steely nerves, weapons training
remarkable character she created for 'The Walking Dead'
Melissa McBride, who plays Carol Peletier on "The Walking Dead," spoke with me by phone a couple of times in September from Georgia, where she was working on Season 6 of the most popular show in cable history.
That she is still in the cast after all, she was originally supposed to be killed off in Season 3, in the episode "The Killer Within" helps to illustrate what makes the show work so well.
"I knew before the season started filming," McBride said. "In Episode 4, my character would be dying. And I was given an opportunity to speak with the writers, which was wonderful.
"I had a lot to say about Carol. I thought she was a really interesting character, and she meant a lot to me. I know women like her, wanted her to have a voice. It was really nice to be able to talk about her ...
"Then, as we were getting closer to shooting, I got a call from (writer) Glen Mazzara. He said, 'I'm writing. I just can't do it."
Can't kill Carol, that is.
"I don't know if it had anything to do with her surviving," said McBride, "but for me it was just nice to get a chance to talk with the writers about her."
What makes "The Walking Dead," which opens its sixth season on Sunday night, so great is the amazing confluence of great writing, great directing and excellent acting.
And a willingness to change the show on the run, for the sake of making it better.
For instance, the backwoods hunter Daryl Dixon was created by the show's writers specifically for Norman Reedus, because they'd liked him in his audition to play Daryl's brother, Merle (Michael Rooker got that job). When Daryl proved his worth as an occasional character, the show upgraded him to a regular, and now he is hugely popular with the show's millions of fans.
Carol's character arc, as created by the writers, directors and the very talented and smart McBride, has been one of the most dramatic and most moving to watch over the years. And most beloved by, again, millions of fans.
In the first season, Carol was a mouse, a flower on the wallpaper, the beaten-down wife of Ed, an abusive, selfish creep.
Nobody in the audience, I think, was upset when Ed was eaten by zombies. (Poor Adam Minarovich, who played Ed; he only got four episodes in.)
When Carol's daughter Sophie (played by Madison Lintz) wanders off, McBride brought her best puppy eyes to the role, as Carol's kind of passive-aggressively guilted the little traveling troupe into continuing to search for Sophia, well past the time that hope was reasonable.
When Sophia is found as a zombie, and Carol freaks out while everyone else is stunned into paralysis, Rick Grimes (the excellent Andrew Lincoln) steps up as the leader and shoots the child in the head. It's a powerful scene.
And as the years of the zombie apocalypse wear on, Carol does not fold up and die, but instead becomes the group's bad-ass rock and saviour, doing whatever needs to be done to keep the new family the traveling companions led by Rick alive.
Not that everybody would agree her actions have always been defensible. There's the little matter, in Season 4, of her killing two sick people who might have survived, and burning their bodies. One of the dead bodies is that of Karen (Melissa Ponzio), beloved of Tyreese Williams (wonderfully played by Chad L. Coleman).
But nobody knows she was the killer, except for Sheriff Rick, who quietly but powerfully sends her into exile.
Meanwhile, the group's safe refuge is overrun, and Carol comes across four of the survivors two children, an infant, and Tyreese.
Carol had already taught the two girls how to handle weapons the knife must enter the cranium of the moldy oldie, rotting zombie and when one of the girls decides it is a good thing when people become zombies, she stabs her little sister to death, but does not put the blade in the cranium. She wants to be able to play with her sister when she "returns."
The little girl is Lizzie, played by the extremely beautiful and outrageously talented Brighton Sharbino, and Tyreese and Carol realize she can't be allowed to live in this already overwhelmingly dangerous world.
It is up to Carol to execute this psychotic child, and when she does, the phrase "Look at the flowers, Lizzie. Just look at the flowers" enters the all-time list of stunning screen phrases.
That episode, "The Grove," is one of the finest hours well, what? 40 minutes, given all the commercials? of television drama I've ever seen.
Let me pause here to point out that the above mentioned story line is dripping with drama, suspense and irony.
Also, let me mention that while Carol gets it done, she always seems motivated by love of her new family, this traveling group of survivors.
Slightly later in the series, after Rick and his group have been captured and are about to be killed and eaten by cannibals, Carol still an exile, saves them by shooting the valve on a tank of propane with a sniper rifle, then blows it up using a stolen flare. Then she covers herself in zombie guts, and proceeds to pretty much save everybody.
So, knowing what a badass, kickass action hero she is, it is hilarious, in Season 5, when she shows up at a sanctuary filled with the soft and the clueless, and pretends to be so grateful when she doesn't have to carry that nasty old gun anymore. And bakes cookies.
And later, when she is caught stealing guns by a little boy, Sam, the speech she gives him, telling him what will happen to him if he ever tells anyone about it, is amazing.
I don't know if Major Dodson, the young actor who plays Sam, wet his pants while McBride was giving that speech, but I did, while watching it.
Great writing, great acting, great directing, meaningful scripts. That's why the show works.
"It's kind of a dream," McBride says about working on the show. "The writers, the different directors, from an actor's standpoint it is wonderful to have all these experiences.
"It's interesting to see how they work, the myriad of different nuances. ...
"I have a lot of faith in the writers ... unless something seems kind of out of the weird to me ... I'm pretty quiet. I love what they give me, and I shuffle things around in my head, in Carol's head.
"They inspire me, and perhaps my performance inspires them, and somewhere in the middle, there is Carol."
I'd vaguely remembered reading somewhere that McBride is part of a theater company somewhere, but nooooo. No live stage for her, thank you. Not since high school, anyway.
"I did a couple of school plays in junior high school," she said. "It's funny I have stage fright."
To her, she said, "It's less about the acting than the entire process, the coming together of a cohesive unit, about creating something. I have a great interest in acting in a psychological characteristic, where an actor goes in her own mind to become a character, to be fully yourself and not feel silly about it. I am fascinated by the whole process."
But, filming a TV series is one thing; getting up on a stage is another.
"The panels at conventions, I get heat palpitations on stage in front of an audience. I just kind of have to fight the palpitations, the nervousness."
Still, "I think I would like to do a play, to see how it would feel. ...
"When I do these conventions, it's really nice to meet the fans, one on one. To get to speak with them for a couple of minutes. It's nice, they tell me why Carol inspires them."
Lots of women who have longed to learn to roar, to be strong, really like Carol Peletier, who'd been an abused wife, then came to know her power.
"I do hear from people who share Carol's story," McBride said. "For one thing, people in abusive relationships or out of different levels of relating to Carol."
But, Carol, if anything, is a survivor, as she's proven again and again, and McBride enjoys it.
"Fun with weaponry," she said. "Getting to play with something new, something a little less emotional and more entertaining.
Her own story, McBride said, is a little like Carol's.
"She and I were both thrust into a very different kind of world. My work on 'The Walking Dead,' I never expected it to be a long-running situation, kind of life-changing. And Carol, going into it from one world to the other, and making strides along the way, the adaptability. That is inspiring to some people, to see her come up."
Email John Orr at firstname.lastname@example.org