‘The Walking Dead’ Says Goodbye to Andrew Lincoln. Sort Of.

This interview includes spoilers for Sunday night’s episode of “The Walking Dead.”

Turns out the walkers aren’t the only ones who are undead.

For months “The Walking Dead” has hyped the departure of its central hero, Rick Grimes, breaking from its usual secretive shocking-death playbook to not only confirm rumors that Andrew Lincoln, the actor who played him, was leaving, but also to say exactly when he would go.

That moment came Sunday night in a retrospective, mournful episode that matched the tone of the marketing around Lincoln’s exit. The episode took Rick through a series of fever dream encounters with old dead friends like Shane (Jon Bernthal) and Hershel (Scott Wilson), before marching him toward what seemed like an explosive final heroic sacrifice.

Until the end, when he came to on a river bank, very much alive, and was rescued by a helicopter. The story then jumped ahead six years to find Rick’s cohorts making do without him, his young daughter, Judith, assuming the mantle (and hat) of the new zombie-slaying Grimes.

While Rick’s destination and eventual fate may be uncertain, it won’t be for long: “The Walking Dead” will resume his story with a trilogy of feature-length movies to run on AMC, with the first going into production next year.

“Everybody thinks I’m a sociopath because I’m not breaking down at every interview,” Lincoln said over lunch in New York last month. “But the truth is that I know that there’s something happening next year.”

Unlike the series, the films will not be direct adaptations from the “Walking Dead” comics. The films will tell an original Rick Grimes story and have beefed-up production values, said Scott M. Gimple, the chief content officer of the “Walking Dead” universe, who is writing the first film. “They’re not just longer episodes,” he said. (The comics author and series executive producer Robert Kirkman is heavily involved, he added.)

The move into movies represents the latest platform expansion for a franchise which, since its arrival on TV in 2010, has spun off another series (“Fear the Walking Dead”), a supplementary fan show (“Talking Dead”), video games, conferences, cruises, a line of wines and a subscription gift box service, among other products.

It also represents the latest bait-and-switch for a show that previously annoyed fans with fake-out deaths (Steven Yeun’s Glenn in Season 6) and a season-ending cliffhanger that made viewers wait for months to find out which of their favorite characters had, in fact, been killed off.

AMC said it heavily marketed Rick’s exit because “if you were a fan of the show we wanted you to know this was your opportunity to see, live, his departure from the series,” said David Madden, the head of programming. “We wanted to honor that moment, and then at the same time tell people what would come next.”

But based on reaction to the show’s earlier narrative gimmicks, some fans are sure to feel manipulated or misled.

“I hope that people don’t feel that way, but the internet is quite a vast place, so I imagine some folks will,” Gimple said.

Lincoln preferred that his departure remain a secret until it actually happened. “The greatest regret I have is that people aren’t experiencing this fresh,” he said.

But the promotion has afforded a victory lap for the anchor of one of the most popular shows on television. Before “The Walking Dead” debuted in 2010, the British actor was best known in America for costume dramas (“Wuthering Heights”) and rom-coms (“Love Actually”). But he brought remarkable physical endurance and emotional intensity to the tormented action hero Rick Grimes, the by turns bloodthirsty and idealistic, perpetually sweaty zombie fighter enduring loss after loss in a postapocalyptic hellscape.

In person Lincoln is closer to the sweetly charming wielder of romantic poster boards in “Love Actually” — an earnest conversationalist with an easygoing affability that belies his status as the center of one of the world’s biggest pop culture franchises.

Over lunch at a bustling Gramercy Park trattoria and in a follow-up phone interview, Lincoln discussed his time on the series, his least favorite plot points and why, despite all the blood, bullets and human brutality, “The Walking Dead” is a story of hope. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.

What did you think of Rick’s exit?

When Angela [Kang, the showrunner] pitched the idea to me, she said that we’ve been oscillating between antihero and hero for the last nine years, and I think we should probably finish with a heroic act. I said, “That sounds like a great plan. I’m in.”

Will you be relieved to be able to stop pretending that you’re leaving forever?

It was a compromise because I didn’t want to be disingenuous to fans, but then of course, I didn’t want to give away the story. But yes, I’m very relieved that I can talk about it now.

I think most fans assumed you would be killed off, like others who have left the show. Are you concerned that some might feel like they’ve been hoodwinked?

It was a concern that we start saying one thing and people are anticipating a death, and we don’t give them that. You can’t please all people all of the time. That’s why I try to stay out of reading about things like that. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning.

There was the thing with Glenn and the dumpster, and the Negan cliffhanger —

I can categorically say that I will not be returning to the TV show.

What can you say about the planned movies?

We talked about “Unforgiven,” the Clint Eastwood movie, which I admire greatly. There’s something about Eastwood, who he is as a gunslinger, as an iconic kind of American hero, rolling around in pig swill at the beginning of the movie. You know what he’s capable of, and I thought the idea of a character that the audience knows and has lived with — and who has oscillated between psycho and father for nine years — to start in a completely different place, was a really interesting, crazy place to begin. I want to know why we keep seeing helicopters flying around. What’s going on? What have the grown-ups been doing while we’ve been scrambling around in the dirt?

By “grown-ups,” you mean governments and things like that?

I’m not going to say any more than that. I don’t want to give away — well, I don’t know the story actually, so I can’t give anything away.

Before “The Walking Dead” you were known for more civilized characters. What was appealing about playing an American cowboy zombie fighter?

I grew up loving American films, and there’s a style of American acting that I can’t quite put my finger on that I admire. It’s a heightened naturalism. It’s something that I’ve observed in very good actors — you don’t know what they’re about to do or say.

Did you know what you were in for? I can’t think of another TV actor who’s been put through more of a wringer, just physically, than you.

Just stand in that heat for freaking 45 minutes. It’s bonkers. I mean, I read what was on the label: a guy in a zombie apocalypse, losing all of his friends and family. You know it’s not going to be a stroll in the park. But I thought the park might have been less hostile.

Your co-stars have talked about how you wind yourself up before scenes, yelling and rolling around on the ground. What’s that about?

I don’t know. I mean, what do you do when you’re writing an article?

I don’t roll around on the ground!

Well you should maybe try it! You might like it. [Laughs.] If there’s 200 people watching me have to pull my guts out because my wife has just been eaten by a zombie, I can do it one way, which is a tear stick, and look sexy and be beautifully shot. Or I could try and scare myself into a different space. And the way I apparently need to do it, for me, is make silly noises. I don’t care what it takes to get to a place. If I’ve got snot coming out of my mouth, that’s the way it’s gonna be.

You’ve talked about feeling afraid in the early days. How long did it take you to get past that?

I think by virtue of the story, it helped. You had an actor who was terrified, waking up into a zombie apocalypse. I’d just had a child, I’d had no sleep, so I looked perfect for it. Frank [Darabont, the original showrunner] was instrumental in trusting that I was doing the right thing. We had a very, very close relationship — I admire him enormously, and he’s a great friend. The DNA of the show was his, and continues to be his really.

Was it disappointing when he left? [Darabont was fired before the second season and is involved in a lawsuit against AMC over the show’s profits.]

Yes it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with professionally. And I made a deal then, because it’s his thing, that I would never really talk about it. But it was, yeah, as you can well imagine when the guy that gave you the gig was no longer captain of the ship. It was a very strange thing.

Was there a period of adjustment?

I think we’re still adjusting. Nine years. But Glen Mazzara stepped in and did an astonishing job. And then Scott Gimple came in and did an astonishing job. And now we’ve got Angela, and what she’s done in a relatively limited space is brilliant. I left it in a better place than I found it.

Have there been any twists or story points you didn’t agree with?

I regret Glenn going. Because Steven Yeun was such an important part of the rhythm of my years. If anything, it’s probably like being in a boy band — you only have each other as a reference point. And then they start taking them away from you.

What did you make of Glenn’s graphic end, with Negan bludgeoning him with the baseball bat until his eye bulged out of the socket?

I regret the manner in which it happened. We’ve been able to terrify people in film for 100 years without having to show an eyeball. When that happens, it diminishes what we’re trying to make, which in my mind’s eye is a family drama set in hell. It’s not a sort of B-movie gorefest.

The violence is often extreme, though.

It is from time to time, with the zombies and the action sequences. I don’t discredit that. It’s part of the thrills and spills of the show. But when we’re dealing with losing somebody — and a very brutal, human kind of death — I think it’s just taste. My taste is, I think it would be more disturbing just keeping the camera on Maggie’s face [Glenn’s wife, played by Lauren Cohan]. And maybe that’s why I want to direct, because I want to make what I’ve been filming in my head.

Do you think “The Walking Dead” is an optimistic show?

That’s what I’m gunning for. If we’re talking about being able to process and move through grief, and help each other, and unifying through a shared traumatic experience, then yes it is. And it’s also a story about people who have nothing in common, finding they have something in common.

There’s an alternate take, which is that it’s about people banding together to defend their way of life against invaders, undead and otherwise.

I think it’s up to anybody to interpret it as they wish. I think by virtue of the world that we inhabit [on the show], it’s a hostile environment that people are trying to win over. What do you think? Do you see it as sort of isolationist? Or do you see it as a family story about how we’re all in this together once we look past differences?

I’ve always admired the cast diversity and what it suggests about connecting across different backgrounds. At the same time, there’s the factionalism and the metaphorical implications of the zombies. I suspect that for people who think of those they disagree with, or who live elsewhere, as a sort of inhuman enemy, the show conveys the visceral thrill of watching people decimate the Other.

You mean the zombies represent different ideas? Is that the metaphor?

Or different groups.

I’ve never seen that. I’ve never, ever thought of that as the undead. I mean, that’s by virtue of the fact that I’m a zombie slayer by trade. I don’t deal in metaphors when I’m slaying zombies. But that’s absolutely your prerogative.

I view it as optimistic. It’s like Rick Grimes. He’s got fight in him and he’s constantly picking himself off the floor. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t believe that there is hope for a better future. And ultimately I’m going to try damn hard to make sure that this is the story we’re telling. I don’t want to spend 15 years of my life and just say, yeah, life’s pretty [bad]. We’re alive, man. And while we’re here, we’ve got a chance, you know. That’s what I think. I’m definitely of that opinion and I like to think that Mr. Grimes is, too.

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