Working on The Walking Dead must be a dark and intense experience at times. But how much of a laugh do you get to have?
Lennie James: “It’s a deeply serious place in which nobody laughs and nobody is allowed to speak unless Andrew Lincoln gives you permission.”
“And, mostly, everybody is locked in a room and can only come out if Andrew says it’s OK.”
“Come on, of course we have a laugh! We spend a huge amount of the day laughing. It’s an incredibly fun bunch of people. You can’t get this job done unless you have a laugh.”
Well that’s a relief! Can the mood change quite quickly, though?
“Yeah, but sometimes the intense scenes are the ones where you laugh the most. You need to release the tension in a positive way. This job is about having as much fun as humanly possible but also taking what we’re doing seriously. It just makes the whole thing easier.”
What’s the best thing about working on such a massive show?
“I’m still finding out. I’m now getting a sense of what the show means to people.”
What do you think the appeal is?
“I think because it’s set against such a heightened backdrop, the drama that plays out through the characters hold the fans. There’s loss, the characters get to grow and change, yet still carry their histories with them. That means the audience is invested in the journey that they’re all going on.”
The show can also be quite scary. Tell us – what are you afraid of?
“Spiders crawling over people’s faces does it for me. And snakes anywhere. I don’t really watch horror films because they don’t scare me, but I recently saw The Babadook and that was properly scary. There were lots of lights on going to bed that night!”
What do you miss most about England when you’re filming in the States?
“Outside my friends and family, I miss Tottenham Hotspur. I’m a season ticket holder at White Hart Lane. I miss good Indian food, West Indian food, fish and chips and I miss the Thames.”
The new guy
Ross Marquand joined The Walking Dead cast in series 5 as Aaron, a recruiter for the Alexandria Safe-Zone. Getting his start in theatre, Marquand starred as Paul Newman in Mad Men and is also an accomplished voiceover actor and impersonator.
So, how have you settled in?
Ross Marquand: “Great! But, at first, I couldn’t sleep. I had these terrible, recurring nightmares about fighting zombies. I was never eaten but always getting to the point where I was about to be. Fighting zombies day in and day out takes a real toll on your mind. And your body. I was on set for six months last year and I messed up my rotator cuff, broke a toe and cracked a rib. You get pretty beat up!”
Were you a fan of the show before you joined?
“I’ve always been a huge fan of the zombie genre. To go from sitting on my couch watching The Walking Dead, to actually being on one of my favourite shows… it’s wild!”
The Walking Dead fans are a very committed bunch. What has your experience been like with them?
“I get sent a lot of presents. More often than not, I get license plates. I have a whole wall of them now. And I get stopped in the street now. I never thought I’d be a part of something that would warrant that sort of enthusiasm. I started in theatre and nobody ever runs down the street like, ‘Hey, I saw you in this play!’ It’s very cool.”
Is it true that, at lunchtime, the walkers eat separately from everyone else?
“There’s a separation but not for any kind of hierarchy reason. There are often times where there are so many walkers on set, you just can’t have people eating all together. Plus, it’s unsettling to the stomach, truthfully. You don’t really want to look at that.”
Do you do your own stunts?
“Everyone on this show does their own stunts, unless it’s a crazy stunt that you just shouldn’t do. It’s primarily because you see Andy (Lincoln) and Norman (Reedus) out there doing these crazy stunts, bringing so much intensity and work ethic to the set every day, that you just don’t have an excuse. I don’t mean that you feel pressured, but it definitely makes it a diva-proof set. Everyone has to pull their weight and Andrew leads the charge.”
Aaron is The Walking Dead’s first gay character. Does that feel like a lot of responsibility?
“For me, I never wanted to think of it as anything other than the character. Too often, actors can get tied up in the zeitgeist of it. My job as an actor is to play a realistic character to the best of my ability. For my work to have a social significance, that’s the icing on the top. If I got too wrapped up in playing the first gay male character, that’d really tarnish the work. I never wanted to do that. Aaron just so happens to be gay.”
How has the response been?
“I knew there was going to be some sort of reaction but I didn’t expect it to be that strong. For me, as vitriolic as some of the comments were, it was nice because it sparked debate and got people talking. If your work gets people talking, that’s what it’s all about. And for as many vitriolic comments as there were, there were just as many, if not more, people saying, ‘This is a wonderful character. Do not focus on his sexual orientation’ and it was lovely.”
The special effects maestro
If George A Romero is the “Godfather of zombies” then Greg Nicotero is the “Godfather of zombie make-up”. Nicotero is responsible for making us wince in everything from Evil Dead II to Breaking Bad to, more recently, Quentin Tarantino’sThe Hateful Eight. On The Walking Dead, he supervises its Emmy award-winning special make-up effects, executive produces and has even directed an episode or two… or 11.
Talk us through the zombie make-up process…
Greg Nicotero: “All the looks of the walkers are practical. There are dentures, contact lenses, we put a bald cap on, prosthetics, sometimes wigs. It’s all practical. Usually, six make-up artists handle it all. You’d think, after six years, they’d start to get a little fatigued, but it’s a lot of fun. They’re still very enthusiastic and passionate about their work.”
Do you see people change when the make-up is on?
“Not so much on this show. I’ve dealt with people like Eddie Murphy, Mickey Rourke and Mike Myers and when those guys go through make-up, they become the characters you’re transforming them into. With zombie stuff, it’s not the same because they’re just transforming into dead people.”
Do you have any tricks for making up such large numbers of zombies?
“Series 6 has been the hardest in terms of the number of zombies. We blew out the number of zombies in the first episode and beat what we had done almost half the season before. I remember being stuck in traffic and seeing an advert for spray tan and I got the idea of a spray tan system but for zombies. We just put a dead colour in. And that’s what we did. We set up a tent where people could just walk in, we’d spray them down with car guns and they’d walk out. It was like painting cars, but they were zombies. We had four people doing it and I think we did 200 people.”
As an executive producer, who would you say are the key players on the show?
“Scott Gimple (the showrunner), for sure. He has a very unique vision and respects the source material. Since he took over, the show has improved in quality tremendously. Andy Lincoln is one of the leaders; he’s a spokesman for the actors. There are scenes where, even if he’s not on camera and he’s just doing voiceover, he’ll still drive to set and go through hair and make-up and costume and do his voice. He comes in and introduces himself to every new actor. We have a fantastic leader in him.”
What’s one of your favourite things about being on set?
“When Andy comes up and goes, ‘I love this job! This is the greatest job I’ve ever had!’. His passion and love for the material and people is great. Norman Reedus is the same way.”
Are there any burdens to being on the world’s biggest show?
“The only burden is the one we put on ourselves, to keep the show fresh and to not just repeat what we’ve done before. I don’t see a time limit on it. It’s about the characters. We have a show where people identify with the characters and that’s why it has the success that it has.”
Go back to the beginning
Want to watch all the walker action from the very start? Well, until 1 April you can. Every episode so far – with new ones added each week after they air – is available to watch in TV On Demand right now.
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