Andrew Lincoln on His 'Walking Dead' Departure and Surprising Next Chapter for AMC

[This story contains major spoilers from episode 905, "What Comes After," of AMC's The Walking Dead.]

The story of Rick Grimes is far from over.

A week after Andrew Lincoln's beleaguered former sheriff was on death's doorstep, Rick soldiered on in the actor's final episode of AMC's The Walking Dead. Rick seemingly sacrifices his life when he blows up the very bridge he was dedicated to building, sparing his family and friends in Alexandria from a massive herd of the undead.

But Rick's story does not end there. As his family and friends watch in horror as Rick appears to die in the fiery explosion, the character winds up being thrown off the bridge alive — only to be found by Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh). Jadis, a foe-turned-friend, radios the mysterious helicopter that has appeared sporadically through the AMC zombie drama's history and Rick is whisked off — alive — to destinations unknown.

With that, The Hollywood Reporter can reveal that Lincoln's days of playing Rick Grimes will continue in three feature-length movies that will air on AMC (and possibly another outlet). Production on the first big-budget telepic will begin production in 2019, with former showrunner-turned-chief content officer Scott M. Gimple set to write the script. That allows Lincoln to spend more time with his family at home in England, while helping Gimple with his mandate to expand what AMC is calling "The Walking Dead Universe." In success, the goal is to spend two months in production on each feature — a far cry from the nine months a year Lincoln has spent in Atlanta for the decade in which he has portrayed the iconic character from creator Robert Kirkman's comics. (Rick, like his son Carl, is still alive in the source material on which the AMC show is based.) 

In the interview that follows, Lincoln — who, with Gimple, first hatched this plan as far back as season four — talks with THR about how his transition from The Walking Dead proper to the movies, how Rick was originally supposed to die in season eight and working with returning stars Jon Bernthal (Shane), Sonequa Martin-Green (Sasha) and the late Scott Wilson (Hershel).

You're leaving The Walking Dead flagship, and Rick is being spun off into three feature-length movies to air on AMC. Walk us through how all that unfolded.

It goes back quite a way. Scott and I spoke in season four — and we share a similar domestic situation in that we both have young families and we were plotting out the rough shape of the next potentially two, three and four years of our lives. We plucked a number out of the air which sounded quite reasonable: if we could make it to season eight. That coincided with my personal reasons — which, on my end, are that kids become less portable as they get older. And yet there was a part of me that thought, "I don’t think I'm done with the guy." I love this character [of Rick Grimes]; I love the world that we inhabit. So why don't we try to potentially continue this story in a different way and maybe complete his story so the mothership can continue?

At what point did Rick surviving and being spun out into this series of movies become an option?

There were many iterations of the story and it became rather late last year that this [came together] because it was a pipe dream. I said, "Wouldn't it be nice to do this." It's never been done by a cable TV channel and I didn't think it would come to much. Quite astonishingly, at the end of last year, they said, "Let's go for it." This organically grew out from last year. There were versions [of the episode] that Rick wasn't going to make it. But thankfully it went this way! (Laughs.)

Going back to the conversation you and Scott had in season four, was the original pitch for Rick Grimes to die in season eight?

Yes. There were many iterations [of Rick's endgame]. A lot of it was down to the good people at AMC, who just said no and they thought it would be an interesting and exciting proposition to expand rather than contract the show. Realistically, this decision was all about time. For me to want to do a limited number of episodes [of The Walking Dead] a year wouldn't feel like I was doing my job properly because playing this part has been so all-encompassing. I think I would get frustrated with that. So the idea of being able to contain the story and still work just as hard and tell a different story in maybe a more expansive narrative way seemed very exciting to me.

Would you have made the decision to walk away from this franchise if there wasn't a series of TV movies or another offshoot with Rick?

Yes, I think I would. It's a very hard industry and when you get the golden ticket you want to hold onto it. I totally understand that. But my situation is a bit different. It was getting harder for me to have longer absences because we couldn't move the kids as freely as we used to be able to. It's very difficult explaining to a 6-year-old boy why their father has to leave for three months. I wasn't willing to keep doing that. It's not been easy to be like, "OK, brilliant, job done, clean my hands off and off I go back to domestic life in the countryside." That's not who I am. It's been a big pull. But there is a certain sense that because I have known about the ongoing story of Rick Grimes, it has tempered that feeling of the curtain closing. It was complicated going to [San Diego] Comic-Con and telling 10,000 people that this will be my last season because I didn't want it to come out and seem disingenuous when people realized that Rick's not going [anywhere]. I didn't want it to feel like an obituary tour. I wanted people to experience it in real time, say, "What the hell?!" And then realize there's a helicopter involved. 

The last viewers see of him is on this helicopter with Jadis, who reveals that he's going to survive. Scott Gimple said that Rick is going to indeed survive and be in all three movies. What happens to him from there? What do you know about his next journey?

I know nothing! (Laughs.) There are lots of moving parts to this extraordinary franchise. But I hope we'll know more in the next couple of weeks.

You're signed on for three movies. Is that the end of Rick's story? What's next for you after that?

I'm very relieved to hear that Scott seems to think that Rick has a place in three of these stories. But you probably know more than I do at this juncture! (Laughs.)

How do you hope viewers will respond to seeing Rick flown away and that there's more to his story in another form?

I hope people will have the same response that I do. I wanted to finish telling his story in the way that we began it: with a filmic sensibility on a bigger scale and a more contained story — with an endpoint. There is something exciting about moving toward an endgame for Rick's story that appealed to me. I hope people will be relieved that he hasn't bled out — although the man must have about 28 pints of blood in him because he was bleeding for a considerable amount of that last episode! They need to genetically clone Rick because he probably has more plasma than most! (Laughs.)

One of the things Scott has spoken about is expanding The Walking Dead universe and seeing how people in different parts of the world are coping with this and exploring other themes. If there was a Walking Dead: London-type show, would you ever want to participate in that, should it shoot in your backyard?

That's not going to happen for me. I wouldn't want to tarnish what's been the most remarkable, beautiful, creative experience so far in my career.

AMC is also plotting other prequel stories and revisiting characters viewers have seen before. Would you want to see another actor step into the role of Rick Grimes for a prequel of sorts exploring his pre-apocalypse days with Lori, Carl and Shane (played on the AMC series by Sarah Wayne Callies, Chandler Riggs and Jon Bernthal)?

Why not? I think the possibilities are endless. It's an extraordinary environment and landscape, the mythology that Robert Kirkman has created, and I love that. I want to see that with Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). That's a backstory that I want to see on the mothership; I'm fascinated by it. But [this franchise] can pull people backwards and forwards. I love to see Michael Rooker [who played Merle] back on screen in a miniseries. With these kinds of shows, we are afforded the opportunity to bounce around narratively and be able to play with time.  

Your final episode featured returning fan favorites Jon Bernthal (Shane), Sonequa Martin-Green (Sasha) and Scott Wilson, the latter of whom filmed his scenes before his passing. What was filming this episode like for you? 

It was a bit of a fever dream. To have Bernthal show up with his Punisher hair straight from set felt both like so much time had passed and that no time had lapsed. We fell back into the same relationship. It was amazing to work with him, Sonequa and one of my favorite people, Scott Wilson. To have the privilege of working with him yet again was magnificent. There were three times this season that I came home and it just felt like this is why I became an actor. It reminded me of the early seasons and how much fun and how satisfying the whole journey has been.

What was the final scene you filmed?

Because I had to cut my hair and shave to play the younger version [of Rick in the] hallucination of himself in the first episode in that hospital bed, that was the very last shot I did. I'd already shot the real-time version of the bearded maniac Rick bleeding out. Then I got into bed and did the other side of the conversation in the hospital gown. It was extraordinary; I felt like I went back in time quite literally. (Laughs.)

What happened after that scene was completed?

After I had done my last shot, there were about 200 people wearing hospital gowns, which was sweet and trippy. I got a very beautiful book of all nine seasons with lovely behind-the-scenes photos — and the last one was of all of the crew dressed in hospital gowns. It was the only time I wasn't ready to leave.

This episode featured a lot of iconic imagery from the series, from the hospital and the "do not open dead inside" doors to Rick on a white horse riding down a freeway from the pilot…

[Showrunner] Angela Kang has done such a beautiful job in a short space of time to establish this new world that season nine was all about. And she formed a beautiful story about the bridge to the future and that being thwarted. And this episode — I love the idea of a man on a horse bleeding to death, being followed by 20,000 zombies. It's perfect.

It's unclear where the three Rick Grimes movies will film, meaning you may not be back on the Atlanta set in character anytime soon. How did you feel leaving the set for the final time?

Very lonely. I said goodbye to everybody, which took quite a while because there were lots of hugs being doled out and it was very sweet. There was a sense of relief because I was pleased with the way that the last two episodes played out. I turned up the music very loud, listened to Johnny Cash and drove down the I-85 back to Atlanta, Georgia, with the sun setting. It was perfect.

The show is famous for the cast gathering for "death dinners" for castmembers who have been killed off. Even though Rick is alive and heading off elsewhere, did you have any such dinner?

I was a non-death dinner because Rick was flying away. But they did roast me, which was funny. All of the women dressed up as Andrew Lincoln playing Rick Grimes: Melissa McBride (Carol) was in in stubble with a long-haired wig. Norman Reedus (Daryl) played Michonne and photos of that should never see the light of day. Josh McDermitt (Eugene) was almost naked and wearing only a diaper — playing baby Judith. It was more trippy than episode five is all I would say! It ended up with some very strange oompa loompa ceremony in which they picked me up and threw me into [exec producer] Greg Nicotero's pool while I was fully clothed. (Laughs.)

Did you keep anything from the set?

No. I like the story of when wrestlers stop wrestling, they leave their boots in the middle of the ring. You come in with nothing, you leave with nothing. I like the fact that everybody comes together and makes a pact that we're going to build something that's never existed before and then you just leave and the circus leaves town. I'm a bit of an old romantic like that.

What's next for you?

Directing, I hope. I was shadowing a month ago with a view to direct. I would love to do that. And then the next step is let's see where the helicopter lands.

Rick, in the eyes of his friends and family, dies, having taken out this bridge that he was trying to rebuild. But at the same time, he gave his life to divert thousands of walkers from Alexandria. How do you think Rick will be remembered? Viewers don't get a chance to see any of that before the time jump at the end of the hour.

When Angela pitched this season to me she consciously said Rick has been many things: He's oscillated between father, husband, cuckold, antihero and cop to being submissive to Negan and prideful. We've seen so many variations of a leader. Angela wanted him to finish as a hero and I hope that's how it's taken. 

What do you hope Rick's legacy on the flagship series is?

[The remaining characters] carry the people who have left with you; they resonate in the other characters’ lives and they carry them, as in life: you keep people's spirit and wisdom and their laughter and their courage. You hopefully try and emulate that and they inspire you. I was moved by [the next episode after Rick's exit]. I've been reading on [with scripts] and keeping an eye on that and just to see the fallout; the time jump is extraordinary but the ripple effect of Rick's [presumed] passing really informs [the show] onwards. In as much as Carl's [Chandler Riggs] death informed every decision that was being made by Rick in season nine, Rick's perceived death will absolutely change those characters. And if it doesn’t, I'm getting on a plane tomorrow and I'm gonna get to the writers room! (Laughs.)

What's Rick's last message for Team Family?

The thing I love about Rick is that he's unafraid to be disliked because of his decisions. He is willing to be the guy that puts his neck on the line to be on the hot seat and make hard decisions and deal with the consequences. It's his Achilles heel but it is also his greatest strength. [Blowing up the bridge and being willing to sacrifice his life] is a selfless act in order to save his family and extended family. They're all coming to save him in that last moment. That is a culmination of many things: it's Rick realizing that he's come full circle. He was a man who woke up looking for his family and, eventually, realized all the time that it was right in front of him. I don't know if this was intended but it was like we've been in The Wizard of Oz! That's what I said when I was filming it because Rick gets his courage from Shane, his heart from Hershel and wisdom from Sasha. And then he gets whisked off in the helicopter and maybe he lands in Oz. He doesn’t have ruby slippers but he does have some big-ass cowboy boots! Maybe if he clicks those heels, you never know.

Do you have a message for fans of the series?

I'd like to express my gratitude for their humor, passion, loyalty and ferocity, and, particularly to the people with tattoos, I am astonished by your commitment to this story. The thing that I will miss a lot is Comic-Con in San Diego and New York because that one-on-one dialogue with fans and getting that direct feedback is something that I'd never experienced in my career and that is extraordinary. For that, I thank everybody across the world, really. I said it in a mailer to the press: From Tokyo to Trinidad, everywhere I go there's people grabbing me and just saying, "Please kick Negan's ass!" This experience has been rare and unique and I know it won't be repeated. This has been the greatest roller-coaster ride of my career.

Maybe you'll be back at Comic-Con for those movies…
You never know! I'd like to think I'd get an invitation! (Laughs.)