Based on the comic book series written by Robert Kirkman, the hit AMC drama series The Walking Dead has returned for a third season, with higher stakes, more threatening human villains and, of course, plenty of zombies. The deeper it gets into the story, the more obvious the stark contrast is between the way of life in the seemingly idyllic Woodbury, run by the Governor (David Morrissey), and Rick Grimes’ (Andrew Lincoln) group of survivors barely hanging on by a thread.
During this recent exclusive phone interview, actor Dallas Roberts (who plays Woodbury’s resident scientist, Milton) spoke to Collider about auditioning without really knowing exactly what character he would be playing, the fun of being on a show that’s so secretive, playing a character that’s not actually from the comics, what it’s been like to work so closely with David Morrissey and Michael Rooker, that viewers will start to see who Milton is much more clearly, and what he thinks the appeal of the hugely popular zombie series is for its fans. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
DALLAS ROBERTS: I auditioned. I live in New York and The Walking Dead is based in L.A., at least theoretically. That’s where the writers are, and it shoots in Atlanta. I was told about the audition and they said, “They’re interested in you for this part in The Walking Dead. Here’s the scene.” So, I read the scene and put myself on tape in my bedroom with my girlfriend, and then sent it off to the powers that be. A couple weeks later, they called and invited me to be a part of the show. I was really excited about it. It was one of those ones that I hoped I would get. You hope you get all of them, but sometimes you really hope you get them. Funnily enough, I auditioned under a certain set of circumstances for a certain character that I tried my best to approximate, but once you arrive on set, you realize that the scene that you auditioned with and the character that you are playing are not exactly the same people. Just because of the secrecy of the show, they don’t give out character details or plot points to every actor that wants to be on the show. I got the job, but it wasn’t exactly what I was aiming for. That’s been both a challenge and really fun.
Is it difficult to be on a show that’s so secretive, especially when it comes to your friends and family asking you question about it, or do you enjoy that aspect of it?
ROBERTS: It’s been fun, more than it’s annoying. But, it can be annoying not to know who you are, where you came from, or what you’re doing. To try to create a character without a whole lot of information can be taxing. At the same time, it’s fun to just stay on your toes and let the next bit of dialogue come in, and turn the page as you read the next script and see what they have in store for you next. In terms of family asking about it, usually the people who are asking me about it are fans of the show. Seemingly everyone is a fan of the show. So, when they say, “What are you going to do?,” I ask, “Do you want me to spoil this for you?,” and they go, “No, you’re right! You’re right!” That’s been pretty simple to navigate.
Because you’re playing a character who’s not in the comics, do you ever wish you had the comics to refer to, or is it a relief to not be judged by that?
ROBERTS: Luckily, what you trade off in not being part of the comic book canon and not having some literature that you can use to your benefit, in terms of figuring out who you are, you gain in the ability to just be whoever you want to be. The writers put out there who Milton is, and then I reflect it back at them, and then they see that and reflect that back at me. It feels like an organic process, creating the guy unfettered with previous notions.
Typically, to join a hit show in the third season, it must be a bit nerve-wracking to join a cast that’s already become a family, but with this show, because Woodbury is its own separate community, you’re all essentially new together. Did that make it a little less nerve-wracking to join the show?
ROBERTS: Yeah. The interesting part about landing in Woodbury, in Episode 3 of Season 3, is that you know you’re going to the most popular show ever on cable television and people are just nuts about these characters, but I entered this completely different story where I had some level of power. Michael Rooker and I are evenly balanced, in terms of being right under the Governor as his advisors. And Andrea (Laurie Holden), as far as Milton is concerned, is just the next blond who came in past the wall. That’s been comforting, to be able to carve out our own niche, over there in Woodbury. It lessened some of the nervous that comes with trying to fit in with people who took this show literally from the pilot stage to the juggernaut that it is now.
How has it been to work with both David Morrissey and Michael Rooker?
ROBERTS: It’s been really fun. Merle and Milton have a more contentious relationship, on the face of it. So, getting in there and sparring with Michael has been completely fun. Michael, as a person, is just so genuinely himself. It’s fun to play with someone who’s just so out there and ready to go. With David Morrissey, I might as well be the charter member of his fan club. He and I, from the moment we met each other and stepped on the set together, clicked in a way that didn’t make any sense, but it just happened. Whenever I turn the page and it’s the Governor and Milton talking to each other, I know that I can relax and that I’m going to be taken care of and take care of him, right back. That work stuff has fallen in together, really easily and beautifully, for us.
Clearly, the Governor surrounds himself with people who are an asset to him and his leadership, in some way. Assuming Milton is not just there for his tea making skills, what can you say about what’s coming up for Milton and where his story arc is headed?
ROBERTS: I think Milton is not a guy who would survive alone for very long. He’s a pack animal and he’s not the alpha in the pack, ever. So, his relationship to the Governor is of great benefit to him, and I think the way in which he makes that relationship go forward is by being of service to the Governor. And he does have a certain set of skills that the other people around him don’t necessarily have. That’s what keeps them together. Honestly, after having barricaded the walls and after having removed the immediate danger of the walkers, they’re able to turn their attention towards more of the philosophy and ideals for what the next step is, in battling this problem, and how they got on top of it. I feel confident that Milton will be a part of that.
Because Milton is obviously quite curious about any new people, of all the characters on the show, who do you think he’s most interested and intrigued by?
ROBERTS: Even before the apocalypse began, I don’t think that Milton was great with people. I don’t think he had game. He shrinks back and investigates and watches before he makes any sort of moves, but what’s not to be intrigued about when Andrea and Michonne (Danai Gurira) are sitting at the breakfast table. It would be a hard call to decide which of the two he was more fascinated by.
Are there any upcoming episodes that you’re most excited for fans to get to see?
ROBERTS: Milton will keep growing and keep surprising people, the way he surprised me, as the story unfolded, one script at a time. The longer you’re with him. He’s a guarded guy. He’s not easy to know or figure out. You’ll start to see Milton a lot clearer, and that’s exciting to me. Those are the parts that I find the most fun to play. I enjoy playing someone who doesn’t show up and say, “This is what I am, and this is what I’m about,” but is someone who, four hours in, makes you go, “Really?! Is that what’s going on?!” He’s a little bit harder to trace, so once you do trace him, you feel like you’ve earned it a little bit. Once the audience has to use themselves to cross the distance to the character, that’s what’s really exciting. That’s when it starts to be a discussion between the art form and the audience, and that’s fun stuff.
What do you think it is about this completely gory zombie show that people seem to really identify with, to the point that it really does get bigger ratings than much of what’s on network TV now?
ROBERTS: You’ve got real clear, hard rules. This show is about humans and the undead, and trying to stay human, as long as you can. That’s worked since people used to believe that God was angry with them when the eclipse happened, and that he was stealing the sun from them because they had been bad. That fear element has worked in storytelling since cave paintings. Also, I think it addresses larger issues about who you stand with, who you stand for, who you love and how does that love manifest itself, who you are when the chips are down and it’s time for action, and who you are when the chips have been lifted up a little bit and you have some time to think, and where morality is, in extreme circumstances. The country is still at war and will continue to be for quite a long time, or another one will start. Those kind of issues are perpetual. The smartness and the universality of those themes, mixed with just awesome make-up and excellent effects and great zombie fights has galvanized some membership of the population that’s been lucky enough to catch onto the show. No one is safe on The Walking Dead, including the audience.
How do you decide which projects you want to sign on for? Is there something you look for, or is it just instinct for you?
ROBERTS: I’m attracted to good writing. When I read the page and I know what we’re after and where we’re headed, and I’m fortunate enough to respect that idea and am able to pitch myself toward that, that feels like the culmination of everything that I’ve spent my life trying to do, since I played that tree in that play in third grade. I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of a bunch of situations like that. There’s this notion that actors choose their career. After a certain level, I think that that’s true. I still take way more jobs than I turn down, and the reason that I turn down a job is that I just can’t find anything in it that charges me or excites me or challenges me about moving to the next phase of where I’m headed. Lord knows where I’m headed, but in that sense, I guess it is instinctual, on some level. I don’t know where I’m going, but I know that’s where I’m going next.
The Walking Dead airs on Sunday nights on AMC.