By Dalton Ross
Updated February 06, 2015 at 12:00 PM EST
Gene Page/AMC

Do not expect simply more of the same when The Walking Dead returns Sunday night for its midseason premiere. The first episode back will feel unlike any other installment before it, and star Andrew Lincoln says that is only the beginning: “It’s such a radically different show, the back eight episodes,” says the man who plays Rick Grimes. “I think that people have to be prepared for it. We also go very dark and then something different happens in the story which I think is going to breathe incredible new life further down the road for the show.” We chatted with Lincoln to get his take and teases on what is coming up.

EW: Let’s start where we’re literally starting off. You guys have just left the hospital, the church is overrun, Abraham’s mission went bust, Beth is dead. It just sounds so miserable and depressing. Is the group at their lowest point here?

ANDREW LINCOLN: It makes me smile because that’s our show. We always like to leave everybody in a great deal of pain. Yet again, we are reunited, but we’re reunited in terrible grief and once again, we’re on the road. You’ll see there are fragmentations within the group. There are a lot of people grieving the loss of such an important person. There was so much hope invested in Beth and finding her, and then to have it ripped out of our grasp was unbearable for actors and for the story. I will say that episode 9 is probably my favorite episode. It’s an extraordinary episode. I don’t know what it looks like, but when I read it, it had the same effect on me as 314. I thought, stylistically, we’re moving into a new place. It was so tight and smart and moving. I mean it’s incredibly moving, but it’s a really, really cool episode.

You all are going to de doing a lot of different things in this back half of season 5, it seems.

I’m really, really half terrified, half so excited to see how people view the way the story goes. I mean it’s completely uncompromising and it’s almost like there’s a mini pilot episode in the middle of the season and it’s nuts. It’s f—ing nuts! I can’t explain what it was like doing it, but it was pretty crazy—just an amazing experience. The more time I get away from it the more I realize, oh, God it’s such a brave thing that [showrunner] Scott Gimple’s done. I mean, he’s got such brilliance. All the writing I thought from everybody was really magnificent. To be able to juggle what he’s done, to be able to keep so many plates spinning, and do something so radically different is…you know, I actually kneel before him in that reverence.

Let’s talk about Rick specifically then because what I find interesting is that Rick wanted to kill off the Terminus folks after they escaped, everyone said no and then Bob got his leg chewed off. Rick wanted to go in guns blazing to get Beth and Carol, they say no and then Beth dies. What is all this doing to his sort of viewpoint in terms of the way to get things done, the way to deal with potential threats, and maybe potentially the way to deal with people in his group the next time they don’t agree with what he wants to do?

I think you’ve identified a very key point. This is the first season that I’ve been making the right decisions. But then no one f—ing listens to me! It’s bulls—! And I keep saying it. It was making me laugh so much. But, of course, he’s being too democratic. I think that you will see you really hit the nail on the head, because there’s a tightening of the reins. We’re really in trouble when you meet us again and you see almost a soldier pushing his troops on. We’re in dire straits and it’s a man very much back in leader mode. Everybody’s been sort of in separate groups and this is the first time that you meet us together, but that’s not to say it’s without conflict and problems. I think you’ll see, but certainly, the death of Beth has hit everybody profoundly but he is a leader that is almost dragging people with him.

Judging from the timeline, this probably isn’t a big spoiler because people saw you out at the premiere in LA in October looking all clean shaven while you were still filming, so we can deduce that the beard’s going to go at some point. What was it like to have to say goodbye to that?

I think it’s safe to say that something happens involving either a zombie makeover or I find a razor or an extended flashback. Take your pick. It’s a crazy ass season. I’m so excited about it because it’s nuts on so many levels. You know it’s a tale of two seasons. The tone of the first part of the season certainly pushes on probably into maybe a third of the back 8 and then it’s something else.

And you’ve got a lot of new characters coming aboard too.

I think by the end of the season we’re carrying more characters than we’ve ever had in the whole other five years, and that’s what I mean about the plate spinning. I think Scott and the writers have just done an extraordinary job about really filling out and giving story arcs and extraordinarily emotional journeys to a substantial amount of principal actors. I said it before: I don’t think it’s an ensemble anymore—it’s a show of leading actors.

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