Spoilers ahead for The Walking Dead finale.
Sonequa Martin-Green first tried out for the role of Michonne on The Walking Dead, a part that eventually went to Danai Gurira. But Glen Mazzara, the showrunner at the time, liked her so much, he eventually brought her in as Sasha, part of a group of survivors who join Rick and the rest of the group at the prison. (Remember the Governor?) Over the past four seasons, she became a stalwart fighter and expert sniper, and in the season-seven finale, the latest victim of the zombie apocalypse.
While it may have been the end for Sasha, for Martin-Green, her death couldn’t have worked out better: After she learned her time at The Walking Dead was over, she booked another high-profile role with a built-in fan base: Star Trek Discovery, where she’ll play the lead as First Officer Michael Burnham. Vulture caught up with Martin-Green on the phone at the airport (she was on her way back to Star Trek after doing an episode of The Talking Dead). She talked about watching old Star Trek, playing zombie Sasha, and why the controversial season-seven premiere of The Walking Dead was the most difficult scene for her to shoot.
You’re very savvy about choosing shows, and Star Trek seems like a very logical next step.
Very much so, very much so. To be able to go from one Goliath to another, from a show like Walking Dead, that just had such reach to one of the most, if not the most, standard TV series of all time is just a miracle, that’s what it is.
The experience of doing Walking Dead, which has such a huge fan base might make it an easier transition to do Star Trek as well.
Well, hey, I certainly hope so! I’m used to being on a show that reaches a lot of people in such a huge way, and it’s definitely one of those things that you hope for and dream about. So in that way, yeah, I have experienced it before. I mean, the Star Trek universe is so vast. There’s a lot of it I still have to catch up on, and a lot of new experiences even with what I already have under my belt as well.
Are you geeking out with past Star Trek?
Yeah. I love the original series. It’s my favorite out of all of them, and I just love the dynamic between Kirk and Spock. All the characters on the show had rich relationships. I found myself just keeping it on in the background when I was doing a lot of my work when I first started.
We have to talk about the finale of The Walking Dead. The scenes in the coffin were so intense and claustrophobic. What was it like shooting those scenes?
It was a darkened space. Very, very dark. But yeah, if you think about lighting and camera, they take up a lot of room. In this case, if [the camera] had been so close to my face there wouldn’t have been any room to do it actually in the casket. And to get the lighting just right. Greg Nicotero, the way he shot the episode, I thought was brilliant. He did make it feel very tight, the way it was all set up, so I definitely got the feeling of being enclosed, which was nice.
The way the rig was set up I had very little time in the actual coffin, which I was grateful for. You don’t have to sit in the coffin and wait! But the most time I spent in it was when I came out as a walker, and that was different because it was sitting up straight. I was like, “Oh, it’s like my velvet closet!” It did a trick to the brain where it didn’t seem like it was a casket, because it was standing up straight. So yeah, it worked out, the way we shot it.
There were so many layers and levels of what I was feeling at the time, because it was my story coming to an end and also my time on the show coming to an end, with the amazing, dynamic, talented, loving people that had become like my family. So there was a lot going on. I thought the performances in the finale were just sensational. I was just happy to be there and have those quiet moments to myself in the casket to revel in all of it.
Was it fun to play a zombie?
It actually was! It was. I had a good time. I just had fun with it, and I was surprised how fun it was, actually. To just let go and be crazy and hungry. I was so happy with the story and why I became a walker, so I felt like it gave me the freedom and the license to just let go, because the reason why it happened was great. I thought, “Yeah! Let me just go in and do this and eat these people’s faces! Starting with Negan.”
Any tips for how to be a good zombie?
I think you just gotta let go, that’s for sure. You gotta be hungry! And you have to go into this primal state, where you just have this absence of thought and a drive to eat. It actually worked really well for me because I felt like there was almost this essence of Sasha that carried me through, because my hunger as a walker was obviously activated, but I felt like that hunger was serving the purpose at hand, so it was a really awesome, transcendent kind of thing, to want to get rid of Negan and everything he represents as a person. I’d like to eat him as a walker. They go hand in hand actually, which is really cool!
What I liked especially is that Sasha was not a victim. She made a choice to weaponize herself so she could help defeat Negan.
Absolutely. Having that passion to do whatever it takes is inspiring to me, and probably the thing I love the most about the finale and the story. I believe it’s across the board, that understanding that this is much bigger than us, and this is not just for ourselves and our children, but about generations to come. This is big. You hear so many different people over the course of this season, especially the latter half, saying that they’ve come to this awareness. Abraham says it to me, that we put our meetings on the chopping block always for someone else, and Rick says to Michonne, this is living, even if we leave each other — it’s okay. We are doing something greater than ourselves. And then he has his ultimate hero moment when he says to Negan, “You can take my hands, it doesn’t matter … but I’m still gonna get you. Your fate is sealed.” And given that passion and that drive to sacrifice for what’s best for us and for the world, I think all of us got to that point. My particular story within it ended up being such a great and powerful representation of it.
Your character has been on an emotional journey these past few seasons. What was the most difficult scene to shoot for you as an actor?
There’ve been a lot of intense moments in the show in the years I was on it. I used to say that it would be — and I think I’d keep it as this — the [season-seven] premiere. Being in that lineup and having to see our loved ones get brutally murdered that way was really hard on all of us and very traumatic. Again, all these different levels and layers come into play, because the story itself is brutally haunting and terrible, but then you see these people you know and love, and you know they’ll be leaving the show. So that was really hard. All of us needed a few days after that to decompress and were sobbing on each other’s shoulders between takes. It took us a lot to get over that. That was probably the most difficult moment for me.
There has been a great deal of controversy about the premiere. Do you feel like it was too violent?
I think the world is too violent, and we’ve always been very brazen about how we show this world we live in. I think there would always be a time where it became too violent, but you’ve heard Robert Kirkman say this a few times, that this was true to the graphic novel in terms of Glenn, someone who was a heartbeat of our show. I think in a lot of ways Glenn is Walking Dead, so to see him go in that way, that’s the way he went in the graphic novel, an almost frame-by-frame homage to the way it went down. I know we wanted to honor, in a weird way, Glenn and everything he brought to the show and how he alone almost represented the show. They wanted to make sure (and this season as well) that they kept true to the comic. I think that was definitely going to get mixed reviews, because people will have different responses to that. And in addition to Glenn, seeing it happen to Abraham as well was too much for some people. I know that some people stopped watching for a while, and I totally sympathize with anyone who felt that way, because it’s a lot! And it was a lot for us doing it. So I wasn’t surprised that it was received the way that it was.
What did you have for your death dinner?
What did I have?
Does the person who’s dying gets to choose what to eat?
It’s funny because we call it a death dinner, but that really makes it seem like it’s just a dinner when it’s not, it’s actually much more than that. It’s more like an experience, you know? It’s not just sitting around the table and having dinner. Sometimes it’s not even at a restaurant; it’ll be at someone’s house. It’s about us coming together and sharing laughs and love and tears, and really just talking about how we’ve affected each other, and how much we love each other because we truly are family. I was positively floored. I was moved beyond measure by the love I received at my particular death dinner, and I was overcome, to be honest. I feel like that moment is sealed in time and we will always have it, and I think I was definitely changed as a result of it. It took me a long time for it to not dominate my thoughts, so I just couldn’t be more thankful in my heart and in my soul for all of those people in my Walking Dead family and for all of it. Those dinners ended up being a climax, if you will, for the whole experience.
Did you take anything from the set to keep as a memento?
What I would have wanted to take with me were my M5, but I had an idea that they would not have let me take that! But that’s what I would’ve wanted to take! I just had to take it in my mind, because I can’t really have an M5 in my luggage, you know what I’m saying?
This interview has been edited and condensed.