All of the characters on The Walking Dead have gone through transformations but perhaps none as remarkable as that of Carol Peletier. “This was completely unexpected, how she’s evolved into such an integral part of the group, making decisions and fending for herself when you compare that to where we started with her,” muses Melissa McBride, the actress who has played Carol since the show began in 2010.
Remember the Carol we met in season one? She lived in fear of an abusive husband and didn’t seem like someone who would have the strength to survive the zombie apocalypse.
But look at her now. This is a woman who at the start of season five—and without a second thought—covered herself in zombie blood and body parts so she could infiltrate Terminus and save Rick, Daryl and the rest of her friends from becoming food for the cannibals.
Carol has become a warrior, and McBride has deftly portrayed the character through every stage of her evolution.
Before she landed the career-defining role, McBride had been acting for nearly 20 years, appearing on television shows ranging from Matlock to Walker, Texas Ranger to Dawson’s Creek in guest-starring gigs. In the 2000s, she also worked as a casting director in Atlanta.
With the second half of season five of The Walking Dead starting on AMC February 8, McBride talks to Co.Create about how she sees Carol, what it’s like to work with co-stars Chad Coleman and Norman Reedus and her creative interests outside of acting.
Co.Create: Carol is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever seen on television. Do you just love going to work and diving into her story?
McBride: I do. I like the unknown. So going to work is kind of like facing the unknown and getting really excited about what’s coming and what’s coming for her.
I understand that when you were first cast you didn’t expect to be on the show for long.
Well, I assumed that it wouldn’t be long because I was working in a different department of the industry at the time. [As noted above, McBride was working as a casting director in Atlanta.] Also, it was a pilot series–instead of doing an hour-long pilot, they were doing a six-episode pilot. It was something that they hoped would get picked up, but they didn’t know.
When I got the call that this was shooting in Atlanta, which is where I am from, I swung by Barnes & Noble to look at this comic book. I hadn’t heard of it before. When I looked at the book my mouth just fell open, and I was like, “Whoa. Whoa. What?”
I fell in love with it. I purchased a couple of them that day. I fell in love with the look of it, the story, the people. That whole graphic novel is a world of its own.
Carol’s story as seen on the show is quite different than it is in the graphic novel.
Yes, it is. She meets an early demise in the graphic novel, which is another reason why I thought this wouldn’t last that long.
But the writers keep coming up with amazing things for her and all the characters. I think we’re all thrilled to be there every day doing this. It’s a great challenge, the medium of episodic television. I’m learning as I go along. It’s like shooting mini movies every week. The production quality is so awesome.
At some point earlier in your run on the show when they realized what they had with your character, did the producers sit down with you and talk about long-term plans for Carol?
No. Nobody really sat me down and talked about this character very much. The first time I really got to talk about her from my point of view was when I was told that they were going to kill her. The showrunner at the time was Glen Mazzara, and he called me and let me know that she would be going in the third or fourth episode. I was okay with it, but I was sad. Then I got to talk to the writers.
When did this happen?
It was right before we were going into production for season three.
It’s so hard to imagine The Walking Dead without Carol. Then again, this is a show where everyone is in peril all the time.
I really love this character so much, and I have people in my life who are or have been in the same situation [she was in] when we first met Carol. Some have really just stood up for themselves in the most beautiful ways, and others did not fare so well and still fight to figure it out for themselves.
I was really rooting for her to be able to go the distance before I got that call. I knew she was different than the comic book Carol. By that time, I knew she was different. I wanted to see her live long enough to find that strength. So that’s kind of what my conversation was about when I was given the call with the writers.
Do you think expressing your thoughts about Carol and how she could grow made the writers realize they could do more with her character?
Honestly, I don’t know. I really don’t know. It was so wonderful to be able to talk about her, especially at the time when I thought she was going to be going away. I did want them to know what I thought about her. I felt so quiet the whole time. I was happy to talk about her. It made me happy. I was giving a voice to my friend Carol. I wanted her heard before I left. I guess that’s kind of how I felt.
I am so glad she didn’t get killed off at that point. We would have missed out on so much. Carol is such an interesting character–a person who finds the strength she needs to deal with her circumstances. We don’t always see people like her on television. I like that she is not an untouchable superhero but a complicated human hero that anyone has the chance to be.
That is the way I see her. That’s the way I play her. Some people say she’s so badass this season. It kind of makes me giggle inside because I don’t see her as badass. I see her as Carol, someone who has let her courage come to the surface. She’s doing what she has to do, like she’s always done. She’s surviving, and she does badass things.
That’s a good way to put it.
I’m so endeared by her for that reason. To me, it is just Carol trying to do what she’s got to do to survive and keep her clan alive.
You’ve played some intense and even shocking scenes. Just last season, Carol had to shoot Lizzie who had killed her little sister so she could see her turn into a zombie. How do you prepare for a scene like that? Do you need to do anything special to get yourself into the right frame of mind?
I really don’t. I think if anything, I have to just sort of walk away from noise or turn my back to the noise. I really don’t do anything in particular except get into thinking, where is Carol right now? I work more from the life of the character rather than pulling in my stuff. I have dialogue with my character, then it’s all just very quick. It’s not some long, involved thing. It’s just making a way for her, allowing her to express herself. I say to myself, I’m going to get out of the way now.
You are part of an ensemble, and you have a great onscreen chemistry with everyone from Chad Coleman [who plays Tyreese] to Norman Reedus [Daryl]. How do you work with your fellow actors? Is everyone big on rehearsing?
I think it’s a little different for everyone and also for different directors that come in. Some of the directors really like rehearsal, and they’ll require some rehearsal time.
For the actors, everybody is a little different. Some actors that are in scenes a lot together will rehearse together. Some just like to show up and see what happens and then talk about it, talk about the little things that popped up.
Working with Chad Coleman is a very different process than working with Norman. Chad and I discuss things a lot, and we really dig around and philosophize and psychologize, and it is fun.
Norman is altogether different, and he’s also a very physical actor, and the spontaneity of working with Norman is also very, very exciting. Something that I like about working with a group like this is just seeing how everyone works differently.
Aside from presenting the actors with challenging material to play, it looks like working on The Walking Dead has physical demands that you wouldn’t face if you were in a studio in Los Angeles shooting a sitcom.
Oh, certainly. We’re outside in the sweltering heat of Georgia with the bugs. I think we’re all pretty used to this by now, but I can tell you all of us are taking a beating from the sun.
You must constantly apply sunblock.
Lots of sunscreen–I have freckles popping out nowadays that I haven’t seen since I was in my twenties.
You can see that sometimes you’re all sweating buckets. It’s a tough environment to shoot in for long periods of time.
It is, but it’s also great because it just sort of feeds in and plays into the uncomfortable-ness and tortuousness of the apocalypse.
There was a scene in the first half of this season in which Carol and Daryl are sitting in a van teetering over the edge of a bridge. Obviously, you weren’t sitting inside it when it fell over and crashed to the ground, but were you in the van when it was hanging over the edge?
We were right in there doing that, and it literally was teetering over the edge of a bridge, probably 35, 40 feet up. That was pretty frightening. They had to jostle it so that it did look like it was about to go over. We had these walkers beating on it and making it shake. But just being suspended up there like that was pretty frightening, and we were kind of nose down, but we have such a great crew that doing things like that, as frightening as it was, you still know you’re going to be okay because they take such good care, and they’re so excellent at what they do.
While we know you as an actor, do you have creative interests that you pursue outside of acting?
I do. I love photography. I love painting. I love making hats. I love thinking. I just like kind of sitting, just roaming around in my brain. I also like observing people. That’s something I’ve always loved to do, although it’s a little harder to find places to go to just kind of watch people. Yeah, psychology is something I’m very interested in. I love watching documentaries.
You live near Atlanta, and I wonder if living outside of Los Angeles and New York City, the entertainment meccas, serves you well as a creative person. Being where you are, you don’t have as many distractions as some actors have–pressure to be seen at events and all that.
Well, for me, I don’t get out much. Just thinking about some of those things makes me panicky because that sort of attention was certainly never the intent or the push for me, personally. That’s the irony for somebody like me who doesn’t particularly like attention and likes to be, like I said, the observer. I like to go places where I can just sort of blend in and just watch things.
So this is really new to me. I’m adapting. There are requirements, obviously. I’m trying to become more comfortable with those things. I don’t know. I think you have to ask somebody who would know the difference, who does all those things and then comes to a place like the south of Atlanta where it’s quiet, and there are horse farms and that kind of thing.
When I was researching you, I realized you don’t do a lot of interviews.
I think you’re refreshing to interview because you don’t do a lot of interviews.
I don’t know. I just want to keep it real.
Can you tell me more about your background? I read you grew up in Kentucky. How did you get into acting? Obviously, you weren’t someone driven by a need to be famous.
I wanted to be an archeologist of the mind. I like digging in there. Actually, I grew up in North Carolina. I was born in Kentucky and grew up in North Carolina and came to Atlanta. I wanted to design clothes, but I took drama in high school, and it was more a how-to-do theater kind of thing. It wasn’t so much acting stuff like I had hoped it would have been because I’m intrigued by actors and what I thought it was that they do. When I came to Atlanta, and I was out of the school that I’d gone to for fashion design, I signed up for an acting workshop that was a little more about playing the characters and really getting out of yourself, which I loved. I loved doing that.
There is also this part of me that’s absolutely fascinated by what actors do in order to be visible while being invisible or be invisible while being visible. It’s a great paradox of being an actor–to be seen and unseen at the same time, and I like those paradoxes. I’m enjoying the exploration of all of this.
That was also a great interest when I was casting. I like working with actors, too.
You have had the unique experience of working as both an actor and also as a casting director. Has one informed the other? I assume as a casting director, you were in tune with what the actors were going through.
Yeah. I felt like I knew how to talk to an actor. I could empathize because I’d done it, too. I love to help people. I love seeing people feeling good about what they’re doing. My mother had a prayer for me about reaching the success of your highest potential, whatever it is, and I think that way about people, and it meant a lot to me at the time I went into casting. I was like, I will be that kind of casting director that I maybe didn’t always encounter.