Warning: This interview contains storyline and character spoilers for the Season 6 premiere of The Walking Dead.
Dang, we thought that dude was gonna hang around for a spell. Alas, Alexandria resident Carter didn’t get much backstory, didn’t show up until well into the episode, and didn’t even get a last name. He, and his death, are certain to have a lasting impact on Rick, however, as well as Rick’s friendship with Morgan and his already shaky relationship with the rest of the safe-zone citizenry.
Yahoo TV talked to Carter portrayer Ethan Embry — an actor we already love from movies like Vegas Vacation, That Thing You Do!, Can’t Hardly Wait, and the new horror film The Devil’s Candy — about landing a key role on one of his favorite shows, how he brought some nuance to what could have been a rote role, shooting that gruesome death scene, and whether or not there’s any chance of him returning to the TWD universe.
First of all, you are already a big fan of the show, right?
Yeah, this group of friends, we all get together every Sunday and have a potluck and watch the show. I was trying to keep [my casting] a secret from this group of friends. I went out to Atlanta and shot it, and my wife and I were joking about how great it would be … “I’m not going to tell them about it, and I’m going to be sitting there and eating the macaroni and cheese that I brought, and I just can’t wait to see the reaction in the room.”
But [TWD EP Greg Nicotero] had the plan all along to present this as a new character that you think is going to be with the family a lot longer than he manages to survive. Which I think is great, because as a fan of the show, there’s a lot of disappointment when one of your loved characters dies … It makes for good television as far as the suspense and the lead-up to it, and the scare factor. By bringing in this brand new character and building him up and making everyone think he’s going to be around for awhile, and then pulling the plug, you get the shock, the gore, and all of those great things.
How did the role come about for you?
I’ve been wanting to be on the show for a while. I auditioned for the pilot, for the role of Shane. I remember reading that pilot and being a big fan of 28 Days Later, and knowing that this show, if they got close to pulling off what was on paper, it was going to be something special, and they did. I didn’t know how close I got to it, but there was another [character] that’s on the show now that I auditioned for. I guess it was down to the wire on that one, too, so when the role of Carter came up, Greg and [showrunner] Scott [Gimple] thought of me and sent out the invitation. I was stoked — really happy.
Can you say who the other character was, the second one?
No, I wouldn’t, because it’s very different, the way they went. To me, it’s also a great example of how, no matter how great an actor does, it comes down so much to the amount of their own personality that they bring to the character. It’s totally different. You know? You could put Ethan in Daryl, you could put Ethan in Rick, but I would never be able to do what [those actors] do. It would be completely different. The [actor playing the character I auditioned for], I’d never be able to pull off what he does. It’s amazing.
In the comics and the TV show, we don’t have the benefit of much backstory on Carter. Did you imagine one for him when you got the role?
Well, he’s responsible for building the wall around Alexandria, and so what I came up with is that he’s a regular man. He’s a capable, working-class man, who probably, when he was a teenager just out of college, slung a hammer and hustled a shovel, and worked his way up to being a contractor, and made a good living actually organizing the gigs. He went from a dirty T-shirt to a blue collar. He’s a capable guy in [that] world.
But because he’s been living inside the bubble of Alexandria, he is leagues behind Michonne, and Daryl, and Rick. They’ve matured into something else, and he doesn’t realize that. That’s something that Carter doesn’t fully comprehend. But he does at the end … that’s, to me, what he is realizing. To survive in this world, you have to change, you have to let go of certain parts of humanity to be able to survive. But he’s kind of living in a bubble.
Often, with characters like Carter, the guy who dares to go up against the hero, it’s pretty black and white. The audience hates that guy, inherently. But there’s a spin on Carter. As you said, he’s been living in this bubble. Also, he’s seen some really bad things happen in this otherwise safe world, and it’s all tied into Rick’s arrival. You drew more empathy to Carter than this kind of character usually draws.
I wanted him to be, because I’m a fan of the show. One of the things as a viewer that I watched last season was, Rick is changing. He’s becoming unpredictable. It’s no fault of his own; he’s experienced a lot, and as a member of the audience, I’m sitting there wondering, “Whoa, how crazy is he going to get? Is Rick going to just lose his mind?” I wanted Carter to be the voice of the audience, in a sense. When I read the script, I saw an opportunity to sort of speak those concerns in the subtext. With, “We’re supposed to fall in line behind you,” the subtext of that is, “You’re f–king crazy.” It’s good to know that it was conveyed. That’s really good to hear.
And then there’s Carter’s ending. He’s been bitten, he’s screaming, there’s this look of just pure terror in his eyes. When Rick turns his head and stabs him in the back of the neck, do you think that’s because Carter got to him? That Rick did feel responsible for him, and just couldn’t take looking at that terror on his face?
You know, I don’t know. It’s hard for me to answer why Rick would do that, you know? But that’s interesting. Maybe because it’s such a different turn than it would have been in the pantry? Rick had shown Carter mercy, he’s already shown him mercy, and he continues to show him mercy [after he’s bitten]? At the least, it’s a combination of self-preservation and mercy. There’s not much worse than walking around as a zombie for eternity. So it’s a mercy.
Your friends who you watch the show with know you’re in the episode, but do they have any details about what’s going to happen?
No, no. They don’t know if I was in one, or I was in six [episodes]. I’ll be watching with them on Sunday night, and I hope it’s still just like another night of watching The Walking Dead with them. I hope that we all yell, “Carl!” when we usually do. Hopefully, it won’t even take them out of it at all. It’ll just be another episode with a little extra sentiment on top, you know?
Obviously, as a fan, and someone who wanted to be on the show, it’s a bummer to be killed off in your first episode. But really, could there have been a cooler way to go?
No, and as soon as I heard that it was one-and-done, I was thrilled by the idea. I get to show up; I get to do everything that I could imagine doing. Except for killing a zombie … I wish I could have killed a zombie. But I get to do everything, and then duck out while I’m on top. It’s almost like what Biden should do, you know? Stop while you’re ahead.
And Carter is memorable. We have developed empathy for him by the end of the episode. He’s probably going to continue to resonate with Rick. Morgan definitely has some feelings about what Rick did. When his fellow townspeople find out that he’s gone, they’re going to have some feelings about it.
I love it. I’m just thrilled to be a part of it. It’s always a good feeling when you’re a fan of something, and then they welcome you to join in on the fun. I never expected them to make me feel this much a part of it, to put [Carter] in the trailer … and it’s such a huge, huge [episode]. You know, I’ve been on film sets that were $100 million movies, and this was one of the largest productions I’ve ever seen. You come rolling over the mountain in Georgia, and you see all the trailers and all the tents and how big of a production it is … it’s all this huge amount of preparation, and then when you’re on set, it’s so contained. Everything is so stripped down. It’s really interesting the way they do it.
What was the most fun scene for you to film?
I would say my death. Because there were four or five hundred walkers that day, just walking around, fully made up. I got to have blood squirting out of my face … so there’s movement in it, and there’s action. There’s technicality. It was hard work, and it was a lot of fun. And we shot that the first day! That was my first day on set.
How long were you in the makeup chair for the face/death scene?
I think it was about two hours, something like that. I have this great video that’s sort of my own personal memento. I set up a camera and did the time lapse of them putting the makeup on. I’m sitting right next to one of the more detailed zombies, so you see her and me getting made up. It’s pretty great.
I know you can’t always comment on such things, but I’ll ask anyway: Is there any chance of Carter reappearing in a flashback, in a backstory episode somewhere down the road?
I know nothing of it, but if they wanted it, I would be more than happy to come back and play some more. Yeah, that, to me, would just be icing on the already fantastic cake.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.