The Rise of 'The Walking Dead'

The tortured history of TV's goriest show

October 31, 2013 3:15 PM ET
walking dead
Andrew Lincoln on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Frank Ockenfels 3

Rick Grimes is having yet another very bad day. Not a wake-up-from-a-coma-to-find-the-world's-been-overrun-by-zombies bad day or even a my-son-just-shot-my-wife-­after-she-gave-birth-to-a-child-that-may-have-been-fathered-by-my-former-best-friend sort of day, but still pretty awful. There's dirt smeared on his face, a gash over his left eye and a soiled white bandage wrapped loosely around one hand. He's gasping for breath as he trudges up a hill outside the prison he and the band of survivors he's leading call home. He looks like he might collapse.

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Director Ernest Dickerson has yelled "Cut!" and some craft-services staff are handing out fruit cups to the cast and crew. But sweating hard under the hot August sun, Andrew Lincoln needs a little more than a small plastic dish filled with an assortment of cherries and grapefruit to shed the heavy burden of portraying Rick Grimes, ex-Georgia sheriff's deputy and the last great hope for humanity against the zombie apocalypse in AMC's monster hit The Walking Dead.

A few hours ago, Lincoln was walking out of his home in the trendy Atlanta neighborhood of Inman Park. At that moment, he was an unfailingly gracious 40-year-old British actor who until 2010 was best known in his native country for his roles in lighthearted romantic comedies and virtually unknown in this one. After an hourlong drive to Raleigh Studios near the small town of Senoia, where he trades his precise British accent for a rolling Georgia drawl, another hour in makeup, and plenty of time in the sticky morning heat, alternately rehearsing and listening intently to his iPod, he's ready to be Rick Grimes. Or almost ready.

"Action! Andy! Action!"

Lincoln is on all fours now, hands and knees in the dirt, and though he sounds like he's moaning in pain, he's actually singing along to his iPod, momentarily oblivious to the TV show waiting to be made all around him. A production assistant jars him from his trance. Lincoln hands over his music and runs through the scene once, then again. It's a short scene, mostly just Lincoln walking toward the camera and uttering a single line, but the actor isn't happy with how it's going.

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"Again. Again. Again," he says, shaking his head and staring fixedly at the ground as he paces back toward the spot on the hill where he started. One more time through, but still something is off. Lincoln emits a guttural wail of dissatisfaction.

"Let's do it again!" Now he's shouting. "Fuck! Fuck that! Shit!"

His earbuds go back in and he's on all fours again. A final take goes well. Or well enough to move on.

"There's something in me that's definitely masochistic," Lincoln tells me later. "If I don't feel it's true, the crew understands and goes, 'Keep rolling.'" This maso­chism sets an indelible tone on The Walking Dead, which shoots largely during the hot Georgia summers, frequently outside. The cast and crew brave the heat, dodge the rain, navigate woods and grasslands teeming with hungry ticks, chiggers and mosquitoes, and endure the punishing schedule required to make a high-concept, action-packed, effects-heavy 43-minute film in eight days, and do this 16 times between May and November.

"It's a tough job," says Norman Reedus, who plays the crossbow-toting reformed redneck Daryl Dixon. "We're out here running, getting bruised, with the heat and bugs. We've had people come do the show and halfway through, they're like, 'Fuck this! It's 120 degrees outside.'"

Lincoln's role here is beyond lead actor: He's a de facto producer, drama teacher, big brother and cheerleader. He frequently watches and comments on scenes he's not in. Others follow his lead. "Andy is what drives the show," says Steven Yeun, who plays Glenn, a resourceful ex­pizza-delivery guy. "Think about the conditions we're shooting in: You're asking people to be there for 12-hour days for seven months. You'd be like, 'I'm not doing that shit!' But there's a grace Andy comes in with where it's like, 'I'm number one on the call sheet, but I'm in early, staying late, watching other people's takes, taking this seriously.' That bleeds into the crew and cast."

The result is the hottest show on television and probably the industry's most surprising success story of the past dec­ade. Born from Robert Kirkman's popular comic-book series of the same name – which in 10 years has risen from an upstart independent title to outselling offerings from industry giants DC and Marvel, turning Kirkman himself into something of a comics-world deity – The Walking Dead spent years going nowhere as a TV project, rejected by pretty much every major network, before AMC ordered the six-episode first season that aired in 2010. In doing so, the network plunged a show about the last survivors in a world taken over by zombies – known only as "walkers" – into a television universe that had shown little interest in anything undead that wasn't a vampire. Since then, The Walking Dead has racked up a body count behind the camera that almost matches the one in front of it, enduring, among other things, the not-at-all-amicable dismissal of its first showrunner, Frank Darabont, acclaimed director of The Shawshank Redemption, and the less contentious departure of his replacement, Glen Mazzara. Online brouhahas have flared over the show's wavering fidelity to both Kirkman's comic and Darabont's original vision, characters' demises have been mourned and celebrated by fans in a way unseen since the first season of Survivor, and the show itself has occasionally struggled to balance Shakespearean plotlines, high-minded political philosophy and the indescribable pleasure of watching a shuffling zombie get shot in the face. Through it all, ratings have continued to soar – the series is the most-watched drama in basic-cable history, with a record-shattering Season Three finale, and AMC recently announced a spinoff coming in 2015 that will follow different characters through the same end-of-days hellscape. The Walking Dead has come to resemble the fictional zombie plague it documents: relentless, bloody and always getting bigger.

Kirkman still writes the comic – issue No. 100 was the bestselling comic of 2012 – while also working as an executive producer and writer for the show. He believes The Walking Dead owes some of its success to the world's misfortunes. "Apocalyptic storytelling is appealing when people have apocalyptic thoughts. With the global economic problems and everything else, a lot of people feel we're heading into dark times. As bad as it is for society," he says with a laugh, "I'm benefiting greatly."

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