[SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s season 6 premiere of The Walking Dead, “First Time Again.”]
Welcome Ethan Embry to the cast of The Walking Dead, everybody! Now say goodbye to Ethan Embry, everybody! Embry — a regular on Netflix’s Grace and Frankie and so excellent on Showtime’s underappreciated gem Brotherhood — showed up on Sunday’s season 6 premiere as Carter, an Alexandrian who was not on board with Rick’s aggressive plan to clear out the walkers.
Carter’s brief stay included a failed coup to kill Rick, lots of second-guessing of plans, a feeble attempt to protect himself from oncoming walkers, and, finally, a gruesome death after having his face bitten off. We chatted with Embry to get the full scoop on his life — and death — in Alexandria. (Read through both pages for the entire interview. Also make sure to check out our premiere Q&A’s with Andrew Lincoln, Greg Nicotero, and Robert Kirkman, as well as Nicotero’s exclusive storyboards.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY Let’s start from the beginning. How did you go about getting the role of Carter?
ETHAN EMBRY: I’d been trying to get on that show for a while now. I auditioned for the pilot and fell in love with the whole idea of that show from the get-go. I remember when I first read that, and I was a fan of 28 Days Later, and reading this pilot that sort of nodded towards my favorite parts of that film — I knew it was going to be something insane. And I went in again for another character that I ended up getting pretty close on, so they got to know me over the years of me trying to get on the show.
This role of Carter came up and they invited me to come play and I was more than happy to get the invite. Such a great character too. As a fan of the show, I’ve been watching Rick change; what he’s been going through and how it’s been affecting him as a person, and he’s kind of losing his mind—he’s going a little crazy. And this role of Carter, to me, being a fan, I wanted it to be sort of the voice of the audience. You know, questioning his sanity: Can we trust him anymore? And that’s not always the best thing to question on that show. It doesn’t bode well.
Did you know his fate when you took the role?
I knew from the get-go that it was a quick one-and-done. I’m doing Grace and Frankie right now so I can only do a couple episodes anyway, and I had already used up one of my cards doing Sneaky Pete. So I only had a couple of playtimes left, and this one episode — I get to do everything a person would want to do if they got invited on a show. The only thing I’m bummed I didn’t get to do is kill a zombie; I wish I could have got one of them. But other than that, I get to go and wrangle a posse against Rick, I get to do a conspiracy against him, I get my face bitten off — it’s great!
Carter is kind of a TV version of this character Nicholas from the comic, which is confusing because there is another Nicholas on the show. Did you look at the comic at all to see how the Alexandria takeover attempt is handled there?
I didn’t look at the comics for this one because of how they’ve been doing that, blending characters together — taking personalities of one character and appearances of another and mixing them together. So I didn’t go to the comic for this. Because it’s a quick voice, the role of Carter. You only get to see this small window of him. If they wanted me to emulate something from the comics they would have said, “Here, this is the dude,” and I would have loved to do that. But since that wasn’t evident, I just let it play on the script.
How was the character explained to you? What did you pick up on reading the script?
I had a great conversation with Scott [Gimple] and Greg [Nicotero]. As far as character and personality and who he is, they were saying that if the apocalypse had not happened — if we were living in this time — Carter and Rick would be on even plane. They would be more equals. But because of what Rick has experienced in the last few years, he’s progressed so far beyond anything Carter could even imagine. Carter’s been living in this bubble, and so he hasn’t been exposed to the things that Rick has, but if we flashback two years since all of this has been going on, he’s a working man. He was a contractor, so he was able to build the wall around the compound. Just a man’s man. But he hasn’t adapted like the rest of the main family has, so he’s still really living in the past: a false reality.
And that’s one of the things about the show, is that, as a fan, I’ve started to think that the main characters that are walking around looking for a new home, that they’re almost the walking dead. They’ve lost their humanity. They’ve ceased to be the humans they once were. What Rick has been going through towards the end of the last season — as an audience member, I questioned: Is he going too far? Has he crossed that threshold to where he’ll become something so far from what he used to be he’ll never be able to return to himself? And it’s that balance, because you have to be able to achieve a certain part of that to survive, but if you go too far there’s no turning back.
Look at Tyreese — his character was the emotional struggle of finding that balance. That’s why I loved him so much because he knew he had to adapt, but he was so mourning the loss of his humanity that it made him very emotional. Daryl is the guy in my opinion who has found that perfect ground; retaining a certain part of your humanity but also learning to adapt to be able to survive. He’s that voice; that gauge. I really love the show.
So what’s it like to have Andy Lincoln pointing a gun in your face because that dude can be pretty intense when he’s filming?
It’s one of the best work environments I’ve been around, and I think a lot of that has to do with Andy. He asked me my boundaries — we had just met and he wanted to be sure not to cross my line. And I told him “I don’t have any. There are no boundaries. Please feel free to go.” And he did. Because you can’t fake that. I think that’s why people love the show so much, because he doesn’t fake it — he goes there. He does it in a way where you can still, if you’re not fearful, you can trust him. Because of who he is you know even if he sort of loses himself in a moment, that he can always maintain control. Some actors will do that and you’ll actually get worried that they won’t be able to control the outcome, but Andy’s able to go there and still maintain the control of the situation. He’s kicking me, screaming at me, spitting on me.
Let’s talk about your big death scene. How did you guys come up with the mechanics of a zombie ripping flesh off of your face?
Can we talk about the fact that the walker is stuck on his entrails? Like, he was walking around with his entrails hanging out a little bit and it got caught on a branch, and like a dog on a long leash, over the past six months or so, just wrapping himself around this tree with his guts — it’s amazing! But yeah, they built a prosthetic for it. Nicotero’s company, KNB, their warehouse is right by my house, so I went down there and did a prosthetic sitting. You go in there and it’s all of these hardcore, tatted-up sculptor artists that get to explore their personal dark side by making these horrific sculptures all day long. You can go in there and heavy metal’s blaring, and it’s a workshop but it’s a workshop full of artists — there are like 20 dudes in there creating, shaping, molding.
So I went in and they made a face mold, and at that point I didn’t know where the bite was going to be. I had a general idea that it was going to attack my face, but half of my face was a whole prosthetic. It’s an ancient craft. They don’t do that stuff very much anymore — a lot of it is done digitally now. But they’re still doing it old-school. It’s great, you can’t fake it, really. So I run the tube down my leg, hook it up to a something full of blood, and when I start screaming, a guy starts pumping.
Talk about the scream. Did you practice the scream beforehand?
We did a couple of different ones where I held it together a little better, and then a few where I just f—ing lost it, screaming my ass off. And the first take that we did, there was too much pressure in the sprayer, so when I got bit it was like a Monty Python scene. And they called cut and I’m standing there and it still has pressure in it, so it’s just spraying. It was no good! But that’s the fun of it. And they had just as much fun doing it as I had experiencing it. It’s playtime – that’s gotta be the best job in the world, and they do that for nine months every year.
Tell me about Grace and Frankie. You all are in the middle of shooting season 2 now, right?
Yeah, I’m really lucky these days. I got to go hang out on Walking Dead and then Friday night I was with Lily Tomlin. She couldn’t be sweeter. My God, she’s the sweetest woman. It’s, midnight, and she’s been working her ass off all week, and she just looks at me and puts her hand on my face and says, “You’re a nice man.” That’s also a really good set. It is. It’s a master’s class. Watching them work, and it’s beyond just their work, it’s who they are — who they have been their entire careers. They’re a great model for how people in the public eye could be. They way they’ve all handled themselves and their activism, through their personal lives. I have a lot of respect for all of them. Good people.
Well, I know everyone on The Walking Dead set I spoke with said they loved having you down there, even for that brief time. Norman was telling me the other day how impressed he was with you.
He’s a great dude. They all are! That’s what makes the most successful, most popular show on TV right now — going to a group of people that could not be more deserving of it. It’s refreshing, because that’s not the common thread.
Make sure to also check out our finale Q&As with Andrew Lincoln, Robert Kirkman, and Greg Nicotero, as well as Nicotero’s exclusive storyboards. Also click on our video below to watch the cast members reveal who that they think would die first in a real zombie apocalypse. And for more ‘Walking Dead’ scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.