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Fear the Walking Dead’s Elizabeth Rodriguez on How Her Nursing Skills Will Come in Handy in the Zombie Apocalypse

Photo: Steve Granitz/WireImage

After a season on Orange Is the New Black that showcased Aleida’s less-than-stellar mothering skills, Elizabeth Rodriguez gets a chance to redeem herself as Liza on Fear the Walking Dead, Travis’s (Cliff Curtis) ex-wife and single mother to their son Chris in the zombie apocalypse. At the Television Critics Association press day, Rodriguez took a moment to sit down and talk to us about nursing skills in the apocalypse, prison versus zombies, and the bummer that is existential despair.

We get to see Liza a little bit, and much more in the second episode. Can you tell me about her character?
Liza is sort of a no-b.s. woman that is predominately a single mother. She was married to Cliff Curtis’s character, Travis. They had a child early on, so I put my dreams to go to medical school on the back burner. Now, 12 years later, we’re not together, so I go back to school, but I know I don’t have time to become a doctor, so I go to nursing school instead. Basically I’m sort of burning a candle at both ends, and there’s not a lot of time for b.s. And I’m obviously really protective of my son.

I just want Travis to be a man of his word when it comes to our kid. So, then, the fact that she’s a nursing student ends up playing an enormous role in the subsequent episodes.

That would be a really good skill to have.
Yeah, it’s a really good skill. So at some point I end up having more information than others do.

How did you come to this role? How did you get involved in this project?
Well, originally, when I had an audition for the pilot. I hadn’t even read the pilot. I think I just read some scenes because they are so secretive. Originally, Cliff’s character was supposed to be Latino, so I went in for Kim’s character knowing full well that I wasn’t going to get it. Because it felt like that was very important, that he was the one that was coming into this very specific family. But I auditioned because I was a huge fan of the show, of Dave Erickson and Adam Davidson’s work, so I had nothing to lose.

So I went in having met Dave but not Adam. Dave didn’t even know I was going to be there because it was open to all ethnicities, unbeknownst to him. I auditioned because I wanted them to know what I could do. And I actually said in the room, “You guys, I know this isn’t going to go my way, but whatever happens, I’m really a big fan of your work.”

So, cut to insanity, I get this part, which also wasn’t written Latina. It ended up working out with Orange because of the timing of it, which is always a huge thing.

Since Orange scheduling is always so hectic.
It just happened that they all ended up speaking and wanted to work this out. It was sort of insane, and I’m unbelievably grateful and shocked that it worked out.

And this cast … I know that everyone always talks about how the cast they work with is great, but it’s not always the case! I mean, you say what you have to, but, anyway, I cannot say enough about this cast. First of all, I was a huge fan of both Kim and Cliff’s work for years. Then, to meet them and for them to be such incredible human beings was amazing. All of us, from the top down, from Dave to Adam to everyone, it was all about the work and making it as good as it could be on every level. It’s such a blessing, and the most incredible thing I’ve ever ended up being a part of, really.

Both casts, Orange Is the New Black and Fear the Walking Dead, are ridiculously deep. What’s it like to be a part of such ensembles?
I always joke around saying how it’s all downhill from here. How could you be on two diametrically opposed shows and work with these people and be in this moment? And how could that ever compare to something else in the future?

Where do you go from here?
I won the lottery twice in a row.  It’s never going to be this high. I keep having to remind myself of that.

How did you come to know and develop Liza as a character?

I had to leave a play early to jump in this, so I had to quickly figure Liza out. Adam Davidson helped a lot. We all met for a whole day, the cast spoke in great detail about our backstory and what this world is. It’s incredible to have this support and be around people who want to do that. It was so intense that by the end of the day I was so stressed out. Because you’re talking about it, and what could you compare this scenario to? I can only compare it to Katrina or 9/11, where the chaos happens and you can’t wrap your brain around it. The world is falling apart around you. Who are you? Who do you become? And to try to figure it out with people that are just as committed to living that world, I couldn’t have been more supported in figuring her out and figuring out this world.

The unnerving thing about having this show set in Los Angeles is that it would likely take a very long time to discover that there’s a zombie outbreak because the city is so large, there’s always oddness and instability percolating. There’s always pockets of violence.
With everything that’s happened this past year with violence and police brutality, every second of the day, you would think it’s another …

Right! Like someone getting shot on Sunset Boulevard.
That just happened two weeks ago on Ventura. Or there’s a car chase. That happens every five minutes; boring. You take it all for granted.

I think the second episode especially shows an understanding of the world we’re currently living in and what the real-life ramifications of an outbreak would be.
Yes! And living in that different consciousness of, this could happen, and how would it happen, affects your day-to-day while you’re shooting it, and even after.      

One thing I love about both Aleida and Liza is that they are both very concerned with being mothers, but in very different ways. How do you find that maternal instinct in such divergent characters?
Well, I think I’m a lot more like Liza. I don’t have children, but Liza is very nurturing. I mean, I share a quality with the both of them, which is no b.s.

Yeah, they’re not taking any.
But in Liza, I did research on the qualities one needs to be a nurse, so while the blood I would never be able to handle, there are a lot of qualities that I do have, like having empathy and being really nurturing. I find that it was easier to become Liza than it was to become Aleida, even though I am really great at being Aleida. [Laughs.] But with Aleida, in between takes I would constantly apologize to the kids. I’d be like, “Are you okay, baby?” I’d go over the top, “You okay, sweetie? How are you doing?” Where the kid that plays my son on this, he’s so beautiful and loving, it was so easy to immediately give him love.

So when it comes down to it, would you rather be in prison or on the run from zombies?
I think I’d have to say prison, because you know what the rules are. And that, especially in a minimum-security prison, you’re getting out. You know the rules, you can manipulate them. And you know you’re part of a clan, you know where you stand. In this, there are no rules. It’s the fear of not knowing. I don’t know how any of us, like, how would we sleep ever?

I’m always amazed by apocalyptic shows because I think we often underestimate how much someone wants to survive. Personally, I suspect I’d be more indifferent. “Do I want to be a zombie? Do I not want to be a zombie?”
The thing that I think is incredible about this is that we can never answer for ourselves. We think, Oh, in a situation like this, we would never do this. We would never kill, we would never do this, because we think we know who we are and what our values are, and we want to hold on to them. But I believe that life and the need to survive under any circumstances, regardless, is bigger than anything. So we will do things we could never imagine to survive and to take care of our people.

Which makes the interesting part, then, how do you live with knowing the choices that you’ve made?
Exactly. And that’s it. Parts of you die with every decision you have to make. It becomes about making decisions between bad decisions and worse decisions.

So after filming something like this, how do you decompress? Because this is really heavy stuff.
I’m sure all of it’s going to come back up when they start airing. I’ll get to relive it. But now I’m walking around the street with a different eye. I really am. I walk down the street looking, especially in Vancouver, I would walk around going, All those people could be walkers. There is definitely a low-level stress factor that I’m living with now. And I’ve not been grounded in trusting what’s to come or that the government is going to be taking care of us on a local level, federal level, or a world level.

That’s really intense.
I also joke about how I don’t have kids, but if I did, I would be the worst, most paranoid mother ever after the show.

How did people raise kids without cell phones? Just letting them go off and do things?
I have no idea. And after this show, I would be texting so often, my kid would run away.

FTWD’s Elizabeth Rodriguez on Prison vs. Zombies