SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched Sunday’s “Omega” episode of The Walking Dead.
The Walking Dead doesn’t tend to give flashback episodes for new characters to explain their backstories — especially for characters from the comic book. But a notable exception was made on Sunday’s “Omega” episode, where we learned what turned the new big bad into a zombie-skin-mask-wearing freakazoid.
Last week we met a masked Alpha for the first time, and this week we got the origin story of how her new persona came to be. Through her daughter Lydia’s (often mangled) memories, we discovered that Alpha and her family were holed up with other survivors in Baltimore after the apocalypse hit. When someone started panicking, she killed him. And then when her husband would not let her leave with their daughter when chaos broke out, she killed him too. She then told young Lydia to put on a zombie skin mask and the rest is history.
We spoke to Samantha Morton to find out what it was like cutting all her hair off on camera, and to get her take on the flashbacks and what they say about the woman behind the mask. (Also make sure to check out our previous chat where Morton discussed joining the show and her first few days on set.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is a pretty broad question, but what would you say it is we learn about Alpha from these flashbacks of her and her family just after the apocalypse started?
SAMANTHA MORTON: I think, for her, something is triggered through the apocalypse. Maybe something that was laying dormant inside of her. Maybe we can look at her, childhood things that happened to her, and here she realizes that she’s capable of doing really horrific things in order to survive and to [protect] her child. And most women out there, and men, would say that they would do anything for their child. You’d stand in front of a bus to protect your child. You’d do anything, and I think that what she realizes about herself is her ultimate confidence in survival and what she’s willing to do.
What is the breaking point for Alpha that starts her on the road to whom she is now?
I think there’s a trauma of what’s happening, and that is stimulated through fear, what she’s witnessed, and what’s happening around her. That adrenaline inside. But it is about protecting her child and herself, and surviving, and watching people behave so stupidly.
We see that scene where she kills that guy Ortiz who is freaking out and she says, “You’re weak. You’re pathetic and there is no room for you here,” and smothers him. Is she even phased by that? Because assuming that is her first kill, you’d think there would be some sort of shock, but it doesn’t appear to really phase her.
It depends how they edited it, because I haven’t seen it, and obviously you can do quite a few different takes. I don’t watch myself, so you’ve seen how they’ve edited it, and the music, and all the rest of it. But I think I’ve imagined that she’s killed animals before. She’s hunted. She grew up in a rural area. She’s badass in that way.
And maybe that is why she is a villain, as in she’s the villain, but she doesn’t think she’s a villain. She’s just doing what she has to do, and she’s been really honest about it. He is pathetic. He is weak. This is a new world now, a new world order, and it’s brutal, but this is her tribe, and this is how they’re functioning. It’s awful, actually. When I think of it, “Oh, my gosh!” But when I’m in Alpha head, it really is like…It’s awful, but it makes sense to her.
What was it like playing different versions of this character because of the unreliable narrator aspect of Lydia recounting these distorted memories? Did you have to adjust to that at all?
Yeah, we did. It was fun. It’s a dream within a dream within a flashback within a what is real? Because we all have that anyway. You can go into a room and have a meal with somebody, and both of those individuals have then said, “Okay, write down your versions of what happened at dinner and how you’re feeling,” and they’ll come up with totally different interpretations. So I find all that fascinating. But, equally, there were times when there was a vagueness about it, so I was just being “Mother,” pre-Alpha, you know?
So, let’s talk about the hair. We see your hair at various lengths throughout the episode. Was that real and were you cutting it in stages while filming or had you already shaved it and those were wigs?
No, that was my real hair. What we did, my hair was kind of down to my waist, and I stupidly cut it before going to Atlanta, thinking that would help me when I went bald. But I didn’t realize we were going to go back, and that you saw the long hair. And so we decided that we were going to keep my hair, which was in a bob, and then just cut it on camera. Just go for it.
What was that like?
Oh, I loved it. It just feels very real, and what the audience is seeing is real, you know? And there’s emotions about that, but the practicalities for pre-Alpha is that the hair, she’s turning herself into something. She’s metamorphosing from a caterpillar to a butterfly, but not the nicest butterfly, you know? She’s completely changing who she is, and whether that’s trauma and something to do with the brain, or that she just found her true self that she’s able to be because of what’s happening to the world.
When we first see present-day Alpha show up at the Hilltop, it’s without the mask and she has this dark makeup around the mouth and eyes. What can you say about that look that you all created? It’s pretty striking.
I think those guys are incredible, what they come up with. That’s what the [makeup artists] want, and I love it. I think it’s brilliant. The eyes are there because when she puts on the mask, they need to be hollow. So, yeah, I just think it’s brilliant.
What was the reaction from other cast members and folks when you showed up for this scene looking like that?
You know what? I think people do find her scary, so that’s a good thing, I think. They genuinely do. So I’m chuffed with that because I can just be the character then. I don’t have to kind of behave like some villain. I think you just be, don’t you? And then I think all that makeup really helps. It’s a bit mad.
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AMC’s zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.