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On set for the Rick and Michonne reunion in “The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live”

On set for the Rick and Michonne reunion in “The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live”

Andrew Lincoln and Danai Gurira have returned with a different type of "TWD" story, and EW was there to watch it happen.

It’s a bright May morning in Springfield, N.J., on the set of The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live. And the dispositions of those present are equally sunny. “I’ve been doing a lot of crying,” series star Andrew Lincoln says of his acting in the first few episodes. “But now we get to blow things up and do car chases and stuff. It’s awesome!”

Today’s “awesome stuff” includes a bump-and-flick car chase scene in which Lincoln’s Rick Grimes and Danai Gurira’s Michonne are going both fast and furious against Pollyanna McIntosh’s Jadis.

Director Michael E. Satrazemis — who started as a camera operator on season 1 of the original series back in 2010 — gathers Lincoln and Gurira to explain the shot to come, which involves their yellow Nissan pick-up truck driving up and down a muddy hill with Jadis’ black Jeep Patriot in deep pursuit. “She’s chasing you, you’re gonna spin out, and then she’s going to bump you, and it is on.”

Lincoln, who just moments ago was describing the process of making the show as “like wrestling a very angry bear,” grins widely.

“It’s like Disneyland!” explains the director of the chase. Sure, if Disneyland was occupied by flesh-eating zombies and a foe-turned-friend-turned-foe with an absolutely unconscionable haircut. “This is designed to scare the s--- out of you, because I love you so much,” Satrazemis beams to the actors before breaking into a laugh. “It’s going to be f---ing great!”

That is everyone’s hope. Not just for the stunt, but the entire production that is The Ones Who Live, which premieres Feb. 25 on AMC. Ever since a badly wounded Rick Grimes was helicoptered away from an exploding bridge to parts unknown back in 2018, Walking Dead fans have wondered when both he and the man who plays him would return to the franchise. And Lincoln’s offscreen journey has featured almost as many twists and turns as that of his onscreen counterpart.

Immediately upon the actor’s departure from the original series, it was announced that the star would return for a trilogy of Walking Dead movies. The following year, it was revealed at San Diego Comic-Con that the first film would be screening “only in movie theaters.” Then, along came COVID-19, completely scrambling the map in terms of what constitutes a theatrical release — sending the project into limbo.

Along the way, Gurira also left the mothership series — her character embarking on a quest to find her missing husband halfway through the penultimate Walking Dead season in 2020. The playwright and actress was about to begin a quest of her own, as showrunner on an HBO Max series starring her old friend Lupita Nyong’o titled Americanah. But then, again, COVID. The scheduling delays and uncertainty in staging an international production in the midst of a global pandemic scuttled the production. Max’s loss would be AMC’s gain, and a franchise almost exclusively centered around coming back from the dead had one more resurrection up its sleeve.

<p>Gene Page/AMC</p> Andrew Lincoln on 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

Gene Page/AMC

Andrew Lincoln on 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

The Ones Who… Return

In Scott M. Gimple’s mind, The Walking Dead was never going to end. “We were planning on making the show forever,” says the man who came on as a writer during season 2 and served as showrunner for seasons 4 through 8 before ascending to the position of Walking Dead chief content officer (i.e. Grand Poobah). “We were planning on doing that.” But then Lincoln left in season 9, Gurira bolted a year later, and AMC told Gimple to wrap up the original series with a super-sized season 11 because the network had a new plan in mind to help revitalize the franchise.

That plan was to instead create a group of shorter six-episode spinoff shows. Lauren Cohan’s Maggie and Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan would find themselves battling zombies in Manhattan on Dead City, Norman Reedus’ Daryl would wake up mysteriously in France on Daryl Dixon, and an anthology series telling hourlong self-contained tales was hatched called… well, Tales of the Walking Dead. But all along, there was one other story still out there: the story of Rick Grimes.

“Knowing Andy, and knowing that he wasn't going to be on the show forever, I started laying down some of the aspirational foundation maybe as far back as season 6,” Gimple says of the origins for the most anticipated Walking Dead spinoff yet. The story architect started planning for the inevitable and laying out a master idea that would leave the door open for a possible return, while also setting up years in advance what that eventual story might look like. “I started working on a big mythology. People were like, ‘Helicopters? What are you talking about?’”

So when Lincoln did finally exit the series, “I had those tracks laid,” says Gimple. “I had the very general idea: The character is taken away from home and the people he loves. He’s going to want to get home. What are the obstacles to that, and what changes him?”

But why would Lincoln want to return home to a character he already spent close to a decade playing? “If I'd walked off into the sunset, it would've been easier not to come back,” says the actor. “But because I went away on a bit of a cliffhanger, for the last five years people have been saying, ‘Where have you gone? When are you coming back?’ So it sort of felt impolite not to finish a story that was left dangling.”

There was one other much simpler reason as well. “I miss the sheriff, man,” Lincoln laughs. “He's a great guy and he's a complicated cat.”

<p>Gene Page/AMC</p> 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

Gene Page/AMC

'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

Lincoln and Gimple were busy batting ideas around for what then was going to be a series of movies, but it was only when the format changed to a six-episode series and Gurira became available that everything came into focus. “Initially, it was Scott and Andy developing one type of story,” explains Gurira. “And then when it became a miniseries, it became the three of us.” Or, as the music-loving Gimple puts it: “That's when we became a band.”

The power-trio-turned-executive producers then did the least rock & roll thing imaginable — meeting in corporate conference rooms all across the country, breaking both story and bread in equal measure. “It was basically the three of us in a room as often as possible,” says Gurira, “crafting out these six episodes and deciphering what this was going to be.”

The familiarity between them led to many, shall we say, frank discussions. “It was this very intimate process, and we could be really, really blunt with each other about everything,” says Gurira, “be it script or a casting idea or all the different aspects of costumes or props.” And what happened when disagreements arose? “Usually Gimple just acquiesced,” laughs Gurira. “Which was new for him, but he's really good at it now.”

The chief content officer concurs. “I felt like I had my turn where I got to just decide everything for five years,” Gimple acknowledges. “I know how much these characters mean to Andy and Danai, so I wanted to err on the side of them.”

Lincoln’s main aim was taking big and bold risks — there is a major one in the very first episode (that we can’t talk about yet, of course) — and never playing it safe. “I said, ‘If we're going to do something, let's do something brave. Let's not do the same thing that we've done for nine years. Let's try and reach for a different kind of story.’”

And what exactly is that story? The two stars say The Ones Who Live is primarily, more than anything else, a love story. And that marks a big shift for the franchise. “There are times where that's not the muscle of The Walking Dead,” explains Gurira. “The Walking Dead's muscle is very different from love stories. They manage to sneak their way into the main thrust, which was usually: We're dealing with an enemy. We're trying to stay alive. We're trying to thrive. We're trying to keep a community going. Those were the large themes of The Walking Dead. Love stories tended to be a teeny bit peripheral. So the idea of making a love story actually the thrust and the drive of a series was a new muscle.”

And Gurira kept exercising it. “I was the biggest advocate around making sure that we stayed on that track, so I had opinions on how love stories work and how they don't. That was a big, important part of it for me, as I'm probably the one who's also watched more love stories than my two co-creators.” That truly says something, considering one of those co-creators has experience dramatically holding up cue cards in a little something called Love Actually.

<p>Gene Page/AMC</p> Danai Gurira on 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

Gene Page/AMC

Danai Gurira on 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

The Ones Who… Fight Back

The stars of The Ones Who Live are ready to put pedal to the metal. Back on set in New Jersey, it’s time for the big chase scene to commence.

After cameras are mounted onto the front hoods and driver’s side windows of both vehicles, director Satrazemis piles into a black van filled with monitors and technical gear that will lead the caravan so he can stay within range to view the footage and communicate with the actors and stunt drivers via walkie-talkie in real time. (Joining him in the van is an assistant director, sound operator, VFX artist, camera crew, and one slightly nauseated reporter.)

Lincoln can’t wait. “Let’s move. Let’s do it.”

Cameras start rolling and the chase begins, with Satrazemis barking out orders over the walkie. “He’s coming up next to you… cut him off! Sideswipe! Now switch! Ram him! Ram him! Again!”

It’s absolutely exhilarating. And then… Jadis’ car dies. The vehicle has overheated and shut down before the next take, which is what happens when you are a Jeep Patriot with 145,250 miles on your odometer. The cast and yellow safety-vest-wearing crew are forced to wait for the car to cool down. The hope is they can make it through another take, but no one really knows — and they can’t even look under the hood to properly assess the situation because of all the cameras and lights mounted on top.

Eventually, the car somehow makes it to the peak of the hill… and dies again. After another wait, the car starts up for a third time… and promptly dies a third time. On the set of The Walking Dead, you can kill a Jeep Patriot as many times as you like, but you can’t kill Rick Grimes.

<p>Gene Page/AMC</p> Lesley-Ann Brandt and Andrew Lincoln on 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

Gene Page/AMC

Lesley-Ann Brandt and Andrew Lincoln on 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

Anyone who saw the final scene from the original series — which served as a preview for The Ones Who Live — knows that Rick is currently a captive of the Civic Republic Military. The new series will reveal all that has happened in the roughly six years of story time since he was airlifted away from the bridge —  but Lincoln is most interested in exploring how the ultimate survivor may have finally met his match.

“What we try to do in this series is put Rick in a place physically, and in a mindset that he's never been before, and the audience hasn't seen before,” says Lincoln. “He's failed. He's been dismantled by a system and has sort of lost hope. Perhaps he's not the same guy, and can't be the same guy.”

The entire construct of the CRM — which was explored in great detail on The Walking Dead: World Beyond spinoff series and will employ drastic measures to rebuild humanity — provides a far different foe than a single baseball bat-wielding lunatic or zombie mask-wearing cult leader. It also provides a parallel to our own world.

“It's a lot of things that we're sort of facing now as society,” notes Lincoln. “Are we empire building again? Are we able to have these big great institutions that were set up after the Second World War, and are they still functioning in the way that we want them to? There was a lot that was percolating that probably informed a lot of the ideas.”

<p>Gene Page/AMC</p> Lesley-Ann Brandt on 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

Gene Page/AMC

Lesley-Ann Brandt on 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

There will be both friends and foes within the CRM. One ally at the outset is another captive named Pearl Thorne — played by Lucifer’s Lesley-Ann Brandt, who chose The Ones Who Live over a pilot offer for a Ben McKenzie series titled The Hurt Unit after receiving a personal note from Lincoln. “I'd say, in a lot of ways, she's sort of like the female version of Rick,” Brandt says of her character. “Thorne is someone who, once she makes a decision, she's very strong. She's a fighter. She was trying to get back to her love in Cape Town and found herself stuck somewhere where she didn't want to be. In that way, they're very similar in their pursuit of love and family.”

While Rick and Thorne will be close, fret not, Richonne shippers: They won’t be too close. “It's nice to see a male and female friendship,” says Brandt. “I've seen that with Carol and Daryl, and I love that relationship on the show. Those male and female relationships where there's true genuine care and friendship for one another that's completely platonic and has nothing to do with any of those romantic feelings — I mean, those exist in life.”

Rick will need that friendship and support if he is to survive those determined to keep him captive. McIntosh’s Jadis saved Rick by putting him on that helicopter to begin with, but as seen on World Beyond, she is now following every word of the CRM gospel, and as a Warrant Officer, her loyalty to the system supersedes any personal feelings for the man who took her in from the Heaps all those years ago.

<p>Gene Page/AMC</p> Pollyanna McIntosh on 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

Gene Page/AMC

Pollyanna McIntosh on 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

“There will be some of the Jadis that you will recognize from World Beyond,” McIntosh told EW in December. “She's a committed follower of the CRM, but the old Jadis that we got to know, and who has tried her best but has lost many times, is a big driving undercurrent of where she's coming from.”

And after only hearing his name on World Beyond, we will finally see the face of the man leading the Civic Republic Military: Major General Beale. And that face looks a heck of a lot like Terry O’Quinn. “He's a hidden guy,” the former Lost star says of Beale. “I've always been intrigued by characters that you don't know exactly what their agenda is — what motivates them, or how they will be motivated. And he is somebody who will do whatever is necessary, but won't be threatening about it. He seems like a completely reasonable person and the decisions he has to make are all explicable to him. He understands why he has to do what he has to do, whether some people agree with it or not.”

In this case, it’s a fair bet that the “some people” who may not agree will include Rick. “Such a lovely guy and a tremendous actor,” Lincoln says in between takes on set about working with O’Quinn. “But make no mistake, I will stab him.”

<p>Gene Page/AMC</p> Terry O'Quinn as Major General Beale on 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

Gene Page/AMC

Terry O'Quinn as Major General Beale on 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

The Ones Who… Continue?

“Can we get some blood?” asks Satrazemis back on set.

“How much blood?” inquires someone from the prop department who seems all too casually familiar with what under normal circumstances would be a most unusual request.

All the blood,” responds the director. “We need gallons!”

Rick and Michonne’s car has just driven straight through four zombie dummies absolutely drenched in blood. Yet, apparently, it’s not enough. So now, as Lincoln and Gurira prepare for a scene in which they exit the vehicle, Satrazemis wants even more red goo caking the windshield.

“Have them put on handprints,” chuckles Lincoln.

“You tell everyone how to do their jobs?” teases Gurira. “Whose blood is this anyway?”

“Zombie blood!” responds an all too excited Lincoln. “C’mon, handprints!”

A gallon and a half of chunky red liquid arrives, which the director proceeds to pour all over the hood and windshield to encouragement from Lincoln. “Yeah, there we go!”

“That probably just saved us 10,000 dollars,” notes Gurira, putting on her executive producer hat and calculating the cost savings of not having to add in visual effects later.

“More, probably,” chimes in fellow EP Lincoln. All the while, Satrazemis keeps pouring. And pouring. And pouring

“Man, Mikey is jacked!” marvels Lincoln.

“We need to get him some chamomile tea,” jokes Gurira.

<p>Gene Page/AMC</p> Danai Gurira on 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

Gene Page/AMC

Danai Gurira on 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

There will be no calming tea for the director. Nor for the uber-focused Michonne in her onscreen quest to find her husband. “There is very much a determination and a clarity of: I have to do this,” Gurira says of her character’s search for Rick. “She is determined, and she's not a person who waivers or gets flaky on a decision, so it's very clear that she has to do what she has to do and follow this thing through.” A pause. “Of course, there are going to be massive challenges to that.”

At least there was no challenge for the actress to get back into character after a few years away, especially when it came to shooting the action scenes. “It didn't take much,” reveals Gurira, whose personal workout routine over the years has included some Michonne-inspired moves. “I sometimes work out and do forms with my Katana. I'm never that far from my sword or some weapon.” Plus, she notes, “There was so much writing and development of the whole thing before we started shooting, so I was pretty connected.”

Of course, as great a warrior as Michonne is, she can’t do it alone. Her story picks up right where her final scene from season 10 left off — with the character coming to the aid of a pair left behind by their group due to an injury. After reuniting the duo with their people, Michonne will continue on her journey, but alongside some folks who no longer want to remain in a community that will not make sacrifices for their sick and injured.

One of those folks is a character named Nat — played by Matthew August Jeffers, who also costarred with Gurira in a 2022 Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III. “Nat is someone who is fiercely loyal,” says Jeffers, “and understands the importance of community, and understands the importance of knowing what your role is in that community and how your role supports the vitality of that community.”

<p>Gene Page/AMC</p> Matthew August Jeffers on 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

Gene Page/AMC

Matthew August Jeffers on 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

But there is something else that sets Nat apart from other survivors we have seen in this franchise. “I believe Nat is the first little person in The Walking Dead universe,” says Jeffers. “Which is significant in terms of diversity and who can be a survivor in this world. And because of his rough-and-tumble upbringing being bullied, he had to figure out how to find his own way, and find his defense mechanisms, and how to stand up for himself when no one else would stand up for him.” (Without spoiling too much, suffice it to say Nat has acquired skills that have made him quite useful in the zombie apocalypse.)

While The Ones Who Live is populated with new characters like Thorne and Nat, one can’t help but wonder if some blasts from the past besides Jadis might also make an appearance. Considering how focused World Beyond was on the CRM, it would feel only natural for some of those characters — or, say, Fear the Walking Dead CRM helicopter pilot Isabelle (Sydney Lemmon) — to show up here. “I think that's probably the expected thing,” says Gimple. “And I think it's more unexpected than that, who we may or may not see.”

That does not mean the show will completely avoid the past. EW can reveal that some hidden history will indeed be revealed on The Ones Who Live, and that revelation will include the return of at least one familiar face. Could it be Lennie James’ Morgan, who left Fear the Walking Dead explicitly to search for his long lost pal Rick? Or might Seth Gilliam’s Father Gabriel Stokes — who shares a last name with Jadis — somehow reenter the picture to complicate matters for his former flame?

While that secret remains, perhaps the biggest mystery of all is how long this new Rick and Michonne story will last. After the series was first announced at San Diego Comic-Con in July of 2022, AMC confirmed to EW that it was not planned as merely a single one-and-done season of six episodes. Yet when asked recently how long they want to keep jamming, the power trio remains non-committal.

<p>Gene Page/AMC</p> Andrew Lincoln on 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

Gene Page/AMC

Andrew Lincoln on 'The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live'

“Certainly, I have an opinion,” answers Gimple. “But it's a band. It's Danai, Andy, and me. So I have the next story in my mind, and I have a story after that in my mind. But I would want to see what my bandmates think, and AMC thinks, and what the universe thinks.”

As for Gimple’s bandmates, Gurira brushes off the question with “We’ll see where it lands,” while Lincoln considers the hurdles toward making it happen. “I mean, it's hard when you die at the end of the…. Oh, s---!” The actor laughs at his (hopefully?) fake spoiler before considering. “I want the fans to be happy. I want them to enjoy this roller coaster, and I want them to be surprised, and I want them to feel things, and I want them to punch the air with joy, and feel hope, and cry a bit as well. But look, if there's a good enough idea, I'm just about ideas now and working with friends and talented people.”

Perhaps the real answer to that question lies in whether the two stars will agree to continue filming up north in New Jersey — which proved to be quite the adjustment after so many summers sweating it out in the Georgia sun. “I'll just say, I'm not a winter girl,” sighs Gurira. “I like the summer. I thrive in heat. I'm African, and I don't like acting in cold. You have no idea how many layers I had on just so I wouldn't freeze up and stop being able to articulate. So I didn't love that.”

Her costar had his own issues. “Rick's a Georgia boy,” notes Lincoln. “He's used to sweaty summers. I mean, it's always a painful experience playing Rick Grimes, but there was one time when we started with a week of night shoots in the middle of January. Everybody was all bundled up like Cartman, and I'm the dude who's got wet hair covered in blood on top of a truck with 40-mile-an-hour winds off the Hudson River.”

And at that very moment, somewhere on set, a voice was no doubt calling “MORE BLOOD, PLEASE!”

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