As lean, haunted lawman Rick Grimes, the character at the center of the apocalyptic horrors that unspool on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” Andrew Lincoln has been tasked with embodying the tormented hero, the wounded husband, the emotionally unavailable father aspiring to do better by his young son, sometimes in the course of a single episode.
In the show’s third season, grief brought Rick to his knees. The character who had made grave sacrifices to protect and lead a small band of survivors ultimately failed to save his wife, Lori, and when he learns of her death, he collapses in agony.
“When she went, I said, ‘He has to fall,'” Lincoln explained. “You’ve got to see the man that’s been so strong for three years fall, gone. It was just too much for him to bear.”
Lincoln has been doing great work on “The Walking Dead” since the show premiered in 2010, but it was his performance in that specific scene that immediately sparked serious talk of an Emmy nomination. (One might argue that, given the critical acclaim routinely heaped on the series, which also happens to be the most-watched prime-time drama on television, award recognition is overdue.)
In its three years, “The Walking Dead” has earned two Emmys, both of them for the series’ extreme zombie makeup effects; none of its actors, writers or directors have received nominations. But sitting down over a late morning coffee at a West Hollywood hotel, Lincoln politely declined to speculate over awards fortunes.
“I fear that if I start getting into that debate, then it will lose the magic or my enjoyment of just doing the acting side of it,” he said.
Lincoln, born Andrew Clutterbuck, had been acting professionally for nearly two decades in Britain before he arrived at his star-making turn at the end of the world. After attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Lincoln was cast in the British drama “This Life” and went on to various roles in TV and film, including a part in the 2003 romantic comedy “Love Actually.”
He came to “The Walking Dead” with a certain amount of trepidation. He’d never been especially interested in genre storytelling, and starring in a series adapted from a comic book seemed like an unusual career move. The involvement of the show’s creator, Frank Darabont, and his affection for such AMC series as “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” prompted him to take a second look.
“I said to my agent, ‘After 19 years, it’s zombies now? Is this what we’re doing?'” Lincoln recalled with a laugh. “But then I read it … and just thought it was like nothing else I’ve read. What sort of attracted me to doing it is this landscape is so extraordinary and weird, but you get to say something and almost distill what it is to be human.
“It never occurred to me that we were doing a genre show until probably 21/2 weeks in,” he added. “I got chased down the street by 400 zombies.”
By now, of course, Lincoln’s had time to adjust to the Southern climate — he splits his time between Georgia, where the series films, and England — and the dialect. While the show is in production, he speaks in his adopted American accent, which he concedes took some getting used to on the part of his wife and two children.
“It’s just the way I do it and it just makes it easier,” Lincoln said. “It’s one less thing to worry about.”
Over 35 episodes, Rick has led his close-knit group from a walker-ravaged Atlanta to a pastoral farm and then to a (mostly) abandoned prison in search of a safe haven, shedding members and, in some cases, civility along the way. The constant evolution of the character, Lincoln said, has proved immensely satisfying.
“One of the great attractions of the project is the fact that these people start in one place and the world changes them significantly, episode by episode, until they end up in a completely new place,” Lincoln said. “The great struggle with Rick is whether he can maintain the vestiges of the old world and his moral code from there and allow it to play out in this new world and whether or not that is realistic. Many times it’s not.”
This season, he sought to retain a hold on his sanity after losing Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) while she was giving birth to a daughter, a child who might actually have been fathered by Rick’s best friend and former partner Shane. Tormented by visions of his dead wife, he pulled away from everyone, including his son Carl (Chandler Riggs), even as the survivors became the target of a cruel foe known as the Governor (David Morrissey).
The challenge moving forward is finding hope amid the carnage. “It’s brutal, the world we inhabit, but the thing that always kept me into doing it was the fact that it’s the pockets of humanity that resonate, that sort of chime,” Lincoln said.
Well, that and the chance to play a cowboy.
“Let’s be honest,” Lincoln said. “I get to ride horses and shoot zombies for a living. I mean, it’s a kind of boy’s own dream.”