of that original cast and crew. And we’re very, very fortunate that we have a lot of the same crew that have been there all the way through, so it’s just something that developed a really exciting working environment that was created by all of us. We all started sweating and didn’t stop for six months and you went ‘Okay so we’re doing an apocalyptic, survival horror show about zombies. Let’s give it everything we’ve got and see what happens’ you know?

And there were probably two moments in that – the first was three weeks in when we did that sequence when I woke up in the hospital bed and Frank Darabont sidled over to me and he’d been watching the rushes and he says “I think we might have something special” and you know when someone of that quality and talent says something like that you take it seriously. And then there was another time when we first went to ComicCon and we heard the reaction to the trailer and that was amazingly moving and that we weren’t sort of… fucking it up! [laughs] It was like [exasperated] “Oh my god!” It was more relief than anything, there wasn’t any celebration, it was just relief.

And I just love this story. When you see the fans and the commitment they have to the comic book – Greg just said it, you know it’s a show made by fans, for fans. I think fundamentally, Greg, Scott, Gale Anne Hurd – the most important people at the heart of this show are fans and incredibly experienced in this area and it just diffuses and seeps onto set. And there’s also the fact that there’s quite a lot of people watching it and we kind of have an obligation! It’s their show now, we handed it to them in that first ComicCon, we went ‘Oh, it’s theirs now.’

So I think all of those things and also I don’t want to drop the ball once, there’s something neurotic about me in that I don’t think we should waste a moment, it’s great, it’s a great story.

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GN: I don’t think it’s neurotic, I think it’s passion.

AL: Yeah.

GN: I think we all share that. Traditionally most of my experiences before this were movies, you get a movie, you prep for three months, shoot for three months, everybody goes away and you seem them on the next movie. This is seven years of us being in the trenches together and I’ll never forget when I worked on Inglorious Basterds and the night before I left Berlin, Quentin and I are were talking and he said “Listen, knowing that you’re in the trenches with me on every one of my projects, that’s all I need to keep me going.”

And I think about that a lot, because I’m in the trenches with Andy and we’re fighting side by side and we fight hard for this show and the fact that we’re coming up on season seven and I have the same excitement about coming back to work, that I did when we first started and it’s just how I’m wired and it’s how he’s wired and it’s how Norman’s wired. When we’re off for these four months we keep calling each other going “Fuck, can we get back to work now? Let’s go, come on seriously!”

AL: Well it’s funny you say that as well because Lennie [James] called me up, because we’d been trying to get Lennie back for a time hadn’t we and he’s just so talented and so busy that – and then he called me up and just said “How is it, how’s the show?” and I said “Stronger than ever, really just trust me on this one.” He got back to the first episode with the quarry and all the rest of it and after about six weeks he went “This is like a pilot, this is not like any…” the attention to detail and the commitment from everybody, he said “This is like doing a movie pilot” just that focus and he asked if it was like this all the time and I said “Yeah, it doesn’t let up.”

And he went away and he said that he came back home when he was off for an episode and said that his wife told him “You’re unbearable, what’s wrong with you?” and he said “I want to get back, I miss everybody!” And that’s what this show is, it kind of seeps into you… you get infected!

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A lot of what happens in The Walking Dead is about loss and traditionally in film and especially TV, grief is often skipped over, you get the character that says they’ve lost their husband/wife or whoever and they seem to move on very quickly, or not show their upset in any real way. Back in season three I thought your performance when Lori died was outstanding, really…

AL: Thank you.

Because the power with which you did it and the fact that you had the time to really show Rick let it all out and from a personal point of view I think that’s how I would feel when your world comes down. Was it a conscious decision to move away from that TV tradition and really explore that area?

AL: I’m not sure, I mean I think I was just trying to play what the scene… what I felt the scene was, you know? And I was very conscious that this is the guy that had been pulling everybody through the apocalypse, he’s the leader, everybody fell in line behind him, but his engine, his driving force, his reasons for pulling himself and the drip out of his arm was his wife and his child, he was a family man, fundamentally a family man, which I loved. So to take one of those engines, one of the reasons for his incredible tenacity away, I just said I think he needs to fall, I wanted to see him drop his gun, I wanted to see him go to his knees, I said you should see him [makes a slow descent noise and re-enacts the fall face] it should be a slow drop, that’s just what I thought it would be.

And also losing Sarah Wayne Callies as an actor, that was a formative influence on the culture of the show, it was hugely seismic, it kind of changes everything, so I didn’t allow her on set actually I said “I don’t want you to be there, I just want you to go.” And you kind of know that you’ve done the right job when the camera guys sort of look at you differently, they were all a bit uncomfortable, they didn’t like looking in the camera! [laughs] I went “Oh I’ve done that!”

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GN: It was agonising.

AL: It was agonising and I think it was absolutely essential that it was that, because I think you’re right, I think people avoid talking about grief or death, I’ve been reading articles recently about it and that people seemed to be opening up the debate a little bit more about… there seems to be a Western sensibility that you just brush it under the carpet, it’s all about youth and life, whereas in other cultures it seems to be that they own it a bit more.

And I know that we get amazing fan mail from people – very moving fan mail – that they say the show helped them process their grief and I mean that’s huge information. If a fantasy, if a story can help you feel something I think that’s really cool. I’m not saying that I think we’re helping – it’s a story, it’s fantasy, it’s made-up but stories are how we process the world aren’t they? But I was just honouring what the script was really.

GN: And then the entire next episode…

AL: Oh I went bat-shit crazy.

GN: The next episode when he goes back into the prison looking for her and it was interesting and this is something I will attribute to my experiences working with actors, because as a make-up artist they’re the first ones that come into the trailer in the morning and you establish a rapport with them and for Andy’s scenes in the next episode, I went to the producers and the AD and I said “We’re shooting them all in one day and we’re shooting them in sequence” I said I want to follow that descent into the prison and into that madness and I want him to be able to take that journey and just let it go. As opposed to ‘We’re just gonna shoot – just run down this hallway and then another day we’re gonna shoot you coming round this hallway.’

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My job as the director is to provide this environment for the actors to be able to do what they do so well. I don’t need to give him direction, I just need to clear the space, clear the table off and just let them do what they’re great at. I remember me going to Andy and saying [in hushed tones] “Let’s just do it all. All one day, you’re going to be a fucking wreck by the end of the day, but it’s going to be great.” And I mean it was, by the time he gets into that boiler room and finds that walker there with the bloated stomach and hair in the mouth and you’re just like “Ohhh!” Not good!

AL: [Laughing] It’s so vile, insanely so!

Andrew Lincoln and Greg Nicotero, thank you very much!

The Walking Dead airs on Mondays at 9pm on FOX