TV shows about Zombies are everywhere right now. Crimefighting zombies, in iZombie, wisecracking zombies, in The Santa Clarita Diet, and of course the massed frosty zombies of Game of Thrones.
But the premier zombie show on television is, and will probably always be, The Walking Dead. The story of a desperate band of survivors trying to make their way in the southern state of Georgia after a plague of zombies has almost wiped out mankind, The Walking Dead, has spawned a spin-off TV show, Fear The Walking Dead, as well as all manner of games, action figures and miscellaneous zombified tchotchkes.
One aspect of The Walking Dead that keeps viewers gripped is the fact that any character can die at any time. With the possible exception of series lead Rick Grimes (British actor Andrew Lincoln) no one is safe.
The stories, as one might expect from a show about the extinction of humanity, can be a touch bleak. The sole bright spot in the post-apocalyptic landscape is The Kingdom, a group of survivors led by the charismatic if slightly bonkers “King” Ezekiel. Ezekiel’s right-hand man is fun-loving, pun-loving Jerry, a husky Samoan who acts as his personal steward and bodyguard and sometimes feeds his pet tiger.
Jerry, played by Jewish-Samoan actor Cooper Andrews, has become a cult favourite among Walking Dead fans and he took a short break from filming the show’s latest series to speak to the JC. I woke him up in the early hours of the morning – his time – to ask a few questions about TV’s premier character-driven revenant-slaying drama.
How long will Jerry last? Cast members are obliged to avoid spoilers in pre-series publicity but the sleepy Samoan may have let a small cat out of the bag. When asked which part of the series was being filmed right now, Cooper replied: “They’re…uh…they would be filming the second half of season eight.”
They are? Not we are? A worrying slip, for Jerry fans. Let’s move on to a happier subject. Just how terrifying are the show’s zombies on set? Do the grisly make-up effects ever make the actors jump?
“The zombies on set are just what you see on the show, so you can get a scare now and then…”
Cooper was a fan of The Walking Dead from the very outset, devouring the first season on Netflix. What was it like to find out he had a part in the show?
“I had auditioned once or twice for (Walking Dead producer/writer) Scott Gimple before, he sent me three or four versions of the script, over a Friday and Saturday night and on the Monday I was filming a fight sequence with my friends who are all stunt performers. I was in in the swimming pool with a camera and I get a phone call and they said ‘They need you on an airplane in four hours. You need to get to Atlanta today.’
“I was still smelling like chlorine when I arrived.”
Jerry’s trademark zombie-slaying tool is his deadly-looking battle-axe. “That axe is straight-up wood and steel,” Cooper says. Has he ever hit another cast-member with it by mistake?
“If I did,” he chuckles, “they’d just have to bury whoever it was on set. It weighs about 28 pounds.”
The Walking Dead is a famously dark show, but the Kingdom is the one part of the Walking Dead universe where you’re never too far from a laugh. Does Cooper ever find it hard to keep a straight face – especially when Ezekiel’s doing his “eccentric King” routine bit?
“Khary Payton (Ezekiel) and I have this great relationship. We try to get the laughs out before we shoot a scene during the rehearsals. While we’re shooting it’s like ‘game on.’”
“I was a crew member – I was a microphone operator for around a decade and every time someone started laughing during their own take I’d get annoyed, so I don’t want to be ‘that guy.’”
Will we ever find out Ezekiel and Jerry’s history? Or have Cooper and Khary Payton made something up between themselves?
“We talked about it. While I’m curious about Jerry’s back-story, I’d prefer not to know. What made Jerry so fun for me is that he’s this character that is so happy, so accepting of what the world is ’now’ that I don’t want to know his history. Whatever it was, I know he wouldn’t do something bad. I know he came out with a positive outlook. That was my thing for Jerry.
“Khary, he knows Ezekiel was a zookeeper, and dabbled in local theatre, and then he became this king. I think Jerry gravitated towards that because he sees a person who can change the world just a little. Make it a better place.”
The world of The Walking Dead is a terrible place, not only crawling with the undead but dominated by violent unscrupulous villains who will do anything, to anyone to ensure their own survival. And in the long history of the show there is no villain more hissable, more black-hearted, more charmingly evil than Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan.
The one thing Walking Dead fans want to see, more than anything else. Is Negan’s comeuppance. At the expense of being cut off in mid interview, I had to ask if Negan gets his just desserts in this series?
“Oh man,” says Cooper. “I wish. Every time we’re at these conventions I see a lot of Negan fans with their baseball bats. I like to take the bats from their hands for the photos.”
I wondered if Andrew Lincoln, still best remembered in this country for his part in Love Actually, keeps Rick’s Southern drawl throughout the filming or whether he reverts to his Home Counties tones once the cameras stop rolling.
“He’s Rick all the time we’re working. He’ll talk about life back in London but he maintains the Southern accent.”
Lincoln has been Rick now for seven years. There must be a reason why The Walking Dead resonates so strongly with audiences. Why does Cooper think the zombie has become the adversary of choice for so many shows.
“A zombie, as a villain, has only one purpose. To end you. You can’t reason with it. You can’t scare it off, like you might with an animal. There’s only one way it ends. With one of you dead.
“Knowing that you have this enemy that only wants one thing, that is has such a pure agenda, it’s scary. It’s the same in Game of Thrones, with the ‘ice walkers.’ All they want is to turn everyone into ice walkers. There’s no negotiation with them.
One of the questions we find ourselves pondering, while watching these apocalyptic zombie shows, is “how would I manage if society collapsed?” What is Cooper’s take?
“If it was just me just trying to survive on my own, I think I could. But you factor in family and friends and it’d be more difficult. I don’t know how it’d be.
“No matter how well you think you can fight or shoot or whatever, when you have to start taking care of other people that’s where the danger comes in.
“I still think I probably could survive, but it’d have to be a fairly slow-moving caravan.”
Cooper’s own family background is unusual. His mother is a New York Jew who met Cooper’s father, a Samoan, when she was in the Peace Corps. They later separated and Cooper grew up with his mother in Long Island.
“I was born in Long Island, lived in Jersey until I was nine, then Maryland for a couple of years and I’ve in Georgia for quite some time. Now I live in LA.” Cooper has yet to explore his Samoan roots. “I’ve been to Hawaii a few times but never Samoa.
“ I would like to visit Samoa, but being an actor I have to stay close to where the work is.
“When I went to Hawaii it was because I was working on a show there. I’d like to get to Samoa and spend some time there, get to know it.
“It was funny being in Hawaii. I was working on Hawaii 5-O but I don’t sound like a Hawaiian or a Samoan because I was raised on the East Coast so I talk a lot faster than they do.”
Will Cooper have a little time to explore his Pacific island roots? Does Jerry survive the relentless Walking Dead meat-grinder?
There’s only one way to find out...
The Walking Dead continues on Mondays at 9pm on FOX