The secret behind the success of “The Walking Dead” isn’t giving fan service (like the infamous “phone call” or the introduction of the Governor’s daughter) but building onto the fans’ expectations. So much in this third season is comparatively different to the graphic novel on which the series is based that the anticipation of Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and company discovering the enclave of Woodbury is actually less compelling than the town’s new-for-TV residents — like the sadistic, one-armed redneck biker Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker) and, more importantly, the show’s very own aspiring Dr. Frankenstein, Milton (Dallas Roberts).
While Roberts is no stranger to cult shows (he counts among his past credits “The L Word,” “The Good Wife” and “Rubicon”) or being hunted down by vicious animals (as happened in “The Grey”), he’s stood out on “The Walking Dead” even beside pre-established characters like Michonne (Danai Gurira) and The Governor (David Morrissey) thanks to his tinkering with the walkers and his cryptic experiments. Indiewire spoke with Roberts over the phone as he’s finishing shooting “The Walking Dead” in Atlanta about how he became Milton, the uncertainty of genre series and how he’s inadvertently been subject to character alliteration.
I won’t lie — my first thought when told you were doing interviews was “Shit, they already killed off Milton?”
[laughs] Oh man, that’s good. Well, as much as I can say that’s good.
You’ve joined an interesting crew, being an original character who’s not in the graphic novel and was created for show. There’ve only been around five or six, including the Dixon brothers, T-Dog and now Dr. Renner. They’ve also all acquired huge followings.
I’m a fan of the comics and the show, so I certainly like being able to join the cast as someone fresh. Milton’s a quiet guy who just likes to tinker around with what’s he’s been given and work around the community. But that’s all I can really say for the moment.
Initially, I thought you might be a composite, in the way in which T-Dog is considered by some to be Tyresse from the comic. But then we found out Dr. Stevens got gender-swapped.
That’s the appeal of the show and how it has these differences compared to the books.
But even Milton has started fan theories: what’s in his tea that the Governor likes so much? Is it a drug? Is it tea? Is Milton controlling the townspeople for the Governor?
[laughs] I like that! Well, what I can say… is that… we’ll have to wait and see what happens. When it does.
You’re surprisingly good at the non-answer. I take it this wasn’t what you’d have to do while working on “The Good Wife.”
No, this is the first time I’ve ever had to watch what I say while talking about a role. There’s so much secrecy in how we’re shooting, who’s shooting what and how to go into certain dynamics.
Did you know anything about the concept of Milton going into the role, or were you thinking you’d be playing another character from the book?
Actually, when I read for him, Milton didn’t even have a name. It was one sheet and a scene with another character that did have a name, but wound up never existing in the show. So it’s kind of surreal that my character goes from no name to working alongside the Governor’s. But at the time, I knew I was reading for a character in the third season, so it could’ve been Tomas or even another T-Dog. Then again, if anything does happen to Milton I guess we can talk about that next time! [laughs]
As an actor coming in, is it tough then to flesh out where you’re going with a character if you’re only getting a page or two compared to something like, say, “The Good Wife,” where you’re established as this troublemaker?
It is certainly different. When playing Owen [on “The Good Wife”], I’m already aware that I’m a force of destructive nature there to cause trouble for everyone. But playing Milton is interesting, because I get hints at how he should come across and act.
I read previously you’re a gamer — have you ever tried out “DayZ”?
No. I assume that’s some sort of zombie game.
Yeah — considered the most realistic zombie game on the market. You have to ration out water, food, ammo and still watch out for other players who could rob you.
Oh, PC or console?
PC. It’s a mod built off another pre-existing game. It’s actually more popular than the original game.
That’s crazy. We’re living in such an interesting time for indie gaming and platforming — like all the things you can do in “Minecraft.”
Even with distribution — like how “Ingenious,” a film you were in that premiered in 2009, is finally getting a one-week run in Los Angeles thanks to Kickstarter. What else are you working on after you wrap up in Atlanta?
That was a great little film. It premiered [on November 9th]. I would love to have been there but I have to finish up here in Atlanta. As for next, I’m flying out to Texas to work on a Matthew McConaughey film, “The Dallas Buyers Club,” which is a true story about this guy who smuggled drugs into Texas from Mexico.
I will leave all of that to Matthew. I’ll wear all the shirts due to my current physique.
So, I can’t let you go without asking if this is intentional. Over 15 years or so, you’ve had four roles across the “Law & Order” universe — three characters named Matthew, Marty and Mark. In “Rubicon” you were Miles. What’s the fascination with M?
[Laughs] I had never even noticed that. God, let me think. I remember playing Matthew. I don’t remember the other two. Miles was just a paper pusher in a think tank. But I should keep track of that as I’m going into roles from now on.