Sitting in on a Zoom call with cast members from AMC’s The Walking Dead, the decade-long zombie apocalypse series phenomenon, even as a real-life pandemic grips the world, feels both surreal and completely “new normal.”
There are Norman Reedus and Melissa McBride, who play survivor buddies Daryl and Carol on the show, sitting side by side in separate Zoom squares, surrounded by media zombies (including myself, awake at an unearthly hour to cover this session). It’s a Zoom visual that cast member Ross Marquand brands “very Brady Bunch.”
We are requested not to engage in any personal questions or “gossip,” so my first question (“Heard any good Armie Hammer jokes lately?”) is stricken from my list right off the bat.
We focus instead on what a ride it’s been for Daryl, Carol, Maggie (Lauren Cohan), Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) and Aaron (Marquand), and how their characters and the series are edging towards a final season after six “bonus” episodes were filmed in Georgia amid COVID protocols.
So how is it, filming a series about a deadly pandemic, during a real-life one?
“It’s a little ironic,” admits McBride, who plays the plucky survivor Carol. “Just being able to shoot it, that’s kind of a hard thing, when so many people can’t go back to work yet. But I think we were all very grateful to be able to do it safely. I think there was a lot of gratitude for even being able to go and create, to do that.”
Shooting is different now, with testing for everyone three times a week, mobile labs up and running, double-masking on the set. Showrunner Angela Kang, who’s been handling TWD since Season 9, says it’s a matter of adjusting to circumstances — fewer big zombie horde scenes, for example.
“We did scale these episodes down from our usual huge crowd things,” she notes. “All the trailers are different, all the timing is different. We take more days to do any one episode with fewer hours. So I think, logistically speaking, it just was a huge challenge.”
For Cohan, whose character Maggie has just returned to the Alexandria fold, there was some trepidation, but eventually she felt safe and secure: “It was invigorating to have the purpose and the structure, and all the preparation, support and protection of our production company.”
"But," she chuckles, “that didn’t mean there weren’t a lot of anxieties. You come back and you’re supposed to have a close zombie kill, and you’ve been tested six times by the time you’re face to face, but you’re still like, ‘How do I still stay six feet away?’ But that’s acting. It’s kind of putting all those other things aside and sort of just jumping in.”
And while there was some anxiety about shooting again, Marquand, playing former military man Aaron, saw one advantage: “I suppose we’re supposed to be anxious and sort of looking over our shoulder constantly on the show in general, so we just sort of channeled that fear and anxiety into our characters, and that worked.”
The Walking Dead wrapped 10 episodes before the COVID lockdown began, then production and release was halted; the show later came back to finish six “bonus” episodes for Season 10, and started prepping for the final 11th season. AMC also announced plans for spinoff series, one featuring Daryl and Carol’s characters, set for 2023. There’s talk of Walking Dead movies as well. This franchise clearly still has legs.
During the lockdown period, cast members found various methods to stay busy and decompress. New Yorker Gilliam, who plays the priest Gabriel, watched a lot of sports: “Nets, Jets and Mets, man!” Marquand hung out at his cabin and “chopped a lot of wood.” McBride stayed in touch with friends through text messaging; Reedus, playing the crossbow-hunting Daryl, says he’s been writing books, getting his “nails done” by his daughter, and “watching Ru Paul Drag Race” almost obsessively.
Amid all of this was a season of political turmoil in the US. Without focusing on that directly, I asked if one of the show’s ongoing themes has been the allure of tribalism and cults versus the support of families and community. Certainly, Season 10 focused on the most dangerous tribal cult yet, led by zombie whisperer Alpha (Samantha Morton).
Marquand seemed to agree: “One thing about this show is there’s this great push-pull: it does tackle issues like tribalism, and when society is thrown out the window, what do people revert back to? Are you going to subscribe to a cult, or a more supportive setting where everyone’s working together to build a community so they can feel safe?”
As the pandemic was beginning, within my writers’ room we were like, ‘Oh, is it too depressing to watch this kind of story? Is everybody just only gonna watch comedies?
There was even internal debate about whether people would still actually want to watch a TV series about a constant struggle to survive, while everyone was struggling with the COVID crisis. Kang recalls, “As the pandemic was beginning, within my writers’ room we were like, ‘Oh, is it too depressing to watch this kind of story? Is everybody just only gonna watch comedies?’”
But she noticed something else: pandemic series were starting to trend as people were locked down at home. “Maybe I’m just conjecturing, but I think there’s an element of our story of hopefulness that underlies the darkness they go through. I think there’s a will to survive and push on, and to just make the best of what are impossible, even incomprehensible circumstances, and I do think that there’s something about that that perhaps speaks to people.”
Cohan felt this, too, catching up with last season’s episodes for the first time:
“I felt so encouraged, seeing people — people I’ve watched and worked with for 10 years — make it through another episode. And I was like, this is why everybody’s watching this right now, because it feels good to see that it can be okay. And I think that it may help people see that you can maybe pull through one more thing that seems insurmountable, and you will be changed.”
The Walking Dead Season 10 premieres Monday, March 1 at 11:45 a.m. and 9 p.m. on Fox (Cignal CH 233 HD and Skycable CH 50).