Walking Dead Week: Melissa McBride on Playing Carol
The Weary Warrior
Oct 06, 2014
This week is Walking Dead Week on Under the Radar's website. Season five of the wildly popular and critically acclaimed post apocalyptic zombie drama starts this Sunday, October 12, at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. Central) on AMC. In anticipation of the show's return, for this special theme week of coverage we have interviewed around 10 members of the show's current cast and will be posting one to two Walking Dead interviews every day this week.
There's a scene near the end of season four's "The Grove" that seems to represent the culmination of Carol Peletier's character growth. Having just killed her adopted daughter, Lizzie, because of her violently unstable behavior, Carol sits at a table in an abandoned house and confesses to Tyreese that she was the one who murdered his flu-stricken girlfriend. After four seasons of fighting to survive, she looks broken, too weary to worry much about the fallout from her revelation. Her face drawn and her eyes vacant, she has the look of someone who has nothing more to lose.
Of all of the characters on The Walking Dead, none has lost more than Carol. As a result, no cast member has had more opportunities to portray character growth than Melissa McBride, the Atlanta native behind the character's dazzling transformation. In season one, she portrayed the timid housewife, kowtowing to her abusive husband until his tent was invaded by a herd of roaming zombies. Then, in season two, she played the grieving mother, left in limbo as the group of survivors combed the woods looking for her lost (and eventually deceased) little girl. Season three was no kinder to her, as Carol was separated from the group by a zombie swarm and forced to hide alone in the dark of an abandoned jail cell, waiting for death or rescue. Hardened by her experiences, the Carol of season four was ready to go to brutal lengths to protect her new family, killing and burning the bodies of two group members who had contracted a viral illness that was sweeping through the group. As a result, Carol was exiled, alone again until she met up with Tyreese and the three little girls with whom he was wandering the woods after their prison home was destroyed. In short, it's hard to think of a character in TV history who has endured more pain and misery.
In conversation, McBride is not totally unlike her character. She's welcoming and unpretentious, exuding a natural warmth and a calming presence. Like Carol, she also possesses a quiet wistfulness in her tone, and one assumes she draws on a deep reservoir of lived experience to play her character so convincingly. Here, McBride reflects on her five seasons on the show, why fans connect so intensely with her character, and how she feels protective of the woman she has spent half a decade portraying.
Matt Fink (Under the Radar): So are you in Atlanta today?
Melissa McBride: Yes, Atlanta.
Since you've lived in the Atlanta area for a long time now, do you think you have an advantage over your castmates in dealing with the harsh environment?
No, because I'm kind of indoorsy in the first place. This is the most I've been outside in a long time. I don't feel like I have an advantage. But it's good to be out of the house!
I see. Since the show has been so popular, do you think that puts extra pressure on the cast to live up to the expectations?
Hmm. How do you mean?
Well, The Walking Dead is now the top show on cable and has massive ratings. Everyone is watching and waiting to see how you keep the momentum going. It seems like there would be more pressure on everyone.
No. I've been there since the first season, and even then we had no idea what was going to come of it. We didn't know if it would be picked up, but even then everybody was giving their all, and it's such an amazing foundation of a team that's running the show. The executive producer [Gale Anne Hurd] and our new showrunner, Scott Gimple, and Andy Lincoln and the people that have been there from the beginning—it has set a foundation and a pace, and it has not changed since day one. We show up, we have a great time doing what we're doing, and we continue to do it the same way we've always done it. Norman [Reedus] has said before that we're just in our bubble, doing what we do, and he's so right. We just work really hard from May through November, and then, all of a sudden, boom! You have the ComicCons and the ratings, which have been so awesome, and the fans who are so excited to see what's coming next. I don't think the success of the show has changed the way that we approach the work. That was a long answer! "No, I don't think it has." How about that? [Laughs]
In retrospect, do you think there was any moment where you got a sense of how this show was connecting with people in such a deep way?
For me, personally, it was when I started to get fan mail. The letters I received and stories that people shared with me—very personal, intimate stories about how they were in an abusive relationship, like Carol was. They identify with my character and her circumstances, and then as the show progressed and Carol evolved into a stronger character, more letters came from people being inspired by her character and sharing stories about how "she reminds me of way back when, when I got out of that relationship." Then, on the other hand, you have these great-looking zombies and special effects, and the comic book fans are so into that—the crossover of the comic book fans enjoying the show because they are so similar. The horror fans, the people who love great character stories—we never expected it to be as big as it is. It's pretty amazing. But it was season two when I started to get some fan mail that I started to realize that people were personally drawn to the characters and stories The Walking Dead is telling.
So how do you explain just how deeply the show is connecting with people? Obviously, the writing and acting is great, but it seems like the show is connecting on a much deeper level than what would be explained just from that.
I think this whole end of the world thing—this post-apocalyptic life. We've got it good here and now [in real life]. I've been talking about how lately I've been thinking about how throughout season four and season five these people are living so present, because there's nothing to look forward to, as far as they know. They don't know what's out there. They're just blindly moving forward, one foot at a time, literally. Into what? Why? It brings up all these cool questions about being human and existing. The things they have to do to survive—I could never fathom having to do any of those things. If you had to bite out the throat of a man, because that's the only weapon you have, do you think you could do it? Oh my gosh, I don't know!
Since your character, in particular, has really been put through the wringer, has it been emotionally taxing to play Carol?
There are days when I do feel exhausted. I don't know necessarily if I'm emotionally spent because it's Carol. It's work. I think "The Grove"—it was exhilarating as an actor to have the scene with Tyreese at the table. By the time we shot that, I felt spent as Carol, just whipped. I think that's the most I'd felt spent, having to live Carol. We shot that chronologically, too. It was exhilarating for me, because I enjoy the challenge of finding her depth. And I love her—I love this character. I do feel like she's very alive for me. I feel protective of her. When I talk about her, I feel like I'm betraying her confidence. So I'm not comfortable talking about her sometimes. She's my buddy, and I don't want to tell you what she was thinking or her fears. She confides in me. I wouldn't say it's exhausting, but there was that time [in "The Grove"] that I felt the most spent. As an actor it's exhilarating in a weird way—a torturous way. I love it.
It sounds like there will be a real sense of loss when you no longer get to play Carol.
Yeah. I'll be emotionally exhausted. No! Oh, gosh. Think about that... Let's not go there.
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