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Fear the Walking Dead: Kim Dickens on making the zombie apocalypse 'relatable'

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Justin Lubin/AMC

Kim Dickens has a pretty damn impressive TV résumé. She always seems to pop up in awesome shows — whether it is in ensembles like Deadwood, recurring roles in stuff like Friday Night Lights, Sons of Anarchy, and House of Cards, or guest-starring spots in things like Lost. Did you see those shows I just rattled off? Told you it was an impressive résumé. (And that’s not even including her work on the big screen in Gone Girl.) Now Dickens is ready for her most high-profile role yet, starring in Walking Dead companion series Fear the Walking Dead, which debuts Sunday on AMC.

I sat down with Dickens on the Vancouver set of Fear to get her thoughts the show, instant fan attention, and beating the crap out of zombies.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I always like to hear from the actual actor in terms of how they see a character. So who is Madison to you?

KIM DICKENS: Well, she’s very relatable, you know, I think very warm. Single mother, hard-working, practical, loving, tough, and then turns out she’s a fierce warrior.

I asked Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, “Why teachers? Why is Madison a guidance counselor and why is Travis a teacher?” and he said he thinks teachers are in a way well-equipped for a zombie apocalypse. Do you agree?

I know. I think it’s pretty clever. You’re navigating a lot of stuff, especially with teenagers, you know what I mean? And on a daily basis you’re trying to help people and you’re thinking quickly and you’re not a sucker for anything. We started filming in the schools. Those were our first scenes to shoot and I thought that was really helpful for all of us to sort of ground us in who the characters really were before the apocalypse.

So we sort of knew who we were and we knew our family and our relationships, and that was just the greatest way to start filming, in that school. It really informed us who the characters were and where we were starting from. I mean, teachers are admirable. Man, it’s a labor of love. You have to go into it knowing that, that these characters, they want to help kids. It’s East LA, everybody doesn’t have the greatest opportunities necessarily, and they want to help these kids. It’s such a great jumping off place for a character.

Beyond being a show about zombies, how would you describe Fear?

It’s about survival. It’s about our fears and anxieties, and it’s about who we become. I remember, there’s a line from Deadwood actually that David Milch had written, and I can’t quote it exactly, but it was something about how each day takes learning all over how to be. I think that’s the truth for all of us, and especially when you get to explore that in an apocalyptic show.

Ultimately any show is going to come down to characters, right? If you like the characters or want to follow their stories, that’s what’s going to make or break the show.

That’s what has to resonate for the audience, and I think our show will start with this sort of put-together modern family. Divorces have happened, lives have been lost and new families are formed, and I think that it’s a very recognizable union and family base and home life. The drama and the merry-go-round of it all, that kind of life, is going to be very recognizable to audiences and it will feel like, “Oh, that resonates with me. That’s familiar to me. That looks like our town.” Then you see the fall of civilization begin to start to tumble and crumble, and so I think it will really draw people in because it won’t just seem like, “Oh, this is something separate from my world.” It’s relatable. It’s like, “Oh, this is what it might look like if this were to happen to us.”

What are your thoughts in terms of being a companion show or spin-off or whatever you want to call it?

Well, the positives are that the fan base for The Walking Dead is a remarkable fan base. It is just impressive. I mean, their passion and their loyalty is just at a fever pitch and that’s so amazing to see. So that’s exciting to know that these people are going to give us a shot.And then the other side of that is, like, well, I hope we don’t disappoint them. But as an actor, you just sort of go in, you start doing the day-to-day work of it and you don’t worry about that, and I think that’s like any artist. Eventually it is presented and let go for consumption, and those aren’t the most comfortable moments, you know, but that’s what you do.

This fan-base will obsess over ever little thing, right down to whether they like the title of Fear the Walking Dead.

I know. People on the Internet have very strong opinions, and people are entitled to their opinions. We’re working really hard to do our best work and to make it a great show, and then it will have a life of its own. I can’t control that. All I know is that we all have a huge amount of passion and excitement about it every day, I mean, it’s been a lot of work for all of us and it’s been so exciting to come to work every day. It doesn’t matter how hard it is. It doesn’t matter how long the hours are. It’s been very exciting to work on, every moment of it.

You were on Deadwood and that was also a pretty grimy, dirty show. How does this dirt and grime compare?

It’s different dirt and grime. It’s much more urban, modern grime. On Deadwood, we were really working on a ranch there and it was dusty and dirty. There were big animals everywhere and you’re walking through the thoroughfares in velvet and wigs and it’s 100 degrees. But the zombie apocalypse gets you pretty dirty, too.

This story is so unrelentingly bleak. Is it ever hard to shake off after living with it all day?

I will say in the beginning of production, once we were into the series and sort of really dealing with things, I did have nightmares for a few nights. They were somewhat apocalyptic for me. I could tell my subconscious was trying to sort out the day.

I saw you mixing it up with some zombies on set yesterday. This is a show that has a lot of action when it calls for it. How are you enjoying or not enjoying that?

Oh, I’m enjoying the action part. That’s so fun. It’s just a new kind of challenge, and you know. But we’ve been able to do most of our stunts because they play so real. We get trained a little bit in the moments through the choreography of it and then we’re thrown in to do it and it becomes sort of real. But I was pretty unscathed yesterday. We get a little padding. I think I have a bruise from yesterday, that’s it. You know, so it’s pretty good.

For more ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ scoops, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

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