When AMC first announced that they would be creating a spinoff series for The Walking Dead, I rolled my eyes. I rolled them so hard that I think I pulled a retina. Doubly so when they announced the title — Fear the Walking Dead. After all, just how much blood can you squeeze from one narrative stone? However, when the first episode came across my desk, I found myself riveted by the way the show played with our preconceived notions of what a The Walking Dead series should be. This wasn’t a zombie show; it was a drama about a family coping with the end of the world in real time. We’ve spent five years already with Rick Grimes and the gang as they wade knee-deep through the dead, showing us both the triumphs and horrors of which man is capable. Yet for the characters of Fear the Walking Dead, this is uncharted territory, a bold new world that they are processing as it unfolds and mutates before them — and that is precisely why I loved it.
And America loved it too. Fear the Walking Dead is officially the highest-rated first season in cable history, and production on season two is already well underway, with scenes being shot in Mexico. (Will they go to Pedro O’Horny’s and support my newly formed fan theory that this is a shared universe with Out Cold? Probably not.) With the second season, the show is promising big changes — especially in location. The cast of Fear the Walking Dead must have been big Arrested Development fans because they’ll be taking to the seas in season two, aboard Strand’s mega-yacht. However, as Robert Kirkman warned in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, “When you see Fear the Walking Dead you’ll probably stop asking why they didn’t just go to the water.” (He also promised “awesome boat stuff,” too, which may be my favorite phrase of 2015.)
So, with season one in our rear-view and season two on the horizon, I spoke with series star Cliff Curtis, who played Travis, the non-confrontational English teacher who is forced to take drastic actions as family issues, military conspiracies, and abject horror unfold all around him. In our conversation, Curtis spoke to me about how Travis is a different kind of apocalyptic hero, the show’s slow burn pacing, what to expect from season two, and much more.
Nerdist: I really enjoyed the first season of Fear The Walking Dead. I think I may like it more than The Walking Dead at this point. Even though we knew the stakes, it surprised me in ways I didn’t expect.
Cliff Curtis: Oh, that’s great!
N: What initially attracted you to this project? A spin-off of the most popular series on TV — a lot of people were looking cock-eyed at this, wondering if we really need this series.
CC: Exactly! I agree. I was like, “Really? Do we really want to mess with the most successful franchise on television?” It’s risky. It was always risky. I thought, “Oh, this could really go south.” And I don’t mean Texas. But when I read the script I was really confused because it did not feel like a genre zombie show to me. It’s a drama with hardly any zombies! And I was intrigued. I discussed it with the writer, the director, and even with the network. This was really bold, to let us stray so far from the mothership. Even my character, he’s an English teacher and he’s clueless about what to do in the given circumstances. And he remains that way for pretty much the entirety of the first season. I was just so intrigued by that. I really enjoyed the quality of the script, and the sense of connection between the characters. It felt like it wasn’t just about entertainment, but about exploring just who each character was.
N: That’s one thing I enjoyed about Travis in particular — he’s not this action hero badass; he’s a family man trying to deal with impossible circumstances. Yet you can see sort of a prototypical version of Rick Grimes in there, with a darkness creeping in. As an actor, what was it like to play the stakes of a world crumbling around you?
CC: It’s tricky, and I’m going to shift it a bit on you. For me personally, it was frustrating, but fun. There were scenes where I’m thinking, “Let me do something!” But then I had to rein it in — “No, no, no, you’re an English teacher.” Then I got right into it with one of the original scripts when Travis is accompanying a military detachment, and they give him a rifle, and tell him to pick off one of the walkers, and he just can’t do it. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone, so why would he want to hurt this poor girl who is stuck in a donut shop? Why would I shoot that person? It became something of how far will he get pushed before he does something — and of course, eventually he does. It’s interesting because it’s all about how he deals with these people in his life.
N: One thing that I rather enjoyed is that series seems to have a bit of a slower pace than The Walking Dead. Was that something you were excited to get to play around with?
CC: Well, I thought that the pace was going to be a lot faster. Again I was surprised by how restrained they were, and how committed they were to the slow burn and the build. I was really gratified to see that there was such a huge audience that hung in there and accepted that kind of show and how it explores the reality of those characters. The ones who stayed with us throughout the season are just amazing. I can’t wait to see where it goes when the second season comes back. I think that by using a slower pace, they were able to build a sense of tension that the audience really enjoyed.
N: I’m very intrigued to see where the show goes. We ended the first season on a tragic note when Travis has to put his ex-wife, Liza, out of her misery. How do you think these events will affect him going forward into season two?
CC: I honestly don’t know. I haven’t ready anything yet. But certainly we won’t see the same Travis that we saw in season one. Strand is a pure survivalist, but Salazar is going to have to come to terms with the atrocities he commits. It’s going to be interesting to see where Travis sits amongst that. Even more interesting will be to see how Travis and Madison come through these events.
N: Another wrench in the works for season two is that parts of it will take place at sea, which isn’t something we’ve really seen before.
CC: I think it’s going to be really fun stuff. That’s going to be very, very rich territory to explore. It’s like a loaded gun. I don’t think zombies can swim, can they?
N: Hopefully not. That’d put a wrinkle in things. I think they’d just sink to the bottom.
CC: But what would they be down there? Would they just walk around?
N: I feel like they would get stuck or eventually get waterlogged and decay.
CC: Maybe there’ll be a zombie wet t-shirt competition.
N: Oh, finally! That’s the one thing season one was missing.
Fear the Walking Dead is set to return in 2016.