LOS ANGELES — It’s not every day an English actor gets the chance to play a cowboy — just ask Andrew Lincoln. The star of AMC’s new original series, “The Walking Dead,” says that when he was first offered the role of Rick Grimes, a small-town sheriff who survives the zombie apocalypse and struggles to stay alive in a world decimated by the flesh-eating undead, the opportunity to saddle up and channel his inner Gary Cooper proved too tempting to resist.
“I went to work, and I put on cowboy boots, a Stetson, a bag of guns, and got on a horse called Blade and rode into an apocalyptic Atlanta,” Lincoln said recently during a telephone interview. “That was my job for the day, and it was astonishing.”
Grafting Western trappings onto a horror-movie premise is one of the ways in which series creator Frank Darabont, adapting Robert Kirkman’s popular graphic novels, has created something very different for AMC, the network known for Emmy Award-winning dramatic fare such as “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” The horrific elements, though, are impossible to miss. In the opening segment of the first episode, set to premiere Halloween night, Lincoln’s character faces off with a child zombie, her face partially decayed and smeared with blood. The encounter, like something out of George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” doesn’t end well.
But Lincoln, who’s been working as a professional actor for 16 years and whose feature film credits include “Love Actually” and the upcoming Sony Pictures Classics release “Made in Dagenham,” said that the zombie carnage is just one aspect of a multifaceted narrative about a group of people attempting to overcome their baser natures in the middle of what he calls a “Kafkaesque nightmare.” It’s that larger story that deeply appealed to him and that he hopes will help hook viewers too.
“The way that I see it is it’s an unflinching look at the greatness in humanity and also the worst in humanity,” Lincoln said. “At the heart of the pilot episode and the reason why I wanted to do it is, there’s a story, a very human, quiet story in among this sort of operatic world. It’s one of the great things about the show that I really responded to; it’s almost Greek because it’s life-or-death situations continually. You have incredible combustible scenes between all the characters because of the situation, and it makes for great drama.”
To prepare for the shoot, which took place during a sweltering Atlanta summer, Lincoln, 37, said he flew to the location early and read literature about the American South: John Berendt’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” Jay McInerney’s “The Last of the Savages,” Tom Wolfe’s “A Man in Full.” He already had “passable” riding skills — he had appeared on horseback in 2009’s “Wuthering Heights” and rode in South America during his honeymoon — and he caught up with a number of classic Westerns.
“I watched a lot of Gary Cooper,” Lincoln said. “There’s an old-fashioned sensibility that I think is part of Rick that I really admired, that’s kind of honorable, honest. He feels like a moral compass for the show that gets eroded through time; that’s where I looked to that era in Hollywood as a reference point.”
“Walking Dead” executive producer Gale Anne Hurd said it was important for the show’s creators to cast an actor who would be relatively unknown to U.S. audiences so that they could “immediately identify with the character and not connect him with a previous series.” In an e-mail, Hurd said that Lincoln was the right choice because “he has the authority and the pathos the part requires” and he “communicates equally effectively when he’s silent as he does when he speaks.”
During the pilot episode, Lincoln does hold the screen alone for a considerable amount of time — either wandering through the deserted streets searching for his wife and son or riding Blade along a desolate highway heading toward a rumored survivors settlement in Atlanta, a lone cowboy navigating a ravaged, dystopian landscape.
“There’s a quote: A hero is a man who does what he can,” Lincoln said. “I absolutely feel that Rick is an everyman that’s forced into a position, and he seems to keep coming up with what it takes.”
THE WALKING DEAD
When: 10 p.m. ET/PT Sunday
When: 12:15 a.m. ET/PT Wednesday
Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for coarse language and violence)
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