THEGUARDIAN.COM – In October 2010 the American network AMC launched a TV drama that started with a sheriff’s deputy walking through a post-apocalyptic landscape of burned, overturned cars before encountering a young girl who turns around to reveal the bloodied, menacing gaze of the living dead.
If the content of the prologue was shocking, the identity of the actor playing the cop in The Walking Dead was arguably even more startling. Almost unrecognisable under the police uniform and growling tones of the American south was Andrew Lincoln, an actor previously most associated with playing happy-go-lucky Englishmen in the TV shows This Life and Teachers, and the Richard Curtis film Love, Actually.
The counter-intuitive casting worked to the extent that The Walking Dead – in which Lincoln’s character leads a group of survivors through an America divided between humans and zombified “walkers” – begins its sixth season in the US and UK on Sunday and Monday night respectively, making Lincoln the latest British actor – as well as Damien Lewis in Homeland, Hugh Laurie in House and Dominic West in The Affair – to become a highly paid American TV superstar.
“He’s brilliant in it,” says Michael Attenborough, who as artistic director of London’s Almeida theatre directed Lincoln in one play and produced him in another. “But I can’t for the life of me work out how they ended up at his doorstep. Why would you have thought of Andy Lincoln for that role?”
One explanation may be that American actors prefer to play characters who are positive role models, leaving unsympathetic parts open to Anglo imports. In their hits, Lewis, West and Laurie respectively played a terrorist, an adulterer and a drug-addicted doctor, while Deputy Rick Grimes, although he has increasingly become the moral compass of the zombie show, is first seen shooting a child in the head.
“I think why it works,” says Attenborough, “is that his basic likability survives even in the darkest roles. He has a combination of charm and danger that is very rare.”
Also unusual is Lincoln’s strike rate in one of the most fundamental – but, in practice, toughest – aspects of acting: the picking of scripts. Whether due to luck, judgment or agents, he has consistently been involved in projects that outperform expectations.
The two series of This Life on BBC2 became one of the buzz productions of the mid-90s, and the educational black comedy Teachers ran to four series on Channel 4. In 2000 his National Theatre debut, as an NHS psychiatrist in the Joe Penhall play Blue/Orange, transferred to London’s West End and was courted for Broadway.
At that point, Lincoln’s run of success stumbled because American Equity refused to allow the London cast to come to New York on the basis that the actors were not sufficiently well-known to trigger the clause that allows a foreign actor to be preferred to a native player.
“I even went to American Equity in person to plead their case,” recalls the director Roger Michell. The union refused to relent, although the director points out the irony that Lincoln, Bill Nighy and Chiwetel Ejiofor have all subsequently became American screen stars.
But although its door to Broadway was closed, Blue/Orange opened others. After seeing the play, Richard Curtis cast the trio in his film-directing debut, the portfolio romantic movie Love, Actually (2003). Lincoln played Mark, who, hopelessly in love with his best friend’s wife, eventually declares his passion by holding up imploring cue cards while posing as a carol singer.
Even projects that made less impact turned out to be wise choices. Playing American characters in the Sam Shepherd stage play The Late Henry Moss and the BBC drama Moonshot (2009), in which he portrayed the Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, reassured US casting directors that Lincoln was trans-Atlantically fluent.
“I think that like a lot of English actors,” says Michell, “he likes doing American accents because of a sort of glamorous swagger it brings.”
Attenborough, who directed the Sam Shepherd production, notes: “What’s odd is that Andy is actually incredibly English. But what I found from working with him is that he has an instinctive, almost musical sense of rhythm, which you really need for American dialogue.”
However, as with other aspects of his profession, Lincoln also works very hard at his non-native voices. During the run of The Late Henry Moss, he would come into the theatre two hours before each performance to practice the quick-fire dialogues with co-star Brendan Coyle. And, following the example of Laurie after being translated to House, Lincoln maintains his Georgian delivery at all times during days when he is shooting The Walking Dead.
This linguistic versatility – he has also appeared in two French films – may have been helped by exposure to a range of different speech patterns while growing up. Born in London to an English father and a South African mother, Andrew James Clutterbuck (encouraged at drama school to take a less cluttered stage name, he chose Lincoln) moved during childhood, due to his father’s work as a civil engineer, to the geographical extremes of Hull and Bath. It was in the west country that he became involved in school drama, claiming that he was motivated by the chance of meeting girls, but rapidly showed enough skill and commitment to be accepted at Rada.
Almost straight out of training he was cast in This Life as the attractive optimist Edgar “Egg” Cook, one of a group of London twentysomethings sharing a house. Tony Garnett, the show’s senior producer, was keen to find fresh faces and so widely auditioned unknowns. Lincoln, says Garnett, was “very easy casting. He was a working class provincial lad with a sunny disposition, just perfect for Egg”.
Unusually for a journalist profiling an actor, I have acted on screen with the subject. In This Life + 10 (2006), a BBC2 sequel catching up with the characters a decade on, Egg has published a successful novel based on the lives of his former housemates and is interviewed by me during an event at the British Library. During the lengthy delays and retakes to which filming is prone, Lincoln was helpful and gentle during shooting and, off-camera, intelligently inquisitive about politics and literature, asking sharp questions about whether authors in interview were being themselves or adopting a persona, which led him to deliver a harder-boiled Egg in our scene together.
There are clearly reasons why the actor might have thought it sensible to be friendly to a TV and theatre critic, but, in conversations with Lincoln’s collaborators, niceness is attributed to him in a way previously known only with Michael Palin.
“I realise this is going to be nauseating and disappointing for you,” says Attenborough. “But he is the nicest person I’ve ever worked with – unlimitingly good-natured.”
For Michell, Lincoln is “the same as an actor as he is as a person: diligent, modest, witty. He works very hard at this job”.
Garnett, known as a sharp judge of character, concurs: “Lovely lad. I don’t think he suffers much from angst.”
Lincoln’s private life has seemed relatively tranquil for an actor who first came to prominence as a TV heart-throb. During rehearsals for The Late Henry Moss, he mentioned in passing that he was engaged to the daughter of Ian Anderson, lead singer and instrumentalist of the rock band Jethro Tull, who is celebrated for playing the flute on stage while standing one-legged.
Attenborough, a Tull fanatic, suspended rehearsals for 20 minutes while he quizzed Lincoln lengthily on his fiancee’s dad and, sensing that the actor “may not have been entirely up to speed on his future father-in-law’s work”, brought in 14 Jethro Tull CDs the following morning. Perhaps helped by this crash course, Lincoln soon married Gael Anderson at a wedding that brought together the aristocracies of acting and music. The flower girl was Apple, daughter of Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow, and the bride’s father played a flute solo – including, Michell recalls, “at one point raising his right leg in the time-honoured fashion”.
The couple now have two young children and live for most of the year in Atlanta, where most of The Walking Dead has been filmed. Unless the show’s ratings and acclaim suddenly dip – or Lincoln suffers cultural homesickness – the actor’s immediate future is in the post-apocalytic drama: the producers say they have mapped out a narrative that would stretch to 12 seasons.
Beyond that, he may be contemplating a career shift. Lincoln directed two episodes of Teachers and another hint of ambitions beyond acting is his recent formation of a production company, Slam Films, in which the S, L, and A of the company name are the first initials of the actor Stephen Mangan, Mangan’s wife, Louise Delamare, and Lincoln himself. Their first production was a TV adaptation for Sky Arts of a Royal Court play, Birthday, about a man who becomes pregnant, written by one former Lincoln collaborator, Joe Penhall, and directed by another, Michell.
Busy on The Walking Dead, Lincoln was able to serve only as an executive producer, but, during a visit to the set, acted as producer and interviewer on a location report for use on the promotional website.
Michell, one of the interviewees, remembers him being “typically well-prepared: he’d thought about the questions and the filming. He said that when The Walking Dead is over he’d like to do more behind the camera”.
Big success in the US, especially if it arrives unexpectedly, has sometimes adversely affected the egos and manner of actors who were previously loved and humble. Michael Attenborough, though, reports that this hasn’t happened to Lincoln: “I bumped into him in a London club a few months ago and he was just the same funny, friendly person. It hasn’t changed him at all. My only regret is that the success of The Walking Dead means that he’s lost to the British market for the moment.”
“He’ll be enjoying it,” says Garnett, the This Life producer. “Because he enjoys everything.”
Born Andrew James Clutterbuck, 14 September 1973.
Career Went almost immediately from Rada into zeitgeisty BBC2 series about young people, This Life. Subsequent roles on stage (Blue/Orange) and film (Love, Actually) attracted interest from America.
High point Mastering the southern tongue, the hardest American accent for non-natives, to lead six hugely successful and lucrative seasons of the post-apocalyptic drama The Walking Dead.
Low point Being blocked by American Equity from going to Broadway with Blue/Orange.
He says: “What I always hoped for when I became an actor was to do something that people can escape to, find identification with and excitement in and be able to talk about it in bars, restaurants and workplaces.”
They say: “Andrew Lincoln shows that he is an ever-growing actor – commanding, angry” – Financial Times on The Late Henry Moss.