Gale Anne Hurd, Michael Cudlitz Talk Diversity on 'Walking Dead'

BY THE NUMBERS: "The Walking Dead"

7 million: Average viewers per episode; 150: Extras who showed up to audition for roles as zombies

The Walking Dead executive producer Gale Anne Hurd and star Michael Cudlitz said Thursday that the zombie drama rarely gets credit for its diverse characters.

In a panel session at the Edinburgh Television Festival, Hurd highlighted that Robert Kirkman's comic series "is an incredibly diverse comic book," but the character of Bob Stookey was white in it, while the show cast African-American actor Lawrence Gilliard Jr. (The character was subsequently killed off.)

“We opened up our casting, unless there is someone who is literally so identifiable from the comic book," she explained. "We were not going cast a white Ezekiel.” But when a character like Bob dies, Hurd said the team behind the show tends to hear complaints, such as "Well, they kill off all the black characters.” 

Cudlitz added: ”I find it interesting that the media at times tries to put wedges where they aren’t, but don’t acknowledge the things that are being done. We have probably the strongest female cast of any show out there, let alone ethnic diversity within that. … But nobody addresses it. We have at this point, I think, five relationships — none of them are traditional — one gay relationship, three interracial relationships — never mentioned.”

The actor said that media should embrace that. He also said that the team behind the show likes to not make race a big topic. “We never address race on the show at all," he suggested. When it was interjected that this was true “except in the case of [racist character] Merle," Cudlitz added to laughter from the audience about Michael Rooker's former fan favorite role. “Except for that whole thing — but we killed him.”

Of course, Hurd was asked how much longer the show could continue. “The graphic novels are still quite a ways ahead of us," she replied of the ongoing source material. "At this point, Robert [Kirkman] has no intention of ending his creation of the underlying source material. … As long, at this point, as fans keep wanting the show, we hope to continue to make it.”

Hurd wouldn't detail how the opening scene of season seven would look after the finale cliffhanger that left the future of one of 11 series regulars in jeopardy, but reiterated that Negan's (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) actions at the end of season six would reverberate. "This new season, Negan is the game changer," she said.

Also participating in the panel were Alexandra Marinescu, senior vp marketing at Fox, whose international networks arm airs the show in the U.K., and Jason Simms, senior vp global acquisitions at Fox Networks Group, Europe & Africa.

Simms said the series became available in international markets when Fox was just looking for "a show for our networks around the world." He quipped about how "we were looking for a safe CSI-style crime procedural," but then changed the plan when a colleague turned the team on to The Walking Dead.

Marinescu was asked about marketing the drama worldwide in cooperation with AMC in the U.S. She lauded the collaboration as smooth and effective, but acknowledged that at first, there was some concern. "I think we all had a bit of trepidation," she said. "Zombies, especially in primetime, weren’t as obvious a choice [back then] as now."

Cudlitz lauded the writing and overall creative team of the show. "They are very kind to me," he said about the writers. He quipped that it was great to read scripts and think, “Ah, I get to say that? Awesome!"

Discussing technical details, Hurd mentioned that, "We still shoot on film," namely Super 16.

She also touched on differences between working in film and TV. "I have to say, having been in features for many years, people in television are smarter," Hurd said to some laughs. “Television is so much harder than film,” she added, pointing out that in the two and a half years it takes to make a film, the show shoots 40 episodes. And she shared that input for the creative has only been smart. “We’ve never gotten stupid notes," she said.

The Walking Dead will return to AMC in the U.S. with season seven in October. The show's U.S. ratings were lower in the latest season. Despite that, advertising rates for it have increased, and there is "more pricing upside," AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan said in May.