Walking Dead 1.01 - Andrew Lincoln
Walking Dead 1.01 "Days Gone Bye" - Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) © 2010 AMC

How does a well-known British actor end up playing a good ‘ol boy Southern sheriff? For Andrew Lincoln, who had just heard about the pilot for The Walking Dead, it was just a matter of putting an audition on tape. Shortly after that, he flew off to LA for a screen test for director/producer Frank Darabont and it wasn’t long before Lincoln found himself riding a horse into downtown Atlanta.

The actor plays Rick Grimes, a small-town sheriff who awakens in a hospital from a serious gunshot wound only to discover that in his absence the world has been turned upside down. His wife and child have disappeared and civilization has been overrun by man-eating zombies leaving a small number of people struggling to survive.

During a recent interview, Lincoln discussed the challenges of shooting The Walking Dead in the middle of a scorching Atlanta summer, as well as his thoughts on the series in general…

How do you see this character that you’re playing in The Walking Dead?

Walking Dead 1.01 - Andrew Lincoln
Episode 1.01 “Days Gone Bye” – Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) © 2010 AMC

I kind of feel I’ve had to endure what he’s endured for the last four months. You can say so many things, like he’s a righteous man, he’s an honest man; he’s a decent guy that gets eroded over time, but he’s actually a victim of circumstance. When I read the graphic novel and started reading the scripts, everyone was saying, ‘What’s it like to play a hero?’ I wanted to break it down and make it mean something to me as closely as I could and there was a quote saying a hero is a man who does what he can and I loved that.

Rick is an everyman. I think the reason people respond to him so much is they think, and I certainly did when I read the graphic novel, that he reacts in a certain way that you would want to react under this circumstances, but it doesn’t feel superhuman. He feels real.

When Frank and I first got together and spoke about possibly doing this job, I said, ‘I want everything to cost. He’s not this super-duper impenetrable impervious hero. I want him to be a real man, and everything he thinks and feels must be grounded in absolute truth.’ Otherwise the rest of the world won’t ring true.

Walking Dead 1.01 - Andrew Lincoln
Episode 1.01 “Days Gone Bye” – Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) © 2010 AMC

The great joy about playing this guy is the fact that I get to show every color imaginable; The scripts are really rich and intricate and detailed, so it starts with this broken, bewildering  nightmare that he wakes up into, and this it becomes an action episode as he tries to escape from Atlanta that shows this character is about returning to his family and trying to form a society and find out what the next stage is and how to survive in this hell, so the concept of this world is so extreme that every single decision you make is life-threatening and intense, so the prospect of playing a character that is trying to live through this is so exciting. It’s a dream come true really.

What was the first day on set like?

It was very hot and humid. They call it ‘Hot-Lanta’ and that’s what it was. But it was wild; it was a dream come true. I went to work every single day and it was the best experience of my career. It was so exciting. The stuff we had to do was certainly beyond any realm of my imagination.

You spent quite a lot of the first two episodes separated from the other characters. Was it difficult to do all that work by yourself?

Walking Dead - Andrew Lincoln
Episode 1.01 “Days Gone Bye” – Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) © 2010 AMC

It was difficult for me. It was quite busy for me but quite lonely. I only spoke to a horse and a radio for the first weeks. I certainly feel that when we do all get together, it feels like you get a real, true sense of the potential of the show, but I don’t think that negates the fact you’ve got two episodes on the way that are so different. And I think it’s also very interesting to see the group dynamic without Rick and what happens to them.

Frank Darabont has done a beautiful thing; in a very spare opening episode, he’s written maybe three big dialogue scenes and it’s interesting that you meet some of them before the apocalypse. I’m not giving away too much here, but my character is disclosing very personal information; I’m not dealing with my wife; I’m talking to my best friend seeking refuge and solace.

Frank is very clever in lightly giving away so much back-story in such a very short scene that places these people in their lives in the past, but also where they are now. And that goes for the rest of the script too. Frank has crafted this beautifully textured character study and all of the characters, as you know from the graphic novel, are so brilliant and different and I think Frank has such a good ear for dialogue.

What was it like shooting the sequence in which Rick rides into a deserted Atlanta only to discover that it’s filled with hungry zombies?

Walking Dead 1.01 - Andrew Lincoln and Jon Bernthal
Episode 1.01 “Days Gone Bye” – Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal) © 2010 AMC

There were 190 extras and it was unbelievable. It’s only in hindsight that I can think back on it, because I was so focused on the job at the hand. They closed down four blocks of downtown Atlanta and dressed it so all the stuff you see is not CGI. It’s all there and the scale of it was just incredible. I’ve been on a few big movies in my time, but nothing came close to this.

The details of the set designs were just marvelous. Everything that you see is exactly what I was feeling and when I watched it back I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what it felt like!’

There’s another sequence in episode two when I said to the camera guy, ‘Did that look like what I felt like?’ and he showed me a photograph of it. I said, ‘That’s exactly what I felt like!

Next: Lincoln sits down with co-stars Sarah Wayne Callies and Jon Bernthal to discuss the ill-fated romantic triangle between their three characters…

Joe Nazzaro

Joe is a New York based journalist