Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

As if being locked up Litchfield Penitentiary was not enough, Orange is the New Black star Elizabeth Rodriguez now has a zombie apocalypse to deal with as well. That’s because the actress will be playing Liza on AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead, which debuts Sunday. We spoke to Rodriguez in her trailer on the Vancouver set after a physical day on set in which she had to take on a bloodthirsty infected with only some standard-issue kitchen utensils at her disposal.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So tell me about your character of Liza in your words and how you see her.

ELIZABETH RODRIGUEZ: Liza is Travis’ ex-wife. They were together for about 12 years. They got together when they were young and ended up getting pregnant young. They decided to get married and she wanted to go to medical school, but had to put it on hold for her family, at which point years went by, as they do. I think there were things about Travis that maybe they grew up at the same time, but apart. They wanted different things, certain things didn’t change, and so I decided to leave Travis about three years ago. So pretty much I’m the caretaker of my son, and in trying to make up for lost time I went back to school. But I can’t really become a doctor, so I go to nursing school, which is very important to the story. Travis sees his kid on some weekends. I think we have a good relationship for the most part, but recently he’s been caught up in Madison’ children, because they’re not all as perfect as my son. So there’s that, that causes a little bit of — I’m very protective of [our son] Chris.

And then things happen, and Travis knows things first. He has seen some things, then he comes looking for Chris, at which point Chris is in the middle of a demonstration and I end up going with him and we never come back to what we knew as our home or reality. As a nursing student, in the coming episodes I end up finding that is what I can do. I have to ultimately lie and tell people in the community that I am a nurse so they can trust me and have instincts to sort of kick in and do what I can, until a doctor shows up, and then she tells me to go with her and help more people. And I end up seeing things on a grander scale and discovering other things that the rest of the family doesn’t know about. I end up leaving my family and becoming really fancy in this story. [Laughs]

How would you describe this story? What is Fear the Walking Dead? It’s easy to say it’s a zombie show, but there’s a lot of focus on family.

It isn’t about zombies. It could be anything. It could be any sort of seemingly apocalyptic event, whether it be war, terrorism, a tsunami, a coup. I think it’s about what happens immediately that causes people to come together, and human instinct to protect our closest, nearest, and dearest. And then having to make choices and try to understand really quickly and accept what the new reality is. The biggest, most exciting thing is we don’t know the rules. So it’s all in what we don’t know. The bigger fear is in what are they? We sort of wrap our brains around accepting this thing, and then at rapid speeds the whole government and everything you think you know gets turned on its back within moments, if not days.

So you’re constantly behind what’s going on and having to reassess and lose values. Your values are constantly getting tested, and how does one hold onto their values or how does one change quickly. Along the way pieces of us die in who you think you were just two days ago. You don’t even have time to assess what happened before. And I think very little sleep, not a lot of baths, probably hungry, no time to even think about all those things — it’s survival mode.

It’s the end of vanity.

For some. [Laughs]

Were you familiar at all with the other The Walking Dead show before you landed this role?

I was absolutely familiar with it, but I didn’t feel like I needed to draw from it because the writing is so tight and so clear, that the episodes come in and I’m reading them immediately and then the other actors are immediately talking about, “Did you read — oh my God, I’m so jealous of what happens to you!” Literally, I’m not even exaggerating. I saw Reuben right after [episodes] four and five came out and so much happened, and I was like, “I’m so jealous!” and he was like, “Oh, how about you!” Literally we were both totally like, jealous of what the other one had to do, which is so incredibly exciting when there’s that much in so little time opposed to across 22 episodes that you hope you have some sort of arc or some sort of change. I think there’s a line that one of the characters says and it’s incredible because you always go back to it. A doctor says “You have to make choices between the bad decisions and worst decisions, which is it going to be?” and that’s what I think happens all along the storyline.

I’m curious how you look at being a companion to such a successful show like The Walking Dead. On one hand you already have all this attention on the show, but you’re also always going to have people constantly comparing them.

I think the most exciting thing is that it’s so different and so unique because the audiences know information — the fans of The Walking Dead have information that we don’t. Our show happens before, so the characters have no idea about the Walking Dead show, and so that will give it something at the tip of this like, “Look out! That guy! How could you not see?” We don’t have the rules. They know all the rules. They know how people change. We don’t, so having an audience be, at least in these first six episodes, smarter than the characters, is an exciting thing for the fans, I hope.

You were filming some really physical stuff today. Do you like that?

I do. I have a little bit of extra testosterone, and it’s good to put it to work when I can. It was exciting. My stunt double actually told me after, “That was really great, I didn’t even have to work” which is really what an actor wants. I was like, “That’s my goal.” So it was fun. It’s fun and it’ll be more fun when I watch it, for sure.

This is such a bleak world. Does it ever impact you once you leave the set at all?

Oh my goodness, absolutely. It impacted me before we started shooting. We sat down before principal day of photography and we spoke about the first couple episodes about the world, and we started getting deep into these conversations and I was really shocked, I was literally like, “I’m really depressed right now, guys.” It brings things up — you start thinking about 9/11 or Katrina, and you can’t help but feel these things. Then on set something happened in the first couple of episodes that was massive, and it was hours and hours and I had to go home and literally shower and take that experience outside, like try to get to the other side as soon as possible before I went to bed, just because it’s on you. And after hours of it you’re just like, “This is a lot going on.”

Is it nice to look around and see such a diverse cast?

I think it’s incredible. I know for sure that my character originally was not written for a Latina woman, and I just think it’s great whenever I can land a part that’s just being a human being first, then a woman — because it doesn’t inform anything differently when you’re telling a particular story. Where it’s not about that, it’s just about a human experience. Particularly in this for me, because there is a Spanish story that’s very much supposed to be immigrant and that whole thing, so it’s just sort of the cherry on the cake.

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

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