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It’s the end of the line for Rick Grimes — almost, anyway.
The Walking Dead hero still has at least some undisclosed portion of season nine in his future before riding off forever. But Andrew Lincoln, the actor who has played the iconic zombie-killing protagonist since the AMC drama’s debut so many years ago, has already finished filming his work on the season, leading to an emotional farewell to the fans gathered at New York Comic Con.
“Don’t make me cry, guys,” said Lincoln, speaking in front of a packed crowd of hundreds at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, all of them standing and chanting his name. “We have an hour!”
The vast group of panelists appeared on stage wearing replicas of Rick’s iconic hat, including executive producers Angela Kang, Scott M. Gimple, Robert Kirkman, Dave Alpert, Gale Anne Hurd and Greg Nicotero, as well as castmembers Norman Reedus, Melissa McBride, Danai Gurira and Jeffrey Dean Morgan.
The panel was mostly focused on Lincoln’s upcoming departure, but there was also some news about the show’s future. Kang confirmed Jon Bernthal would be reprising his role as Shane later this season, as well as Scott Wilson as Hershel and Sonequa Martin-Green as Sasha. The context of their comebacks remains unknown. (An hour after the announcement, news broke that Wilson died following a battle with cancer. Sources confirm Wilson had already filmed his appearance in season nine.)
Outside of the show, Kirkman confirmed exciting news for fans of Telltale Games’ Walking Dead video game series. The creator said Skybound struck a deal with the shuttered Telltale to complete the series. As Kirkman put it: “We can’t lose Andrew Lincoln and Clementine in the same year.”
Beyond those items, the panel was all but fully devoted to Lincoln’s last goodbye. His farewell to the fans comes months after he confirmed his Walking Dead exit onstage at Comic-Con in San Diego over the summer, an emotional event in its own right. His latest goodbye — likely his final public appearance before whatever fate awaits Rick reveals itself — came just one night before the Oct. 7 season nine premiere, “A New Beginning.”
“We’ve known for a while this was coming,” said Kang. “We all love Andy so much. Scott and I started with discussions about what the season might have. We ran with it in the writers’ room. What has Rick’s journey meant to him, on the show, as well as an emotional story for the fans? That’s the responsibility we felt in coming up with the story this season.”
Gimple said the plan to write out Rick had existed for years, though the path to get there was not always certain: “We followed the story threads that were laid out. We were able to fulfill it this season. There was a plan. There were little turns here and there, but we generally stayed to the plan.”
Kirkman, who created the Walking Dead comics and is well known for his sarcasm and levity, got surprisingly emotional when remembering his first time laying eyes upon Lincoln as Rick, which was during a scene he shot opposite Steven Yeun as Glenn.
“It’s never really gone away,” Kirkman said of the surreality of watching Lincoln bring Rick to life. “Seeing everything Andrew has done as Rick Grimes and what he’s put him through on set… there were days on set where I couldn’t talk to him because he was doing push-ups and punching walls. The amount of work that he put into this role … it always made me feel like I haven’t worked hard enough on the comics.”
As the head of makeup and effects, not to mention one of the show’s most prolific directors, Nicotero weighed in on what it was like to direct Lincoln across the years. Given the opportunity, he praised the actor’s intensity, recalling scenes such as Rick losing Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), his first emotional battle against Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and more.
“When he’s in that zone, don’t go near him,” said Nicotero. “If you put your hand near the maw, you’ll get bit. He’s intense. He’s super intense.”
Lincoln said he first realized the gravity of his role as Rick Grimes two weeks into filming the pilot, which was reinforced further when he attended his first Comic-Con. He heard the crowd gathered for the first panel, and their reactions vindicated his nerves: “That was one of the biggest thrills.”
Describing the Georgia-based crew as “superheroes,” Lincoln said the interaction with fans was the biggest motivator over the years. “I’m always nervous,” he said. “This is not my natural habitat. I feel nervous. I feel there’s an expectation. Friends tell me I’ve done the work and I need to chill and enjoy the experience. But you guys make it a lot easier, I have to say. And I will be staying for four hours to hug every single one of you — if that’s okay with my wife, who’s in the audience right now.”
“I’m still in a world of denial,” he continued, speaking more emotionally, adding that he’s finally watched an episode of the series — something he’s never done before. “I’m allergic to my face!”
Speaking about his last day, Lincoln said he tore down a set on instinct, largely motivated by Reedus goading him on. “The set fell down onto [a crewmember] and knocked him out,” he said. “I should not have ripped down the set, and Norman should not have been slapping me. I think it was actually Norman’s fault.”
“We did a final scene where I had to laugh and chortle, very uncharacteristic for my character,” he continued, further describing his last moments on set. “We did one take and I felt my toe being tickled, and then my other toe was tickled. I laughed! It was [Reedus] and [Nicotero], and it was the most unprofessional moment of my entire career. I think of myself as a professional actor, but I finished like a fool.”
Lincoln’s colleagues went on to weigh in on working with the man, with Reedus recalling the various prank wars over the years, and Gurira remembering loving Lincoln’s “maniac” qualities as an actor: “I’m a maniac, so I felt like I had full permission to slap myself and do what they call now the Michonne war cry, a bellow I make to get out of my own way. I got out of my own way when I saw the number one on the call sheet was utterly insane.”
“I fucking hated him,” Morgan joked, asked to weigh in on his dynamic with Lincoln. “Nobody is happier that he’s gone than me.” Speaking more seriously, Morgan said Lincoln’s performance was the big draw for why he signed on: “Working with him is going to go down as one of the greatest pleasures of my life. When it gets down to the actual art of what we do, when you look into Andy’s eyes and Rick Grimes’ eyes, you know you’re there with someone who is there with you 100%. As an actor, there’s no safer place to be. There’s no better partner.”
Morgan went on to thank Lincoln’s wife and family: “I know Andy. I’ve seen him on set. He disappears into this role for seven or eight months a year. That’s not easy for a wife, let me tell you. For his wife and kids after nine years, thank you for letting us have him for as long as you did.”
“These guys and everybody back in Atlanta, and all of you here,” said Lincoln, when asked what he would miss the most about the show. “I’m going to miss the whole experience. I can’t explain it. I think I’m only going to get a handle on it in 20 years when I look like the old Rick Grimes. I’ve loved every minute of it. Thank you.”
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