‘Walking’ and talking: An oral history of ‘The Walking Dead’
As the television phenomenon known as “The Walking Dead” shambles off into the sunset, it leaves behind a seemingly endless trail of bodies — many of them zombies, but some of them major characters whom viewers had followed for years.
For a look inside the 12-season series, The Times talked to seven key cast members who made it to the final episode — Lauren Cohan, Ross Marquand, Melissa McBride, Josh McDermitt, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Norman Reedus and Lauren Ridloff — along with creators Scott Gimple, Angela Kang and Greg Nicotero. Here, they share some of their most important memories of making the show.
Scott Gimple (writer, producer, showrunner, 11 seasons): The first time I became aware of the show, I was living in North Hollywood and walking to work, and here was a poster on a bus shelter. Seeing that image of Rick [Andrew Lincoln] on the highway and seeing [series creator] Frank [Darabont]’s name. ... Even just the typeface. Everything was just so perfect, and I was so excited to watch it. And then you watch that first episode and it’s perfect.
Greg Nicotero (executive producer, special makeup effects supervisor, director, 11 seasons): Stuff that we did on “Walking Dead,” you would not have been able to do literally five years earlier because of [standards and practices] and ratings and things like that. The well-walker zombie in Season 2, when Glenn [Steven Yeun] goes down into the well — we had actors almost vomit when we ripped the dummy in half. We’ve dropped walkers from buildings, run over their heads with cars, sliced them in two, sliced them in three. The Season 4 premiere, “30 Days Without an Accident,” they go to the Big Spot and zombies start falling through the ceiling. I remember Sonequa [Martin-Green] shoved the pool cue up through a zombie’s chin and out the eyeball. But none of it matters if you don’t have characters you love, that you’re committed to.
Ross Marquand (Aaron, seven seasons): I was a fan of the show from the beginning, from that Halloween episode back in 2010. My friends and I watched together ‘cause we had no money, so we each brought a six pack to my friend Miranda‘s (she had TiVo, so she was the Well-Off Friend) and we watched the first episode. And [when it was over,] I looked at everyone, I was like, “Do you guys wanna watch it again?” And everyone was like, “Yeah!”
Norman Reedus (Darryl, 12 seasons): I think it was around Season 2, I was in Venice, California, with my son, who was young at the time, and we were walking down the boardwalk area, and all these skater kids had sweatshirts with my face on them. One skated by us and my son stopped him and goes, “Why is my dad on your sweatshirt?” [laughs] I think he was gonna try to beat him up. He was mad.
Lauren Cohan (Maggie; 10 seasons): I fell in love with being on the show when I saw what permission we had to be unpolished. That’s really the beauty of taking these extremes of being at the end of the world and everything counts.
Nicotero: The scene that I directed when Daryl finds [his brother] Merle as a walker — that moment really sort of changed a lot of things for a lot of viewers. Norman’s performance was fantastic, and [with] Michael Rooker [Merle], there was so much great character-building up until that moment. That was probably one of [the] scenes that changed the direction of the show.
The first scene when I knew the show was going to be a massive success was in Season 1, Episode 5, when Amy — Emma Bell — comes back to life as a walker in Andrea’s arms. I remember spending a lot of time talking with Laurie Holden [Andrea] about that moment. It played very much against the horror-movie trope of [Amy] trying to bite her; it played much more like she was being reborn as something different.
Lauren Ridloff (Connie, three seasons): I would probably say my favorite moment was when Carol saw her daughter Sophia coming out of the barn. It was mind-blowing. I didn’t see it coming. You knew nobody’s safe when you saw that. Around the time the show started, I became a mother ... [and] that [scene] really impacted me. That triggered a fear in every parent.
Melissa McBride (Carol, 11 seasons): We have been through so much and shared so many experiences together. People have gotten married, gotten divorced, had children, lost family members, and everybody’s there for one another. When that’s your life, 12-hours-a-day-plus for so long, you kind of can’t help but have that type of family feeling.
Josh McDermitt (Eugene, eight seasons): It’s funny when people say it’s a family; I think they tend to think everybody was just happy and friendly all the time. But we fought like a family too. Not in a way where people hated each other; it was the way siblings would fight. When we’re all living together, that’s gonna happen. ... But at the end of the day, we’re there for each other. We have each other’s back.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Negan, six seasons): It was the good, bad and ugly of family ‘cause it was so intense all the time. But [after], we were always hugging and laughing every time.
Reedus: I hadn’t experienced that kind of fellowship on a movie before, or a television show, that was so intense. There was so much respect for each other. If you had a big scene where you had to cry or give a big speech or something, the actors would just let you be that day. Everybody wanted everybody to win.
Morgan: Norman and I were hanging out 24 hours a day kind of right off the bat. We were inseparable right away; we would just take off on our motorcycles every weekend.
Angela Kang (writer, producer, showrunner, 10 seasons): For me, a really important one was Steven Yeun [who played Maggie’s husband Glenn]. He was the first actor that became a friend. We would hang out and go to dinner. We talked a lot about being Korean Americans in the industry and what are the struggles, but also how do you continue to improve? That definitely personally affected me, but [also] a lot of people in the cast. He was such a leader.
McBride: Steven ... I love him so much. He’s so talented. I love watching his career since he left, but what a loss for us. I miss him a lot. Very early on, we had apartments in the same complex near the studio, and he would have his guitar and sing, and then we went secondhand shopping for furniture on foot just around this little town called Newnan, and he found a chair and we walked back with it. Just sweet things like that. One of my favorite memories is that memory.
Cohan: It was Season 2 and I think it was the Fourth of July. And Steven and Emily [Kinney, who played her sister Beth] and I went to see a fireworks display at this high school. It started pouring rain; I don’t think we ever got to the fireworks spot. We all went back to the lofts that we were staying in. I wanna say there was a power outage, and we got out the guitars and ate SpaghettiOs or whatever was around.
McDermitt: Two people who really stood out to me were Steven Yeun and Andrew Lincoln. Steven emailed me before I ever got on the plane: “Hey, I’m working with you on Friday and I’m really excited and I can’t wait to meet, and if you need anything, here’s all my info and don’t hesitate to call.” That didn’t feel like bull—.
Andrew Lincoln wasn’t in [my first] episode, but when we came in for our hair and makeup test and all that stuff, he drove an hour south of where he lives to come meet us. I found out later he would pretend he had a fitting or a meeting or something, but he was always just coming down to meet people. He never wanted to be like, “I took time out of my day to come meet”; he was like, “Oh no, I got this other thing.” But that was bull—. [laughs]
Nicotero: If there was a scene that Andy had off-camera dialogue — if he was on a radio with Lennie James, [for example] — he would come to the studio and stand next to the camera to do his off-camera dialogue. He was that kind of actor and that kind of person.
Reedus: I’m always looking for those earlier years of “Walking Dead.” I always want that back. Andy and I would work on scenes in his house or my house all weekend. ... We’d call each other: “We’re gonna try this.” Then we’d do the scenes, he’d eat lunch in my trailer, we’d talk about the scenes, our heads were so in it. And then we’d call each other [at the end of the day] and go, “Did that work?” That was our work ethic and we were loving it.
Ridloff: The cast was very welcoming, of course, especially Andrew Lincoln. He was shooting his final scene and I was there to witness it. Then he took the time to welcome me to the family and apologize that he couldn’t give me a decent hug ‘cause he had all this sticky blood all over him. [laughs]
Morgan: My first day — I still have it on my phone — it was the introduction of Negan, we got off at 7:30 in the morning after working all night. And on the way home, I checked my phone and [Lincoln] had left a 15-minute message, welcoming me to the family and saying how awesome it all was that night. It was just like, “You’re my brother now.” And by God, I am his brother and he is mine to this day.
Reedus: I knew Andy was going to leave the show months before anybody else did. When he came to me and he told me that he asked to [quit], he’s not seeing his kids grow up and they’re way over in London, I got it. I understood it. But that was a bummer for me.
Morgan: I have very vivid memories of a lot of laughing. There was a lot of pranks. We laugh at the Andy and Norman pranks all the time, ‘cause Andy just got killed every time. I was standing there when the glitter was coming out of his AC unit.
Cohan: [Close to Lincoln’s departure] Andy and Norman had been pranking each other, I want to say it was weeks that this had gone on, and when one thought they had bested the other, something else would happen. Andy was pretty satisfied that he’d kind of ended the prank chain, then I think Norman had toilet-papered his car. It was so many amazing emotions in the space of five minutes because there was this sense of elation, a sense of lightness in Andy that he knew he’d made something that we’d all joined.
Nicotero: [Another scene that changed the direction of the show] was where Alexandria gets overrun by walkers, when Carl gets shot and Rick takes him to the infirmary and then goes out into the streets. That was the closest to a “Night of the Living Dead”-type episode because a lot happened — Rick going down the street, hacking furiously at zombies and the whole group is fighting for their lives.
Gimple: I wrote the midseason finale that [first] year, when Sophia comes outta the barn, and I remember the next day [on]. ... the audience was there for it. I don’t know, it was a big deal. It was a big deal from an artistic standpoint. Connecting with the audience that way and connecting with your intent, [your] hope to give them a feeling, and then them to have it and dig it. That was crazy. That was heavy.
McDermitt: Sophia coming out of the barn was such a huge moment.
Gimple: Carol almost didn’t make it [out alive] in Season 3. I made a pretty impassioned “Inherit the Wind”-style argument towards keeping Carol alive. To see her beginnings on the show — and not for nothing, the sheer thespian power of Melissa McBride — you see this character that could make this journey. We’re now at this inflection point where she’s just starting to grow. And she almost died in the prison. What could this character become from those beginnings, to go from victim to victor, to go from somebody under the thumb of someone to a warrior. ... Carol’s story has been a pillar of the show. Her strength doesn’t let her die.
McDermitt: In Season 3, it was Episode 12 or 13, it was called “Clear.” It was Morgan [Lennie James] in his apartment with all the writing on the wall. I’m literally sitting on the edge of my couch punching my leg. This is amazing television. Lennie James is incredible. Danai [Gurira] and Andy and Chandler [Riggs] just killed that episode.
Gimple: “Clear” was a huge episode for me personally. ... I had to write that one very quickly because Lennie [James] was doing another show. I was so intimidated by his talent, and as a huge fan of what Frank [Darabont, the show’s creator] had done with him, that the pressure was so hard to do right by that character and to do right by Lennie.
Kang: The year I took over the show, I knew that Andy Lincoln was going to have to go back home to his family. It was really scary because we had to make sure Rick was written out in an epic way. There was a lot of fear that immediately people would just abandon the show. There was a lot of pressure to keep it interesting enough that people would keep watching. I was very grateful to our audience for sticking with us.
After that, once we jumped the time, it was kind of restarting something. I really loved working on the Whisperers storyline because that was all brand new introductions and an arc that I loved in the comic book so much. It was a dream working with [Samantha Morton]. That’s when me and the team of writers felt, “We’re in a complete creative flow right now.”
Marquand: Aaron loses Eric in one episode. But in the very same episode, he essentially adopts Gracie. It’s an incredibly sad, heartbreaking moment when he loses Eric. But then when Rick leaves the building with Gracie, Aaron just immediately volunteers to take care of her because he needs a reason to live. And Gracie supplies that in this very profound moment.
Reedus: I think the scene with Andy and I, we end up in the pit together [Season 9, Episode 4]. Rick’s so hell-bent on revenge, he’s making bad decisions. I was ready to fight him; we ended up in the pit and it turned into this struggle to get out of there and a real heart-to-heart. It was really well-written and it was very honest. It was a good slap in the face for his character and a real honest heart-to-heart for me.
McBride: [Referring to her character Carol, whose husband Ed was abusive] I’m pretty sure [it] was her reaction to Ed getting pummeled by Shane. That moment felt so real. It’s a tough topic, the abuser and the abused. ... “Look at the flowers” definitely was a pivotal moment for Carol. And Sophia coming out of the barn. I think all those little things, the rungs on a ladder to her strength and her warrior self that she became.
McDermitt: Season 5, Episode 5, I think the episode’s called “Self Help,” it was where Eugene basically admits to not having the cure to stopping the apocalypse. There was so much character development in that one episode — and not just for my character. It was such a lovely episode written by Seth Hoffman and Heather Bellson — all these little character moments were starting to lock into place. Around that time, I was like, “Yeah, OK, this is him.”
Morgan: It would’ve been really easy to just be the Negan we met coming out of the trailer that day. I could’ve done that for years. ... But what I loved about this role was that I got to mature and I got to show different sides. We got to see in that flashback episode, “Here’s Negan,” why he became the man he did. It doesn’t matter what the audience thinks because they’re gonna have their opinions regardless, but it would matter what Daryl Dixon thinks or these other characters I have to interact with. What did Negan have to do to find that redemption in their eyes? I think he was OK if they didn’t like him, but then he’d save someone’s life — I think he saved everyone’s life in the last five years. Now he is becoming part of that family. He’s the uncle no one wants to talk to at Thanksgiving, but he is also a very important part of that family and keeping them alive in some sense.
Ridloff: “On the Inside” is probably one of my favorite moments for Connie. It showed lots of her trauma from the cave and how she dealt with that trauma, how she embraced her fear at the end and uses that fear as a power. I think [that episode] was when they really trusted me to take over, take the reins. If you look at Connie in Season 9 as opposed to “On the Inside,” it’s such a massive difference. There’s a lot more vulnerability.
I had just come back from London [where she shot “Eternals”] and Greg Nicotero, he directed that episode, [and] I was thinking about how I could communicate with him. And on the very first day I saw him, he started signing to me. I was like, “Wait, what? What is happening?” Greg took it upon himself without telling me to get a tutor to learn American Sign Language during his free time.
McBride: These dinners we would have when somebody was leaving. ... It’s a celebration of character and a celebration of life ceremony, honoring the work that they did, the love they put into it, seeing them off in such a beautiful way. I was lucky to have some of those in my home. The planning that went into it, some of these dinners, there [were] costumes involved. ... It’s emblematic of how sweet and wonderful and beautiful these people are, and how much we care for one another.
Reedus: Beth — Emily — that was a big one for me. I really liked our relationship, and I really like her a lot. Our stories were working really well together when it happened. [Jon] Bernthal was a good one. Steven [Yeun] was a good one.
Scott Wilson [who played Hershel, Maggie and Beth’s father, and died in 2018] for sure, in every aspect of “Goodbye.” I really loved that guy. He was one of a kind, that guy. [Reedus points out that he’s wearing a patch executive producer Tom Luse made for people who had to visit the medic on the show, based on a Purple Heart but with Wilson’s profile: a “Purple Hershel.”]
Cohan: Scott Wilson, really. ... I honestly cannot believe sometimes that I got to have him pretend to be my dad for the amount of time that we did, because there is nobody like him. He’s who you wanna be on so many levels. Funny as hell. Just thoughtful and loving and really, really funny. It’s really good to have quality time with someone that you respect so greatly and to know that they knew that you loved them. That’s what it’s all about.
Marquand: I think we were filming that last season for 15 months. That can take a toll on you mentally and emotionally. So we were in [a] mad dash to finish the show, but once it finally wrapped and they shot off these confetti cannons and all of this confetti is blowing over our heads and it’s like, “That’s a wrap on ‘The Walking Dead’” ... it was a really intense, beautiful moment. And then all of a sudden, I think the relief and the sadness and the reality of it just kind of washed over everybody, and we’re like, “Oh my God, it really is over.”
Ridloff: Honestly, it was chaos. It was almost like high school graduation, and that date kept getting postponed. ... They kept changing our wrap date because things kept coming up. It’s really nice to watch the episodes now because it felt so chaotic at the time.
Kang: On the last day, I really loved Norman’s speech. He’s not the type that gives speeches much. I thought he gave a really funny and heartfelt speech about [how] he’s gonna miss people, it’s surreal. That was really moving. And when Cailey [Fleming, who plays Judith] and some of the kids said goodbye, because for them this was such a special experience and some of them became close friends with each other — it was moving to see everybody’s speeches and the love that flowed. It was a lot of crying and then going on to the next setup. That was the experience of the final episode.
Gimple: I was so busy and so focused, so intense, so desperate to do right by everybody that I always had my head down on my computer or eying some location. ... I don’t think anybody on this entire production would be like, “Oh man, there was a guy who, who’s enjoying himself.” I look back at it now, and I wish I just took a breath and just took in just how amazing all those people are. It was the greatest summer camp ever. I had no idea how amazing it was when it was happening, but I know now.
Series finale of ‘The Walking Dead’
When: Sunday, 9 p.m.
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
The Walking Dead
The Series Finale
SEASON 11 , EPISODE 24AIRING NOV 20, 2022TV-MA FINALE
Daryl and Carol rush Judith to the hospital; Rosita, Eugene, and Gabriel search for Coco; Maggie and Negan take arms against Pamela; the heroes assemble for one last stand.
Sunday at 9:00 PM AMC and AMC+
It's a date
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