For a TV series whose chief antagonist serves as a constant reminder of the creeping inevitability of death, "The Walking Dead" certainly is in a hurry to surprise its audience, at least according to showrunner Glen Mazzara. "One, we hit the ground running, and two, it’s going to surprise people,” Mazzara says of the first five minutes of season three, which premieres on AMC October 14 and had a huge presence at San Diego Comic-Con this year. “The audience is going to have to catch up and figure out actually what it all means. So hopefully that’s mysterious and enough of a tease for you, but I think the audience is going to realize we’re back in a very big way.”
Mazzara says that he feels like the series as a whole has developed a sense of forward movement — where it’s going needs less to be explained and explored than succumbed to. “I think we’ve hit our stride, and we are running and gunning this season — I just think that’s what works for us,” he says. “And it’s about taking action in this world, and the characters have come to know each other, and so there’s not a lot of debating about what does this apocalypse mean anymore. It’s more ‘what are we going to do about it?’ That makes our characters very, very active, and they make choices and not all of those choices work out.”
At the end of season two of the zombie apocalypse series, de facto leader Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and a small group of survivors following him discovered an abandoned prison — a location Mazzara says is perfectly-suited for some dramatic scenarios, especially since he and executive producer Gale Anne Hurd insisted look painstakingly real.
“We wanted to build something that was a gritty and realistic as possible,” Mazzara says. “This is not a sleek, polished, cool prison. It’s scary, and it feels real… it very much fits the gritty aesthetic that fans have come to expect from our show.
“That prison is sort of like a haunted house,” he says, hinting at the narrative possibilities yet to be explored. “There are challenges within that prison where it’s not as necessarily safe as everyone thinks — let's just say that — and there’s sacrifice involved in that.”
Earlier this year, David Morrissey (“Basic Instinct 2”) was added to the cast as The Governor, a character whose presence on the show heralds new conflict thanks in no small part to his villainous depiction in the source material. Morrissey says he understands his character’s motivations, even if he doesn’t necessarily agree with them.
“I think that he believes that what he is doing is for a good cause. A couple of people have been asking about him being evil, and you can’t really play that. Certainly I can’t — I empathize with my character, but I don’t have to agree with him and I don’t particularly have to like him, but I have to empathize with him, to understand what he’s going through.
“But we’ll see – there’s twists and turns to come,” Morrissey continues. “I’m really just loving playing him right now, although I don’t know what that says about me.” Meanwhile, the actor reveals that he's gotten absorbed in "The Walking Dead" comic books — and not just for character details. “At first I started reading it thinking, ‘this is great research,’ and soon I forgot that and just read it as a great story.”
Morrissey isn’t the only new addition to the cast. Danai Gurira (“The Visitor”) is set to play Michonne, a steely katana-wielding survivor whose first appearance is as a hooded figure dragging two armless zombies behind her — her boyfriend and his best friend, remarkably enough. Gurira reveals that it was a thrill to leap into a series where the development of her character was more of a mystery than in her film work.
“My experience has been mainly with film and theater, so I know exactly where the character is going, and I can beat out exactly what these moments are,” she says. “With this, you don’t know what the next episode is going to bring for you. So you’re constantly adjusting and adapting — it is like life, so there is kind of a thrill to it when the writing is this thrilling, which is the gift of the show.”
Although she observes that there are similarities between herself and her character, Gurira says that she’s focused her efforts on delineating what events transformed Michonne into the tough-as-nails woman that she has become. “I think I fall into the tough-girl genre in my life — into how she has steeled herself,” Gurira says. “And it’s all about, who would you be in a situation this dire? It’s that question of who would you become, and so there’s an interesting logic about who she becomes based on the world she’s in and the trauma she endures. When you choose not to be a victim in a world this hostile, who do you become? And to me, who she becomes is insanely logical.”
Laurie Holden, who plays the oft-reviled Andrea, says that the protracted character arc of a TV show allows her to explore human behavior in a complex and honest way, even if that also means one that’s less sympathetic as well.
“Because it’s a survival show, this is an exploration of humanity, and you don’t always behave your best,” Holden says. “Andrea was hated on the show — for a while, she was the Number One person people wanted to see eaten by a zombie. But you just have to trust the process, that you can go from suicide to strength and the journey throughout it.
"Sometimes you’re the most hated character on the show, and other times people are rooting and hoping you get out of the woods,” she observes. “So it’s mercurial and an ever-changing process, and we’re ever-changing as humans, I guess.”
On Killing Off Characters
On a show where the threat of zombies is everywhere, equally constant is the possibility that any character could fall victim to an attack from the undead. Mazzara says that although he and the writers want to keep viewers on their toes, they don’t merely knock off characters in order to be sensationalistic.
“It’s something we take very seriously,” he insists. “People become very close to these characters, we care about the characters, and it becomes difficult when you call and actor and say, 'I’m sorry but we’ve got to blow up your character.' But we’ve got to do what’s right for the show, and people do expect the fact that no one’s safe.
“There’s a version of this show that you watch and say, 'Oh, they’re not going to kill that character — they wouldn’t do that.’ That happens a lot on TV. I don’t think that’s this show. I think we make bold choices and we take it very seriously.”
Notwithstanding their encroaching presence as a physical foe, zombies have long existed as a metaphor for various larger themes — the numbing effect of widespread commercialism, for example, or a physical manifestation of cultural forces that people feel like they cannot escape. Gurira admits that she sometimes draws upon real-world issues to find a throughline for her character’s behavior and motivations.
“I like to function from a macro level and then go micro,” she says. “Sometimes it makes it feel more familiar to me. One of the things that really connected me to the world in preparation for my audition, when I was watching it, it reminded me of the Liberian war zone because that was one I was familiar with from researching it as a playwright. When I can attach that to something in my own humanity, then I can bring that to the dynamic on the page.”
While it seems as if there are ever more monsters representing audiences’ fears and concerns on the small screen, Holden thinks that zombies have a special place in our culture because they offer a physical embodiment of often intangible concerns, allowing viewers to vicariously escape — or even destroy those forces that oppress them in their own lives. “I do think it is in the zeitgeist right now because the economy is so bad,” Holden says. “The reason this is such a phenomenon worldwide is because there are relevant things here, and we are surviving.
“Zombies are a metaphor for that. It’s something tangible that people can latch onto right now and it’s real. There are so many unknowns that we’re living with, so it’s entertaining to look at zombies and say, okay, we know what it is — it has a face to it. And I think people can relate to the primal aspects of it, because I think we’re getting kind of primal ourselves.
"Things are breaking down universally,” she acknowledges. “And then there’s those cute zombies that are so entertaining.”