For the last seven seasons, The Walking Dead has fearlessly said goodbye to countless series regulars and fan-favorite characters—some of whom memorably met their fate at the end of a barbed wire–wrapped baseball bat in a recent episode. Yet Rick Grimes, played with a potent mix of grit and gusto by Andrew Lincoln, has remained at the center of the show, leading a motley crew of survivors through the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. While season seven saw Rick rendered powerless against a new adversary, literally groveling at the boots of his nemesis, Negan, Lincoln assures that the protagonist is back in top form as the series returns with what will be its landmark 100th episode.
WS: We have seen Rick Grimes go through periods of absolute strength and absolute despair, from being the ultimate leader to being completely broken. Where is Rick at now, mentally and emotionally, in this journey?
LINCOLN: He’s ready to kick some ass! He’s got his swagger and strut back. One of the great satisfactions about playing this guy is that they keep recalibrating what it is to be a leader. One of his strengths is the fact that he listens to a lot of people and takes counsel. I think that’s why people follow him, as much as because of his tenacity. On the 100th episode, you see a man ready to go to war, a man who will stop at nothing until Negan is defeated.
WS: What was it like to have to be rather submissive to Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan?
LINCOLN: Jeffrey Dean Morgan owes me! I’ve been kept cowering in his presence for most of the season. [Laughs] It wasn’t the most comfortable place to go to, but it was a necessary one to put us where we are now, which is a really exciting and thrilling start to what I think is the strongest season we’ve ever done. We had to go somewhere to get somewhere, which is always the case with Rick Grimes—he has to be beaten down until he’s almost nothing. This time around he was lifted up by Michonne and the other people he loves and got back on his feet. Losing Glenn and Abraham [who Negan killed in front of the group in the season-seven opener] was incredibly soul-destroying for everybody—for the audience maybe even more than us!
WS: How did you get yourself into that space, to be so broken?
LINCOLN: I use music a lot. It’s sort of difficult to talk about. I usually don’t go into the nuts and bolts of it because you’d probably want to certify me! I’m a magpie; I take lots of different things and throw them all together and wish for the best. For example, by having lovely and brilliant actors around you, you’re willing to make a fool of yourself. So much of the acting for me on this job is about being willing to look like a fool. When we first started talking about zombies, I thought, Really? How are we going to sell this? But I was surrounded by a group of incredible actors and amazing artists and technicians, who all just said, Let’s try to make this real and see what happens. That’s all that I’ve tried to do for the last eight years, tried to get to a place where it’s comfortable and safe to fail.
WS: Does the love story between Rick and Michonne give the character more strength, or does he now just have more to lose?
LINCOLN: That was always the question: is it a weakness or is it a strength? Ultimately, what we carry in the DNA of Rick’s group is the fact that we do have love. We have support and hope, and in that, they hold the future. We have talked ad nauseam about the subject of, does it make you stronger, or does it make you more vulnerable? What carries us is the promise of the future, and the way you go forward is through love, support and nurturing. Ultimately, love and all the good stuff is what makes us human. It’s the stuff that we’re fighting for.
WS: Has the atmosphere on set shifted as the group prepares for war?
LINCOLN: There is a real, palpable sense this season that is reminiscent of the earlier seasons. The band is back together, to some degree. We’re doing some incredibly thrilling set pieces, and there’s a lot of action. It’s very much thriving through the original characters, or at least a lot of characters that were in seasons one, two and three. Also, the crew members are the most vital unsung heroes in all of this. A large amount of the crew has been on this job just as long as I have. They read the scripts just as voraciously as we do when we get them. They suffer with you! They’re the ones who have to sit when you’re going through hell, are lost and grieving. Now that there’s a sense of purpose and strength in the people who have been beaten down for quite a long time, everybody else [on the crew] feels excited about it. Going to work and doing crazy action sequences is fun for everybody, let me tell you that! [Laughs]
WS: With so many cliffhangers and the potential for spoilers, what must the team do to ensure secrecy on set and after shooting wraps?
LINCOLN: Remarkably, very little. Everybody on set and who works on this show is as proud of it as you can imagine. Everybody involved doesn’t want the story to be spoiled; everybody, in every part of the machine, cares about it deeply. Spoilers generally happen either because of overly enthusiastic fans spotting something or in the very last stages of production, when perhaps languages get changed or there’s a final edit. It never comes from anybody working on set. They want the secret to be kept as much as anybody on the show.
Of course, the insatiable need for news and information is part of people’s lives now. There is a never-ending stream of “what’s next?” It’s a blessing for our show because it’s one of the reasons that we became what we became, because of social media. It’s also the enemy. We are very cautious about who gets scripts. We even shot two days’ worth of extra footage of scenes that would never see the light of day to combat it. Certain characters who weren’t scripted to had a baseball bat hit them—which is a really unfortunate way of avoiding spoilers. It’s what we have to do to keep the sanctity of the story.
I liken spoilers to opening somebody else’s present and then telling them what they got before Christmas Day. Why would you do that? It’s bizarre! I think it’s born out of over-enthusiasm and excitement.
WS: Are you finding time to pursue any other projects, or is this show pretty all-consuming?
LINCOLN: It is [all-consuming]. It’s a considerable thing to sail the Good Ship Walking Dead. It demands a lot of attention. Because we split the seasons [into two parts], publicity reignites early in the year. All in all, it is a year-round thing—at least that’s what I tell my agents to avoid them booking me for more work.
I am looking seriously at other things. There’s a film that I would really love to make this year. I’m reading the fourth draft of it, and it’s very good. So hold that thought!
WS: Is producing or directing in the cards for you?
LINCOLN: Producing isn’t something that I have thought too seriously about. We live in a world where apparently everybody is an executive producer. [Laughs] I don’t quite know what the job description means anymore! I do like the idea of seeking out stories that I want to tell and getting people I admire together to do that. If that’s what producing is, then I definitely would like to produce in the future. As far as directing goes, yes. I think it’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done and never thought it would be. It’s something that I see myself doing very much in the future.
WS: Is there anything you can tease about what’s in store for season eight? The first episode marks the milestone 100th for the show, so should I assume that something epic is lined up?
LINCOLN: The short answer is, yes! After giving such a comprehensive answer about how loyal people are in not giving spoilers, it would be remiss of me to start spoiling now, wouldn’t it? I will say that from the first seven episodes that I’ve read so far, this is the strongest, most thrilling, biggest, and most adventurous, dynamic, blood-curdling and bloodletting season we’ve done to date.
WS: Do you have an idea of how you’d like the series to wrap up?
LINCOLN: We began it by having everything involved in this very tight ensemble and then sort of jumped off a cliff’s edge and the parachutes opened. One of the extraordinary things about this show is that it has a narrative that keeps going forward and keeps changing. It keeps evolving with new cast members. The most painful part—actually, the only painful part—of doing this job is the fact that you say goodbye to very dear friends every year. I seem to be the one waving and staying. It’s also possibly one of the reasons why it’s lasted. With the phoenix rising from the ashes each time, the show changes and adapts. I certainly don’t see the show finishing any time soon, and I don’t see my relationship with Rick Grimes finishing any time sooner…unless you know otherwise!
WS: Eight years is a long time to be on the same series, yet the cast seems as energized now as ever. Do the pressure and expectations ever wear on you?
LINCOLN: It’s funny. Lennie James joined the show full-time last year [as Morgan]. He said that the premiere episode of the last season was like shooting a pilot on any other show because of people’s attitudes and aspiration to keep jumping the bar we are setting for ourselves. Maybe everybody is like me, and we’re all just masochists. We love seeing if we can remember the dance steps and improving on them. There’s a really beautiful work environment on this set that I’ve never experienced outside of theater. There’s an attitude of support, attention and commitment that we established in the first season, and maybe we all have OCD or are superstitious and don’t want to break the spell.