TELEGRAPH.CO.UK – Back in 2010, when Fox’s apocalyptic survival drama The Walking Dead first hit TV screens, its haunting, surreally American image of a man in a Sheriff’s hat, astride a horse, riding through a zombie-infected wasteland, became one of television’s most memorable sequences. But perhaps the biggest surprise was the identity of the man on the horse. Andrew Lincoln, a relatively obscure British actor, known for his roles in This Life, Teachers and Love Actually, was the unlikely casting choice for the show’s lead man, Southern Sheriff’s deputy turned survival supremo Rick Grimes.
Since then, Grimes – a rugged warrior father, unafraid to get his hands bloody when needed – has become a household name in the US, as well known as 24’s Jack Bauer. Last season, the character battled human cannibals, led an attack on a sinister hospital, blurred the lines between “surviving” and becoming a monster himself – and grew a rather impressive beard. When he shaved it, towards the close of the season, Twitter went into mourning, creating its very own memorial hashtag: #RIPRicksbeard.
When I meet Andrew Lincoln, in London’s Soho Hotel, the 42-year-old couldn’t look, or sound more un Rick-like. He’s smartly dressed in shirt and trousers, the convincing American accent he sports on the show has been abandoned for a British one, and, worst of all, he’s clean shaven. But he’s eager to discuss the fame of his now-missing facial hair.
“I’ve only just found that out – it had its own tweet or something?” he says, endearingly mixing-up his Twitter terms. “This is what I love about our show –the fans. It’s not our show any more – it’s their show.”
Warming to his subject, he tells me how his Walking Dead co-star Norman Reedus, who plays rebel redneck turned loyal team player Daryl Dixon, sends him the latest memes and fan-made artwork, depicting the pair’s on-show “bromance”.
“There’s one of me as Leonardo DiCaprio on the Titanic, and he’s Kate Winslet, and its rather moving… and there’s a Brokeback Mountain one as well. This never existed when I was doing This Life.”
Lincoln’s genuine, if slightly bemused delight at the excesses of the show’s creative fandom, is a product of the actor’s own rigorous control: he doesn’t follow the series on social media, and has never watched it. In fact, he says, he’s avoided watching himself on camera for the past 15 years: it encourages him not to self-censor his acting.
What he is passionate about, however, is how other people watch the show – specifically, about the fact that each episode is shot on 16mm film, rather than digital tape. Paraphrasing “a film director” – Bertolucci, he thinks – he tells me that celluloid “captures not only what is in front of the camera, but all around it” – making it the perfect medium for conveying the “realness” of the show’s zombies (known as “Walkers”), all of whom are played by extras.
“You can smell it, you can feel it, you can taste it. You can definitely get a sense of the show through the celluloid,” he says, with sudden fervency. “I think it’s borne out of the fact that we’ve got extras in zombie makeup. “
“I know [Walking Dead creator Frank Darabont] always said that he wanted that creamy, super 16 texture to help get that across. He didn’t want CGI: he wanted the human behind the monster and the monster behind the human. That’s absolutely what the show’s about.”
While shooting on location in Georgia, Lincoln – as Grimes – spends a large part of his day hacking and chopping into these human extras, during the show’s gruelling physical fight scenes. Does he ever apologise afterwards – catch up with the Walkers for a cup of tea?
He laughs. “I just stab them and go back. I don’t tend to get too cuddly-feely with the zombies.”
It’s strange to picture than man in front of me as a hardened zombie killer. But I get the impression that his status as a global TV star is probably equally surreal for Lincoln himself: a far cry from his breakthrough role as Edgar “Egg” Cook in the cult Nineties BBC drama This Life, which followed a group of fledgling lawyers living together in London.
“I sort of look back on those years with great fondness and affection,” he says, when I ask him about the show that kick-started his career.
“[This Life co-star] Jack Davenport, who’s still one of my dear friends – he revisited it again recently and said ‘it’s amazing seeing how good we were’. I’m not sure if Jack was right – I don’t know how good we really were. But it is true that we got very, very lucky, early in our career, and it certainly opened a lot of doorways for me in England.”
After This Life came to a close, Lincoln managed to tot up a respectable, if not exactly groundbreaking CV, with his film and television roles including a part in Richard Curtis’s 2003 romantic comedy Love Actually (he plays the heartbroken, if slightly stalker-like Mark, whose plotline culminates in him holding some signs up outside Keira Knightley’s house).
But, he says, when he decided to take a chance and audition for The Walking Dead (beating off more than 100 rivals), he was never expecting the show to become the phenomenon it later did.
Instead, he was attracted by the same qualities that initially drew him to This Life: the freshness of the script and the characters.
“Back then, I think what was very important to me was that Rick wasn’t just this archetypal ‘man with no name’ figure,” he says. “He was a father. His engine, at that point, was his wife and his child.”
“The terrifying decisions he had to make – I feel like, if he weren’t a father, he wouldn’t be able to make those decisions”.
Lincoln himself is father to two children, with wife Gael Anderson (daughter of Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson). But, thanks to The Walking Dead, he’s also spent the past five years as something of a surrogate father to his on-screen son, Carl, played by 16-year-old Chandler Riggs (who was 10 when the series began).
“Chandler and I spent a lot of time on set building that intimacy and relationship – and I think that pays off,” Lincoln says.
“The big movie of last year was (Richard) Linklater’s Boyhood, wasn’t it? Great movie. But I’ve been sort of living Boyhood with Chandler. I’ve seen him grow up, and his voice break… He started out like a tiny little Ewok, and he’s grown into an extraordinary young man.”
When it comes to Rick’s other on-screen child, baby Judith, the relationship is less personal.
“We’ve been through six different Judiths,” he says. “They grow too quickly.”
“We use twins, and last season I think I traumatised one of the babies. Every time they saw my beard, the first one was breaking down. The other one loved me. But the first one just completely freaked out. Ahead of each scene, I would ask ‘which one have we got?’”
In some ways, bonding closely with fellow cast members isn’t such a good idea. While a few core characters are seen as “safe”, The Walking Dead still has a nasty habit of unexpectedly killing off key players: season five was particularly brutal in this respect.
A number of characters have been rumoured to be in for the chop in the forthcoming sixth season, but Lincoln is resolutely tight-lipped about what viewers can expect (although he does promise that the show will continue to explore the darker side of Rick’s character).
“When we start filming a season, I don’t want to know if anyone’s died,” he says, explaining that full scripts are often withheld from the cast until relatively late in the process.
“It’s a sort of courtesy to the rest of your cast. Even though I’m an actor, I’m a very bad liar. Being sat with people at lunch, and going ‘yeah, yeah’, and knowing that they were on their way out… I don’t think it’d be very helpful to me, or to anyone else.”
“We have the same reaction as the audience does when someone dies,” he adds. “We feel robbed.”
The Walking Dead starts in the UK on Fox on Monday 12 October at 9pm