Why did the cheeky chappie actor who melted hearts in Teachers and Love Actually decide to metamorphose into an axe-wielding, gun-slinging, all-American action hero? As zombie thriller The Walking Dead returns to our screens, RT puts in a call to find out… Where are you?
I'm in my car, listening to country music, on the way to work in South Georgia. It's absolutely beautiful, especially in fall when all the trees turn red. Fall? Don’t you mean autumn?
I know, I know. My daughter is starting to really get a twang; she's losing her “t”s – everything is getting “bet-er” instead of better. I'm having to beat it out of her. Has she seen her father in action?
She's four years old – no! I do come back from work some days and if she's still up, she goes [in high-pitched voice]: "Have you shot any zombies today, Daddy?" The way I explain it is: Daddy pretends for a living. Why a zombie drama?
I’ve done lots of different characters on stage but you guys have known me on TV and film as a romantic comedy guy. I just thought: I've been doing this for 15 years and here’s an opportunity to play an American in America, a radically different part to what I'm used to being offered. I wouldn't have been cast as this back in England even if there were a comparable part. So I jumped at the chance: I've always wanted to work in the US and I get to wear a cowboy hat, ride horses and strap on a Colt Python gun – it’s a Boy’s Own dream. [Bursts out laughing] How did you perfect your Georgia drawl?
I work with a dialect coach every week and I stay in dialect – I’m outside a coffee shop now and when I go in there, I will be in dialect. It’s a very, very weird, schizophrenic life I lead where all of the crew and cast have never heard me speak in my real accent. That is a little weird. Is it really necessary?
If you’re practising all the time it becomes second nature. I didn’t want to be thinking about my dialect; I’ve got too many zombies to worry about. The emotional stakes in this show are so high. It’s life or death all the time. The last thing I want to be doing is worrying about getting an accent right… The guy in my coffee shop asked me about it once. I think he thinks I’m a fruit loop. I probably am a fruit loop.
Have you acclimatised?
The weather is apocalyptic in Georgia. I'm convinced that's why we're doing a zombie apocalypse show because it's ridiculous; it's 100 degrees and the humidity is 80 per cent. You can’t breathe some days. All the sweat you see on TV is our own. It’s certainly slick…
I do think that the intention was to make 13 hour-long films. Three days ago we shot a sequence where there were seven cameras; I've never been on a movie set that's had that many cameras and cranes. That's why we're shooting on 16mm film. They wanted it to look like a movie, to be that high quality. The crew are marvellous: they’ve been shooting sequences in the middle of snake-infested, insect-infested forests and getting amazing, really beautiful shots. Beautiful? I beg to differ! Or perhaps you’re spared the gore if it’s CGI?
Actually, we try to do most of the zombie special effects with prosthetics and make-up because it has a better feel. I call the special effects guy, Greg Nicotero, the Willy Wonka of gore – he and his team are the best in the business. It wouldn't be the same show without those guys because always the intention Frank [Darabont, the creator] had was: I don't want a pastiche; I don't want to camp it up; I want to make a serious drama about human beings trying to survive - and it just so happens that it's a zombie apocalypse. Any nightmares?
No, fortunately. I find it hilarious because you do a very intense, emotional, family drama scene and in the next scene someone's arm gets lopped off or there's an axe in the head or someone's eating a squirrel raw. This second series feels different to the first. Why?
It’s more character-driven. The first series was more of an odyssey: it was more about finding family and a safe haven. In this series, we find a safe place so it becomes about society, starting over again and the conflicts that arise when the characters make choices about how to survive. Rick, the character I play, leads with the heart a lot more whereas [his old friend] Shane leads with the head. The question at the heart of the show is: can you survive without losing your humanity – without becoming a monster?
Were you surprised by the show’s overnight success?
It was extraordinary, especially because it was across the world – I think it’s been sold to 120, 130 countries. I had a sense that we were making something a bit different but you can never guarantee... I’ve been involved in other shows where you think you’re making something innovative, cutting-edge and ground-breaking and then nobody watches it. So we were thrilled by the success. Are Americans queuing up for your autograph now?
Not at all. Love Actually was a huge movie over here but no, not really. That’s probably why the British are so liked over here – apart from the fact we’re cheap – because we have a lot of experience yet we’re not known, and there is a bias towards the new in this country. Also, they didn’t want someone with baggage, someone that had established their name in other roles, to play such an iconic comic book character. You’ve signed up for another six years. Will you miss us?
Look, I still live in England! Certainly what clinched the deal for me was the fact that – because it’s a cable show, not a network show – it wasn’t 20 episodes per season. So it’s half a year’s commitment. The other six months I want to come home and, if I’m not too beaten up by zombies, I’d love to get involved in some theatre and film work. Perhaps an edifying period drama?
Exactly! Why not? I’d love a period drama. Series two of The Walking Dead resumes at 10pm tonight on FX