Thora Birch explains Gamma's shocking decision on The Walking Dead
SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s “We Are the End of the World” episode of The Walking Dead.
And then there were three. Outside of Alpha and Beta, the rest of the Whisperers plaguing our heroes on The Walking Dead are a nameless bunch. But one of the followers just found herself elevated to name-brand status after saving their leader.
Sunday’s “We Are the End of the World” episode showed the backstory of how Alpha and Beta first met. But it also showed something else. We met two sisters among the Whisperers’ ranks. One was the mother that had to abandon her baby outside the Hilltop last season once it started crying, but when the mother lost her marbles and attacked Alpha, it was her sister who chose the leader over her own family, separating the two and taking Alpha to safety while leaving her sibling to be devoured by a pack of walkers.
Alpha rewarded that decision by dubbing her savior Gamma. And while Gamma may be forced to whisper on the show, the woman who plays her, Thora Birch (of Ghost World and American Beauty fame) spoke loud and clear when we discussed her thoughts on the character, Gamma’s big decision, and what will be coming up next. (Also read our episode Q&As with showrunner Angela Kang, and Ryan Hurst, who plays Beta.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did this whole casting process go down where you ended up playing Gamma?
THORA BIRCH: I had a couple of opportunities to maybe come in and submit my wares for the show, but I just was tied up with one thing or another. But then, out of the blue, my people called me and they’re like, “You know, we got this call from casting from Walking Dead,” and they said, “You definitely want to take a look at this.” And so I did, and I had an opportunity to speak with [showrunner] Angela Kang, and she gave me a little bit of a rundown of who the character was, and where she may be going. And I was super intrigued. I quickly did all the homework, that I possibly could on the show and was super excited to jump on board.
So what was the homework you had to do?
I had to watch the show! [Laughs] I had to catch up from the very beginning, and it sucked me in right away. It’s kind of a rabbit hole situation that I dived into willingly.
What was the hook that really got you excited about playing Gamma?
Once I was caught up to speed with the Whisperers and their worldview and everything in this post-apocalyptic world, it was something that I never really have gotten to play around with. There were certain themes running throughout the season regarding PTSD, and duplicitousness, and some spy elements that intrigued me right away. Also, I love sweating my butt off, and stabbing things that are already dead. So I was super excited. I didn’t get a lot of information up front. I just kind of got the context, and a little teaser about where she would be going, and how her journey fits into the rest of the story. I was just happy to get in front of that special effects mirror and have them pour a mold over my head and make me a cast of zombie skin.
What’s it like wearing that zombie skin mask?
It’s actually a wonderful exfoliant. It’s a great way to get right into character, because there’s just no acting really required after that. You just take that deep dive, and you’re all in. I would have to say that it puts you in a perfect head space, because you’re already in the element and sweaty and miserable, just like your character. It’s been a blast, honestly.
Have you gotten any ticks or chigger bites working in the woods down there in Georgia?
So every day the daily routine is you get in the costume, you do your hair and makeup, then you go to set and somebody will come running up and they’ll have two different sets of bug spray in their hands. One will be the polite, friendly bug spray that’s nontoxic, blah, blah blah. And then the DEET, which is the opposite of the polite stuff. And I always go, “No, no, no, give me the toxicity. Load me up. Let’s go.” But it works!
We see in this episode that Gamma has a sister, but we don’t learn a whole lot about them other than that. Do you have a backstory for Gamma’s life before the apocalypse, or did Angela give you one?
We discussed it loosely, and I did actually create my own version of it in connection with her as we were kind of riffing on it. Angela is very open minded to whatever the creatives want to bring to their own character, so I created a vision in my mind of pre-apocalypse Gamma. But then later on certain things came into play where I was like, “Well, maybe mine wasn’t right, but it doesn’t even matter.” Like it all works. I just approached Gamma from the point of view that she definitely is a Whisperer and dedicated to the cause and a near sycophant of Alpha’s. However, that’s only half of her brain, and I still believe that the other half of her brain sees things the way that she once did.
So she’s constantly has this internal battle within herself of how do I interpret the things that are happening in front of me? Do I interpret them as Gamma the Whisperer, or as the more human side of her character that is still there very, very, very deep in her conscious? She always has like a lot going on, and honestly it might even come across as slightly confusing. But that’s because I think that with her particular character, and her set of experiences, as I imagine them, she still firmly believes that the Whisperer way is the way that’s going to protect her the best. And her sister as well, because I think she takes a very maternal view of her sister even though she, kind of mirrors Alpha’s tough love stance with Lydia. Gamma also has a tough love approach to her own sister.
Why then does she ultimately choose saving Alpha over her sister?
I believe that in that moment it’s very much a snap decision. And I think at that point, in her journey, I do believe that they have been with Alpha for a while, and it’s a pack group. So when it’s do or die, what are you going to do? You’re going to protect the pilot. And any other personal concern isn’t really even registering in that moment. So it happens in a very chaotic moment where all of the Whisperers could be found out by the zombies, and it just all happened so fast. I think she’s just not thinking. She’s just, like, protect the president. She’s like a secret service agent.
So is that a survival instinct to you?
It’s a mixture of survival, but also I think that there’s fear there. Gamma’s got this sycophantic quality about Alpha. But also I think that that comes out of a place of fear. Gamma knows very well what happens if you find yourself in a disagreement with Alpha. I think that that’s not something that she would really ever want to face.
How do you think Beta feels about her new position?
He doesn’t seem too happy about it, I got to say. I don’t think that that Gamma and Beta were friends before this. And I think that Alpha and Beta’s relationship is so precious to his character that any other third wheel is just… Three’s a crowds, you know?
Did you have to practice your Whisperer walk at all before filming?
It’s kind of a funny story about that. On the first day I was on set, they basically said, “Okay, Whisperer walk your way down this path and around the corner?” It was my first shot and I’m like, “Oh, okay. Yeah, cool. Totally. I’ll do that. How do I Whisperer walk?” I mean, I didn’t practice or get a class or anything, and [Ryan Hurst, who plays Beta] was there on set, and he just turns to me and he goes, “Oh, you can just do whatever.” I’m like, “Oh, okay. That’s helpful.” So, I just kind of learned a lot from the extras. Honestly, the extras taught me very well without me even having to ask any of them what to do.
What can you tell us about what is coming up with Gamma in the future here on The Walking Dead?
What I can say, for sure, is there are many Gammas. She constantly has two simultaneous thought processes running through her head at a congruent time. They often fight each other and overlap, and I don’t know if you ever actually get a real bead on the essence of who she is apart from all of it, because she’s just so entangled with a number of factors. And remorse is a thing that she ultimately has to contend with as well.
AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.