AMC's The Walking Dead is entering new territory when season nine returns in October.
The zombie drama, fresh off killing Chandler Riggs' Carl Grimes — who was long considered to be the future of the series — is taking a big leap forward in its narrative while also ushering in new showrunner Angela Kang. She joined the series based on Robert Kirkman's comics in season one and was hired to be part of first showrunner Frank Darabont's writing staff. Kang has been with the series during its entire run and has penned some of its most critically adored episodes.
Kang inherits the series after working closely with all three prior showrunners (Darabont, Glen Mazzara and Scott M. Gimple, who was promoted to oversee the entire franchise for AMC). She takes over as The Walking Dead will feature the time jump from Kirkman's source material and usher the drama into new territory without Riggs and as female lead Lauren Cohan (Maggie) is poised to exit following a salary dispute with AMC. Cohan will return for a handful of episodes before moving to her ABC midseason drama Whiskey Cavalier, in which she stars opposite Scott Foley.
But perhaps the most daunting change is one that AMC — and Kang — have not yet confirmed and still decline to comment on: the pending exit of leading man Andrew Lincoln, who has portrayed beleaguered former sheriff Rick Grimes since the pilot. Sources tell THR that Lincoln will exit the series after a handful of episodes in season nine, with Norman Reedus (Daryl) poised to take over as the show's leading man. That tees up The Walking Dead to truly reinvent itself with Kang at its helm.
In her first interview since taking over as showrunner, Kang talks with THR about her approach for the series, what the show is without major comic book characters Rick, Maggie and Carl — who (spoiler alert) are all still alive and well in the comics — and season nine's larger theme.
You're the fourth showrunner overall, originally brought in under Frank Darabont. Having worked with all three of your predecessors of The Walking Dead, how does your approach compare?
I've learned so much on the job. I came up on this show. The world of The Walking Dead is so strong. It started with such a clear core vision about this world of zombies and the dead. And yet, it's not really a show about the horror. It's about these core character relationships and emotional journeys. In that way, I'm staying very true to what we've always had on the show. That said, we are opening a new chapter of the story. Scott Gimple has said season eight really closed one chapter of the show, and season nine is a new chapter. So, to come in to the showrunner role at that point is exciting. We're jumping forward in time, so we get to play with the look and the feel of the show. Both from a technical level –– we reviewed the filming style and continue to shoot on film –– but also in terms of the way the stories and the things look onscreen. And what we're seeing is a little bit different. We're seeing the world start to break down around our characters a bit more. They run into challenges, with things like the infrastructure breaking down around them and things that they used to scavenge being in much shorter supply. We get to see a world where they're not relying on unstable gas that's hard to find; they are taming horses; they're pulling wagons; they're fashioning more hand weapons so they don't have to rely on bullets as much. That's been really fun. We get to play while staying true to the principles of The Walking Dead that people love. It's a new era in terms of where our characters are at and the challenges they're facing.
You're the first woman and person of color to showrun The Walking Dead. How does that influence the creative on such a testosterone-fueled show?
What's funny is that I feel like I'm known for writing testosterone-fueled things. I don't really think about the fact that I'm a woman or a person of color because I have to run the show –– and the show is the show. Obviously, it's moving to me personally that I get to do this and there are some people for whom that's of incredible importance. It certainly would have meant a lot to me growing up — being kind of a geeky girl whose only love is entertainment — to see that there are women who do these jobs. Sometimes, as a woman on the job, people interact with you a little differently. Sometimes people open up to me in certain ways that are special, but it only helps me do the job.
As you head into this major reset, is there a larger theme for season nine?
There are several things we're dealing with story-wise. One of the major themes we've been talking about is what it means to have a civilization. What are the ways in which different communities develop different philosophies about governing and about dealing with other people? What are the things that we owe to each other as human beings? That's one of the major thematic things that we're playing with this season. It's in line with the way that [creator] Robert Kirkman structured his comic, where it goes from this one man alone to he's looking for his family, he finds his family, but actually finds this larger group –– there's this nomadic group, they wind up in a community, they finally find a community and the world opens up to them; it's like finding different little villages. Now, it's that stage of figuring out what it's like to be a larger civilization. They may face some large challenges related to that, so that's what we've really had fun playing with this season.
It's hard to talk about season nine without looking at some of the bigger changes from the source material. The major changes started last season when Chandler Riggs' Carl was killed off. This year, Lauren Cohan is leaving and on limited time and Andrew Lincoln is next, though AMC has yet to confirm the latter. I know you can't address Lincoln's future but what does The Walking Dead look like without those characters? This is a big reset.
We don't want to spoil anything. With anything that happens on the show, no matter who goes in any given season, we're always having to say goodbye to people, and it's heartbreaking for us as people, but it's always in service of the story. We just hope that people will come along on the ride with us because I'm very proud of what we're doing.
What does the show look like without core characters played by Riggs, Cohan and Lincoln?
We started telling a story at the end of last season without Carl, and since there's so many great characters on the show, different people will step up. It'll never fill the exact gap that a character leaves but there are other people whose stories will come to the forefront in great ways. With Lauren, she has said that she would like to come back to the show and we would love to have her back; we think there's more story with Maggie to tell. We already have some plans brewing that I think are pretty cool. So the world of The Walking Dead moves on with whoever we have at the moment. It's what we've always done.
How would you describe Rick's journey in season nine?
Rick opens up the season in a place where things are relatively good and peaceful for him. He made that unexpected decision to let Negan live at the end of season eight, and we'll deal with some of the aftereffects of that because it was such a momentous thing. And the trauma of losing his son Carl, even with the passage of time, is something that is still painful for him. We're going to see him try to turn that pain into something positive for everybody. Rick will face some real challenges along the way. The thing that I hope the audience will respond to is seeing how Rick's underlying goodness and leadership will shine in moments of great adversity.
Daryl [Norman Reedus], who doesn't exist in the comics, and Carol [Melissa McBride] — who is dead at this point in the source material — could be the only remaining original stars left should Lincoln leave. Do you feel a sense of freedom in not having to stick to a lot of the source material in this situation?
I love the comics. I legitimately read every issue of the comic before I knew a job possibility existed on The Walking Dead. For us, we've always taken incredible inspiration from the comics just as fans, but also as people creating the TV world of The Walking Dead –– it's a different medium, different things work onscreen than work on the comic book panels, and vice versa. We've always had to remix things, and I think that's one of the things that keeps the show exciting and fresh –– and Kirkman himself has always been, "Yeah, go ahead, change that up! I wrote that 10 years ago, I would have done that much better now." He has such a great attitude about it. I do love writing for these characters that have had different journeys than the comic book characters, or exist or don't exist from the books, so that's one of the really fun aspects of the storytelling of this. We've never been completely tethered to the events of the comic. We obviously want to tell the stories that we ourselves are so excited about, and look forward to, but we always hope to mix in what's the show's reality because it's so rich in another direction at this point.
Looking ahead, The Whisperers are the next major villain in the comics. how are you approaching that arc? Have you started casting?
I don't want to spoil what exactly is going to happen in the future. What I can say is that there will be some really fun stuff from the comics that our viewers will hopefully enjoy.
Danai Gurira is having a major career moment but didn't have much to do last season. How would you describe what's ahead for her in season nine? Given the demands on her time right now, will she have a meatier role this season –– especially given the rumors surrounding Andy?
Michonne definitely has a meaty arc this season, and it's one that unfolds in a way that I hope will be interesting to our viewers. Danai and I have been having a great time discussing her character this season. We're trying to see what other shades we can bring into this character and this role because she has depth as an actor and is such a smart actor. We're loving writing for Michonne and there's going to be some cool stuff for fans to see that will hopefully be surprising.
There's been some concern that given how her feature film career has taken off and Andy's likely departure that she could be next. Will she continue to be a series regular this season?
She's definitely a series regular this season, and then beyond that –– that is out of my realm. We just know that we have lots of story we want to tell with Michonne.
Since you love the comics and have been a longtime reader, is there a favorite moment that you have from the source material that viewers haven't seen yet? Something that could potentially happen in the future?
We've gotten to do so many cool moments. There's definitely a favorite moment that will probably happen in the future, but I don't want to talk about it! It's fun to read the comics and go, "Holy shit, that's so cool! How are we going to do that? That can't be done." And then figuring out how we actually make it happen. That's part of the really fun process of working on this show.
And you get to work with Greg Nicotero, who is a master at his craft in creating the zombies and all the prosthetics.
We had so much fun working on the zombies this year. He comes up with some super cool shit that I think you'll really dig.
Last season, the flagship and Fear the Walking Dead crossed over as part of Gimple's larger plan for the universe. Will that become an annual event?
I don't know. Scott knows more about plans than I do. I'm focused on my little corner of the universe, and I'm sure there'll be fun stuff coming. I don't even know what it is, I'm just excited that there is a universe to play with. It's a rich world, and a lot of possibilities.
Gimple mentioned wanting to do other scripted series in the Walking Dead world. Given your long relationship with Scott, have you two discussed some ideas for what those other shows could be?
He's focused on that. And there's so much to do on this show that even if I wanted to, there's no time at the moment. I know that he's got a lot of stuff in the works that I think is very cool. Without knowing that much about it, I have faith in what he's thinking.
As a superfan of this material and this world, is there one spinoff or offshoot or new program that you'd like to see? If you could do anything in this world as a stand-alone show, is there anything that you would want to do?
We joke about doing Walking Dead in space, but I don't know.
For more Walking Deadcoverage, bookmark THR.com/WalkingDead. The series returns in October; a formal premiere date (and trailer) will be announced next week at San Diego Comic-Con.