“It Will Change the Genre Forever”: An Interview with “The Walking Dead’s” Jeryl Prescott

Jeryl Prescott may not have known much about zombies when she signed on to play Jacqui in AMC’s The Walking Dead, but she most certainly knew a thing or two about being a nurturing, strong black woman in the South. For this, she credits her mother.

“I’m from a tiny town in South Carolina called Hartsville, poulation 8500; [now] 8499 since I left. Everybody knows everybody and my mother is everybody’s mother. She feels she can discipline everybody’s child, but she also feeds everybody’s child who comes to the house. So, I consider her to be the mother of the community, and she’s very active with our church, and always has been. I grew up watching her be the president of the gospel choir, and serve in the Willing Workers, which was a community service/church service organization. She also was in charge of the children’s choir. There were always other children in our house, even though I’m an only child — there were always these other kids coming by. She also worked in the kitchen at a small college in Hartsville, and sometimes she’d bring students home from there. And now, there are a lot of people that call her ‘Mother’; a lot of people who say ‘Oh! Your mother’s my mother!’

“And I think it’s relevant to the show and Jacqui and the kind of actress I’ve become, because people often say that I have a nurturing kind of persona. That I come across as a mother and a nurturer. And I think I get that from my mom.”

It was that nurturing quality that led to her being cast as Jacqui, one of the women inhabiting the camp that takes in Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his family after the onset of the zombie apocalypse. “It was totally unexpected,” she says. “My agent called and said I needed to put myself on tape for this project. I knew nothing about it, I didn’t know anything about the zombie world, but I did know about the creative genius of Frank Darabont, of course. I took it seriously, because I heard he was involved with it, and AMC … it seemed like an odd marriage: Frank Darabont and AMC … and zombies. But one day my husband and I put it on tape and sent it in. I was totally floored when I heard they wanted me. And it got extended to five episodes when I was initially only supposed to be in two.”

Clearly, the casting folks at AMC saw something in her performance that warranted more screen time, which is impressive, considering that acting is Prescott’s third career. She was a professor before she was an actress. With a Master’s in African American Literature and a PhD in American Literature, she taught at Wake Forest University and the North Carolina School of the Arts. Before teaching, she worked in trucking, having originally earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Industrial Management. Prescott seems to have led a life that’s informed her performance on a show in which women perform non-traditional tasks.

When discussing the portrayal of women and minorities on The Walking Dead, she says, “I have been really impressed with the way Frank has drawn the characters of color in that he simultaneously — and not just the characters of color, but the women — I think he’s played around with a lot of stereotypes. He’s acknowledged a lot of stereotypes and a lot of assumptions one might make about such characters, and then he’s turned them upside down in various ways. Because you have, for example, Jacqui after the attack on the camp in Episode 4, she is dragging bodies. I mean, where have you seen that? A woman dragging bodies. But that is what is required in the community at the time, that everybody just has to do what needs to be done. And at the same time, Andrea buries her own sister and refuses to be helped. She puts her own sister in the grave. Then she’s also known to be a crack shot. She’s the best shot in the group, basically.

“Laurie is so intelligent, and so logical, and so incisive in the way that she’s dealing with these men that are pulling her in this triangle. But she’s not a weak woman. She doesn’t seem to be so weak that she’s being controlled by either man. It’s just really fascinating. And that Jacqui as well would makes some of the decisions that she would make, certainly in the season finale, is not only unexpected, but it complicates a lot of assumptions. I think often we like to talk about the strength of black women, and really that can become an interesting stereotypical trap — that these women are so strong, that they don’t fear anything, they don’t need help and they have no vulnerabilities. Well, that’s not a human person! That takes away a lot of the humanity as well.”

Prescott also points out the positive portrayal of black men on this show: the fact that T-Dog’s moral compass is so strong that even a violent, callous racist can’t extinguish it. Or the fact that Morgan, the gentleman Rick promised to help to safety, is a good man who is a good father and loves his wife. These things shouldn’t be a big deal, but are too often an exception to the rule. Prescott praises Darabont, saying, “That’s what’s so compelling [about The Walking Dead]. Darabont makes everybody so human and complicated.”

While it is unlikely that Prescott will be returning to The Walking Dead for Season Two (if you saw the season finale, you know why), she says we have a lot more sex and gore to look forward to, and she praises the series, saying that it will “change the genre forever.”

RATING 8 / 10