How Andrew Lincoln realized even Rick Grimes is expendable on 'The Walking Dead'

It’s one of those rare mornings when Andrew Lincoln doesn’t have the weight of saving humanity from the zombie apocalypse on his shoulders. On this particular Saturday, he’s just a guy engrossed in a copy of “A Little History of Science” and hankering for a plate of huevos rancheros.

“I’m kind of going through a nonfiction phase,” he says, slipping the hardcover into a backpack. “I love science and that time in history when science and the humanities were the same thing. I like to take these things in before work takes over.”

And, oh, does it take over.

It has been seven years since “The Walking Dead” changed Lincoln’s life. The 43-year-old English actor had performed on a string of television shows in his native country but was virtually unknown in this one save for his memorable turn as the lad harboring unrequited feelings for Keira Knightley’s character in “Love Actually.” That changed with AMC’s megahit genre drama. His portrayal of tormented leader Rick Grimes, at the center of the show’s apocalyptic horrors, has made him a full-fledged American hero.

In that world, his days are spent jamming knives into the heads of flesh-eating zombies as well as combating the threat of living villains. So, yeah, a book and breakfast is a nice antidote to the marathon of despair.

Sitting in a corner booth at a hotel restaurant in Beverly Hills, he blends in with dark jeans and a worn button-down shirt. His curly hair, with streaks of gray, is combed back, and salt-and-pepper stubble defines his face. A buoyant British accent substitutes for the whispery Southern drawl he’s adopted on the series as he explains how his role on “The Walking Dead” is almost like a “monastic devotion.”

“The thing that scares me is not necessarily the first day of a season, but the enormity of the task ahead,” Lincoln says. “This season, in particular, has been brutal. I just collapsed at the end of it.”

The current season, which wraps Sunday, kicked off to an especially gruesome start when the most barbaric villain on the show to date, baseball-bat-wielding Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), bludgeoned not only Sgt. Abraham Ford (Michael Cudlitz) but also fan-favorite Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun), who has been with the series since the first season. Negan also sadistically toyed with forcing Rick to cut off the arm of his teen son Carl (Chandler Riggs).

It all prompted an emotional and mental breakdown for the otherwise stubbornly hopeful protagonist. The balance of the season has been a buildup of Rick and his troops preparing for war with Negan and his posse.

“Walking Dead” show runner Scott M. Gimple says by phone: “What Andy did tested my [desire] to keep torturing him because it was a horrible thing to see — the way he embodied the pain and even felt this pain was very raw. I’d be lying if I say it didn’t put me in a bit of a weird, existential place of me playing God and Andrew playing Job.”

Lincoln says he had just one demand for enduring the trials: “All through shooting the season, I kept telling Scott, ‘As long as you give me a “Henry V”-St. Crispin’s Day speech at some point in the future, I’ll take it.’ So that will be coming. There’s your spoiler.”

The gregarious actor moves easily from topic to topic, while enjoying the aforementioned eggs. He laments how much he’ll miss Mexican food when flies back home to the U.K. the following morning to be with his wife and two kids. He gushes about FX’s “Atlanta,” which he just binged at Yeun’s suggestion. “Freaking hell, it’s really fresh, funny and beautifully scripted,” he says. At one point during breakfast, his costar Melissa McBride, who plays Carol on the series, stops by to inquire why he was absent from a cast gathering the night before — “I pooped out on everybody,” he admits sheepishly.

“Did he say what a great leader he has been for us all these years?” McBride inquires while hugging Lincoln. “He has carried the burden on his shoulders. I don’t know how he can still stand up straight.” (They make plans to meet up later so she can meet his dog.)

Real-life leadership skills aside, Lincoln acknowledges that some question his alter ego’s authoritative abilities. But, as he says with a laugh, “If Rick were a better leader, I don’t know if we would have the audience, let’s be honest.”

“But there’s an inspirational sort of strength and endurance and quality of tenacity that he possesses,” he says. “I’m much more indecisive and a people-pleaser than someone who’s willing to step into the firing line. But I’ve learned from this guy. He has qualities that I would hope to emulate if [stuff] ever hit the fan. I’d like to think I’ve done it on screen, maybe I could be a zombie-killer in real life if the apocalypse hit. But then, I’d obviously die a horrible, quick death in reality.”

Before an entire generation came to know him as the far-from-perfect leader on cable’s top-rated show, Lincoln (born Andrew James Clutterbuck) was mostly associated with ordinary, easy-going Englishmen in such TV shows as “This Life” and “Teachers,” and the Richard Curtis film “Love Actually.”

“It’s quite hard playing ordinary and nice, but he does it so perfectly,” Curtis says by telephone. “And, at the heart of it, that’s who he is on ‘The Walking Dead.’ He represents the common man. His ability of giving texture to somebody who is quite normal and nice, but also a bit chaotic and a bit confused, is one of the things I’ve always loved about him.”

Now among the ranks of mainstream TV’s leading men, Lincoln has had little time to look beyond the ravaged, dystopian landscape. He speaks of dashed theater opportunities and the show’s short hiatus window — there’s a film project in the works that he’s hoping pans out, but it’s too early to tell.

“My obligations are, obviously, first and foremost here,” Lincoln says, referring to “The Walking Dead.” “It’s a very narrow needle I have to thread, but it’s not for want of trying. When I see a friend play Hamlet or see an inspirational performance, I absolutely get excited by the idea of changing things up.”

A bit of a departure came recently in the form of a brief “Love Actually” sequel for the charitable “Red Nose Day” special, which Curtis and comedian Lenny Henry — co-founders of Comic Relief — launched in 1988 to raise money for children in need and address worldwide poverty. In the short, Lincoln reprises his role as Mark, albeit a bit scruffier now, and dusts off his sign-writing skills to revisit the scene that became a hallmark of the film: his character standing outside Knightley’s door, holding signs to express what he could not verbalize.

“It was great fun and also unusual because, for the first time in a long time, I didn’t have to gut anyone when they yelled ‘action!’” Lincoln says.

But has he begun to ponder what comes next as the blockbuster series likely has more seasons behind it than ahead?

“Look,” he says, “I always wanted to establish myself in America as an actor, and this show has been beyond my wildest dreams. So it is very exciting to be in the position to start thinking about what comes after it. Everybody keeps looking at me, like, ‘I bet he can’t wait to do a rom-com to wash all this despair off,’” he says.

Note: He’s open to the idea.

But, this season, he started to wonder if he’d be confronted with such decisions sooner rather than later.

“I’m the dude that woke up in the hospital in the very beginning — I’d like to think there’s a bit of job security there,” Lincoln says with a laugh. “But then suddenly Negan turns up, with that crazy baseball bat, and all bets are off. Don’t get me wrong. I think Rick is very much in the fabric of the show. But then, so was Glenn. We’re all expendable on this show.”

The uncertainty came after reading the script for “Say Yes.” In the episode, the 12th of the current season, Rick had a heartfelt, almost foreboding conversation in a car with Michonne (Danai Gurira) about his possible death.

“I remember him calling me in a total … panic,” costar and friend Norman Reedus, who plays bow-slinging Daryl Dixon, says by telephone. “I had to talk him off the ledge after he read that script. We were on the phone for a couple of hours.”

Rick, of course, is still alive, and Lincoln has resigned himself to his fate, whatever the future may hold, since then.

“You’ve got to go somewhere to get somewhere,” he says with a shrug that suggests he wants to say more. And then, like a boy who can’t hold in a secret any longer, the enthusiasm causes him to buckle a tad.

“We’re going to come out swinging,” he says of the finale. “And it’s not going to stop. I’m more excited for Season 8 than I’ve ever been. I think it’s going to be big, but it’s also going to be terrifying. And I mean that from the very depths of my cynical soul.”

Until then, the mass destruction-free day continues. He’s heading off for a round of golf.

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