[SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead.]
To protect and to serve. And to bust you in the face whenever she damn well feels like it. Such is the motto of Officer Dawn Lerner, whom we met on Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead. Dawn runs “the system” at Grady Memorial Hospital, where people like Beth Greene are brought in, given medial treatment and as well as food and board — but for a price. In just one episode, we saw Dawn belittle Beth, strike her multiple times in the mug, and sentence Beth’s new BFF Noah to a beatdown as well. But guess what? The woman who plays Dawn insists that not only is she not a villain, but she’s actually a hero! We spoke to actress Christine Woods (whom you may recognize from FlashForward and Hello Ladies) to get her take on the controversial character and her introduction to the Walking Dead universe. [Also check out our interviews with Emily Kinney (who plays Beth) and Tyler James Williams (Noah).]
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First off, how did you land this role? Does this go back to your FlashForward connection with Scott Gimple?
CHRISTINE WOODS: I knew that he was supervising The Walking Dead as a producer and running everything over there, but I just went in and auditioned. I think I was in the middle of shooting something so it was pretty hectic, and, of course, you know the way these sides are in the industry — they’re all fake. So I got these sides and it was some weird fake audition and I was like, “I don’t know if I’m right for this,” and Scott was like, “Just trust me. Just come in. You don’t have to know all your lines. Just do it and it’s just a feel thing because they want to get your essence.” So I just went in and auditioned and it was the worst audition I’ve ever done. So I was like, “Well, that was terrible. That’s not going anywhere.” Then Scott called and said, “We’re so excited. We want you to do this. And here’s what the real part is,” and I was like “Ohhhhhh, that makes more sense for me! Okay, I can understand that.”
So once you got the part, how much intel did he give you about your character and her arc at that point?
At that point he gave me roughly the first episode and he gave me all the backstory. So he gave me all the reasons why my character existed, where she came from, what her deep desires were as a person, but everything else would just unfold as the episodes came out. So I was left with the first episode by itself and then he gave me the other stuff later. So he just kind of gave me a backstory and a personal reason why I existed in the world and we kind of went from there.
Was there any more backstory he gave you than what we saw on screen in this episode, or anything else you created for yourself?
We had a conversation about it together. He’s really wonderful and wants it to be something where you can really add on to and create collaboratively. But we talked about how she found herself in this position, and I think that is mostly touched upon in the episode how she’s working for Atlanta PD and she’s clearing that hospital when everything went down and ended up essentially being accidentally this anti-hero to al these people that she’s saved, essentially. And then they go out into the city and the powers that be napalm the city and everybody dies. He gave me all of that information as a way to prepare for how desperate and how sad Dawn really is at the current point. So it was a mix. I did bring some stuff to the table, but a lot of it was there in the script.
I’m curious about your take on this character because I remember speaking to David Morrissey, who played the Governor, and more recently Andrew J. West, who played Gareth. They were both villains on the show, but they never thought of them as villains, but just people that reacted badly to bad circumstances. How do you view Dawn?
Its funny: I consider Dawn a hero. Not to get political, but look at today’s climate with police officers and people in horrible emergency situations trying to make the best out of what’s best for the people around them and “within their authority.” So this person, after all of this stuff happened, is not someone who went and took power. She is someone who was essentially socially in a position to protect and go out of her way to save people and keep things kind of going in an orderly way, because that was this person’s job in normal life. So she’s just acting in a way that is trying to keep her regular identity going. And so she thinks she’s being very helpful. And she’s keeping things going and keeping people safe, and so I think 100% her heart is completely in the right place here. She was dealt a hand that was really stressful in relation to her former colleague and former boss Hanson, and she had to take care of some things that I think were very brave of her to take care of. So I don’t see her as a villain at all. I see her as a hero, and as the story unfolds you can decide if you think that too. I think she’s a brave, scared person who is trying to be a hero. So I think she’s a hero. I really do.
What about that scene where she is fighting to save Joan and cuts her arm off to save her: Is that because she genuinely cares about her, or is it merely because of the value Joan represents in terms of the role she fills there?
I think it’s both. I think that when you’re in a situation like that you can convince yourself that something that you need someone to do is valuable — maybe for the wrong reasons. So Joan is a character that Dawn has a lot of compassion for and deeply cares about this young woman. But at the same time, she is a pawn. She is a part of the system, and I think you have to make that okay in order to continue trying to be the leader of all these people. I mean, it’s terrible. It really is about sacrifice, and I think she truly believed that what Joan was doing as a member of the community was Joan’s personal sacrifice that needed to be made for humanity to continue. So I don’t think it ever came from a place of hatred or evil. It came from a place of, well, this is what you have to do. We’re all in this together. It sucks for everyone. But I think she does genuinely have compassion for these people. I do think that she cares.
What’s Dawn’s relationship to the other officers? She’s leading them and clearly led them through some hard times, but it also appears at times to be a little tenuous in terms of what she has to do to keep them in line and how long that is going to work with some of these guys.
Some of these people are people she came up with in the department, so she knows these people. They probably knew each other’s families. They probably knew each other’s kids. So there is a great history with these peope. But I also think that when you are thrust into the position of power — especially as a woman — you are going to get a lot of questioning and a lot of challenges. When you are a leader of a group of people you used to be peers with, there’s gonna be some kind of challenge and push-back. These people are stuck in this building. There’s nothing progressing in their lives and their universe. So that would make anybody go crazy. Dawn keeps a very tight ship, and she does it because she knows instinctively that if things get relaxed, she will lose control. So there’s that tension between her and her former friends. And this point she just had to turn the switch off and treat them like her soldiers essentially.
You mentioned that you see her as a hero, but why then does Dawn keep hitting Beth? Even that first time where Beth’s just standing there doing nothing and you unload on the poor woman!
It’s not even Beth’s fault, and I just slap her. [Laughs] You know, I think that is a little misplaced anger in that. But Dawn probably sees herself in Beth. It’s like that mean coach that screams at their athlete and is aggressive and rude and a lot of times people who are abusive and mean, they don’t know that there’s anything wrong with that behavior. And Dawn may be thinking that she’s just toughening Beth up. And she’s preparing her for what the harsh reality is in this specific place. Better Dawn than anyone else. Better Dawn take the hard hand and teach Beth how to be than one of these other guys that Dawn probably does not trust at all.
Also make sure to check out our interviews with Emily Kinney (who plays Beth) and Tyler James Williams (Noah), as well as Kyle Ryan’s episode recap. And for more ‘Walking Dead’ intel, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.