Recently, I hosted a viewing party for the first season finale of AMC’s The Walking Dead. To my terror (and delight) I had two zombies in my living room that night! Close friends asked if they could bring along bona fide zombies. Not to worry, gentle reader, they were actors who had been lucky enough to be cast as featured zombies.
The zombie actors, Magpie Starkiller and Joe Hernandez, were gracious and agreed to talk to me about being part of the highest rated series ever on cable.
Over the next few weeks I will be presenting these interviews and my analysis of the series start to finish. I hope also to look at the graphic novels, through a discussion with one of biggest fans of the graphic novels, my daughter, Ay-Bear about the differences between the graphic novels and the television show, the disappointments she found in the show, and the triumphs of the series.
During the scene where the heroes are approaching the CDC, Joe pointed to himself on the ground on the side walk. In the next camera angle he pointed to himself across the street. Another angle, he was on the grass. His flexibility as a performer, solid work ethic, and sheer likeability lead to his constant usage on the show.
Today, I present my interview Joe Hernandez, featured zombie. Joe and I share many mutual acquaintances in the Atlanta area, but the first time I met him was when he came to view the show with us. It’s been a pleasure getting to know him and his craft.
Had you done any television work before? Film work? How different was this experience?
I’ve worked both in TV as an extra and as crew for a couple short films with Whitestone Motion Pictures and Penny Dreadful Productions, the production company I build for, and it was astounding.
Even though it was “just” a tv show, every episode of Walking Dead had all the production value of a full feature length movie. TWD had multiple shooting crews, dozens of makeup and special effects guys, literally hundreds of extras and some really exceptional acting talent. To say it was impressive would be an understatement.
What is the best reaction you had from friends or family?
All during preproduction whenever a production photo would leak my friends would try to find me. It was like a game: Where’s (zombie) Waldo? A couple of my friends actually made a The Walking Dead drinking game out of this when the show aired. As for my family, after the first episode we sat down and calmly discussed our plans for if one of us turns.
Wait…what? Did you say a drinking game? How did that work out for them?
Well, that was before we knew how often I would show up in the background – they regretted that idea.
How familiar were you with the Walking Dead Graphic Novels?
I read the first few issues almost as soon as they were released. How could I not? It was zombies (awesome) in Atlanta (even more awesome)!
What about is it about the C
omic Walking Dead that allowed it to transfer to TV so easily?
Walking Dead, given it’s origin in a serialized comic, has clearly defined story arcs. The story arcs have an easy transition to a television series where a central storyline play out over the course of a season. The second season could follow the survivors as they travel through the south looking for sanctuary and finally end up at the Prison.
How is World War Z, the best selling novel by Max Brooks, Different?
Max Brooks WWZ, on the other hand, given the narrative of a central reporter and his interviews with survivors of the zombie war, lends itself to a more documentary style mini-series broken up into rough chronological periods, Outbreak, The Great Panic and so on. If I had to give a good example, I’d say that HBO’s Band of Brothers nailed the “survivors recounting their horror” format perfectly.
How do you feel about Walking Dead as it fits with the Romero mythos?
why the dead are reanimating. They just are. In both series, the zombies aren’t really the story. They are just the background to the main action, the humans and the fight for the survival of their humanity.
Some people want to be sparkly vampires. Did you always want to be a zombie?
So I never really -wanted- to be a zombie! I always kind of figured I’d be on the other side of the equation. But, I was able to work some of the biggest names in special effects and dramatic movies: Greg Nicotero with KNB and Frank Darabont. There is no way I’m gonna say no!
I’d like to say I was picked to be a featured zombie cause I aced Zombie School, but really it was probably cause I’m a size extra-scrawny and with a little makeup I looked down right deceased.
How did you find out about casting?
The opportunity showed up, literally, as just a casting call on a facebook community.
Some of your friends were zombies also. How did that work?
In the really real world I actually work for one of the best up and coming make-up artists in the industry, Matt Silva, and he actually ended up doing my makeup on my first day as a zombie.
Going into Walking Dead, I was fortunate enough to know several other zombies from various local production companies and from my work at Netherworld Haunted House.
How was daily life on the set?
Since a lot of us had extensive make up and prosthetics, our call times would be several hours before most of the crew were even awake. After we checked in, we’d be assigned to a zombie type and sent to makeup and wardrobe. Then, we’d be corralled into a holding tank and we’d wait.
On the busiest days it could take six, seven hours before the 150 zombies were fully decked out as zombies. From there, as the action dictated, a few or a whole horde would be called to set and placed by the director.
After a few rehearsals, they’d film us doing our thing then back to holding. It was a lot of waiting with a lot of cooking in the Atlanta heat. In one weekend, we were on set for over thirty hours a piece for seconds of screen time. To be honest I didn’t expect to see myself in that crowd at all!
Did you make new “zombie friends?”
By the time the show wrapped I’d like to say I was friends with a lot of my classmates. We’d formed a sort of zombie underground. We still keep in touch and try to see all the films and shows that everyone has worked on.
What surprised you most production?
They parked a tank in downtown Atlanta!
What did you think of the makeup/prosthetic process?
I think the words “dream come true” say it best. It was amazing to watch as these highly specialized professionals from KNB and the top local Atlanta makeup artists layered intense levels of prosthetics on top of prosthetics. Then, like a classic artist, they would pull out the paint palette and really give the gore depth and life, well, death. I have to admit, it was a little discomforting to see what I would actually look like after a few days being dead.
I was totally cheering. I looked horrible – terrifying in fact. But, it was just such a thrill to see myself popping up here and there on film.
Are you going to try to work on season II if you can?
Yes! By all means, yes! If they’ll take me back I’ll be there with bells on. I would love to see all my zombie friends again and to get to menace the survivors some more.
Atlanta is known for its hot, humid weather. What was it like filming during the summer in Atlanta?
As fun as it was, it was a lot of hard work. We’d stand around all day in the hellish Atlanta summer heat in winter clothing, the prosthetics melting on our faces, gulping down bottles of water and trying desperately to stay cool. But we’d forget about the heat the moment the cameras were ready. Then it was all “GoGogo! Get those survivors! Eat! HUNGER!” Afterwards we’d go home, covered in grime, sweat and a nice set of bruises. We’d pass out, wake up and do it all over again.
What other background can you give us about production?
Also there are different levels of turning into a zombie – sometimes we just got a little dirt and some torn clothes and were sent on their way. For the deep background action the zombies had more in common with shambling hobos than walking undead. Other days with lots of close up shots, I ended up getting actual facial and neck prosthetics to represent a more violent stage of decay.
A few, like Melissa Cowan or the shirtless zombie from the campsite attack, had to spend all day in the makeup chair getting full body prosthetics, clip on teeth and wig appliances.
Keep an eye out for the main zombie from Land of the Dead, you’ll see his face occasionally as a mid-ground mask zombie.
What was the best part of working on TWD?
The best part of the job was the people. I was fortunate enough to meet and work with some truly amazing folks. From industry giants and sci-fi/horror heroes to all the best zombie friends a guy could hope for, it was the best summer job ever. (and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for season 2)
Who are The Walking Dead?
Like the Romero films, TWD isn’t about zombies. They’re just a background for a groups struggle for survival and to maintain their own humanity. Heck, the comics even say it explicitly, the “walking dead” aren’t the zombies, they’re the survivors.