Tuesday, September 29, 2020

A “Walking Dead” for a New Generation and a New Moment

The Walking Dead” has become a phenomenon over the past decade since its premiere ten years ago next month. It was recently announced that its upcoming eleventh season will be its last, and its existing spinoff, “Fear the Walking Dead,” shows no signs of slowing down as it heads into its sixth season. Multiple other series are in the works, and now is the time when a spin-off that exists in the same world but without too much connection to the original is debuting. I had the chance to hear from the cast of the forthcoming “The Walking Dead: World Beyond” about this show, their characters, and what it means to have the show premiere during a pandemic.

“The Walking Dead: World Beyond” begins in a safe environment in Nebraska where a group of people live within the confines of a campus, including a group of teenagers still discovering who they are. They call the walkers “empties” and rarely encounter them aside from guarded visits outside the wall. As the show’s title indicates, staying safe and contained doesn’t last long, as its two young protagonists, sisters Iris (Aliyah Royale) and Hope (Alexa Mansour) begin a treacherous journey to find their father, who left months earlier to work for a shadowy organization represented by the mysterious Elizabeth (Julia Ormond). Accompanying Iris and Hope are Elton (Nicolas Cantu) and Silas (Hal Cumpston), two teenagers who have never felt like they fit in, with Iris and Hope’s surrogate big brother Felix (Nico Tortorella) and the sarcastic, strong-willed Huck (Annet Mahendru) hot on their trail, eager to find and protect them.

Each member of the cast emphasized that a familiarity with the comics or either of the two existing shows is not necessary to appreciate and enjoy this one, though they note certain moments might be exciting for regular watchers. This show has a two-season order, meaning that its story will be wrapped completely over the course of twenty episodes, representing a wholly more finite commitment than the other shows. Some cast members, like Cantu and Tortorella, described their own histories playing zombie video games or acting in dark drama, while others, like Royale, had “no relationship with the undead” and found themselves in for an intense transition. The cast was amazed by the sophistication of the makeup on the “empties” and found it jarring to eat lunch with those actors and see a zombie talking on the phone with his mother.

Starring in an action series meant considerable weapons and combat training, something that the cast described as enjoyable but extremely challenging. Royale recalled the emphasis on making a fight look good and moving in a particular way for the camera, and Mansour pointed out that the weapons, once they received them, were much heavier than they had expected. Mahendru also noted that having so many weapons around her belt added some unintentional comedy since it meant her pants were constantly falling down, which cut her into the bad-ass vibe of her character. Tortorella praised the “full-fledged choreography” and expressed his desire to be an action star for the rest of his life.

When I asked them whether the current pandemic and quarantine life around the world now had informed or changed their perspectives on their characters and this show, I got some very interesting answers. Cantu was relieved that we don’t have zombies roaming our streets but acknowledged that quarantine has helped give him insight into the thought process of living through an apocalyptic event like the one depicted in the show. Royale offered that the scariest part of the show isn’t the walkers but who the characters become when the threat is presented. Mahendru was grateful to Huck because of her incredible attitude about survival, which she has used to help herself on a regular basis since the pandemic began. Tortorella believes that there are no coincidences, and getting to “live through this story and this character for six months before this happened” helped center him to be in a place where, as he puts it, “we don’t have time to grieve anymore as a world. Normal is gone but that’s freedom.”

Talking to the younger actors on this show demonstrates the camaraderie they’ve built and the true joy they feel working together on this show, and Tortorella and Mahendru have also created a real relationship that has brought them closer both to each other and to their characters, whose backstories are slowly revealed to add complexity to the strong fronts that Felix and Huck display. Ormond shared that it was difficult to play someone whose journey was so separated from the rest of the cast, and that not having them in the same place presented an isolating challenge.

Tortorella repeatedly underlined that viewers will have no idea what’s about to happen next, while Cumpston joked that every single question that’s brought up over the course of the show will be answered. Their passion for this universe and for the relationships that they’ve built came across as genuine and endearing, and sets up strong expectations for a show that many might otherwise write off as more of the same. I, for one, hope that this will be a positive re-immersion for me into a universe that I decided to exit almost three years ago midway through the eighth season of “The Walking Dead.” Knowing that an end is in sight and that this story knows where it’s going gives me a good sense that this show and its world beyond may just be worth it.

“The Walking Dead: World Beyond” premieres on Sunday, October 4th at 10pm. Episodes will be available to stream early each week on the preceding Thursday for subscribers of AMC Plus. Reviews of each episode will be posted here at TVwithAbe.com shortly after each episode airs.

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