English actor Andrew Lincoln is best known for his portrayal of Rick Grimes, the lead character on the AMC horror drama series ‘The Walking Dead’, which has run for six seasons. His first major role was in the BBC drama ‘This Life’ followed by roles in the Channel 4 sitcom ‘Teachers’ and Mark in the 2003 romantic comedy film ‘Love Actually’.
However, it’s been ‘The Walking Dead’ that’s made him a globally famous face, with the show, now approaching its seventh season, among the most watched series in the world.
Here, he talks to us about his own experience of growing up with zombies, and why he thinks his own show has proved so popular...
Growing up, do you remember the first zombie films and the ‘video nasties?’
I do remember them. I remember ‘I Spit on your Grave’ and ‘Driller Killer’ and I remember that there was this sort of subversive cult. There were whisperings of these certain VHS tapes and some were apocryphal myths. Some films were said to be snuff movies, when they clearly weren’t.
Do you remember any zombie films, specifically?
When I was a teenager I used to go round to my friend’s house, James, a dear friend from school and he had ‘The Evil Dead’ films. He was very keyed into that genre. We have a common history of vampires and Mary Shelley but the zombie mythology, specifically, comes from America and I wasn’t as keyed in to that. Obviously, I have become a part of it now. I would say that the horror movies that spoke to me as a teenager were ‘Jaws’ and ‘Don’t Look Now’, which was huge. I think [’Don’t Look Now’ director] Nic Roeg is such a different kind of filmmaker. That film is so challenging and, editorially, he is really clever. It was more a meditation on grief, like a lot of horror movies. It is about fear, death and bereavement.
The sad thing is that a film like that probably wouldn’t get made today…
You are absolutely right. It’s a very interesting point. Where would that market be and where would that sweet spot be now in current filmmaking? I am not sure. It is probably on television now, for that kind of film. It is an interesting thing, a question to be posed. Would it be made? There will always be auteurs that will get films made, but who is going to stump up the cash to make something like that? You can imagine the pitch: ‘It’s about a couple that lost their child and they go to Venice and they are haunted by it.’ It doesn’t make any sense but I think it is a beautiful, beautiful love story, really.
Why do you think ‘The Walking Dead’ has proved so popular?
There are whole conventions given over to this genre and it is a remarkable thing. I don’t know. My first thought would be Frank Darabont who was instrumental in identifying that there was a niche market that hadn’t been explored on television and he decided to write something that I had never read before, where the first episode was like a silent movie. I had never read a pilot quite like it.
And then I think a lot has to be said for [comic book creator] Robert Kirkman. He has written source material that has lasted for over 12 years now and which continues to have a voracious market. So that obviously has good storytelling — to be able to hold a very savvy readership. Those two things — one of the most pre-eminent storytellers in Hollywood and source material that has had longevity — combined with having Gale Anne Hurd, one of the most amazing producers in Hollywood. Then, also, shooting on film had a huge impact. And it was a great original idea to make something was six hours of a continuous movie and a continuous story that is ever-changing and which keeps reinventing itself through the loss of characters and the movement of trying to find a safe haven. It is lightning in a bottle.
Sometimes it happens and maybe the time and the culture were right for it to capture people’s imaginations. It feels like the media fuelled it as well; social media really took off as this was growing. The [fans’] ownership rights on it became more tribal as well, and maybe that built the cult status into something bigger.
When you play a character for six years, do you find that the writers start incorporating parts of your personality into the role?
You are right. All the characters I have played in 23 years of acting, part of it them are me and my imagination. What happens when you do a long-running TV show, certainly, with this where there is a plethora of really talented actors, is that we riff a bit and we improvise and we see things in off-cuts of scenes that surprise the writers or the show runners. And they go, ‘We’ll look at that,’ and it germinates into a storyline two seasons down the road. So I think if you throw things out there, certainly with the quality of the writers that we have got and the sort of fastidiousness in the way Scott Gimple runs the edit, I think you are absolutely right. People spot things that will be quite interesting to pursue further down the line.
How do you think that Rick Grimes has changed across the six years you’ve played him?
He has changed enormously since the first guy that I woke up with in the hospital. And that is one of the enduring appeals of playing the part; their environment forms these people. Is it nature or is it nurture? That is the eternal question that is thrown into this crucible. What is learned, what is already there? That is the interesting thing about the father and the son. He [the son] has fewer things to hold onto from the old world so perhaps his adapting into this new world is less painful than someone who has been anchored in what came before.
For me, it is a really interesting thing to explore. Rick has changed a great deal. I love the fact that he is almost replicated. He was almost channelling Shane [Walsh, played by Jon Bernthal] in Season 5, while he was at odds with him in Season 2. He was the sort of moral high ground, or the old moral code, and now he has adapted just this last episode. In the returning [Season 6] mid-season premier, he has recalibrated his leadership again. He has had to. He has admitted he was wrong and now we stand at the beginning of a potentially civilised nation, a real civilisation. So he has got hope again.
What are the conflicts that abound in Season 6?
Our show needs thrills and spills and jeopardy. There is also nuance, of course, but that is something that is very appealing. You will see in a certain episode that it is almost the first time that we have ever tonally changed the show to such a large degree. It is much more about hanging with these people. What is it like to be with them [in a more civilised environment]? What are we fighting for? Romance? Love? Laughter? Future? It’s about the beginnings of culture again, and how do soldiers do that? Maybe we are a little early in the show for a comedy of manners [laughs] but we have a little bit of that in a certain episode.
Do you enjoy the action scenes? Rick is a badass…
I love it. And the people I trained with at RADA think it is hilarious; I am classically trained and yet I wear cowboy boots and a Stetson and I shoot zombies for a living. I am a zombie-slayer so yes, it is [hilarious]. People often say, ‘Do you think it struggles to break out of the genre of horror?’ And I say, ‘It is not a horror; it is a Western. That’s what we do.’ This is like an apocalyptic Western. We shoot it like a Western. There is a very classical Western theme throughout it. One of my favourite movies is ‘The Magnificent Seven’. One of our most recent episodes is our version of ‘The Magnificent Seven’. We get to play and do crazy stuff, daily, and it changes. It is not like procedural dramas that I have done before where you know that there’s a murder, it needs to be solved, there is a side story, a love affair. This is not like one of those law shows, which is maybe why people engage with it. It is stripped of everything and it is wild. It is the Wild West!
Did you grow up watching a lot of Westerns?
The things on a Saturday that we used to tune into were very American, ‘The A-Team’, ‘Knight Rider’. Also, I loved ‘Blake’s 7’, and ‘Star Trek’. All of those things I dug. But then, of course, it became about the language of film as I got more into drama as an idea of making a living. Then I started eating up all the ’70s and ’80s indie East coast filmmaking in America.
The ’70s was a golden age of American filmmaking…
I think so. Certainly political filmmaking had a real fervour. What really attracted me was the fact that there was a moral imperative behind a lot of filmmaking, which is something that we need to re-engage with.
A number of TV shows really shock their audiences these days…
It is wonderful because you can reward fans for loyalty by shocking them. Rhythmically, it is brilliant as well. It also helps as an actor. I didn’t realise that I would ever play something for six years. You come in with six years of history with an audience who sit there with that knowledge and it takes the pressure off somewhat and makes it more real in a sense. You do your utmost to not disclose how you feel. That is one of the gifts of doing stuff with a brilliant ensemble cast who are really committed and who love the show. It is exciting because Jeffrey Dean Morgan has joined the thing and he emailed me the other day and said, ‘I am so excited to be around people that are so creative, so up for doing something and pushing it.’
When you do conventions and meet fans of ‘The Walking Dead’, are there certain moments from across the seasons that always crop up and that they always want to talk about?
Yes. Laurie [Holden, playing Andrea Harrison] dying and that reaction. Hershel Greene [played by Scott Wilson]. All the big deaths. There is Sophia [Peletier played by Madison Lintz] coming out of the barn, and the killing of Shane. Basically, people recall the big deaths. People try and put their finger on why that is. It is a kind of endurance test watching this because it’s about people dealing with trauma. If people buy in to it, which they do and they love it and identify with certain characters, then they can’t help but be moved by those characters dying. Plus, the Governor [David Morrissey]. Everyone likes a baddie going down [laughs].
How do you feel Season 6 compares to previous seasons, in terms of its pacing?
Because I don’t watch it, I am not a particularly good person to ask that question to but I do know that it does feel like a tale of two mid-seasons. It leads over from last season and, chapter-wise, I think Scott writes close to a narrative that is honouring the comic book. And so sometimes the chapters can end mid-season like this one. That’s very much the end of a chapter that has probably spilled over from when Rick arrived at Alexandria towards the end of last season. So that is the way to look at it rather than season to season. But I would say that the second half [of Season 6] is much more kinetic. The first is more stately, and much more about the gang looking inwards. The second half is much more about looking outside at a much bigger universe.
Do the writers ever give you fake scripts with fake deaths? They are well known for doing that on ‘Game of Thrones’, for example…
I think they do for spoiler concerns. But Stephen Yeun told me that they were going to do a fake, or at least he wasn’t dead, and then I read Episode 3 and I called him up and said, ‘Dude, you ought to call and speak to your reps because it says that you die.’ It was the real deal. I went, ‘Seriously. I think this could be a problem.’ A lot of people on set were really grieving because it wasn’t common knowledge for quite some time.
Do you watch the prequel, ‘Fear the Walking Dead’, or would that ruin things for you?
No. I have met all of the cast, and they are lovely, and great actors. We met them all at Comic-Con. I am very focussed on just doing this, and there is something to be said about keeping isolated. We [as characters] are isolated and we don’t know certain things and if there is a common mythology I don’t want to know things that Rick shouldn’t know. I just haven’t had an opportunity to watch it but I know the lead actors’ work and I admire it very much.
‘The Walking Dead: The Complete Sixth Season is out now on Blu-ray™ and DVD, courtesy of Entertainment One. Tap the first picture below to open our slideshow: