Starcasm has been very lucky to have actress/musician Alicia Witt on hand for not one but two feature interviews in the last ten days!
In part one, Alicia filled us in on her new role as a country music superstar in ABC’s Nashville and also the musical career she fits in between all her acting gigs. This woman works her piano-playing pinkies off keeping up a schedule of shows around the country. (To wit: if you’re in Nashville on April 14th, you can catch her at the legendary Bluebird Café! Information on this and other April shows in New York City and Los Angeles are noted ON HER WEBSITE.)
But, last week, we only teased her performance in The Walking Dead. This week, we dive in deep, and get her insights into her role on one of TV’s few remaining appointment shows. For those of you who still have yet to see it, there are LOTS OF SPOILERS coming your way! You have been warned!
In her appearance on The Walking Dead episode “The Same Boat,” the red-headed stunner appeared in a seriously dressed-down role as Paula, one of Negan’s…well, we’re not sure exactly what role she fills in Negan’s world. But what we do know about Paula is that she is one bad chick. After taking Carol and Maggie hostage, Paula and her cell retreat to a holding facility while they await help from Negan’s crew. Meanwhile, Paula embarks on a very deadly game to try to negotiate a possible prisoner trade with Rick Grimes, while weighing the value of keeping Carol and Maggie as hostages….or even worse.
The episode will be long remembered as a showdown between Carol and her mirror image in Paula, and one that will have lasting repercussions for the Alexandria crew’s most unforgiving warrior. It will also be long remembered for a bravura performance by Ms. Witt. We kicked off our Starcasm interview by looking back at one of the most eye-popping scenes in Alicia’s career…
This was an incredible episode. Really one of the best single-episode appearances of anyone that’s guested on the show and there’s so much to talk about but first OMG YOU GOT YOUR FACE EATEN OFF!!!
I know, I know! Isn’t that awesome? If you have to die on TWD you might as well go big right? I had no idea what it was gonna look like until I saw the final episode. On the inside, all I felt was I was playing Paula dying, and of course trusting that my walker/stunt biter was gonna bite the prosthetics and not my actual face!
So you’re reading the script and you get to the part about your face being eaten off. What goes through your mind at that point? You’ve been in a David Lynch movie, and on Twin Peaks, but you’ve never had your face eaten off!
I was 100 million percent thrilled. Of course, there was another prosthetic below the face – a big complicated rig with a spigot on my neck that was meant to go spurting everywhere when he bites my neck! Somehow it didn’t quite perform the way they’d hoped, which happens sometimes, so we didn’t see that one in the episode. But the way it ended up was pretty fantastic, I’d say.
Where does this rank as the strangest/oddest/most grotesque scene you’ve ever done?
It ranks as my #1 craziest scene, easy. I haven’t had too many on screen deaths; I’ve often been the one doing the killing. But in terms of screenwork, shooting Mike Rappaport in the balls on Justified is certainly up there.
By the way, Paula looked really hot in this episode. And by hot, I mean sweltering in the Georgia heat hot. (Not that Paula wasn’t easy on the eyes, don’t get me wrong…when she wasn’t getting her face eaten off!) When did you shoot the show and what was it like working outdoors in Georgia? Have you ever worked in an environment like that?
Aww… I was about to be all flattered there for a second! Well, never mind! (Laughter.)
We actually filmed in October so it wasn’t that hot. It was probably sweat and grime from the slaughterhouse set. It was dusty in there! The one day we filmed outside, talking to Rick on the walkie-talkie through the binoculars, it was actually a bit chilly, and then we were outside that night as well shooting the kidnapping standoff from the first scene. But aside from that little flip-flop, the entire episode was shot sequentially, which almost never happens. That allowed us to discover where the characters were going as it happened, instead of guessing where we’d be emotionally at a certain point in the story and working out of order.
Unlike Nashville, where I’m sure you spend plenty of time in makeup and hair getting all dolled up, it looks like Paula didn’t need much in the way of primping. Or is there some secret detail about the process you can share to educate us on that?
No, it was great in that way. I don’t like thinking about what I look like at all, it’s my very least favorite part of the entire business in general, as a female actor. I try to avoid mirrors if I’m on set or in between scenes. I don’t like being in my head about all that crap.
But you’re right, on Nashville it’s a big part of the show itself, and actually quite fun because I’ve got dark hair on it, and a very funky-cool look that I’m loving. On TWD you’re in and out of hair AND makeup in 30 minutes! Unheard of. They do just a teensy bit of basic invisible makeup to help eyes pop and that sorta thing. Hair consisted usually of an amazing head massage from Vincent [Vincent Gideon, hair stylist extraordinaire on TWD – JRT]. I miss that. My dog Ernest also misses his daily Vincent love. (Maybe we can get Vincent to come to Nashville? Hmmmm….)
Having said that, I’m sure there was a TON of work put into the scene where you got your face eaten off! How did that all go? How long did it take to set the get ready for and then execute that scene? Long night at the office?
That took about two hours, I think! Because, again, there was this whole neck rig thingie, too. I actually felt a smidge light headed at one point as they were applying the neck thing, and when they were explaining how the walker was gonna be using his actual teeth. I’ve always had a bit of an issue with blood anyway, so I definitely had a moment where I was like, “I’m gonna go get some fresh air and visit the facilities, hold that thought!” But all was well. I was delighted to be allowed into the sacred special effects hair/makeup trailer! That’s where the magic happens. I wish I’d taken pics but I was too shy because I’d been told there was a strict NO PICTURES policy – so I literally didn’t take one. That’s OK. They’re in my brains.
By the time Carol and Maggie are leaving the Kill Floor, Paula’s gone full zombie. Was that you in the zombie makeup?
Sadly it wasn’t me, because I was in that aforementioned magic trailer getting all prosthetic-ed out! We didn’t have enough time for them to do that makeup on me, and then also the zombie look. But I was blown away by how impossible it was to tell. Unbelievable makeup and hair work. Those guys are geniuses.
You mentioned on Talking Dead that you worked with a great sense of trust with the walker that literally bit down on your face. Was this a veteran walker who knew what he was doing, or some new guy off the streets?
His name is Chris, and he is one of their most experienced walkers. And they were sure to tell me that ahead of time so that my terror could be purely Paula’s and not my own!
Paula, I’m sure, was at one time a charming and loving gal, but let’s put it bluntly: By the time Carol and Maggie ran into her, she was one evil chick.
I didn’t put much work into Paula in terms of journaling or deep thoughts or that sorta thing. When I would get up at 5 in the morning to have my workout before the daily shoots, I listened to music that I thought represented what her mindspace was. That’s often how I get into a role. There was a song of my own that actually was playing on a loop in my brain during the coffee speech, talking about my boss and my family. It’s called “Down”; I’d written it while working on Justified, with the rapper T.O.N.E-z, and it’s about the pain of having to keep fighting and the yearning to get out of it, that violent hopeless life, coupled with the futility.
But I didn’t see Paula as evil. Not at all. She’s just processed the situation as “This is what I have to do to survive. I’ve lost everything that mattered to me. I’m going to make *this* what I live for, now. And as I think I said on Talking Dead (I honestly have no recollection of what I did or didn’t say or simply thought about saying; it was surreal being on that thing and it went by so fast!), if she’d lived and had had a chance to know Rick and become a part of his group, I don’t think she was beyond the pale of maybe getting on board with that way of living. She just is so frozen. Her feelings are buried so damn deep that she doesn’t know what they even are any more.
After the last scene from last week’s episode and then the sneak preview scenes of this week’s, it was dawning on people that your character was, indeed, one of the bad people! And I noticed some of your fans weren’t really keen on the idea of seeing you playing someone like that. In fact, they were downright grumpy about it! I guess there’s no pleasing everyone, but it must be fun to upend expectations about what you’re supposed to be in your acting career.
Ha! No, I love that. So much has changed for me since I first started doing this thing so many years ago, but one thing that hasn’t is that, acting-wise, I live for mixing it up and playing characters that are in complete contrast to each other. Music is an amazing thing to get to do because that’s just me; whatever it is that I am, I’m not playing a role when I get up and play a show of my music for people. But acting – I want to NOT be me. I want to be unrecognizable. And sometimes that’s felt like a bit of a liability, when I’ve played unlikable or very specific roles (and I guess been convincing enough in them that people think that’s just the kinda person I am).
When I’ve made my Hallmark Christmas movies – which I genuinely LOVE doing and do not want to ever stop doing because they’re happy-making! – for me as well as for people who can watch them with their families and just feel good, those are characters that are innately very likeable from the writing. So I do understand if someone knows me mostly from that sort of role and then sees this they’re gonna be like “Whaaaat?!?” But that’s fun for me. And the role on Nashville is totally different still from anything I think I’ve done before; I can’t wait for people to meet her!
The mind games being played between Paula and Carol were gripping. TWD has these kinds of shows every now and then, a high-stakes match of wits (that end, often, in violence) between formidable opponents, and this one was a doozie. Paula found out too late that she’d gotten a few major details about Carol’s persona wrong – that she was a weakling and a pushover. How much time did you and Melissa McBride put into working that scene up? It seemed like there was some great chemistry there.
We didn’t do any rehearsal at all, to speak of. We didn’t run lines. That’s my favorite way to work and I was so thrilled to find that this show was on board with that. All we actors did with the director was a line reading of the day’s scenes in the morning, then a blocking, and then start playing. It was magic. We got to discover all of that stuff while the cameras were rolling.
And – thank you. To me it felt like there was some kind of crazy tunnel portal thing happening there with Melissa, a whole lot that wasn’t on the page that would be sacrilegious to try and put words to.
There was one line you mentioned that got cut from the climactic scene between you and Carol.
Yeah, the line was, “It’s too bad things are what they are. Before all this… you’re someone I probably would’ve sent funny cat pictures to.”
It makes sense how that line would get cut, but it does add a wonderful bit of subtext to the commonalities that you and Carol shared.
Paula was definitely seeing some version of herself in Carol, this woman who she has just met; something that’s disconcerting and disturbing and against her better judgment and her will, is stirring something in her that she doesn’t like to think about. It was eerie and magical to get to work that way. Honestly, I’m still wrapping my head around the fact that it’s out in the world and people can see it now, and I get to talk about it. It’s been so long since I filmed it that it almost seemed like it was this incredible two-week experience that happened in a vacuum, that no one would ever know about!
Most, but not all, of the characters that appear in the show have their origins in the comic book. As someone who has been reading from the beginning, I was racking my brain over what character you would play when I heard you were cast in the show. Turns out, you were NONE of the roles I thought you might have been. It almost seems like this role was written especially with you in mind. Take us a little deeper into how you made contact with executive producer/showrunner Scott Gimple and how you came on board the show.
He reached out on Twitter; he’d heard a podcast (Comedy Bang Bang with Scott Aukerman) where I was talking about my music, and he followed me and sent me a DM to tell me so, and that he’d been a fan of mine for a long while. Which was beyond lovely, since I was a huge fan of his, and I told him so. He replied something like “Good to know.”
A few days later an audition came along for TWD. It was really that simple. The audition was for a character named Polly, who was robbing a bank; it was a version of the whole coffee/egg/carrot story, practically a three-page monologue. I did it once for the show’s amazing casting director, Sharon Bialy. She said she thought that was what they were looking for, and I left. The next night I got the call from my agent that I got the part and the next morning I was on a plane to Georgia, and got to know Paula for the first time as I sat there about to take off, when they sent me the script. And my jaw fell open. I had no idea what it was I’d be doing, or playing. Or whether it was one scene or an entire episode. I couldn’t believe what a beautiful, fierce, BIG thing they’d entrusted me with!
When I got there, I met Scott for the first time and he told me only a little bit of backstory – really not much at all. Again, it was so well written that a lot was right there on the page for me to absorb. But he did say that she wasn’t in the comics and that she wasn’t romantically involved with Negan, but that she answered to him.
You’ve been watching the show for a while. What do you think of the way Rick and his gang have been doing things? And what are your impressions of what might lay ahead for the group?
Obviously, last week’s episode was a big departure for them. I understand why they chose to kill Negan’s people in their sleep that way but it’s really the first time they’ve committed murder in that way – with the knowledge that they’re taking out some people that could make their lives impossible and it’s their only way to survive. But still… Old Rick would have attempted a dialogue with them first. Very hard to watch. And I’m terrified for what comes next. I also have a theory as to who is going to die at Negan’s bat Lucille in the finale and I don’t like it one bit. I don’t think it’s gonna be the one who dies in the comics…but I’m not going to say out loud!
How long would you, Alicia Witt, last in the zombie apocalypse? What would be your weapon of choice to get you through?
I don’t think I’d make it. I have to be honest. My dog Ernest would have a better chance! But then again, that’s what’s so amazing about TWD. None of these people would ever have thought they’d make it, and here they are doing things they never thought they’d be capable of. It’s one of the reasons why we as a culture are so damn hooked on the show. It’s impossible not to relate on a visceral level: What would I do if that were me?
So now your busy schedule won’t even allow you the joy of going home, sitting on the couch and watching the scene where you get your face eaten off over and over again. (Which is what I would do if it was me as Paula.) Instead, you’re back on a plane to Nashville to continue work on your new show.
Ha! No, I wouldn’t! I watched my episode once again when it was airing before Talking Dead. But that’s about my limit for watching myself! I love watching everyone else’s performance in it, though. Jill Jane Clemens as Molly: “Where are ya, Magnolia?” I could watch that all day!
But yes, my schedule is nutty! Right after this, I’m about to go shower and head to set, where I’ll be seducing someone and having an on-screen makeout session with a cast member as Autumn Chase. Pretty damn different from getting my face eaten off. But hey, depending on how they shoot it … maybe not that different?
Getting your face chewed off by a zombie or a country music singer…that’s all in the life of Alicia Witt. If you haven’t seen her star turn in The Walking Dead, get on it! But if behind-the-scenes country music drama is more your style, keep an eye out for her April debut as Autumn Chase on Nashville! And lastly, Alicia’s deep catalog of music can be investigated at her Soundcloud page.
And just because we’re Bob Dylan junkies around here, how about we send you off with Alicia’s recording of “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright)”, which, when you think of it, might make a nice theme song for the relationship between Carol and Paula!