'The Walking Dead' Is TV's No. 1 Show -- Why Aren't Its Stars Famous?
This story first appeared in the Nov. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The Killing star Joel Kinnaman nabbed the title role in February's RoboCop reboot. Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul toplines March's Need for Speed and Game of Thrones' Kit Harington has several movies in the works including February's Pompeii, in which he stars. But The Walking Dead actors Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus? Not so much.
As AMC's fourth-season zombie drama continues to dominate as TV's No. 1 show among the key 18-to-49 demographic, its runaway success hasn't made stars of its largely unknown ensemble cast. Lincoln, 40, and Reedus, 44, recently signed with CAA, a signal the actors are asking the tough question: Why hasn't Walking Dead done for them what Mad Men, Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad have done for their stars?
"Maybe now that they have more significant representation, they'll have a marketing strategy to push themselves out there more," says Henry Schafer, executive vp at The Q Scores Co., which measures consumer appeal of celebrities. Schafer says requests to gauge the value of Walking Dead stars are few and far between: "If they're not being requested by our clients, it's a good indicator that they're not being used for anything beyond Walking Dead."
Gerry Philpott, president and CEO at market researcher E-Poll, agrees: "Their awareness is low." He estimates that Mad Men star Jon Hamm has twice the awareness level of Lincoln despite Walking Dead having more than double the viewership. "Jon has been on longer, he won the Golden Globe, Mad Men is an Emmy darling, and their people get featured quite a bit more," Philpott says. "Those all work together to have someone pop and stand out more."
The Walking Dead cast isn't high on bookers' lists of prime talk-show guests. Lincoln (best known for Love, Actually before being cast on the zombie drama) last year appeared on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and Late Show With David Letterman, but other promo spots have been rare, with a source noting bookers have to contend with his time in Atlanta and home in the U.K. outside of production. If castmembers appear on a magazine cover, it's almost always in character (save for Reedus' upcoming Men's Fitness cover). The same is true for endorsement deals, with Reedus having appeared in character in a Time Warner Cable ad during the Super Bowl in February.
Observers suggest Walking Dead -- whose season-four premiere Oct. 13 drew 16.1 million viewers (and an 8.3 rating in the 18-to-49 demo) and was renewed Oct. 29 for a fifth season with Scott M. Gimple returning as showrunner -- isn't being seen by as many Hollywood insiders, who have helped other cable drama stars break through. For instance, Walking Dead has yet to crack the top Emmy categories.
Its Atlanta shooting location also might be an obstacle to stardom. Series talent often sets up shop in Georgia from April through November. "The Walking Dead is quite a bit of a time strain on their schedules," says creator/executive producer Robert Kirkman. "I think we'll see some big movies from these actors in time. I really feel like it's on the cusp; we just haven't gotten there yet."
Reedus has been the biggest breakout so far, with the indie drama Sunlight Jr. with Naomi Watts set for Nov. 15. A source says the Boondock Saints alum was offered a one-day gig in George Clooney's tentpole Tomorrowland, but he had to pass because the Disney pic required him to change his hair (a no-no for Walking Dead).
Where they are stars is at Walking Dead fan events. Reedus, along with Lincoln and current and former co-stars Danai Gurira, Lauren Cohan, Steven Yeun, Melissa McBride, Chad Coleman, Laurie Holden and Sarah Wayne Callies, will appear at one Nov. 1-3 in Atlanta. Gurira starred in the Sundance indie Mother of George and has an award-winning writing career. Yeun has the indie film I Origins with Michael Pitt in the works, and young lead Chandler Riggs just booked the indie Home Invasion and has producer Jason Blum's Mercy in 2014.
Callies -- who played Lincoln's leading lady and whose character was among those killed in season three -- has fielded multiple pilot offers and opted for a theater role as her follow-up. Holden has a part in Dumb and Dumber To. Former co-star Jon Bernthal, whose character was whacked in season two, might have the most promising trajectory, reuniting with original Walking Dead showrunner Frank Darabont for TNT's upcoming Mob City and scoring roles in winter's The Wolf of Wall Street and Grudge Match. He's also filming Brad Pitt's Fury.
And if the series maintains its ratings, opportunities likely will follow. "We're really in the beginning of the cycle," says Bob Williams, CEO at Burns Entertainment, which matches celebrities with brands for endorsement deals. "Brands are typically looking for that strong face and name recognition, and that can take time."