The Rise of 'The Walking Dead'

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A few days earlier, when I first meet Lincoln in a funky coffee shop in the aggressively bohemian enclave of Little Five Points, he's sitting at a table toward the back, doing his best to blend in. His curly hair, brown with streaks of gray, is mostly tucked under a green John Deere baseball hat, and he's got a couple of days' worth of salt-and-pepper stubble on his face. Lincoln lives nearby, and most of the people who stop by the table actually know him, at least vaguely, as a regular here. For those who don't, he seems to shift from his English diction toward a molasses twang, as he collects their compliments – "Oh, thank you, ma'am" – fearing perhaps the discovery that Rick is a Brit could puncture The Walking Dead's peculiar magic for them.

In person, Lincoln is polite and self-deprecating, almost to a fault. His tendency to lean in, lock on you with his piercing blue eyes and look fascinated as you babble whatever nonsense you're babbling about your life seems like it must be an act, but he either does it so well you can't help but go along with it, or it's not.

Lincoln spent his early years in the north of England, near Hull ("Voted the worst place in the United Kingdom," he says), with the considerably less leading-man-friendly last name Clutterbuck, but moved as a young child to Bath, in southwestern Britain. He got his start as an actor on the rugby pitch, where, as a teenager, a teacher spotted him and decided he was the guy to play the Artful Dodger in the school's production of Oliver! He took to acting immediately, thriving, he says, off the "live buzz."

Nine months after graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Lincoln landed a starring role in the TV show This Life, a romantic dramedy about twentysomethings in London that captured the generational zeitgeist in mid-Nineties England. This led to subsequent British film and TV roles, including a hit comedy series, Teachers, in which he starred and met his future wife, Gael Anderson, a production assistant who is also the daughter of Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson.

"I didn't know who Jethro Tull was," he says, as if admitting a terrible secret. "Then one weekend she said, 'Come back to my parents' place.' That's when I realized he was a rock star. We hit it off. He's a rare breed."

Lincoln's career was humming along nicely in England, and after a sizable role in the film Love Actually, he was antsy to try his luck in the U.S. But the scripts sent his way were dispiriting.

"I didn't want to do more romantic comedies," he says. "I was very interested in working in America, but I didn't want to be Hugh Grant." He was desperate to break from his niche. When he read the script for the Walking Dead pilot, he seemed an unlikely choice to play a Georgia lawman, but the producers were looking for a fresh face, so his failure to cross over in America was suddenly an asset.

Rick Grimes is a complex character. He's not a brooding male antihero à la Tony Soprano, Don Draper or Walter White, but an old-fashioned Gary Cooper type, albeit with a twist – a good man forced to make awful and violent choices. To play him, says Gale Anne Hurd, an executive producer pivotal to the show's development, they needed "someone who could get away with doing brutal things. You had to really buy, at the core, he was an honorable man thrust into these incredibly brutal times."

Jon Bernthal, who was already cast as Shane, Rick's best-friend-turned-nemesis, says when Lincoln walked into series showrunner Frank Darabont's office, "he was so clearly the guy."

With a new baby at home, though, Lincoln and his wife were reluctant to uproot for a role that hardly looked like a great bet. He loved AMC's Mad Men, but mostly he trusted that if anyone could turn a story of murderous rotting corpses overtaking the Earth into a tale about our collective humanity, it was Darabont.

"Frank talked us into getting on that plane," he says.

It's almost impossible to look at Robert Kirkman and not think that this is what The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy would've looked like if he'd had a little less bitterness and a little more can-do spirit. Kirkman, 34, is an affable guy with a sandy-brown beard and a bulky physique. His only real ambition growing up was to be a successful comic-book writer, and when I meet him in his small office on set, he seems like a guy still surprised at how far that goal has taken him. Sure, he's a writer and producer on the show, but he admits when it comes to the nuts and bolts of TV, "I'm learning."

During earlier seasons, "I would be in meetings, but I wouldn't really know what we're doing or why we're doing these meetings," he says. "Now I'm much more attuned to what makes a television show."

Kirkman grew up in Richmond, Kentucky. When he first became serious about writing and publishing comics, he didn't have the nerve to tell his parents he'd quit his job at Kentucky Lighting & Supply. For about a year afterward, he maintained the fiction that he still had a day job. Even after his mother called and discovered he no longer worked there, he didn't come clean.

"I was like, 'Oh, yeah, now I work at UPS,'" he says, shaking his head at the memory. It was at least two years of these charades – during which time Kirkman was writing his own comics and freelancing for Marvel – before he finally brought a box of his comics to his parents' house and fessed up. "They just thought I was weird."

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