The characters Kim Dickens plays rarely have trouble besting whatever seemingly insurmountable obstacle comes their way. So while she may have her work cut out for her in her latest role as Madison Clark on The Walking Dead spinoff Fear the Walking Dead — where she has to balance not just motherhood but the onset of the zombie apocalypse — there’s little doubt she’ll end up triumphant. Dickens took time to sit down with Vulture recently to examine what it takes to balance the small things with the big things, what to do about a southern accent, and whatever happened to Joanie Stubbs’s hats.
What I love about Fear the Walking Dead is that it’s essentially a family drama with a splash of zombies. Was that appealing to you? That it wasn’t just a straight-horror show?
Yeah, I think that was a nice way for me to get into it. As this very grounded, blended family. It was just real people, in this city that I live in now, just doing their thing in East L.A., and then what happens next. Just watching what happens when civilization starts to crumble.
I was fascinated by how different location makes things. Simply by being in L.A., the universe is given a completely different flavor. For instance, I noticed the sirens in the background all the time, which is a very urban, very L.A. thing, while also being a very subtly apocalyptic thing. How do you think that L.A. feeds into this universe in a different way than the South did?
With u,s we’re in a very urban environment, just very diverse. Ethnically and landscape-wise. We’re in East L.A. We’re on the coast. We’re all over the place. There are so many great locations in L.A. to shoot. I mean, we’re in the L.A. River Basin.
It’s brilliant because it’s so organic. It automatically grounds the show in something very real and recognizable to a lot of people.
And also, I think there’s something to it, being in a place that’s golden. The light here is gold, and it’s beautiful, in a way. It has its own haunting feeling. It’s very vast and expansive. So you can be neighbors and not necessarily know your neighbor. There are so many great elements to the character of Los Angeles to milk and use.
It’s really interesting how the hauntedness of a super-rural area and the hauntedness of a super-urban area are very similar because there is that fundamental disconnect from people. It would take a long time in L.A. to realize there was a zombie apocalypse.
Yeah, especially if your cell phones go down.
Throughout your career, you’ve always dealt so well with the reality of your universe. You always really plug into that. With Fear the Walking Dead, how do you balance the big issues, like the zombie apocalypse, with the smaller issues, like your son detoxing and the associated fallout? How do you find those levels?
Well, I think that’s how we make the whole thing very grounded. Because they’re real characters, and it’s real dilemmas that they’re having. The fact that we’re not just a family of teenagers but we’re a family that has an addict in the family. That changes the family dynamic. It’s very painful for a family. It brings out the love. It brings out the fear, the anger, and the codependence. The addict is often a very selfish individual, and a very angry individual as well, so that’s a very complicated dynamic to be rooted in. And then on top of that, civilization starts to crumble. So for me, it was a way to ground it.
Our first days of filming the pilot were actually in the high school, shooting us at our jobs. Which was a great way to keep it grounded. Like, for me, scary shit happens fast. You know? And a lot of the moments are like that moment … You live in L.A.?
So that moment between that first earthquake, that first shake. That moment right after that, when you’re waiting for the next shake, your whole body changes. So we’re sort of familiar with the idea that things can happen quickly. We’re not beyond it.
I like the idea that when you get the call that your son’s in the hospital, that’s your first jolt. You’re already on high alert.
Yeah, and the sound of a ringing bell when you’re not supposed to hear it is the most horrifying thing to hear.
How did you come to this role?
I was asked to audition for it.
Really? That’s great.
I still audition for all my jobs, but yeah, I was asked to audition. I was filming House of Cards at the time, and I was in Baltimore, and they were like, “Do you want to audition for this?” And I was like, “I can’t. I’m so busy. I can’t, and I don’t think I’m right for the job, anyway. Blah, blah, blah.” And they just kept coming back around, and I started reading it and I met with them. And I was like, Oh, I like that character. And then I was fortunate enough to get it. I was lucky.
You often bring a strong presence to female characters in very masculine genres. There’s this, Deadwood, and even House of Cards. How is it finding nuance in characters that are often underserved in those particular genres?
I rarely will audition for a role that is just the mom or just the girlfriend if it’s not propelling the story. If there’s something complex about the character, I’ll respond to it, just because it feels more relatable for me. Those characters have always been so well-written. Like Joanie Stubbs, and …
Oh, Joanie. [Sigh.]
I know, Joanie. And like in Treme, they’re just real women, and they’re tough and they’re strong and they’re resilient, and they’re also vulnerable and warm and feminine. So they’re fun to play.
It’s been about ten years since Deadwood. What was playing Joanie Stubbs like, and what does that character mean to you? Beyond the amazing hats.
Just so you know, I have the hats at home. And I have friends that will come over — even Margaret Cho came over just to take her picture in the hat.
Oh my God, yeah, the hats are iconic.
So you need to come over and get your picture taken. But Joanie Stubbs is just dear to my heart. She is an incredible character to play. She’s just everything.
She was everything.
I had dinner two nights ago with Robin Weigert and Dayton Callie [Calamity Jane and Charlie Utter from Deadwood, respectively].
So we were all reminiscing last night, laughing and everything. We will play out scenes, we’ll act out scenes together and say each other’s lines, and it’s just really fun. It was a really, really bonding experience.
Do you find that with your trademark southern accent, people want to pigeonhole you into roles? Have you found yourself limited at all?
You know, it’s actually been the opposite for me. Because when I went to school, I went to get rid of my accent. And I was in New York City, and just living in New York City sort of counters that accent. So my first jobs were without a southern accent, but since then, I try to take out my accent and I will be asked to use my accent, even if the role doesn’t call for it.
So it’s been sort of like I don’t question it. I just go with it. If it works for them and the character, it’s fine with me, and I’ve found that it’s sort of a nice thing. When you think about it, the things you try to change about yourself in the beginning are oftentimes the things that actually work for you. That’s a nice thing to know.