[SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s “Remember” episode of The Walking Dead.]
The walled-off community of Alexandria could prove to be a place where the characters of The Walking Dead settle down for a long time. But the woman who plays the leader of Alexandria simply can’t sit still. We were introduced to Alexandria head honcho Deanna Monroe—a gender-swapped adaptation of Douglas Monroe from the comics—Sunday night, as well as the woman who plays her, stage star Tovah Feldshuh. It has been quite a few months for Feldshuh, who had to be tracked down in the Galapagos when she got the Walking Dead gig, later watched her daughter get married, went to Maui, was invited to celebrate Hanukkah at the White House with the Obamas (“I was kind of in a state of shock. I couldn’t figure that one out. It’s not like I went to Harvard Law with these people.”), and is currently hiking up Mt. Kilimanjaro. We tracked the thrill-seeker down in Tanzania (at 2:20am local time) just a few hours before she began her trek up the mountain, and—after several connections and disconnections—got to talk about how she landed the role, her take on Deanna, and working with Andrew Lincoln on their first pivotal scene. (Also make sure to check out our interview with episode director Greg Nicotero, who reveals some deleted scenes that did not make the final cut.)
EW: So tell me about how you got the part. Did you go in to audition, and what did you think you were auditioning for when you did it?
TOVAH FELDSHUH: They got in touch with me and I did go in and read in a scene, but it was for the head of intelligence from an entirely different script. The script was so camouflaged I had no idea. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the part I was then given. But the scene they gave me was fantastic and it must have had the traits they were looking for in the character they then offered me, which was Deanna Monroe.
After you did get the part, what did showrunner Scott Gimple then tell you about the character?
That she was the head of a community and she was trying to get back to her constituency in Ohio and the army turned her back from where she was trying to go because they thought she would be killed. And they said, “You can settle here, there’s this huge development. The whole area is completely abandoned. People won’t even know you’re here and you can live in peace.” And that’s exactly what I do with my compatriots. I live in peace. And then I realize we need to build up our ranks, like any fledgling state, and our scouts observe Rick’s group and observe that even in the most dire, dire conditions they do not turn against each other. And I send Aaron to invite him to come to my compound and then interview him. And it’s this beautiful settlement that had been abandoned. I interview them, try to ascertain if they would be dangerous to us. But we do need their strength. And I offer them the gentleness of a good shower. I offer them a moment away from fear.
It’s interesting because I was just studying convergence and divergence evolution in the Nairobi National Museum and it talked about when man was in the cold, he didn’t have time to do anything but hunt. But when he found water and warmth, he could think for a minute and get some fruit off the trees. And the need to reach upward toward the firmament to get food the way a giraffe does with his long neck—that need of the Homo sapiens to do this took them from being an ape to being a man. It goes from a bent spinal cord to a straight spinal cord to an en extended spinal cord. So interesting. Likewise, I’m offering Rick and his mighty band of pirates a respite form war zones and a time to breathe and embrace other people. And we hope it works out. I love the part. I just love it.
Greg Nicotero, who directed the episode, told me you only had one day to meet everyone, and then your very first scene was that big 10-page interview scene with Andrew Lincoln. That’s quite a way to jump right in, with such a critical scene as you’re feeling his character out, while he, and we as viewers, are also being introduced to you and feeling you out as well.
They flew me in from the Galapagos. Actually, I didn’t know I got the job, and I got the job and they had to find me. I think when they negotiated the last points of the job I was in the middle of a freighter or something. I got there on a Monday and I started shooting this 10-page scene on a Tuesday. It was nutty. And the big scene right out of the gate is really what’s happening right now with this series, isn’t it? Because I just got here as Tovah, Rick just arrived as Rick, but Andy Lincoln and I just got here—so there was a lot of truth and parallelism with what was happening. Not to mention that Andy Lincoln is simply one of the best people I’ve ever met. He’s one of the kindest, most egalitarian, inclusive, loving people. The second I met him he said, “Call me night or day,” and gave me his cell number. I said, “May I call you to run lines?” and we ran lines over the phone for probably 50 minutes. And I think that’s the best scene because of what we did. It just made us relax because we mastered the words, so now we could go below the text. I was very lucky. I had a great scene partner. I was terribly impressed with him.
As you said, it’s an integration episode with Rick’s group integrating into Alexandria, but it’s that way with the cast as well because its not just you—there are a lot of new cast members coming in to work with other people that have been around a while. That’s an interesting dynamic as well in terms of how you all were probably feeling around each other on set as well.
We were, but this is not a set of suspicion. I think that Andy and Scott Gimple and Greg Nicotero laid the tracks for the vibe of The Walking Dead and it is the warmest, most optimistic loving set I think I’ve ever been on. They just are incredibly encouraging and have that quiet confidence that they’ll be able to meet the challenges that are coming toward them. They’re actually humble in those challenges.
How do you see Deanna?
Alexandria is named after the greatest city with the greatest library in the world—it was the first great library in Alexander’s empire. And Deanna is a woman of the book. She’s a woman of high intellect and a woman who is highly cultured. She’s a woman who knows how to get a grandma to babysit little children in her 30-member society. But as a great leader, she knows they need new blood. They need new blood to procreate. They need new genetic pools to get some strong blood in there. And she’s desperate for brawn, for warriors that they can trust.
Did Scott Gimple mention to you that the character you were playing in the comic was actually a man named Douglas?
I knew it was a man but I didn’t want to read the comics because I don’t want to know if she dies and when she dies. Because I just assume be on this series for years to come. I want to have a long life on this series.
Had you watched the show before you got cast, and if not, did you start to watch it after you got the part?
I never watched it before, but the minute I got the part I immediately asked for every single episode. I watched all of season 1 and all of season 2. I don’t think I’ve finished it yet. I saw the first part of season 5. I asked them to screen it for me and they were delighted. You know, I’m coming into something so I wanted to find out what the rhythms of it are, what the feel is of it, who people are, how they function, how much do I intuit of that? And I found it very helpful. Like the actor who played the Governor—oh my God! Lord, he was good! And that Hershel! What about that actor? Oh my God! I’m sad they’re not there. I’m sad they were killed off. But it opened up the space for the likes of me, so I’m also most grateful. And hope to last for a long time.
For more ‘Walking Dead’ scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.