By Dalton Ross
November 04, 2018 at 11:08 PM EST
Fall TV
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SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s “What Comes After” episode of The Walking Dead.

Rick Grimes lives! Barely.

And his story will live on as well. While Andrew Lincoln has now officially moved off The Walking Dead TV series with the conclusion of Sunday’s “What Comes After” episode, the actor will return in a trilogy of Rick Grimes movies to air on AMC.

Rick’s last episode saw the former sheriff’s deputy going through a series of hallucinations as he sought to drive a herd of walkers away from his friends and family. After consulting with former faces like Shane (Jon Bernthal), Hershel (the late Scott Wilson), and Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green), Rick repeatedly “woke up” and led the zombies to his precious bridge, which he then blew up. But while it appeared Rick had blown himself up with it, he was then found by Jadis/Anne by a riverbank and loaded onto a helicopter to who knows where.

We spoke to Lincoln to get his thoughts on his final episode, and the actor shared the story of when and how the plan was hatched to move Rick’s story over into a series of films. Read through both pages of the interview to get the entire scoop. (Also make sure to read our episode & movie interviews with EP Scott M. Gimple and  showrunner Angela Kang.)

Jackson Lee Davis/AMC

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Now that people have seen it, how do you feel about your last episode of The Walking Dead?
ANDREW LINCOLN: I’m so happy. That was one of the great joys. With very little real estate, I thought [showrunner Angela Kang] covered a lot of ground in those five episodes. And then the idea of the bridge, the metaphor for the bridge. I thought that was really smart. And initially, I was kind of cautious about the callback aspects of the hallucinations, and then as soon as the guys walked up, it all made complete sense. And it was a brilliant and beautiful way to finish my tenure on the show.

I find that fascinating that you said you were cautious and maybe a little concerned about those hallucinations. Why is that?
I think because I don’t necessarily like repeating. I thought we did it so beautifully for Tyreese in his episode. I really enjoyed it. I thought it was so elegantly done when Chad. Of course, I loved the idea of Scott Wilson, Jon, and Sonequa returning. I thought as long as it earned its keep. I don’t want it to be a callback to the first episode unless it really yields something. And fortunately, it did.

And I realized halfway through, I went, “It’s The Wizard of Oz! We’re shooting The Wizard of Oz!” Hershel’s the courage, Bernthal’s the heart, and Sonequa’s the wisdom of when you have the peace. And Michonne is home. And it’s that whole thing of being whisked away into the helicopter, and spinning away in the house. I said, “We’re in The Wizard of Oz!” And everybody was like, “Oh, yeah. Maybe we are.” That’s what I’m saying anyway. It all made sense with me. But it was thrilling to be able to work with those guys again, and going back into the hospital gown in my last ever shot is wild, and kind of a weird full circle.

I loved the full circle aspect of it. I mean, just going onto that set and seeing the hospital set gave me goosebumps. And the fact that that was the last thing you shot was there in the hospital room — with Norman Reedus tickling your feet, I guess, right?
That’s exactly right. He made me look like a clown on my last day. Well, he made me look like a clown every day, so I was particularly happy that he didn’t change anything up for my last shot. It was a fitting finish, and that was, as I said before, I think the most satisfying two-and-a-half weeks leading in. Episodes 4 and 5, I just loved it, and every single day was big, and sort of grungy, and messy. Just like the way we began it. We sort of finished the way we began it really, and that was incredibly satisfying.

How about getting to work with Scott Wilson one more time before his passing? That’s so nice that you two got to share one more scene together.
Oh, incredible. He’s one of my favorite people, and one of the greatest thrills of my career, in fact, was working in his 50th year as an actor. And I’ve learned so much from him, and he’s one of the greatest men I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, and will ever have the pleasure of working with.

Jackson Lee Davis/AMC

And what was it like being back in the cop car with your original partner in crime, John Bernthal, chowing down on fast food?
It was wild. It was like no time had lapsed in an eternity. It was very strange, and then very quickly he rolled up, because I got there really early, and we just hung in our trailer. He’s my brother, man. He set the tone. He and Sarah [Wayne Callies], and Jeff DeMunn, and Frank [Darabont], and everybody set the tone for my work ethic, and I’ve learned so much from working with him, and continue to.

I came to America to work with people like Sonequa, and Scott, and Jon Bernthal. And there’s a thousand more I could name, but that’s why I fell in love with film in America because of actors of that quality and that caliber. And so, yeah, to finish in that way, to be able to witness Norman and Danai and Melissa and everybody else, what they did in that episode was remarkable, I thought. And so I walked away happy, which is a rare signal.

I remember watching you on set before the scene where you were walking through the dead bodies, and you were listening to — and singing —Annie Lennox’s “No More I Love You’s” to get yourself in the emotional right place.
Yeah, that was a difficult scene. And always in our show, it’s so heightened, particularly when you do something that isn’t even in a real place, and it’s a figment of somebody’s imagination, you have to commit to it. I would imagine it’s like doing one of those crazy ski jumps. You have to lean into the jump. It’s counterintuitive. Your body is screaming, “Don’t lean towards the slope,” and I think it’s the same with that.

It’s very difficult to imagine what is happening because there’s so much blue screen, and I said to [director Greg Nicotero] many times, “I’m worried that you’re going to put a dragon behind me! Man, don’t f— with me with this blue screen! Or there’s going to be a boulder rolling behind me.” I said, “I’m trying to do some real stuff here, but don’t put dragons behind me!” It’s fun, though. The crew were amazing. It was strange for everybody, including me, because it was a farewell, but everybody just was all there, all in. It was great.

And after you finally wrapped on the series, everyone got together, and I understand that you asked everyone to put their phones away and to keep in the moment. What was the importance of that for you in terms of really just having a moment that was just for all of you.
Well, if I talk about it, then it defeats the purpose! [Laughs] There’s a certain sense, and it’s particularly unique with this show, is that I’m constantly asking the question of what’s ours and what’s theirs? Of course, the fans are everything to the show, and it’s the reason why I’m still doing it, but I’m a bit of a romantic. You’ve got to keep a little bit as a conjuring trick. I’m a bit of a Magic Circle aficionado. You have to keep a little bit hidden, and then it makes the magic all the more real. (Interview.)

Jackson Lee Davis/AMC

When did this idea of transferring Rick’s stories over to the movies first happen? I remember you telling me that you and Scott back in season 4 said, “Well, maybe season 8 is the time to leave.” And then that became season 9. When did this idea of moving over to the movies enter the picture, or was this always part of the plan?
No, it wasn’t. And I don’t know, it could’ve been Scott, it could’ve been me, it could’ve been anybody…. I think what it was is that I’ve always wanted to film the show with more scale and more time. Just because it’s so hard to do this show, and it’s remarkable that people are being able to do an eight-day shoot and achieve what we’ve achieved. And I suppose it was borne out of the idea that I’ve always been fascinated by the bigger picture. And I never thought that they would sort of go with it, because AMC’s a company, and why would they want to do it?

And I suppose I just threw it out there to [Walking Dead chief content officer Scott Gimple].  I said, “What do you think about doing a film? A two-hour contained story, a continuation.” And he described it as where our show is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern — the grown-up show is Hamlet. And I’ve always thought: Why don’t we look at what’s happening? We get glimpses of what’s happening, or stories of what’s been happening in the rest of America, and I’ve always loved that part of the show. When we meet people, and “What happened to you? What’s been going on?”

And I suppose when I realized that I couldn’t give the time because it was time to come back to my family, I realized that I would regret doing a shortened season. Even now, it’s been very hard leaving the show, and having one eye on the show as it continues because it just doesn’t feel right. It’s not the way that I’ve done the show. So I said, “Well, what about if we did something like this?” And it was very late. It was last year, and then it came in right towards the end of the year. They just said, “Let’s do it.”

Wow, so this was really late in the process.
I’m really excited about it. It’s also creatively very scary for many reasons, but I instantly loved the idea. It’s almost akin to the movie Unforgiven. If you’ve seen the beginning: There’s a pig farm, and he falls over in the stall. He’s chasing pigs, and you go, “Wait a minute. This is a gunslinger. The most bad-ass gunslinger ever, and he’s covered in excrement.” But you know what he’s capable of because he’s Clint Eastwood. You’ve seen his other movies, and him being A Man With No Name.

I liked that as a starting point, and I thought, well, this is interesting if you’ve got an audience that knows this character, and you find him in a new place, in a new whatever that may look like, and he’s not the same guy, but you know what’s inside of him. I thought that that’s quite an interesting starting point. And it was new. It was a new idea. So, yeah, there were many reasons for wanting to do it, and I was just very excited when Angela said, “Yeah, let’s try it.”

How much have you and Scott talked about the exact story and arc of these movies coming up? I know he’s writing and working on it right now, but how much have you guys looked ahead to what it is going to be?
Well, it’s been difficult, because obviously Scott had an opportunity to talk it through with me, but that was only when I was dealing with a rebar in my chest and bleeding out profusely. [Laughs] So it wasn’t the ideal time for me to sit down and talk about the onward journey because I had to sort of try to land the mothership, as it were. And then, of course, I’m available, but Scott’s rather busy doing other things, and finishing off Fear, so we haven’t quite got together yet and had that conversation. And we’re going to have to have it soon because obviously I believe we’re going into production next year. So, no is the short version, I guess I’m saying, but I’m hoping to find out very soon.

Jackson Lee Davis/AMC

This seems like a win-win-win for you because you get to stay with this character and his journey, you get to spend more time with your family, and this also this gives you the freedom to try some other things in your career as well.
Yeah, I think it’s been an incredibly fortunate result, really, and my gosh, everybody has been so gracious. It’s been a lot of attention and a lot of focus on a TV show, and I just wasn’t able to continue in that manner, but I didn’t think that the story was finished yet. There’s something that I’ve really wanted to do, and I wanted to complete the story. It’s very difficult to want to complete something in a show that doesn’t want to be completed. That was the feeling that we’ve always had, so I didn’t want to affect that, really. And so it’s not the beginning of the end, it’s the end of the beginning, really. That’s what it feels like.

The difficulty this year is that it felt quite disingenuous being in front of people during the Rick Grimes obituary tour when the story broke that I was leaving. I knew that it wasn’t quite the end, so I didn’t want to stand there, sort of saying things that I didn’t think were…. It was a dance where I said, “This is my last year in the TV show.” I was trying to use semantics to sort of not quite rule out the potential of this happening.

Well, it was a difficult dance that you had to execute there in terms of maintaining the integrity of allowing viewers to experience the story as it happened while acknowledging the news of your departure that had already leaked. By the way, did you get to meet the new Judith [Cailey Fleming]?
I did! She came in for hair and makeup, and we had this extraordinary sort of meeting. And, you know, I’ve got Norman and JDM who keep emailing me, going, “Oh, thank God you’re gone. She’s a far better actor than you’ll ever be!” [Laughs] So I think they’re doing fine.

What was it like when you went back recently to shadow a director, and coming back to that set and seeing everyone?
It was great, man. I mean, that had to have been the hardest part. It’s the people. Like I said before, it’s always been about the people, and the rhythm of my year, and the fact that my roots are deep in Atlanta. It’s been the best part of a decade of my life there, and I’ve got some very, very close friends for life there. And many of them are on the other side of the camera. It’s been a rare thing. There are 22 people that have done the nine years with me, and 40 that are still there from season 2. So there’s been a lot of dear friends that have been through the wringer altogether, and so that’s the bit that I miss most of all is the people. It’s always about the people.

For more Walking Dead scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

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