As the main star of The Walking Dead, Andrew Lincoln would be forgiven for being knackered.
The British actor films the series for eight months of the year near Atlanta, keeping him away from his home in Wiltshire. And zombie-slaying Rick Grimes has spent all six series of the show having to dig deep to protect both his children and leading the show’s community every minute of every day.
But Lincoln is bouncy and full of smiles as he greets Loaded at his suite at Soho’s Ham Yard Hotel – and he’s very quick to deny that playing world-weary Rick is anything like a proper job.
“I love this gig,” he beams. “I love what I do for a living. Anybody who pretends this is hard work? Nah. It’s not hard work, it’s wonderful.”
He really does seem to get off on being part of one of the world’s most successful TV shows. And why wouldn’t he? The Walking Dead regularly pulls in 15 million viewers in the US alone, and has broken all-time cable viewing records for its network, AMC – previously home to Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
“I get to do so many big emotional scenes,” Lincoln clarifies. “I don’t know any actor who wouldn’t want to embrace the type of scene I get to do regularly on The Walking Dead.
“I’m there for as long as I’m getting great scenes”
“Those big scenes can be formidable. It can be challenging and scary having to emote so much. And I do get nerves every time I have a big end-of-season speech or a very emotional scene. But it’s what actors are designed for! I’m very fortunate, because the writers keep pushing Rick.”
Unless Lincoln is an even better actor in real life than he is on the show, his enthusiasm for the series is absolutely genuine. But after six series, does the 42-year-old worry that he’ll be Rick Grimes forevermore in viewers’ and casting agents’ eyes? Would he ever walk away from the show?
“I’m there for as long as I’m getting great scenes,” he insists. “Getting scenes that, when I drive home, I feel really satisfied by what we’ve done on the show – I’m there for as long as those days are there.
“That’s a rare working environment. I’ve never experienced it before – a focus and tension from everyone, cast and crew. Having such a huge following for The Walking Dead is a bonus, but there’s a benchmark people who work on the show set ourselves. Everyone looks in each other’s eyes and says ‘No – we’re not happy until we’ve reached that standard.’”
In a post-apocalyptic world where zombies – ‘walkers’ as the survivors call them – outnumber humans by what often seems a factor of 10,000 to 1, it’s no surprise that The Walking Dead regularly kills off its most loved characters.
“I worry Rick will get killed off. It’s in the show’s job description”
Former sheriff Grimes has seen his wife Lori die giving birth to the couple’s daughter Judith, while the couple’s son Carl seemed as if he was about to get killed in the mid-season opener of season six on screen just last week.
Does Lincoln ever worry that even Rick Grimes, the show’s main star, could get killed off? “Yeah!” he laughs. “I do worry. That’s what we signed up for in this show. It’s in its job description! I got asked recently by a DJ in New York what the ratings would have to drop below for Rick to be under pressure to get killed off by the network bosses.
I hadn’t considered that, but the DJ said ‘Well, we have – we think if you go under 10 million viewers, you’re in trouble.’
And you know what? Ten million viewers sounds a fair ballpark. If the ratings dip below 10 million, let’s see how long Rick lasts!”
At least Lincoln is likely to be safe for the remaining seven episodes of The Walking Dead’s current series, shown on Fox UK TV over here.
“Norman Reedus is so bad for making me crack up when we’re filming”
After a mid-season opener brutal even by the standards of the show, it ended on a hopeful note when Rick’s injured son Carl wakes up.
“The next episode is light,” smiles Lincoln. “Or as light as The Walking Dead can get! It’s not exactly Carry On Walkers.
“But the next episode is a road trip between Daryl and Rick, and it was so unusual to make an episode so light that a lot of the crew were looking really bemused.
“But that was great, because what are the human survivors in The Walking Dead fighting for, if not for lightness, romance and fun?”
The lightness was helped by Lincoln and Norman Reedus, who plays tough guy Daryl, being friends off set.
“Oh, he’s a mischief maker, Norm,” smiles Lincoln. “He’s so bad for making me crack up when we’re filming. The second he sees an opportunity to make me corpse, he’s in there.
“But I love Rick and Daryl existing in the same show and becoming brothers. Becasuse if there weren’t zombies around, then in any other circumstance on the planet, then Rick’s sherriff would be chasing Daryl and trying to arrest him.
“And after this episode, of we course we get straight back into the dark side. The next six episodes? They’re really hardcore…”
“When my agent sent me the script, I went ‘A zombie show? Is that really all that’s out there?!”
Before The Walking Dead made him the lead in one of the biggest TV shows in the world, Lincoln was already a familiar face to British viewers. He played lovestruck Mark in Love Actually, obsessed by Keira Knightly, and was geeky lawyer Egg in one of the landmark series of the 90s, This Life.
But the likeable and attentive Lincoln had no idea his life was going to change so dramatically when he auditioned for The Walking Dead.
“When my agent sent the pilot script, I called her and said ‘Really? Is this all that’s out there? A zombie show?!’” he smiles. “I was told ‘No, trust me, read the script’, and of course it’s an extraordinary musing on what it is to be human. It’s a cool, funky landscape. You always go into a job hoping it’ll be a success. But, no, no-one could have anticipated what’s happened.
“At the start of the first series, we all held hands and jumped off a cliff, hoping the parachutes would open. And we still have that attitude.”
When did Lincoln start to think the show was going to be a success? “I’ve never felt that!” Come on, Andrew, really? Six series and a gazillion viewers later? “No, honestly,” he insists. “I always feel ‘Let’s not celebrate until the show is in the can.’ Every season, my attitude is ‘Let’s keep it tight and let’s keep going.’”
Lincoln grew up in Bath and, when he’s not filming the show, he still lives nearby with Gael – his wife of nine years and the daughter of Ian Anderson, flute-toting leader of prog band Jethro Tull – and their two children Matilda, eight, and five-year-old Arthur.
“Filming works out quite well for the kids,” jokes Lincoln. “As soon as their accents start to get an American twang, it’s time to pull them out of school and get them back home to Britain.
“And just as soon as they’re fully British, we take them back to the States. We keep bouncing them backwards and forwards. They love America, as I do.”
“TV is the future. There’s something very liberating about telling a big story like The Walking Dead”
Having been part of such a mega success on TV, would Lincoln ever commit himself to starring in another long-running TV show? For once, he’s slightly lost for words.
“I’m not sure,” he ponders. “It’s a major, major commitment. It’s eight months of the year and, since the seasons split in half, there’s a never-ending cycle of talking about it when you’re not filming. It’s a beast and you need to feed it.
“But, saying that, TV is the future. A show like The Walking Dead is the sweet spot that used to be occupied by mid-budget socio-political thrillers in Hollywood. I’m not sure I’d ever be asked to do another long-running TV show. But you can get to tell such a big story – and there’s something very liberating about that.”
And with that, Lincoln is off to grab a coffee. Looking fully energised as he does so.
The Walking Dead is on FOX TV UK on Monday evenings at 9pm.
Loaded’s deputy editor John Earls has covered entertainment and sport across a range of national newspapers, plus several football and music magazines, since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at @EarlsJohn