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Cast and crew of 'The Walking Dead' geek out over upcoming season

This summer, tb-two* chatted with the cast and creators of AMC's 'The Walking Dead' at San Diego Comic Con. In honor of the show's return to the small screen, this Sunday at 9 p.m., here's what they had to say about the upcoming season. [Warning: Contains season 4 spoilers!]

Part 1: Norman & Nicotero

Producer, director and special effects artist extraordinaire Greg Nicotero and Daryl Dixon himself, Norman Reedus, discuss the challenges and changes of season 5.

Behind the scenes, what were the big challenges? What were the bars that you set for yourselves?

Greg: We set bars for the show every season — it's that same mistake you make all the time where you're convinced you can't do it and once you pull it off everyone goes 'Ah, that wasn't that hard let's just do it again.' I'm still a big fan, so it's like I want to put stuff in there that I'd want to see; I feel like being a producer on the show and a director gives me the opportunity to sort of throw gags in that haven't been done before. I always feel like there's not pressure to make it bigger and better every year, but certainly we want to because we want to challenge ourselves.

How challenging is it to really make things fresh when you're sticking close to the comics?

Greg: We're very cognizant of those iconic moments in the comics, like when the governor takes the prison, Tyreese is the one that's beheaded, not Hershel. Actually, [season 4] episode 9, which I directed, was the closest adaptation to any comic book, where you think Rick is dead and Carl's all by himself; it still feels fresh even though that moment was directly from the comic book and it still was compelling . We're always taking those great moments from the comic book and throwing a little salt and pepper in to really accent it and spice it and I think it works great. Scott [Gimple] knows the comic books so well that he can track all that. [To Norman,] Sorry I know that you're not in the comic book, but ...

Norman: Yeah I don't even read it 'cause I'm not in it.

Greg: Aww. I'll read it to you.

Norman: Okay!

What were the fresh challenges for you as far as what you were going to do with your character that you hadn't necessarily done before?

Norman: It's not like this season I'm gonna do something different, it's a gradual change from the beginning. Like if you look at Daryl in season 1, everything he said kinda came out of the side of his face, like he never wanted to look people in the face, that shows a certain kind of chip on his shoulder, a certain guilt, self-hatred. This season it's directly in front of you, his shoulders are square to you—it's a gradual change and it has to do with the circumstances you're in and the scenes and the people around you and what's happening in the story line. We're very fortunate that the writers and producers keep the show fresh for us. [But] it's not like this season we're gonna try something totally different because it wouldn't make sense; like if I went in the train car and came out like with a six-pack, with my shirt off, it wouldn't make any sense ... You know it's a gradual change and it's a group gradual change.

Is it weird to look online and see that your fans are really invested in [Daryl's relationships with Carol and Beth]?

Norman: You know I wonder how much the writers and the producers pay attention to that; I, of course, get inundated with that on an insane level, but I wonder how much the behind-the-scenes brains pay attention ...

Greg: I don't think [about] it really ... It's interesting because I get to see all the cuts and I see all the edits from the director's cut onward—I loved the scene they did in the kitchen where [Beth and Daryl] are talking and I got the sense that Daryl was starting to kinda fall in love with Beth a little bit ...

Norman: Here's how I took it doing it: I took it like if Daryl had feelings for Beth that he didn't understand; it was like a child, like 'I don't know what this means,' but it was more intimate than a coupling.

Greg: Which is what made it effective; you know when you listen to her play the piano [in that same episode], you're just standing there watching her, you feel that it's kinda like those things clicking, and like this might be the last living person I ever see. I thought that was a really great connection and a lot of it wasn't in the script; the script was not like 'Okay, so Beth and Daryl are totally gonna hook up'—it wasn't there—but when I watched the episode and I felt like 'Aw, I kind of wanted that,' which is what [Norman] brings to it and what Emily brought to it ...

Norman: I'm hoping for a threesome in this season—me and Beth and Carol, a trifecta, as you will.

Do you think Daryl's gotten closer to people in this post-apocalyptic environment than he ever would have had the world remained normal?

Norman: I think he's gotten closer to some and he's sort of discovering how that works, which is a huge step for him. I think he finally has gotten to a point where he thinks it's okay to do that and he sort of has that relationship with a few other people ... like Rick. He really loves Rick; Rick is like his brother where Merle wasn't, so he would do anything that guy asked him to do. I don't know if he's like that with everybody. I think he has different relationships, but I think he thinks it's okay to do that, to open up.

How would you characterize this season as a whole?

Norman: Pineapple.

Greg: Laughs. That's hard to say, because we're right in the middle of it. It's so weird sometimes to even think of "Oh yeah, the stuff that I'm thinking of hasn't happened yet in our story."

Norman: It's very chaotic; there's so many things going on.

Greg: It's hard to really pinpoint the one through-line ...

Part 2: Glenn & Maggie ... and Sgt. Ford

Steven Yeun and Lauren Cohan, who play the post-apocalyptic power-couple known to fans as Gleggie, and Michael Cudlitz (Abraham Ford) talk about their characters' new roles season 5.

Can you talk about the sides of your characters that you got to explore this season? Are there any new facets that you kind of got to dig into?

Lauren: With my character I definitely feel like she's stronger, I mean she's gained strength and momentum as we've gone; and I think losing her dad and going on this quest on her own to find Glenn is the first time you've kind of seen Maggie separated from two of her strong male figures and not being associated with her sister and [separated] from her family. I think it's ramped us up to this point where who's in this world right now are all potentially leaders and that's an exciting place. Every single one of us at some moment or other has something really to fight for.

Producer Scott Gimple: It's interesting as far as Maggie goes; one way or another, she always had some sort of family going on, and to see her totally solo is very defining of her character. That's who she is apart from all these people.

Maggie and Glenn were the emotional break for the show—you were inspirational in every scene you were in—is there a feeling of "Where do we go now?"

Lauren: I think that time apart has actually defined each of them in a way that's going to be really great for people to see this season—we can be partners, but it's not a co-dependence.

Steven: That was a tremendous feat for both of them to accomplish that goal and they did it. Moving forward, I think they still hold onto the fact that things can work out in spite of the terrible circumstances they find themselves in. They're holding hope, but that line between whether you're thinking foolhardy and whether it's real is often very blurred. What side do you pick, 'hope for humanity' or 'let's just go all in and destroy everything?'

Will Abraham be stepping up to a larger leadership role?

Michael: Um, I think I'll be taking on a bigger role just because I'm here more. Laughs. I think all that's yet to be seen, how the math works on that group because there are things to be changed when the group gets bigger. But he's still completely mission-oriented, that comes before everything, so if everybody's on board, let's go do this. You know he's a sergeant, he's not necessarily someone who's devising the plan from the ground up, that's why he's able to be controlled to a degree and more lead to a degree by Eugene. He's about executing the plan, there's no ego involved in what he does, so if someone wants to come up with a plan and the plan fits with what he needs to have done, we'll do that. There's nothing dictating that he has to be necessarily in charge, as long as he's doing what he has to do ... [but] he's just as happy to leave everybody behind if he has to.

Part 3: Showrunners' Secrets

Producers Scott Gimple, David Alpert and comic book creator Robert Kirkman dish on the behind-the-scenes aspects of creating the series.

How many episodes are we seeing in the season 5 trailer?

Scott: I don't want to spill because then I think like people will be able to have their checklists, but I'll say a bunch.

Can you walk us through the process of looking at what's already in the comic books and picking a story and putting the show's spin on it?

Scott: I read the comic before I watched the show, I watched the show before I worked on the show; I came at it as a fan. I was objective before—I just read it to read it—so there was stuff I [read and thought] 'Ahh, that was amazing,' so when I started working on the show it was just like taking those moments that I thought were amazing and seeing—because we had the ability to plan things out because we had this incredible road map—what we could do to even turn up those moments even more, what we could do to make those moments more and more intense to get the feeling that Robert gave me when I read that and see if we can do that for the audience times ten. It's always been like that since I started as a writer on the show, we're very lucky to have this road map and it's just looking down there and kinda putting the puzzle pieces together. It's also 'what are the other stories that we can tell that are completely different that can still serve the comic and serve that inspiration?' There's Daryl there, there's characters that are dead there that are alive in the book and that's a little bit of a butterfly effect, things will change… It's super fun; it's not just sort of doing transcription, it's working hard and coming up with brand new creative ideas to get to places in the comic book that are virtually verbatim.

Where did you want to raise the bar to this season?

Kirkman: You know, story-wise every season is a big challenge just because it's a show about escalation and evolution and how these characters are changing; you always want to top yourself, so there's a lot of work that's done analyzing what we've done before and figuring out where we're gonna go next and how we're going to make it bigger and better and cooler and fantastic. Going into season 5, to a certain extent we're kind of a well-oiled machine—we've been using the same crew, we've been using the same people, we've got great directors coming back—I feel like we're just rockin' and rollin' and we're just a great unit that's moving along at a great pace and things are going really well. As far as challenge-wise, I don't think season 5 has been daunting in any way, although we are doing some bigger things and some complicated things with the show, and that has been somewhat taxing.

David: There's been planted a lot of story lines in previous seasons; making sure we deliver on the promise of those story lines and making sure that those characters and all the work that's gone into them is sort of tied together, so that you can enjoy each individual episode but ultimately you're rewarded for close viewing and watching the show. We want to make sure it's working on multiple levels.

[The Walking Dead empire] is your baby, how much control do you have over it?

Kirkman: I have a tremendous amount of control but I don't test how far that control can go. It's not like I'm walking around going 'I want them gone!' Although, that'd be fun. It's a collaboration and I love working in the writers' room and seeing them come up with ideas that I never would have thought of is one of the great joys of working on this. I would be a giant asshole if I was sitting in the room going 'No, the comic is law and you can't change anything!' And also the show would not be as good, so you have to open yourself up to that. You know the comic's still there and it's not changing, I'm still doing what I've always been doing, I just have this other extra playground to play in and I've got a lot of great friends to play in it with, so it's quite a bit of fun. I view [the comic and the show as] very different. There are certain stories where I'll go to Scott and be like "We're not doing this the way I did before", not because I don't like what I did, but because there are times where I want to see how it goes a different way ... that's a really fun thing for me to do.

On changing from a show strictly about survival to a show about embarking on a larger mission, how do you keep that grounded?

Kirkman: Do you really want to see another season of people just surviving and fighting zombies? No, that's not what we want to do. I'm really proud of this show for the fact that it is so successful, but no one on this show at any level has ever gone 'this is working, don't change it.' We're always taking risks and taking chances and trying to move forward and do cool stuff, and yeah there are going to be episodes that are vastly different. There are times when you're watching season five and going 'What is this show?' like 'This is crazy! I cannot believe they're doing this,' but that's what we're after. That's what keeps people engaged and excited and, hopefully, keeps people watching.

Will we see more playing with narrative structure in season 5?

Robert: We're trying new things, we're trying different things. We're not necessarily going to do what we did in the last half of season 4, but we're always going to be changing things up.

David: We're blessed with an amazing cast that does really great things and we have a lot of them so sometimes it's really hard just to have an episode where everyone gets adequate time for their stories to be told, so we're playing with structure to find ways where it's not always an episode about one person or one group but some ways everyone's together everybody gets their stories told.

Robert: We're blessed as a show because a lot of television shows out there can't go to any actor on their show and let them carry an entire episode and I feel like we have this amazing cast where any one of our characters could carry an entire episode on their own and be as compelling as any other episode and that's a luxury we have to take advantage of.

Part 4: Carol and Tyreese

Melissa McBride and Chad Coleman discuss their characters' tense coupling and individual evolutions.

How has it been the last year or so, with people saying "you are the best actress on television?" What was it about last season that really pushed you to the next level?

Melissa: I think it's just the excruciating story line and great writing and her whole arc from the very first time we saw her and the irony, the dark irony, of having to put [Lizzie] down. I think that's what it is, the stakes were so high. And I think too a lot of it came from the fans knowing that character, they understood how difficult it was. It was an amazing story line and I love playing that deep, nasty, messy stuff.

David Alpert: One of the challenges is that in the first season you're introducing a lot of the characters in short order, so when you meet Carol, you get a little bit of information about who she is and you kind of think you know her as you're trying to figure out the dynamics of that group. As the show is opened up and we've gotten more room to tell these stories is actually watching the actors sort of bring their own color to the narrative and Melissa, I have to say, I think you're short-changing yourself a little bit in that I think you brought some amazing subtlety and nuance to great writing, but really brought it to life and gave that character a three-dimensionality that is really rare to see on television.

Melissa: I think that was one of the benefits of this kind of television series and the type of storytelling we're doing and taking the time and having a long-range view is that you get to really explore these characters — you have time for them to grow and to learn and make mistakes and back off and dive in.

Can you give us a sense of where Carol is when we find her?

Robert Kirkman: Well, time has not passed, so she's where she was at the end of season four ... They've just left the grove and they've just lived through what they lived through and we're picking up right where we left off.

Are we going to see a darker evolution of the relationship between Carol and Tyreese?

Chad: You find us right where we were and there's obviously no neat little bow wrapped up to this world we're living in, so it's complicated and there's give and take and push and pull. It's gonna play out at the pace that it does.

Chad, do you feel like you're living on borrowed time, because, canonically, your character should have died in season four mid-season finale?

Chad: Who isn't? Laughs. I don't look at it like that, I just love where he's coming from I love his humanity. I love the struggle he's going through and the complex nature of this guy is really fun to play, because you don't know exactly where he's gonna go, so I just take that ride where's it's gonna go.

Is there a sense that the ante has been upped this season?

Chad: Absolutely. Just straight out of the box ... amazingly intense to say the least.

Melissa: Very physical, non-stop action ... it's action-packed.

Part 5: Ringleader, Samurai, Kid

Andrew Lincoln (Rick Grimes), Danai Gurira (Michonne) and Chandler Riggs (Carl Grimes) talk about their group dynamic and personal processes.

You guys had some great scenes when you were on your own, so even though you're back together with everybody else, can we expect some more of that in season 5?

Andrew: It's a little cramped at the moment in the train car, so not quite yet. But once we get out, eh ... maybe? Sure.

In the comics, Andrea is still alive and she and Rick are in a relationship; would you two ever want your characters to go that route?

Andrew: It is always the second question we always ask! The first one is obviously 'Are we gonna die?' The second one is 'Do we get laid?'

Danai: What's great is that [Michonne's] true self is a woman who had intimate relationships, who had a child, so it's beautiful that [she has Rick and Carl], but the other stuff is just "Let's stay alive".

When did you learn Michonne's backstory and before that had you created a backstory for her?

Danai: It was something that I'd known about for a substantial while and it was great because it is kind of different from the comic book, but not entirely, so it really did make the extreme how impenetrable she was in the beginning really make sense; to be a mother, the sort of love a mother has, is so extreme and the sort of loss is so extreme, that to go to a place where you harden yourself is really justified. She didn't ever want to hurt like that again and she could not trust again, because, you know, she trusted someone to take care of her child and he let her down, so it made the hardening make more sense.

So now that we've had this breakthrough, what does it mean for your character in season 5?

Danai: The beauty is that she's with people she deeply cares about and that is the perfect place for her to start; where she was getting to in season four just before the wretchedness of the governor messing up the prison was she was getting to a place where she could really invest and commit to these people. She was out with Hershel helping him with the bodies when they got kidnapped because she was saying "I'm gonna stay here, I'm not gonna keep getting on my horse and riding out." And then it all broke apart, so the need now to really work with the group and show her commitment and be really protective and care and really be there is even stronger.

Where would you say Rick is as far as being able to wrestle with his demons?

Andrew: I think he's made peace with all of it. I think he's in a very uncomplicated place; it's just 'humanity is in me as much as brutality' and he realizes that they're both just as important, and probably why he is still here and his family is still here. I don't think he has any conflict anymore or any moral ambiguity. He's just very pragmatic, very dangerous and he's a very formidable leader as a result; it's great.

What about Carl?

Chandler: Well in season 3, you saw him put down a kid and it was super easy for him and he was like 'I do what I gotta do, whatever.' In season 4, he realizes his actions and he sees what his father did just to protect him; I think at the end of season three he was in that same mentality, but he realizes what he's doing and he's conscious of his decisions. He has the strength to do whatever he needs to do, but [now] he's conscious of it.

Where do Rick and Carl fall on the spectrum of hope vs. darkness?

Chandler: I think Carl is more open to the idea of rebuilding civilization, because not everybody in the rest of the world can be horrible people trying to murder us ...

Andrew: Yes they can.

Chandler: I mean they can, but I think that's his state of mind: there's gotta be some good people left out there.

How do you guys deal with the really harrowing material?

Danai: There are some things that I have to keep in a dark place right 'til I'm done, and there are times when once we're done with the scene I find myself quite goofy on set.

Andrew: Incredibly goofy.

Danai: A bunch of us are, really.

Andrew: Yeah we are, we mess around. It's energy, isn't it? I'm like you, if I have to do a kind of terrible, harrowing scene, it's still a release. It's still fun, because you're getting to kind of get it out there ... There's joy, because you get to kind of get it out there. I don't subscribe to the idea that if you're playing a moody psychotic lunatic that you have to be a moody psychotic lunatic to everybody on set; I think that that's a way of avoiding manners, frankly.

Danai: That's what I love about this show—everybody seems to think like that, so it's a great place to work.

How much of you is in your character?

Chandler: Well, I don't murder people. So ...

Andrew: Or do you?

Chandler: Shhhh. I think especially for me, because I grew up on this show, like really one-third of my life has been this show, for me the way Carl does things, other than pointing guns at people, [is] the way that I would do and the choices I would make. I mean we don't have a lot of input into our characters, but still the way that [I] portray it is out of me.

Andrew: Ultimately, everything comes from me. I think that Chandler just said it, you'd have to be a schizophrenic to kind of pull from somebody else ... My life experience is my life experience, it's just a matter of degrees, and then it's imagination and a little bit of magic.