After its premiere was delayed by several months due to COVID-19, the two-season The Walking Dead spinoff series The Walking Dead: World Beyond finally makes its debut this week. The story expands the TWD universe in a unique way, taking place 10 years after the zombie outbreak and focusing on a predominantly teenage cast of characters. Unlike the battered groups of survivors from The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead, these teens have been sheltered from walkers (or “empties,” as they’re called on this show) within the walls of a university in Omaha, Nebraska, a thriving colony that has afforded them a relatively normal, safe life post-outbreak.
But, as fans will learn from the very first episode, the Campus Colony (as it’s referred to) does have a seemingly precarious arrangement with the Civic Republic Military (CRM), whose ominous helicopters act as a narrative thread that ties the three shows together. It’s safe to say you’ll learn way more about this mysterious faction in World Beyond than ever before.
The show primarily centers on sisters Iris (Aliyah Royale) and Hope (Alexa Mansour), who leave the safety of the University in search of their father, brilliant scientist Dr. Leo Bennett (Joe Holt), who they’ve learned is somewhere in New York. Joining them on their mission are fellow student Elton (Nicolas Cantu), a resourceful scientist and historian (who also happens to know karate), and school janitor Silas (Hal Cumpston), a soft-spoken social outcast whose murky past has earned him a questionable reputation on campus. The teens are tailed by battle-tested adult guardians Felix (Nico Tortorella) and Huck (Annet Mahendru).
Last fall, I visited the show’s set in Richmond, Virginia, where filming was underway for episode 7 of the show (alas, there were no CRM helicopters in sight). The location was an old waterpark called Hadad’s Lake, which was appropriately creepy-looking. The abandoned facilities looked dreary and greyed-out under the looming rainclouds — the juxtaposition of a children’s park rotting in a post-apocalypse seemed to fit the show thematically as well.
Huddled around a table with other members of the press under a tent that sheltered our equipment from the occasional drizzle, we were joined by the cast members one by one to talk about their respective characters and what fans can expect from the show. Here’s what we learned:
“Iris is smart and caring and loving and doesn’t have a selfish bone in her body,” Royale says of her character. “She really wants to make sure that every single person that she encounters is taken care of and has what they need. At some point she realizes maybe it’s time to start doing things for herself and when she makes that switch, it is a roller coaster of events.”
Serving as the beating heart of the show, Iris is an overachiever on campus and a compassionate leader amongst her peers. She’s got a tight bond with Hope, and while Iris is generally viewed as the more straight-laced, level-headed of the two, the absence of her father compels her to make the drastic decision to venture out beyond the University walls for the first time.
“The mission for Iris is: where’s my dad at?” Royale explains. “I want my dad back. The other side of that is, Iris is following in his footsteps. She’s super involved in science, biomedical engineering, all of those things that her father’s brain is being used for…that’s exactly the path that she’s going towards. Saving the world.”
At the University, though the majority of students haven’t encountered empties, they’re trained by instructors like Felix to defend themselves against the dead, including with a weapon called an S-pole, a staff with a retractable blade at one end. Iris is a fast learner, although she quickly discovers that no amount of training can actually prepare her for the horrors that await in the real world.
“She’s got a lot of information stored up here,” Royale says as she points at her head. “But the minute that she encounters the first walker, it’s this just absolute fear. As much as you learn, as many books as you read, you could never feel [that fear] until you’re in that moment. You’ve got your four best friends next to you, and it’s you or the empty.”
“She doesn’t give a shit about anything,” Mansour says of the rebellious Hope. “She lives for today and I mean, realistically, she doesn’t think she’s going to live tomorrow. She’s pretty sure she could die at any moment and I don’t think she really cares. So she gets herself in trouble, doesn’t care what people say, and is always doing the opposite of what Felix tells her to do. It’s kind of ironic that her name is Hope because she really doesn’t have any of it.”
Hope and Iris have a tight bond despite their polar opposite temperaments and outlooks on life. “They’re complete opposites,” says Mansour. “Iris is the one that will be off studying until four in the morning while Hope would probably be partying until four in the morning. But they love each other. I think they really do balance each other out. Iris will bail Hope out whenever she is sneaking out and doing stuff that she should not be doing, and Hope would take a bullet for her sister.”
As for Hope’s lack of, well, hope, in human beings and their future prospects on the planet, Mansour made it clear that this speaks to a pressing real-world issue of mental health that affects teens everywhere. As someone who was bullied for her ethnicity (she’s half Hispanic, half Egyptian), she feels World Beyond and the platform it’s given her will allow her to help teenagers who are struggling like she has.
“I really hope they realize that they’re not alone,” Mansour says. “I think it’s important for kids who are watching this to take away that it’s okay to be open about what you’re feeling and it’s okay to feel what you’re feeling and it’s not the end of the world, it is going to get better.”
“Felix is the head of security detail at the university,” says Tortorella, who also reveals that his character identifies as queer. “He is kind of an adopted son to the girls’ dad. He had a troubled childhood dealing with his family coming to terms or not coming to terms with him being gay. He’s very much a hero. He protects the people around him in a way that’s contradictory to the stereotype of like what a gay character usually is on television. And that’s why I was really excited to play this role.”
Tortorella, who identifies as genderfluid, felt drawn to the show and the The Walking Dead franchise for its strong representation of marginalized communities. “The diversity was a huge thing coming into it, you know? We have people from all walks of life on this show. Genders, sexualities, race, religions. It was a no brainer for me.”
Hope and Iris’s father took Felix in as family after the outbreak, and Felix’s made a promise to take care of the girls at all costs. Unlike the sisters, he and his partner Huck have seen action outside the Campus’ walls, which makes him a formidable fighter. When Iris and Hope escape the walls of the colony, Felix and Huck quickly give chase.
“Yeah, he’s in full dad mode all the time with these kids,” Tortorella explains. “I think that like after the first episode, the stakes are at maximum levels in terms of our safety and our fight for survival. And Felix is the one that has the most training in terms of any sort of military background that we know of.”
Huck is Felix’s right hand, dear friend, and confidant. She sports a sizable scar across her cheek, which all but confirms she’s been through some tough shit.
“Huck comes from a Marines background,” Mahendru says. “When you first meet Huck, you just know the scar. There’s a story [behind it]. She is an independent thinker. She’s really tough, but she’s really hopeful and really positive and warm and is adamant about bringing the world back to what it was. She wants as many people to live as possible.”
As for Huck’s relationship to the sisters, Mahendru says that she has a deep connection with Hope, who she sees herself in. “She was a bit of a rebel when she was young, [too]. They have a big/little sister relationship, and I train her how to fight. I want her to survive out there. I mean I’m going to send her out there and so I’m responsible for her. I really believe in her potential and I feel her pain. I’ve gone through the same similar things.”
“Elton is a very intellectually curious child,” Cantu says. “He has been sheltered from the world outside with a bunch of horrible, horrible things happening out there. So he’s kind of trying to understand the world for what it is and how nature is changing along with most of humanity. He’s on a journey to analyze and document and just see what this new world is about.”
A classmate of Iris and Hope’s who offers to join them on their quest to find their father, Elton admits that the outside world isn’t exactly foreign to him.
“Elton has been outside of the walls before because he does a lot of experiments outside,” Cantu explains as he motions to the mustard-colored, corduroy suit he’s wearing. “It’s bite proof, which Elton learned through controlled experiments. So he kind of has a little bit of a glimpse as to what the outside world is. But once he steps out there, it’s intense.”
Cantu says he sees a lot of himself in Elton. “I really do relate to Elton. I mean, he’s kind of got this view of the world where he’s very blunt with it. He knows a bunch of the threats out there. He realizes stepping outside of those walls is going to be a life changing thing. The world is brutal and he has just come to accept that. So if it’s coming down to survival, he’s ready, he’s prepared, he’s got everything on lock. And I feel like if I was in an apocalypse, I would prepare similarly to Elton.”
“He’s been shunned by the particular community they’re in. People refer to him as a monster or just completely shun him. It’s like a Boo Radley type of character,” Cumpston reveals about the quiet Silas. “No one knows his exact story, you know what I mean? When kids hear something then they exaggerate and that type of thing.”
Cumpston, a young Australian actor and filmmaker also feels he relates to Silas. “Yeah, everyone’s felt like an outcast. There’s definitely been situations where I’ve felt like an outcast. I’d be a funny kid at school. I joined a soccer team and there’s already these different funny personalities [on the team] and I’m just sort of like the quiet kid who’s also not good [at soccer]. I’m like, ‘Oh, fuck. I need to make up for it by being funny but there are no opportunities.’”
Unlike his three teenage counterparts, Silas isn’t a student at the school, and he’s got little excuse not to join the others on their quest, seeing as he hasn’t got much going for him at the Campus.
“He’s just a janitor who no one speaks to and everyone refers to as a monster,” Cumpston says. “When he walks past people on campus, you can hear that people don’t have very nice things to say about him. He catches wind that there’s an [opportunity] to prove to himself and these other people that he’s not a monster.”
The Walking Dead: World Beyond premieres on Oct. 4 at 10 pm ET on AMC.