Until recently, most Americans probably knew British actor Andrew Lincoln best as the bloke who wooed Keira Knightley with cue cards in the 2003 romantic comedy Love Actually. Now, though, he’s Rick Grimes, the southern-American, zombie-killing hero of AMC’s new smash hit The Walking Dead. We spoke with Lincoln recently about getting the role, the pressure of following AMC’s other protagonists, and that gross, gut-spilling scene in last night’s episode.
So how did you get the part on The Walking Dead?
Due to the birth of my son happening a lot earlier than anticipated, I had to withdraw from a film I was doing. So I wasn’t going for pilots this season, and I hadn’t been up to speed. But a few friends had tipped me off about The Walking Dead. Within a day from withdrawing from the film, this script appeared. In between changing nappies, I put myself on tape and whisked it out to the Internet. It all moved really quickly, actually — Frank [Darabont] Skyped me and explained his ideas for the show. And I started to read the graphic novel, and I had a very good feeling about him, and obviously AMC. It’s kind of an impeccable list of people involved. So I jumped on a plane.
How familiar were you with AMC’s other shows?
Well, Mad Men is a regular staple in our household. I hadn’t seen any of Breaking Bad, and Frank was keen for me to watch it, so I did. It’s a brilliant thing — kind of a slow burn. It asks quite a lot of the audience. It doesn’t jump-cut and close-cut its way into your affections. In the same way, The Walking Dead is a very spare, beautiful thing. When someone said it was a zombie story, I was a bit concerned. I was a bit perplexed why AMC in particular was doing it. But then I read the pilot, and it all made complete sense.
It does make sense. All three of AMC’s biggest shows star these compelling anti-heroes, all with marital problems …
The central character on all those three shows, absolutely. There’s a kind of enigmatic quality to the central characters. They’re quiet, inscrutable men, and hopefully for that, engaging. They’re foils for the other more flamboyant characters in their shows. They are the eyes and ears of their audiences as well, particularly Rick, I think. Far more. Particularly the first episode and possibly the second episode. It’s more narratively driven. Because you’re setting the world as such.
Do you feel much pressure, following up characters like Don Draper and Walter White?
I choose to live in denial. I think that’s the safest place to live. “Oh, there’s another Emmy.” I can’t live with that looming over me. I try to ignore it and do the next thing. Do the next scene. Try to make it as truthful and believable and as honest and raw as I can make it. And also, every character is different, you know? Of course there seems to be this legacy of very strong leading men on AMC, and I’ve given it everything I got. This is the fourth time I’ve created a new show, and I love doing it. We don’t know what we got, we still don’t know what we got. You can make terrific, beautiful things on set, and it misses for some reason. And you can have a horrendous time on sets and the opposite will happen.
Well how horrendous was it shooting The Walking Dead?
No, this was great. I hope people have as much fun watching this as we did making it. You know the graphic novel — it’s brutal, raw, ruthless, exposed world that we inhabit. And so, there’s a band of us that eventually get together; it’s kind of a ragtag band of misfits that are somehow surviving. And something about actually filming that is very similar. It’s 150 people sweating. You become this family. Sometimes the family is more dysfunctional than others. But this one was a really good family.
This is also almost certainly the grossest show in cable history. Are you a squeamish person?
You know what, I’m so glad you brought that up. Because you’ve seen episodes one and two? What was your reaction to the violence in the second episode? How did it viscerally affect you? Did you turn it off? Did you want to turn it off?
Well, I am a squeamish person. I was definitely grossed out during that one particular scene, but I made it through. Mostly.
My intention in that scene is to bring back humanity. Everyone is trying to stay alive, and what depths have we sunk to so early? I can’t stand pornographic violence. When we were shooting that particular scene, I looked at [FX coordinator] Greg Nicotero during the filming and said, “DVD extra.” And he looked at me and nodded. [Laughs] We shot that scene at 4:30 in the morning, and it felt like we were doing something terribly wrong. It was one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever had to do in my life.
Before Walking Dead, most Americans knew you only as the guy from Love Actually. You’ve never really played a character this dark before …
Everything erodes the man. He moves from this slightly dysfunctional, quiet, taciturn leader — not even a leader; he’s a small-town sheriff — into another person, and the darkness appears within him. Many times he is put in the corner. And that’s the great attraction about playing someone like that, who is constantly evolving, or devolving, or being corrupted, or eroded. That’s what we all are. We’re all changing daily. Morally we can be changed by any human interaction. Particularly in the world that they are inhabiting, where everything is so extreme. So life or death. Everything is so heightened. And it’s brilliant to play for an actor.
Have you read the graphic novel? Are you attempting to play Rick from the comic?
I feel an immense responsibility to fans of the comic. I have favorite novels, and whenever there are characters portrayed in a film, I know I have ownership rights because they’ve been in my head for so long. Having Robert Kirkman on set to talk to was phenomenally useful. He was extremely supportive and very honest.
You’re British. Is it hard playing an American southerner?
Well, I went down early. I wanted to get out to Atlanta to soak up the place. I like reading fiction books to get a sense of the place. I read a Tom Wolfe novel about the place, called Man in Full, and Jay McInerney and Salinger, just to get a sense of place. It’s the second American I’ve played — I played a New York lawyer on a pilot that never got picked up. So it was my first southerner. I stayed in dialect the whole shoot. So a lot of the crew didn’t know I was English until they saw me on YouTube, and went, “What are you doing with that stupid accent?”
In the graphic novel — spoiler alert! — Rick loses his hand. Do you think we’ll see that on the show?
That’s a very good question! When I was kind of offered the part, they sent me a compendium of the comics, and on the cover, the guy who seemed to be most central was without a hand. So when I met with everybody, I said, “Guys, there’s something I think you forgot to mention.” Oh, the hand. I spoke to a very serious fan, and I asked, “What is the greatest thing about The Walking Dead?” He said, “Rick losing his hand.” I tend to agree. It’s a brilliant device — no one is safe. If that can happen, absolutely anything can happen.