‘Walking Dead’ Q&A: Tovah Feldshuh On Playing Alexandria Leader Deanna Monroe and Rick’s Big Shave

Spoiler Warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Walking Dead” season 5, episode 12, titled “Remember.”

The Walking Dead” gang finally made it inside the Alexandria Safe-Zone this week, and what they found was downright shocking. Behind the gates was an utterly peaceful community overseen by Deanna Monroe, played by four-time Tony nominated Broadway veteran Tovah Feldshuh.

Feldshuh, whose extensive resume also boasts an Emmy nominated recurring role on “Law & Order” and films including “Kissing Jessica Stein” and “A Walk on the Moon,” isn’t exactly someone you’d expect to see on AMC’s gory hit. Which is probably why she’s such a perfect fit for a character whose level-headed leadership style couldn’t be more different than Woodbury’s morally bankrupt Governor.

Joining “The Walking Dead” isn’t even the biggest adventure in Feldshuh’s life right now. Variety spoke with the actress about her role on the show from her hotel in Tanzania, where she was preparing to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

How did you land this role? Were you familiar with the show?
I’d never seen the show. I got a call to come in and read a scene, not from the show, not even from the series, but a scene where I played the head of intelligence, if my memory serves me. I had recently played the head of intelligence for a series called “Covert Affairs” with Piper Perabo.

I loved the scene they gave me. The casting director was wonderful. I thanked her and got on a plane to Ecuador and on to the Galapagos. I didn’t even know I had the job. I think I had the job on a Monday, and I actually found out on a Thursday. They flew me out of the Galapagos. I met with the heads of the series in Atlanta on a Monday, had a costume fitting, and on Tuesday I started a huge ten page scene with Andrew Lincoln. It was wild.

Do you think your theater background was a selling point that you could jump right in with that much to learn?
I don’t know, but I do know Andy Lincoln was a phenomenal scene partner, and very available. We spoke on the phone Monday night, talked about the scene and drilled it so we would be ready. I’m wondering if maybe we shot the scene first thing Wednesday morning. But I studied very hard. It’s not like I was down there doing anything else but memorizing the script. As big as the scene was — and it was long — it was chronologically what was happening for Andy and me. I’d never met him and he had never met me. We met through this scene.

We learn about Deanna’s past through the scene so that was available to you, but were you able to find out more about her backstory?
I based her on Hillary Clinton. She’s somebody I’ve admired and somebody incredibly qualified to lead the nation. She’s been in service to the United States for a good deal of her life. I studied her as my immediate prototype. I looked at other wonderful congresswomen, and tried to think what I could bring to it: Where did the character connect with my character as a human being? Because there was no time. Don’t forget, this wasn’t my audition (character). It’s not like subliminally I had prepared.

The audition was an extremely tense scene with an enemy I had incarcerated. I remember I had to say, “You’re all going to die!” Deanna Monroe doesn’t even carry a gun. She’s a culturalist. She’s the brains and the hope for a return to a society where people have enough time to watch children, to kiss again, to connect and make more people. (Deanna) needs Rick Grimes. She needs his brawn and he needs her cultural brain. She needs his knowledge of the outside as he needs the sanctum of the inside.

There’s an incredible naivete because nothing has ever happened to this community. How long will that persist? And what can Deanna do to avoid a real problem? If this band of pirates pass muster, she can fold the Rick Grimes group into this society already in Alexandria. Deanna is clearly looking to connect with street smarts, brawn, muscle, but not hooliganism. She has to make sure these people are rational.

You said you used Hillary Clinton as inspiration but you also had an acclaimed run playing Golda Meir on Broadway. Do you see any connection between Golda and Deanna’s leadership style?
Golda was never easily ruffled and I think Deanna is like that. Deanna was a great congresswoman but she never expected to be head of state. She was a representative of Ohio. She tried to get back to protect her constituents but the army found her and said, “Forget it. You can’t come this way, you’ll die.” They pointed her to an abandoned village where the walkers don’t know there’s any human blood. It was quaint and lovely and they started to build the walls to protect themselves. Nobody’s ever come through it, they’ve never even seen a walker. It’s wild. Like a hiccup in the midst of what everybody else is going through.

The last episode was about Rick’s fear of what might be waiting in Alexandria, but now it seems like Alexandria might have more to fear from Rick.
Alexandria is not afraid but circumspect. They’re careful. Norman Reedus carries around a (crossbow), Danai Gurira (has) her sword — it’s quite a motley crew of warriors. Deanna is desperate to get that for the community to plan for the future. It’s like a head of state needing to have some kind of military arm to preserve and protect.

Deanna also gets to see Rick both before and after his big shave. What did you think seeing him without the beard?
He’s handsome! He’s got such a great face, the more of it I can see the better. I’m pleased he shaved that thing off. Deanna’s husband is clean-shaven, she likes a clean-shaven man. I think she was very happy when (Rick) shaved.

You had a chance to work with several of the regulars in this episode — did you have a favorite scene partner or someone who surprised you the most?
That’s what’s so astonishing, they’re all so good. Really, I shoot straight, I’m from New York after all. I interviewed them all. I was behind the camera and asked them questions. I thought they were rather remarkable. Steven Yeun had almost no lines and it was ridiculous he was so good. He had such a reservoir of subtext under his work, it was extremely moving. There isn’t a clunker in the bunch.

What kind of reactions did you get when you told people you were going to be on “The Walking Dead”?
I couldn’t tell anyone until Feb. 19, when I got permission to announce it at my new club act. I opened a new concert called, “Aging Is Optional,” because God I hope it is. I love the piece, it was at a very big nightclub, 54 Below, which holds 150 people a performance.

(During the show) I said, “I’ve known aging is optional ever since I had an agent. They want Saint Joan? That’s me. They want Golda Meir? That’s me. They want someone for ‘The Walking Dead’ in a huge part that begins March 1? That’s me. No, really, that’s me.” People screamed. They screamed. It’s a very powerful calling card. They went bazonkers. It’s very exciting for me. My dream is to have a lead in a hit television show and if this is it, so be it. I’ll be honored to stick around as long as they’ll have me.

What prompted you to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro?
Two things. My beloved mother died at 103 about six months ago. And my last job on Broadway was the musical “Pippin” where I did a full out trapeze act and sang hanging upside down — it was one of the most brilliant parts I’d ever been handed. Having done “Pippin” my body is very strong and athletic. I got the notion in my head to climb Kilimanjaro with our son, he’s a wonderful athlete. Five years ago we tracked gorillas together in Uganda. He’s my partner in adventure.

Especially now with my mother gone, I really do feel we’re only in this body once. I just want enough money to buy experience. I can forego a dress, but the idea of taking a trip and trekking Mt. Kilimanjaro, or going on the Trans-Siberian railroad, or tracking lemurs in Madagascar — these things are very exciting to me. To see the world until I leave my own body. It’s now or not at all.

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