Going into season five, The Walking Dead is more popular than it’s ever been, which is probably why on Sunday the National Fan Expo was barely open for business and Constitution Hall was almost full of fans waiting for a panel with Walking Dead cast members. A little over an hour later, the moderator called out the “five of the amazing people from the show; three of whom are still living on it,” and Michael Rooker (Merle Dixon), Lauren Cohan (Maggie Greene), Danai Gurira (Michonne), Norman Reedus (Daryl Dixon), and David Morrissey (The Governor) all gathered on stage to a thunderous applause.
To begin with, the actors were asked about their initial experiences coming on to AMC’s zombie-apocalypse drama. Morrissey was already acquainted with Walking Dead star Andrew Lincoln, and the show he was now at the center of. “I came to the show as a fan, I thought the first season was brilliant,” he said. “I was very nervous about going to show, as I am about every show, but once I got there, everyone was great.”
“I enjoyed those first three episodes on the rooftop in 115 degree heat brutalizing ourselves,” joked Rooker. “We were really in a jungle out there,” he says of Georgia backwoods the show usually shoots in. “Ticks, snakes, bugs everywhere. That was the difficult part for me.
Cohan was asked about having the rare romantic storyline on the show. “With the character it can help keep you sane,” she said. “I think it’s important to see that things exist and people still find love.”
For Gurira, the first question was inevitably about her character’s choice of weapon, the sword. “I do have a few in my house, but they’re not as stellar as the ones on the show” Gurira said with a laugh. “I had to get attached to it. It was something where [Michonne] found an extension of her power when she stepped into this apocalyptic realm.”
As for Michonne being the strong and silent type, Gurira laid out her alter ego’s psychology. “It isn’t about talking, it’s about getting the job done, and that’s where she found her identity,” she explained. “She’s a very pragmatic person so it’s about getting things done in a very productive and immediate way. It’s about effectiveness and efficiency.”
“This job has changed me in a bunch of different ways,” Reedus, the longest-serving member of the cast on the panel said. The soft-spoken actor talked about his struggles in trying to enjoy a cheeseburger unobserved at the airport and how someone at another con gave him a squirrel in a bag they killed with a shovel. The show has also changed him, he said, by encouraging him to get proficient with a compound bow. The evidence of which is in the tree trunks all around his property.
“You know the show is so good and I’m a fan of everyone on the show, and the writing is so f**king good right now,” he added.
In particular, Reedus had warm thoughts about Daryl’s storyline in the second half of season four. “It was exciting to work with Emily [Kinney, who plays Beth] because you wouldn’t normally pair those two up and it was a great bonding moment for them,” said Reedus. “At that point everything that happened with this dude coming in [pointing down the row to Morrissey with his thumb] with that big tank and blew everything up, she was this little flame of hope at the end of a long tunnel, which gets taken away, naturally.”
The cast members were asked about the show’s intensity, which they agreed made the cast stronger by forcing them to act out these tense situations. “I have a friend who started watching the show because I was on it and she said. ‘Damn you making me addicted because it’s so stressful,’” Cohan said.
“What connected to me is that it felt like a war zone, very real and very visceral,” said Gurira, who, as a playwright, researched the affects of war on civilians for a stage work she wrote. “The idea that when everything is gone, when all the structures we depend on are gone, what do we become? Where is your humanity going to fall when that happens?”
“It’s the idea of disconnecting because we all recognize the idea that we’re becoming all walkers,” added Cohan. “We want to see that group try and stay connected through the darkness.”
The darkness is one of the reasons, the cast said, that goofing around on set doesn’t occur as often as it might on other shows.
“It’s so hard to goof around because someone always has something grave to do,” said Cohan.
And when something bad is about to go down on the show, the cast knows exactly how to react.
“Everyone has something horrible to do, so everyone gives you your space,” said Reedus, who added that a cast member’s primary signal that they’re trying to get into a difficult headspace is to disappear into a pair of headphones.
“Once the headphones are on, everyone leaves you alone,” said Rooker with a smile.
Reflecting on the full Walking Dead experience, the cast agreed that it’s the people that make the experience worthwhile, whether they work on the show, or are a fan of it.
“The best part is this right here,” Morrissey said indicated to the crowd. “I’ve seen Hershel alive and well at the cons,” he joked, “and his leg is working quite well.”
“It’s really the spirit of the whole thing,” Gurira says of The Walking Dead’s continued appeal. “Andy Lincoln along with the writers set the tone of the show, and [Lincoln] is such a great leader offering time and support. It’s just these beautiful moments with all these human connections that make going to work such a blessing.”