The Walking DeadGalleryAndrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes
Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

EW had exclusive on-set access for Andrew Lincoln’s last day on The Walking Dead. Here’s what we saw and what he said about leaving the show.

Andrew Lincoln has to keep moving. It’s June 26 and the star of one of the biggest series in cable-TV history is on the Senoia, Georgia, set of The Walking Dead for his very last day of filming as Rick Grimes. As cameras line up for a scene in which Rick will walk through a pile of bodies — many nameless to Walking Dead fans; some, not so nameless — the man who has been No. 1 on the call sheet for nine seasons paces in the corner of the room. Then he squats. Then he sits. Then he lies down. Then he’s up again. It’s a routine to which his castmates have become well accustomed: stand, pace, squat, sit, lie down, roll over, rinse, repeat.

As he works his way through the regimen, Lincoln also intermittently croons the lyrics to Annie Lennox’s “No More ‘I Love You’s’ ” playing on his iPhone earbuds. “I used to have demons in my room at night,” he bellows in a voice that probably could wake the dead. “Desire, despair, desire. Sooooooooooooo many monsters.”

Yes, so many monsters — both human and inhuman — Lincoln has battled over the course of the series, but that time is coming to an end in a few short hours, which explains the hugs from cast members like Norman Reedus (Daryl) and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Negan) that seem to punctuate every completed take. The scene finally begins filming, but Lincoln is pissed… at himself. “F—in’ c’mon!” he screams out. “F—ing bulls—, Andy! F— this! Wait a f—ing minute!”

Observers on set have seen variations of this before. Ever the perfectionist, Lincoln will do whatever it takes to get in the right frame of mind for a scene, including verbally—and sometimes physically— punishing himself right before a take. (Later that day he will literally pull down the roof of a set right on top of himself while filming.) But they haven’t seen what happens next: a quiet vulnerability as the magnitude of the moment hits the actor square in the face. “I’m scared, man,” Lincoln whimpers. “I’m nervous. F—. It’s over, man. This is it. It’s over.”

It is over. Eight years after entering Atlanta on horseback — only to watch that horse get devoured by zombies — Andrew Lincoln is finally riding off into the sunset. He has been the face (well, the human face, at least) of cable TV’s record-breaking drama, turning Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s comic book into a cultural phenomenon and the network that adapted it for television, AMC, into a major player. But it was another audience that drove the 45-year-old’s decision to leave after a handful of episodes this fall. “The plain and simple answer is that it was the right time for my family,” says Lincoln of his wife and two children back in England. “The fact of the matter is, I can shut off my heart for a good distance, and I’ve had to do it for eight years, but I have to come home. It’s a very painful decision, but it’s the right decision.”

It’s a decision that was actually first put into motion five years ago. “I had a conversation during season 4 with [Walking Dead executive producer] Scott Gimple about this,” reveals Lincoln. “We spoke about it and I said, ‘Eight sounds like a good number.’ ” That’s right, last season was originally supposed to be Lincoln’s final hurrah, but then the actor had a change of heart midway through filming it while attending Comic-Con in 2017. “Season 8 came, and I realized that rather than have the funeral, I had to prepare for the funeral, and I had to make sure everybody was comfortable with the funeral arrangements,” jokes the star. “And I don’t think I was ready for the funeral! I was like, ‘I don’t think I’m ready to go yet!’ I said to my wife, ‘I feel overwhelmed. I can’t do it!’ ” Hence, Lincoln’s return for an abbreviated run in season 9, which begins Oct. 7.

RELATED VIDEO: Andrew Lincoln regrets that his Walking Dead exit was spoiled

But what will happen in that return? While we know the series will pick up after an 18-month time jump with Rick desperately trying to keep an uneasy alliance between the unified communities and former foes the Saviors, the leader’s ultimate fate remains under wraps. How will Rick go out? And how will the show forge on without him? Lincoln remains predictably mum on that one: “There was a certain sense of, how do you exit a show that is going to continue? I thought long and hard about it, and I came up with an idea that hopefully is going to work. We’ll see how it goes.”

Regardless, Lincoln’s time on the Walking Dead set is not truly over. In fact, he is returning to Georgia in the hopes of soon calling “Action!” instead of merely performing it. “I’m going back to shadow a director,” he reveals about learning the ropes on the other side of the camera, “and my intention is to direct next year.” As for what else he’d like to do professionally after his well-earned respite, Lincoln is enjoying his free-agent status — having turned down several overtures while gravitating toward “making stories that are important and need to be out there.”

It’s the last supper. A table of treats, including a cake shaped like Rick Grimes’ iconic cowboy boots and a giant skeleton arm holding a heart with a note that reads “With Love, Your AMC Family,” sits in the middle of the Walking Dead cafeteria as cast and crew dine on chicken, salmon, and avocado mousse.

At the prompting of Reedus, the masses — who were all given Rick Grimes toy Deputy Sheriff badges to honor the occasion — launch into an ovation for their departing leader, who stands up from his table to offer a few words. “I just want to say I’ve had so much fun on this episode,” Lincoln utters with a smile as he looks around the room at the faces of actors, producers, cameramen, boom-mic operators, production assistants, and catering staff. “It’s the most fun I’ve had since the very first one. There is not enough time left on the planet to thank all of you. I love you. Thank you so much for your blood, sweat, and tears.”

The crowd goes wild. They’d like him to keep going, and he could, but sometimes it’s best to leave people wanting a bit more. So, with that, the actor sits back down. Andrew Lincoln is done.

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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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