This weekend, more than 2,500 fans crowded into Milwaukee’s Riverside Theater for a pair of Q&A sessions with The Walking Dead co-executive producer and special effects guru Greg Nicotero and stars Steven Yeun (Glenn), Lauren Cohan (Maggie) and Norman Reedus (Daryl). As slobbering uberfans of the record-breaking AMC hit, my husband and I scored seats at the 10pm show amid mohawks and zombie wannabes, grandmas and middle-aged couples who might have seemed more at home at the comedy shows, concerts and author chats more common to the venue.
Plenty of audience members had clearly made liberal use of the numerous watering holes around the theater — and the multiple bars inside shilling what made Milwaukee famous. From the moment footage we’d all already seen began to air on the giant screen above the stage, the place went nuts, creating a Rocky Horror Picture Show meets rock concert vibe that lasted long after the evening’s host Kyle Ryan, managing editor of The Onion’s A.V. Club brought out the stars.
Grinning at the raucous crowd, Yeun amped up the racket even more when he exclaimed, “This is nothing like the other shows!” Wooohooo, 10pm Milwaukee! We’re louder than Cleveland, Kansas City and our 7pm brew city brethren! Drank!
Looking way more rock ‘n’ roll than farm-fresh Maggie, Cohan — sporting serious eyeliner, boots and a black biker jacket over a souvenir Pabst theater T-shirt that she’d swapped out from the hot pink number of the earlier show — got plenty of love from the gents. But it was Reedus who was clearly the fan favorite. The ladies lost their minds. The men hollered bro-isms. Reedus cuddled briefly on Nicotero’s lap, sprawled on the sofa they shared to get a better look at himself on the screen overhead, and fiddled with his microphone, his cell phone and the Pabst tall boys that audience members kept coming throughout the night. Clearly Norman wanted out to play.
The evening began with Ryan asking about the basics, including how the actors came to the show. Cohan got the call while attending a multi-day wedding blowout in Ireland. Yeun narrowly missed taking a failed ABC pilot instead. And Reedus — contemplating “a doctor show, a lawyer show, a buddy thing or this” — originally read for Merle (since there was no Daryl at that juncture) and figured he was out of luck when Michael Rooker scored the part.
I’ll take five while you contemplate Reedus as Merle — and life without Daryl and Rooker.
The audience finally silenced when the talk turned to walkers. Nicotero revealed that he keeps a book of every actor who has played a zombie, that The Walking Dead has an actual zombie school for the actors who play them and that there are three levels of makeup/prosthetics depending on the walkers’ proximity to the camera. He also discussed the genuinely fascinating complexity of building the rotting arm that Glenn ripped off a Woodbury zombie and fashioned into a nick-of-time weapon for his imperiled love. A little bit of gristle, a little bit of squish and a whole lot of bone. Yeun admitted he was duly grossed out.
As for how and where the walkers are laid out during massacre scenes — not so scientific, but no less entertaining. Nicotero said he and his crew fill condoms with fake blood, launch them into the air and lay the fallen walkers in the splatters that result.
Nicotero also said that having worked on Quentin Tarantino’s ultraviolent feature films, he doesn’t find The Walking Dead gory, but he did admit that he’s sometimes surprised at what the censors let through. An example of something that did: hapless Sean getting his nose bit clean off in Season 2′s ninth episode, “Triggerfinger.” An example of something that didn’t: He’d hoped to be able to show some “rotting boobs” on the fallen zombie on which Carol practiced a C-section in preparation for delivering Lori’s baby, Judith the Little Ass-Kicker.
And the otherwise raucous audience grew tenderhearted when Nicotero and Reedus recalled a lunchtime discussion in which young actress Madison Linz, who played Carol’s ill-fated daughter Sophia, told everyone she was sad to depart the show, but relieved that she didn’t have to come back as a zombie. Turns out she very much did, in one of the show’s most memorably heartrending episodes.
The group drew laughs as they described the different incarnations of weapons they use on the show, with Cohan and Reedus providing amusing sound effects to describe the feeble power of rubber and plastic guns and knives. Reedus compared his signature cross-bow to a Nerf gun and said the firepower is actually provided via CGI. Because of that, he said, shooting scenes in which he offs walkers with the weapon is “like a math equation.” Show the arrow, place the arrow, pretend to fire, run, retrieve the arrow, show the arrow again.
And Yeun garnered the loudest laughs of all as he and Nicotero discussed “tick checks,” a near-daily necessity for The Walking Dead cast and crew because of the time they spend in the rural Georgia woods. Yeun recounted discovering one private-space invader only after he’d stepped into the shower and, er, looked down. Deciding his uninvited guest was female because of where she chose to take up residence, Yeun said that she’d been snuggled in long enough that when he tried to remove her with a tweezer, he wound up “puppeting” himself. Added Nicotero, “I’ll never forget you telling me, ‘I found a tick-le on my pickle.’”
Unfortunately, the evening began to lose steam as Ryan’s lackluster questioning (especially given that the room was filled with rabid fans who deeply knew their Dead) improved only slightly when he read queries submitted by audience members — questions that clearly had not been separated into wheat and chaff.
Eager to return the crowd to its former frenzy, Yeun — mic in hand — jumped into the audience to take questions and was promptly confronted with the flaw in his thinking. All around him, people frantically waved their hands — but they wanted a photo and a few minutes of their hero’s time, rather than any insider secrets about the season ahead. The few folks who tried to stammer out a question mostly managed to embarrass themselves and annoy everyone else with stuff like, ”Uh, who would win in a fight, Merle or Carl?”
Returning to the stage in frustration, Yeun tried to get the show back under control, but any hope of that quickly went out the window when Reedus saw an opportunity to escape the confines of his couch and dropped into the adoring throng in his place. Ryan rejoined Yeun, Cohan and Nicotero onstage, where Yeun milled about for a few minutes begging Reedus to fer God’s sake get someone to ask something — to no avail. Finally the poor guy reminded Milwaukee that we’re AWESOME! In the hopes of flattering fans back into submission. But by that point, the people in the second tier of the theater had grown bored and irritated with the turn of events and began shrugging on their coats and heading for the exits. The lights came up and Ryan called it a night.
How people review the evening — which was produced independently of AMC involvement — likely depends upon what level of the theater they occupied, whether or not they got a photo with their favorite, and whether or not they were able to accept the outcome as amusing evidence of the show’s cable-ratings-record-breaking appeal.
For me, the rare opportunity to hear a right-there Greg Nicotero wax walker was worth the price of admission alone — and the insight gathered from the evening made watching Sunday night’s slam-bam shocker of an episode that much more entertaining. I examined each zombie’s acting skills, makeup and condom-courtesy final resting places. I imagined Maggie soothing her Governor-ravaged psyche with a nice cold Pabst. I did The Math of the Cross-bow and pictured Reedus’ face on Merle’s mama-menacing person.
And, most of all, I reminded myself that Glenn, er, Steven thinks my city and I are AWESOME! Well-behaved or not.
New episodes of The Walking Dead premiere Sunday nights at 8/9CT on AMC.
All photos: ©2013 The Riverside Theater. All rights reserved.