Alpha speaks! Samantha Morton gives exclusive first Walking Dead interview
“Trail ends here.” Those were the first words uttered by The Walking Dead’s newest big bad Alpha as the closing shot of the Feb. 10 midseason premiere. And when it comes to Samantha Morton’s silence on playing the character, that ends here as well.
Morton called EW from England during a break in filming on her other TV show — Hulu’s Harlots — to give her exclusive first interview about her introduction to the world of The Walking Dead and bringing one of its most iconic comic book villains to the screen. An accomplished British actress, Morton has two Oscar nominations (for Sweet and Lowdown, and In America) to her name while also winning a Golden Globe for Longford. She also has starred in big budget hits such as Minority Report and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
While Morton’s résumé includes several British television programs (including Harlots), The Walking Dead marks her first American TV casting. It’s a job that Morton tells us caused her agents to stage covert meetings in the hopes of getting her to sign on. She also describes her first days on set, her initial hesitation over having to shave her head, wearing a zombie skin mask in that oppressive Georgia heat, and why she is not playing a villain but rather “an incredibly powerful, awe-inspiring woman, with so much courage and strength and love.” Wait, love? Read through both pages for the entire interview.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you end up landing this part on The Walking Dead? What was that whole process like?
SAMANTHA MORTON: It came out of the blue, really, but I think my amazing agents had been talking amongst themselves probably knowing that this part was coming up to be cast. So I think it was a dialogue that they were having without me knowing. And then there was this discussion with me, because I’m very particular as an actress. I’m really, really particular about what characters I play, what projects I’m involved with, and why — so they’re very careful with me.
They didn’t know how I’d feel about this genre. The initial conversation was like, “How do you feel about this genre,” before even discussing the role. They’re very, very respectful and amazing. I then shared with them my passion for George Romero, my childhood watching a lot of horror films, and what they mean to me, and it was just a bit like a marriage made in heaven. It was a dream role. A part of a lifetime. So it worked out, and I’m playing the part of a lifetime.
How much did you know about The Walking Dead, and did you have to familiarize yourself with the story?
I have to say, I didn’t know anything other than I’d seen billboards for it. I live on a farm in the middle of nowhere in England in a national park, so there’s no advertising allowed in the national park. You can’t put up posters there, but I’d seen them on the freeway and stuff like that. And I was a huge fan of Andrew Lincoln, and I knew that a lot of actors that I’d admired had gone to America to be in this show. So I knew about it, but on the farm, I didn’t have television or anything like that. I have a film projector, so I sit almost outside of society a little bit. So I hadn’t seen it, but I knew of it.
So I spoke to [showrunner Angela Kang], and she told me all about it, and then I watched some. My head was blown up. I was like, “This is just incredible.” And then I got quite nervous because I’d kind of fallen in love with it, so then you have a huge amount of responsibility on your shoulders. It’s not like you’re going off to do an independent movie where collectively you’re creating something together. This show already exists. I’m just coming on board. So then I got my nerves kicked in about, gosh, I really, really wanted to do this justice because it means so much to so many people. And even me joining the show, I’ve fallen in love with it. So I feel a huge amount of responsibility and passion.
Tell me about the process of finding the character, because I spoke to Angela a while back, and she was telling me how you had some ideas about Alpha and how some of your choices weren’t exactly the ones she had originally envisioned, but they ended up being the right choices — that you were bringing stuff to the character that she hadn’t even thought about.
I think when I read things, I see things in my head. That’s why sometimes when I’ve been offered movies in the past or TV things, I say, “No, thank you,” because I can’t see it in my head. I can’t smell it, or taste it, or visualize the person that I’m going to be playing. And with this, I very, very quickly upon reading stuff, I felt her. I felt her instincts, and obviously, a lot of those things are bound up. When you start acting a character, if it’s a movie, you have all of the content there and you know what you’re going to do from beginning, middle, to end other than when you’re in the moment on the set. I think the difference here is obviously it’s episodic so I get another episode, and I read what’s going to happen, and it builds.
So I’ve had to really adapt how I normally do things because I do a lot of movies, and then this is like, okay, if I built this character, whatever situation she’s put in, I’m going to be able to launch myself from there. So, yeah, I hope my instincts are okay. I think you can have an idea about something based on what’s happening to them or the choices they make, but until you’re there on that set with the other actors and you’re doing it, it takes on a life of its own.
Did you go back and look at the comic books at all?
Yeah, I did look at it, and that’s really out of respect and intrigue. I’ve done adaptations of novels, like Jane Eyre or all sorts of things. I’ve played Myra Hindley, who is a real person, and I had to listen to tapes of her voice. That was for the film Longford I did years ago with Tom Hooper, and I was playing a real person. I have to do the research, and I have to be as respectful as I can be. But in the past when I’ve done adaptations, I get bogged down in an inspiring way, but I’m going back to the book all the time, saying to the writers and the directors, “But look, in here, it’s this and this and this!” It can actually hinder you. It doesn’t free you up when you’re on the set.
So what I decided to do with this was obviously take in mind what the comics were saying, but then acknowledge and respect that it’s different. The source material is there, and that is like the DNA of her. I see that as the core, and then I can riff off that based on the scripts that come in.
Was there any hesitation about shaving your head?
[Laughs] Yes. A little bit. A little bit because, I think, when I was younger and I did Minority Report, I was like 22, and I felt really impish or something. I felt like this spritely thing, you know? Now I’m 41, and I have three children, and it’s like my personal Samantha identity was like, Oh, you’re going to be bald. So that was a bit of a challenge initially, but then once it was done, it’s fine. It’s quite liberating. (Continue reading article on next page.)
NEXT PAGE: Morton on why she does not see Alpha as a villain
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We saw your first big scene in the midseason premiere where you’re holding up that shotgun in your zombie skin mask. What was it like once you got on set? I know it was your first time really doing American television. You’re down in Georgia, and like you said, it’s a different experience coming into a show that has already been established, so just tell me what it was like when you first started.
SAMANTHA MORTON: Well, first of all, everybody is so welcoming and friendly. There’s some movies I do, when you’re not in it all the time, when you turn up and sometimes there’s a bit of a vibe that you’re not there all the time. This was so different. Everybody couldn’t have been more friendly and welcoming and kind, and it just felt like a family. Obviously, they’ve been there a long time, and they’ve been doing it a long time, and there’s a real kind of safety for me in that because I feel like my hope was that everybody would know what they were doing.
I did British television when I was a young person, and I learned a huge amount doing hard, hard television in the U.K., and then I went into movies, and 19, 20 years later, I’ve gone back into television, so I do have really good grounding of long hours, and it’s tough, and it’s very different than film I’ve been through, how things are shot.
However, in the U.K., sometimes I’ve found television to be a little chaotic if they haven’t got things in order, and I arrived in Georgia with everything just being like, “Oh, my gosh, this is amazing. They’ve thought of that, they’ve thought of that,” and it was seamless. And I can’t tell you how happy I am to be there, and they basically know what they’re doing. It’s like you feel like you’re in really safe hands.
What is it like wearing that zombie skin mask, especially in the Georgia heat?
I mean, I’m a bit weird, because I’m a character actress at heart, and I love all of that. Yeah, I’m a huge Chris Cunningham fan, and I’ve worked with Chris Cunningham. I did a video with him, so to me, I was so excited at the thought of wearing a mask. So excited at Alpha being this kind of bald, zen monk vibe. I was just thrilled.
And I tell you this, I did not realize how hot Georgia was! I did not know. I’ve spent time in the Philippines, I’ve spent time in Morocco. I never knew that kind of heat. That was tough, but then I think the great thing about it is that they don’t cut any corners, so there’s care and time given to make everything individual and personal and asking questions: “Does it scratch? is it comfortable? Are you able to breathe properly” They’re just so kind. So it’s all right.
Did you get any ticks or chigger bites down there in Georgia? Because that’s another problem you’ve got to deal with.
Touch wood, I’m really good. But I think the thing that I was so impressed with though is just looking at all the zombies, and that first time seeing them all, I just spent ages kind of wandering around going, “Can I talk to you? Can I look at you? Do you mind?” Because the makeup just blows my mind, and I think the care and attention to detail, even this far in. The hours that are spent on these people, making them individual zombies and they’re never the same! I just think, wow. And the fact that it’s all shot on film, and me being a bit of a traditionalist kind of starting in cinema, and there’s something so beautiful about it. So even though we’re doing something that’s really tough and not pleasant, there’s something so pure about it as well.
What is it you want to convey about this character through your performance? I mean, obviously she’s the new villain, but what is it about her that makes her unique and what are we going to learn about Alpha and the woman behind the mask, so to speak, through the course of this season?
To me, I don’t see that I’m playing a villain at all. I’m playing somebody with absolute determination and conviction in her beliefs, and in a way, almost kind of evangelical with it. And I think her opinions and her beliefs about how society should be — to her, they’re no-brainer. It doesn’t make any sense to go back to the way things were. It doesn’t make any sense, you know? The future that we have should be the way she sees it, and so I see her as an incredibly powerful, awe-inspiring woman, with so much courage and strength and love, weirdly. But it’s how she shows that love is not as we would expect anyone to.
But I’m not playing in my mind that she’s a villain. She doesn’t think she’s a villain. Just don’t mess with her. You know? You look at lots of politicians all over the world right now, and war, and how things happen, and how things can escalate, and I think she’s just incredibly strong minded. I haven’t played any scenes whereby it’s about pleasure, and I think that when you look at psychopaths, they get pleasure from their actions, whereas Alpha, it is just what this is about. She is leading an army, and she’s clever, and if somebody crosses her, then it’s different.
So what’s the most exciting thing for you about playing Alpha?
How many women get to play a badass like this? How many women get to do these parts? They just don’t exist. So you think of the comics, and what Robert Kirkman’s done in making this character, it’s a dream come true. I often look at films, some really good films in the male parts, and I go, “Oh, Dirty Harry. I’d love to play Dirty Harry,” but obviously he’s amazing, and those films are whatever, but it’s very rare that the women get to take that on. That they get that responsibility.
For more Walking Dead intel, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.