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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Andrew Lincoln and Danai Gurira are back. Will ‘Walking Dead’ fans follow?

Andrew Lincoln and Danai Gurira, who reprise their roles from “The Walking Dead” for a new six-part spinoff mini-series “The Ones Who Live,” in Los Angeles on Jan. 22, 2024. The show has a new setting: a dystopian metropolis called the Civic Republic ruled by a military police force. (Ryan Pfluger/The New York Times)

By Calum Marsh

When Rick Grimes, the rugged, righteous former sheriff played by Andrew Lincoln in AMC’s zombie horror series “The Walking Dead,” was written out of the series at Lincoln’s request in its ninth season, the show seemed to lose its hero, its heart and its hopeful moral center. A well-weathered and much brutalized leader, Rick was part of an ever-expanding ensemble but always felt like the main character.

Rick’s departure created a vacuum that the show — which concluded in November 2022 after more than 150 episodes and 11 seasons — could never quite fill, even as a six-year time jump moved the story ahead into the future. Audiences seemed to lose interest, too: Ratings plummeted toward the end of the show’s run to a fraction of what they were during its mid-2010s peak popularity.

Rick was never actually killed off: He left “The Walking Dead” under mysterious (and somewhat contentious) circumstances, whisked away by an unexplained helicopter with the promise of one day returning in a planned series of movies. Those movies instead morphed into a new six-part miniseries that reveals what happened to Rick after his sudden departure. “The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live,” premiering Feb. 25 on AMC and AMC+, finds Lincoln reprising his signature role in a new setting: a dystopian metropolis called the Civic Republic ruled by a military police force called the Civic Republic Military, or CRM.

“The Ones Who Live” reunites Rick with his wife, Michonne, the katana-wielding firebrand played by Danai Gurira, who left “The Walking Dead” early in the 10th season. Gurira and Lincoln serve as executive producers on “The Ones Who Live,” with Gurira also credited as a creator alongside Scott M. Gimple, the former “Walking Dead” showrunner and current chief content officer for the “Walking Dead” universe.

In a video interview from Los Angeles just before the premiere screening of “The Ones Who Live,” Lincoln and Gurira were chatty and playful, with the air of old friends who are totally at ease together. Lincoln, blithe and funny, kept insisting that Gurira answer questions first, while Gurira, trying to hastily scarf down a salad, mimicked him back: “You go ahead.” “No, you go ahead!” “No, YOU go ahead!” They eventually managed to discuss why they left “The Walking Dead,” why they came back and how “The Ones Who Live” differs from the original. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: Andrew, the first time we spoke was during the show’s fifth season. That was 10 years ago. Could you have imagined, back then, that you’d still be playing this character a decade later?

LINCOLN: No, not at all. That was an interesting time. During those seasons, we just rode this extraordinary wave. It was a phenomenon. And a large part, a third of my professional career, has been spent doing this, slaying the zombies.

Q: Danai, you joined the show in Season 3. What were your first impressions of Andrew and the rest of the cast?

GURIRA: This guy? I was a little concerned. No, I’m kidding. Everyone was really incredible. I was amazed by Andy, Steven (Yeun, who played Glenn), Chandler (Riggs, who played Carl). They were already a tight-knit family; they already loved each other and were very embracing of new people like myself. They expected a lot from me and from everybody, because they had built it on their blood, sweat and tears. That’s what attracted me to it, actually, because I like contributing my own blood, sweat and tears.

Q: This show feels pretty different from the original “Walking Dead,” at least cosmetically. Was that to give the audience something new or because the two of you wanted a new experience creatively?

LINCOLN: It was a bit of both. This show is part of the same story; all of this stuff has been there in the background. We wanted to answer all the questions that we had and hopefully the audience will have about the larger world.

GURIRA: One of the reasons all of this works is because there are so many ways that you can imagine it going. People want to see different aspects and be surprised, like, “Oh, my God, what’s that?” These things we show, they could easily happen if this sort of thing happened for real. Cannibals, or the Governor, or the CRM — those are all things that could sprout out of the world of zombies. That’s what allows it to endure and to always have fresh new stories.

LINCOLN: Let’s put it this way. If this show is the Titanic, the iceberg is the CRM.

Q: Many people who watched “The Walking Dead” for a long time abandoned it at some point before the end. What would entice them to watch this one?

LINCOLN: It’s six episodes.

GURIRA: Can I be really honest? I didn’t watch all of “The Walking Dead.” So I understand that. But I’m still very interested in this show. It does stand on its own. I mean, keeping up with all 11, 12 seasons? I did not. Andy had left by Season 9, and even if you stopped watching in Season 6, that’s when Rick and Michonne get together. You’ll be like, “OK, got it.” There’s flashbacks. Audiences today have no problem catching up with things; the trick with audiences today is to keep ahead of them. Do you want to see a unique take on epic love? I’ve never seen a love story like this. If they want to watch a unique apocalyptic love story, this is it.

Q: We finally see your characters reunite after years apart. What was that like to film?

GURIRA: When we finally got together in the episodes, it was like the spark was lit, and it was like, “This is why we’re doing this.” Personally, I just was so happy for her — until things go awry.

LINCOLN: So after about three minutes.

Q: You both speak very fondly about your time in the original show. Given how enjoyable it was, why did you decide to leave?

GURIRA: It felt like time for me to go. The beauty of this show is that it’s all-encompassing; it leaves you entirely wiped at the end of the day. But there were other things I had a lot of desire to explore, and I couldn’t do that if I was giving my all to this show.

LINCOLN: Mine was a family decision. As the show got bigger, the tour of duty got longer. And as my children got older, I couldn’t keep them in schools on both sides of the Atlantic. They needed me. It became unbearable. My daughter reminds me that I’ve missed eight of her birthdays. I needed to come home.

Q: And yet you’ve returned.

LINCOLN: I remember going down to a beach that’s in the middle of nowhere where no one ever visits, and there was this guy walking his dog. He stopped and looked at me, and I thought he might know my work. He went, “Rick, for (expletive) sake, when are you coming back?” Excuse my language; I read your paper. Anyway, that kept happening, so there was a real obligation to finish it. The fans are the best part of this whole thing.

Q: Danai, how did the show change after Andrew left?

LINCOLN: It got a lot better.

GURIRA: No. It was hard. It was very hard. It did change dynamics. We stayed a family and we stayed connected, but you could definitely feel the absence. I loved the storytelling that I got to do — Michonne’s belief that Rick was still out there, and the idea of being a full-out mother with two kids. There was all this stuff for me to play with, but it was in the presence of his absence.

Q: Andrew, what it was like for you after leaving? Did you keep up with the show at all?

GURIRA: No, he couldn’t care less.

LINCOLN: It was a very strange decompression. I was absolutely exhausted. It felt very monastic, doing this day to day, making sure we didn’t drop a scene, that we got it right. I felt like the CEO of a conglomerate, which is not the job I signed up for. Those were the responsibilities that came with this juggernaut of a show. Press requests and things are not my natural thing.

Q: You also had this enormous fandom to deal with.

LINCOLN: It was quite surreal to walk out in front of 10,000 people, and half of them are dressed like you and the other half have tattoos of your face on them. I’m quite quiet. I would go back and retreat to the countryside and walk my dogs and be at home and cook food and be a glorified Uber driver for my children. There was ground to make up. It was a life choice. I love acting with a passion. But I also love not acting.

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