Lauren Cohan opens up about leaving The Walking Dead — and her possible return

However, Cohan will be returning to TV soon enough on ABC's Whiskey Cavalier (premiering in 2019). And her time battling zombies may not be over. Depending on Whiskey Cavalier's future and Cohan's burgeoning film career (recently starring alongside Mark Wahlberg in Mile 22), the actress may return in some capacity for season 10, especially after being so excited at the new direction of the program under showrunner Angela Kang. (Like others, Cohan has nothing but praise for Kang and the job she's doing in keeping the show fresh.) We spoke to Cohan about her decision to move on, and the uncertainty as to whether we will ever see Maggie Rhee again on The Walking Dead.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let's start with your decision to only come back for a handful of episodes in season 9 and then leave for Whiskey Cavalier. What was at the root of that decision for you?
LAUREN COHAN: So much of it is really simple because eight years is a long time to spend in one character. Eight years is a long time to spend in the emotional mash-up that Maggie's in and that Lauren is in by virtue of osmosis. I honestly just was looking at this on a multitude of personal levels, and it just made the most sense for me to do this.

I love Maggie and I'll always love Maggie, and we had a really good time so far. And I do say so far, because the beautiful thing I get to experience right now — which I think is such a cherished thing for me in life — is to live in the not knowing, and to embrace it. And I just feel in life generally a sense of that more than I ever have on a personal level. So naturally that was going to bleed over into that, and just taking the information at hand and making a decision based upon the facts in front of me.

Were you able to remain somewhat Zen during you whole contract negotiation situation for season 9, or was that stressful?
I kind of felt in some ways surprised, to be honest with you. And I took that, how baffled I was, and thought, "Okay, well that's a sign. This is maybe just not a fit anymore." To feel like we weren't lining up in so many ways I just thought, "Okay, well, maybe that means something." But in my personal life, as well as in my career, I always end up being really appreciative of things exactly as they turned out. Because as an actor and as an artist, you're bringing your sensitivity to your job, but I need to be able to flip the switch and just look at this in a professional way. I felt like in order to be my own guardian angel I had to put on a business head to protect the personal side of me.

The greatest maturation has been depersonalizing it, and the end lesson has been knowing that that's a part of life. I have had the best part of my life on the show, and the show has given me opportunities that I think we all dream of having as an actor, and it was just time to move on. And, on a personal level, I have had the time to build deep lasting friendships with people that I will never lose. That's something I think has nudged me into this next venue of exploration, which is a new show, a new genre, and a new direction.

Your situation is so unique because usually people stay or people go on this show, but you're in this place where everyone knows you're leaving to go work on Whiskey Cavalier, but there's this hope out there that you might be back in some capacity if you can work it into your schedule. So what has that been like not really knowing the future there and if your time on this show is really up?
I can only be in charge of my intention, and people that know me know what an interesting and explorative journey this last eight months has been. I think both as being a sensitive person and being a woman I feel like we get this impulse to justify or explain our actions because they are unpopular, or to put some kind of balm on a situation or a decision. And I feel really good saying, "Let's see what happens. I don't know where it's gonna go, let's see what happens." That is me doing a good service to the show, and to my creative journey, and to myself on a personal level. That is me being honest about where I'm at, which is, you know what? I'm really in today right now. And when I'm not in today, I'm just thinking about how I can get back into today and into this moment.


How did that play into the emotions when you were finishing up on The Walking Dead set this year? Because you were kind of leaving but also maybe not leaving? So what was that whole goodbye/maybe goodbye/half goodbye experience like?
I think that we like finality, and it's almost because of how much I like finality that I'm forcing myself not to have it and I'm forcing myself not to give it, because it wouldn't be sincere. Any kind of guarantee that I could give could not be sincere to the fans, to my Walking Dead family, to myself. And I just have to believe that that's gonna lead me to a new, hopefully spiritual breakthrough in how life can be. And it was like that on set. It was, "I love you guys, I'm gonna come visit." But everyone's really supportive.

At Comic-Con as well, every fan was so excited to hear about my new endeavors and to watch the new show, and to watch my new movie [Mile 22]. I think my Walking Dead family is the same. Our crew and our cast, we've all been together through this whole process so we're just there for each other's highest and best, just like we were for Andy.

So for you was it sort of like, Okay, I'm going treat this like a season finale where you say goodbye for a while and then come back? Or did it feel more momentous to you in terms of, Wow, maybe this is it?
Andy and I did our farewell dinner at the same time. It just sort of was what it was. The facts just sit there and we will just take it for what it is, and try to take it for what it is in the moment. I know I keep talking about this "in the moment" stuff, but it's really been the theme of this year.

If Whiskey Cavalier is a big hit for ABC, is there an opportunity to juggle appearing in both of these things, especially with your film career now, or is this a decision that you'll make later as pieces fall into place?
Yeah, I just don't think it's possible for me to know that right now. The cool thing is that I don't have to. The right thing is gonna show itself to me. Here's the thing: I could say, "This is gonna happen, that's gonna happen, this is what I hope." But the truth is I can only do what's in front of me.

So have you had discussions with showrunner Angela Kang and chief content officer Scott Gimple about Maggie's future should you be able to return in some capacity in season 10?
Yeah, we have had creative story conversation about what could happen with the character, and that's all I know.

Well, it's a huge deal for you personally, it's a huge deal for your career, it's a huge deal for the character, and it's a huge deal for the show. And as you move over to Whiskey Cavalier, how important was it for you to pick something that was going to be so different? You're going to be shooting overseas in Prague, it definitely has a lighter touch, there's a lot of action but it's a different kind of action. It must feel sort of like a palate cleanser in a way.
It's funny. When Steven [Yeun] left, the loss of him being on the show and the loss of Glenn to Maggie shows up at unexpected times and places. I'm sure that that's how my absence from The Walking Dead is going to feel and going to transpire.

And when Michael Cudlitz left, his attitude excited me so much because he's been doing this for so long that he knows that there's always hellos, and there's always goodbyes, and something that my grandfather always said to me is, "Every goodbye is the start the next hello." The sad and emotional things will happen anyway. I do need to give whole space for them to happen, but I don't need to sit in my bedroom and look at photos and get sad. I don't need to seek out the grief of this transition. But I don't really know how else to say it other than I don't feel like I'm leaving, and maybe that's because it hasn't sunk in. Maybe it just hasn't sunk in yet, or maybe it's just everybody that I love is a phone call away and is in the same city as me half the time.

So Michael Cudlitz's attitude really showed me that this is all this rich journey that works in cycles and it starts to not feel like goodbye anymore. I don't know if that's the amount of time that I had with the show or that's how much Maggie and my castmates are a part of me, but I love them. I love my friends on Walking Dead and I'm closer to them than I've ever been with people I worked with. They're a second family to me, and we've been through something together that nothing will ever take away. So that's what actually makes me emotional, but it's beautiful. And I just think about all the things that put us together and that there's a time for everything to end, and it could have been next year anyway. It could have been in five years.

And I ironically got more excited about Maggie's story these episodes than I have been about Maggie's story in three or four years. And still I think it was the right decision because it feels really good for it to be so rich. I really just feel like we went on this awesome adventure for season 9, and that kind of fills me up. It also leaves her ever more interestingly open for more stories than she's ever been. It's cool because the show is so different this year, and the new characters coming on are so different, that that somehow makes that easier too.

One thing that's special about this show is that it's not really anybody's show. Andy created the petri dish, and then we all grow to this place where the story is able to be handed over. And that's a pretty special place for a television show to be, where I feel like we can confidently hand it over because it's been so hammered in. The fabric of it is so tightly woven we can hand that over and somebody else is carrying it now for a while.

Make sure to also read our account of Andrew Lincoln's last day as well as written tributes from cast-members past and present. And for more Walking Dead intel, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.