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Fear the Walking Dead: Cliff Curtis says it's more than a zombie show

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Justin Lubin/AMC

When is a zombie show not a zombie show? When it’s titled Fear the Walking Dead. To be clear, there will be zombies on the AMC Walking Dead companion series. Plenty of them. But according to star Cliff Curtis, the zombies are merely a stand-in to show what might happen should society collapse due to any type of disaster. We chatted with Curtis to get his take on the character of Travis, how much he knows about the original series and comic, how he feels about the two shows being compared, and why he won’t say the Z-word.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How would you describe your character of Travis?

CLIFF CURTIS: I just see him as an everyday guy, a high school teacher, an English teacher, passionate about his community and about his family. He’s sort of an ordinary guy in that sense, you know? He’s between families right now, he’s divorced, and met someone else that he loves and is becoming a part of that family. So he’s got a new family and an old family. He’s trying to create this whole blended family thing. So his world really is the woman he loves, the children that he loves, and his job that he loves, and then his whole world just sort of turned upside down.

I like the idea of him being a bit of an anti-hero in the sense that he’s really not prepared for it and he’s not geared up in that way. You know, he’s not like a walking action hero type sort of guy, and so there’s room for him to evolve and him to discover who he’s going to be in this new world.

It’s interesting how you say he’s not ready for it because I was speaking to Robert Kirkman and he made a point that schoolteachers are probably pretty well equipped for the zombie apocalypse in that they have to deal with certain stressful situations and navigate issues even without that going on, so maybe that has given him some skills.

Yeah, and those skills are transferrable in terms of he’s really grounded in caring for people and taking care of people, and he’s also a fix-it guy. So he’s an optimist, he likes to fix things, he likes to identify contained situations where there’s a problem that he can fix, and so he views life in a way where he’s purposeful. So he’s not a flake and he’s not a pushover, and he has a clear sense of purpose on what his priorities are. So even though he’s not prepared for the apocalypse, there are those transferrable skills that quite unexpectedly come in really handy in terms of being able to communicate with people. And he’s kind of a trustworthy guy — he says what he means and he means what he says. He’s a standup guy and not too complicated, which is helpful.

How ready is he to take control and be a leader when this whole zombie situation crops up?

If there’s a job that needs to be done, he’ll get the job done. That’s kind of who he is. It’s just that we’re in such a bizarre situation where the scale of what’s happening is so beyond anything that he’s prepared for and the things that he has to face. He’s got a solid moral compass as well. So the whole idea of killing and gratuitous violence — he’s spent his career trying to get kids to behave and to believe in the goodness of humanity and the goodness of man and being socially minded and taking care of each other and building community. In an apocalypse, all of that falls apart, the chain of command breaks down, everything, it’s a free-for-all. It’s like all the rules have changed. The creators have gifted me this phenomenal role in the sense that he’s a good man in an impossible situation. So how do you maintain the goodness of who you are and have faith in the goodness of humanity when it’s all falling apart? That’s a tough challenge, and so there are complexities in that, which I think for me is great because it’s grounded in goodness and I’m really enjoying that.

The easy thing is to say this is a zombie show, and obviously it is, but you all see it as more than that don’t you?

We don’t even use that word. We don’t ever use the Z-word. I mean, it’s not even what we do, and when I read the script I had that attitude. It was like, “What? What’s this? What’s this show they’re all excited about? Everybody’s talking about this show!” And when I read the script it did not read like that. It read like a real family show/drama about people’s ordinary lives, and I was like a bit confused. I was like, “This is not what I was expecting.” This is very normal and a really good drama, and so I was like “Okay great. I’m up for that. That sounds really interesting to me.”

Also what’s great about our show is in our world we don’t even know about that other show. We don’t know about what’s coming or what this whole phenomenon is. So the audience knows so much more than we do and it’s kind of like we’re just sort of carrying on, trying to carry on with our normal lives — like go pick up the kids from school. Oh, the school’s not really a school anymore. Oh, we’ve got to go and get that stuff to go to the library, and the library’s overrun, and oh, we’ve got to go to the emergency ward. So this discovering, it’s more like a natural disaster-type setup where there’s a natural disaster, whatever this virus is or this disease that sort of overrun our nation.

So the zombies are a stand-in for any sort of crisis or disaster?

It could be anything. It could be influenza. It could be chicken pox. It just happens to be this mysterious disease that we don’t have any knowledge of, but how quickly our civilization and all the things that we take for granted can collapse. And we play it for real, and so in that sense it’s really interesting to say, well, how does an ordinary family deal with not being able to phone one another or get in an urgent situation if the motorway is blocked off for these riots? And these are all real things that actually happen now. So, it’s not so far-fetched. It’s not so out there to imagine. And then the deal is, what happens if the grid shuts down or it gets locked down and we don’t know what’s going on? We don’t know what’s happening in the rest in the country. We don’t know what’s happening outside of our block and we have no means of getting to know.

It’s like the world quickly becomes quite a scary place, and then you’re not dealing with necessarily the infected or the disease. You’re dealing with your own fear and paranoia about what’s out there and what’s going to happen and then how to deal with the situation. And that’s kind of where the drama is driven by very natural and real human impulses and emotions, and that’s where the show is really grounded and it makes it interesting to play.

How familiar were you, or are you, with the other Walking Dead show or the original comic?

I asked the makers of the show whether that was important, and they said it wasn’t important at all. I know it’s a phenomenon, it’s a huge franchise, and I checked it out and I thought I would rather sort of just keep a distance from it because I am not supposed to know that world. Also, I think we need to have a bit of space to recreate what this is and define it however we want to. We could create a whole new and different audience for this show as opposed to the other.

There’s an integrity in the way that people are dealing with and creating the show and how they’re in agreement that we don’t have to try to appease or please that other audience. We have the freedom to create our own audience and to create an entirely different universe and different show. So, I think it’s good to have a bit of space that even though the precepts that come down from, you know, the creator, as they set sort of certain boundaries that we have to stick to, but outside of that it’s a free-for-all. We could pretty much create everything we want out of it.

There must be positives and negatives to being a companion to the biggest show on television. On one hand, you automatically generate all this interest. But then again, people are naturally going to try to compare the two.

That’s what I really like about everybody on the show, from the creators all the way up through to AMC — they’re really not sweating that. This is a standalone show. That one is a juggernaut. We’re not going to compete with the juggernaut. We’d be foolish to try and outdo the juggernaut, you know? That would be kind of pointless. I mean, AMC is doing pretty well with Better Call Saul. They took their first gamble on that, and so I think it’s great to have that clarity that we’re not chasing that other audience, and it’s okay if some of the audience from that show doesn’t necessarily want to follow this show. That’s okay because there will be an audience for this show, and we don’t know necessarily who they are right now, but we’ll discover it once we get online. But if you like a good show then you’re probably going to like this show. It feels like a really good show. It feels really good. You never can know. You never can really absolutely know, but you know it feels really good, like creatively it feels really good. It’s really well coordinated.

Collaboratively everybody works really well together and there’s a levity on set. There’s a quiet confidence that we’re doing good work, and at the end of the day that’s what you take home, when you finish your job and you go home. Whether it wins the ratings war or any of that kind of stuff, I think we can all go home at the end of the working day and say we did good work today, and we’ve been doing it each day and each week. We go. “That was a good day’s work.” And so, there’s that quiet confidence in terms of what we’re doing, sort of a calm adult-type sort of confidence. We don’t have to talk ourselves up too much and that might backfire, but I do feel good about being a part of it and being a part of a really good team with great talented writers and actors and really considerate kind people too, which really helps in a working day.

For more Fear the Walking Dead scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

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