By Dalton Ross
Updated March 22, 2015 at 12:00 PM EDT
Credit: Gene Page/AMC
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[SPOILER ALERT: Read on only of you have already watched Sunday’s “Try” episode of The Walking Dead.]

Going on set as a reporter seems glamorous, but here’s the reality: It can also be super tedious. You sit and watch the same shot, filmed over and over, and then watch that same shot filmed over and over again from multiple other angles. What seemed cool the first time may not seem so cool the 30th. This isn’t a complaint, mind you, but rather an illustration of the reality of what most set visits are like. But occasionally you see something truly extraordinary. And I was fortunate enough to be on set last November for the filming of the big climactic fight scene between Rick and Pete that ended season 5’s penultimate episode and aired this evening. And I could have watched 100 more takes and been riveted every single time.

There is a reason fellow cast-members fawn over Andrew Lincoln. The commitment that guy brings not only to every scene, but every rehearsal when cameras are not even rolling, is truly stunning. I was honestly blown away by what I saw as Lincoln went full animal mode for this scene, bursting with physicality while teetering on an emotional ledge. And he stayed in that headspace all throughout filming, even in between takes and new camera set-ups. (Just ask Corey Brill, who plays Pete, and had to listen to Lincoln cursing into his ear just before cameras started rolling.) It was super impressive stuff (and yes, maybe a little bit scary).

I spoke with Lincoln after he filmed the intense sequence to get his take on how he prepares for such a scene, and our chat offers a pretty fascinating window into how the star of the highest-rated show on TV goes about his job.

EW: That was such a physically and emotionally charged scene. How do you get yourself ready for something like that?

ANDREW LINCOLN: It feels like the story’s been heading to this point for a few episodes. When I read the script I knew that there was a big thing that needed to be tackled with pretty much everything that I had—like you say, physically and emotionally. It’s amazing how playing this guy for five years now and also having relationships with a lot of the principal cast that go beyond the story—they’re very deep relationships with crew and cast. I mean you can feel it on set. It was funny because one of the new actresses whose joined us, she came up to me after the day and she said, “I haven’t been on a set like that. That’s a film set you’ve got going on because the crew are silent.” I think the crew is silent because they know that I’ve got to do my job, you what I mean? They know that there’s a big scene. In fact, that scene could have been, and we spoke about it, it could have been the season finale just because of what happened in the context of the story.

Absolutely. I told you it felt like that to me when you were filming it.

Angela Kang had written such a brilliant episode. I don’t really sleep the night before when I know that I’ve got a job to do. It sort of occupies most of my head, but it’s amazing from a physical involvement—you know, the fight—how it unlocks you and frees you. The wonderful thing about this scene is it’s very much a return of the man and the leader and so I knew that there was a lot riding on it. I knew that it was important to reach a certain level. You know I listen to music. I kind of just get focused and then I try and leave myself alone and just see what happens in the scene.

It’s very difficult to explain a scene like that, and I’m very fortunate I’m surrounded by people that really kind of encourage. I feel very safe in the show and I think that’s more than half of it, but I have to sort of doff my cap and give credit to [episode director] Mike Satrazemis, who has been on this show and been by my side since the very first episode. It’s wonderful to see this guy and Greg Nicotero and, of course, Scott Gimple, and all these people that have been rewarded for their talent.

What was it like working with Mike on this scene?

Mike was really, really good in this episode. It was the first time I had the opportunity to work with Mike, but he knows me so well because he’s been looking through the camera for so long [as director of photography]. He kind of gave me a few whispered notes in between different setups—just to sort of move me in different directions and keep it fresh, because I think the difficulty with doing a scene like that is to keep it alive—to keep it real because it’s kind of like an endurance. That’s because we were doing it from countless different angles all day. I think he was really, really helpful in keeping it alive. And it changed. There’s a lot of stuff that you saw at the start that was probably too big for the actual cut maybe. I don’t know because I don’t watch the show, but it was fun to do because it’s kind of exciting to just keep pushing it into different places.

What I noticed that was interesting is the intensity that you gave when the camera wasn’t even on during the rehearsal. You went all in for rehearsal, which you don’t always see, and that sort of sets the tone for everyone else.

Well, I’ve said it before and I’ll continue saying it until they kill me—until I get bitten by the zombies and I’m out—is that this has been the single most important job of my career and it continues to become more important. I think that the other thing is that there’s a lot of new cast members, as you noticed on the set, and there is a responsibility that I think I have and all the other principal people that have been on the show for a long time to show and just say, it’s a safe place. I go big just to stop myself from playing safe I suppose.

So much of acting is about the risk of daring to look foolish. In a show like this, you can look foolish pretty easily. Interestingly, you can look foolish if you don’t fully inhabit the emotions and all the rest of it. It’s better to go big and go f— it, I don’t give a s— what anybody…I’m not worried what people are thinking about. You just focus on playing the scene.

I was watching you when you had Corey, who plays Pete, in the headlock right before action and you’re sitting there whispering “f— you” in his ear. This goes back to something I remember Andrew West, who played Gareth, told me. He said he was legitimately scared during that scene by the trough because you were saying s— to him right before filming and staring through his soul.

I don’t know what I’m doing. [Laughs] I’m lucky in as much as the actor I did it with, Corey Brill—it was his first big TV job. He’s a fine theater actor and he’s a wonderful guy. You know you build a trust and I hope that you build a relationship with an actor so you can get into a scene with somebody and they’re not going to be holy freaked out by me whispering terrible things in his ear. Part of me is just about changing the atmosphere in a place and finding a part of myself because I’m a pretty laid back guy most of the time—probably because I get to become psychopathic in my day job, you know what I mean? I get to vent it there. I mean, we had a great time doing that scene together and it was amazing and he’s wonderful in this role, but it was a brutal space I had to inhabit. In between takes there was a kind of a “Are you all right with this? I thought I wasn’t throttling him. He was kind of like cool with it. It was a big moment and I wanted to leave it all out there.

How do you leave it out there though while also physically keeping you and him safe? How concerned are you about the safety because that was a very physical scene?

Yeah, I mean, there’s a point of which you know I’m not going to hurt the other actor. There’s a point at which you can pull out in my head certainly. I’d like to think that we’d established that through the fight sequence already, that he knew that it was play even though there were a couple of cuts and bruises by the end of the day.

You’re on asphalt, man. That is a pretty unforgiving surface when it comes to jostling and rolling around.

Yeah. It was. When your stunt director gives you a slap at the end of the day, you know you’ve done a good job. I suppose it’s getting me into a zone where I can access parts of myself that I don’t usually access. A lot of that is down to me just going, I’m not going to just break the spell that we’re on the set and there are cameras here and there’s a guy standing there with a boom. I don’t want to think about that. I want to connect with the guy that I’m in the scene with and let it just be about that. That’s why I’m very keen on this show, because we do big group scenes with a lot of cameras. It means everybody’s in the scene all the time and it’s much more fun. It’s much more fun than breaking up a scene into bite size bits and making it much more of I suppose just a technical exercise. I enjoy physical and fight scenes because I like being in space in 3D, but the most fun I get is when I’m in a scene and when they say cut, I have no idea what just happened. That’s the best fun.

Well, I won’t make you talk about it anymore because I can tell you it makes you a little uncomfortable, but it was pretty amazing to take in.

No, it’s fun man. It’s fun because when the other actors, like Steven came afterwards and just went, “Nice, man.” And Norman just wrote something. I came back to my dressing room and I couldn’t wipe it off. In complete indelible ink he’d written, “You’re f—ing awesome.” You know, those are my buddies. It means a lot, man. And, you know, just landing on me at the end of the scene and just flattening me and just having a cuddle. It’s brilliant. It’s f—ing brilliant. I went home and I was charged by it and exhausted, but there’s no better feeling.

Did Rick go too far by pummeling Pete and pulling a gun on the other? Read our take and take our poll. To watch the cast spill secrets about Andrew Lincoln, click on the video below. And for more ‘Walking Dead’ scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

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The Walking Dead

AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.

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