At the end of the stellar first season of AMC's "Fear The Walking Dead," Travis (Cliff Curtis) collapsed on the beach beside his girlfriend Madison (Kim Dickens) after having just killed his infected ex-wife Liza (Elizabeth Rodriguez). It was the turning point for the slow-burning family drama. Up until this pivotal scene, some thought the "Walking Dead" prequel paled in comparison to its no-holds-barred successor. But "Fear The Walking Dead" proved that you don't need a horde of walkers in every episode to make genre TV compelling.
MTV News chatted with Curtis ahead of the Season 1 home release of "Fear The Walking Dead" on December 1, about where the series is headed in Season 2 when Travis, Madison and co. set sail in Strand's yacht. Has Travis finally embraced his dark side, or is he still clinging to his humanity? Here's what the actor had to say about Season 2, fighting zombie pirates and filming that gut-wrenching final scene on the beach:
MTV: Now, I'm going to be completely honest here. I don't watch "The Walking Dead," but I loved "Fear The Walking Dead." It felt more like a family drama, and even a political drama. For that reason, I felt like the emotional stakes were higher. Did you feel the same going in? And given what happened at the end of Season 1 for Travis, is it still the same in Season 2?
Cliff Curtis: I was really intrigued by the time I read the first pilot episode by the level of commitment the creators had to making this a family drama, and I was surprised that they really hung in there and stuck to the movement. It’s so easy in this genre, and in this world, to go for easy shots and my character's some bad ass who really too rich to be able to deal with the dead. They just didn’t do that, and I really enjoyed and appreciated that they stuck to that. He’s gone through the ringer in the last couple of episodes. He’s been through things he didn’t think he would have to in his lifetime -- and things he didn’t know that he was capable of doing. They haven’t given me a heads up at all about what direction Travis is going to go. They're really stingy that way, but we start filming in a couple weeks.
MTV: Do you feel like Travis is a changed man after shooting Liza?
Curtis: He’s got to be. You can’t go through what he’s gone through and not be changed. But he's a lot stronger than you suspect. He’s one of those guys... he’s not obviously a macho guy, especially in terms of the show. He was [with] the military guides, all very alpha male, macho. And then you've got Salazar, and you’ve got the intriguing character Strand, and then even his girlfriend that’s sort of quicker to adapt than he is -- you know, take action first and deal with the consequences later. That’s the antithesis of who he is. He’s coming from a place of strength, ultimately. That’s my understanding of him anyway. And that he really does believe in the basics of humanity. He really is totally understood as an optimist and idealist. He might’ve been broken, but I think he’s a lot more resilient than we would think. He sees where he's going to go from there and decides who he needs to be in this new world.
MTV: I’m hoping that he faces that adversity with some of his idealism still intact.
Curtis: His values remain, at the core, intact. And now he’s just trying to reconfigure who he needs to be in a practical nature. I think that’s kind of a risk with having a son. Things were rocky before, but now I don’t know what’s going to happen with that relationship. But what’s fun and weirdly a glimmer of hope is that at the beginning of Season 1, he and his girlfriend were really lovey dovey, and throughout the first season they just grow further and further apart. Then, right at the last moment, at the end of the first season, they come together again. So there’s some hope there that that relationship will grow stronger through the adversity and that they’ll get busy building and defining their family, and [figuring out] what that family needs to do to survive.
MTV: That brings up a really interesting point because from what I know about "The Walking Dead," from day one Rick has always been the leader. This show doesn’t have that very clear cut depiction of a leader. We’ve seen characters rise to the occasion, like we’ve seen Madison and we’ve seen Salazar take charge. Is there still room for Travis to be that leader?
Curtis: I think there’s a possibility, but I don’t think they want to give that away too easily. And if Travis is going to transform from being the least likely to survive the circumstances due to his beliefs and ideals and optimism, misplaced optimism, then he’s got a long way to travel before he can become a leader -- and that’s what comes first. What they’ve got planned for him, that can’t happen overnight... He has to really keep being challenged in terms of who he is and what he’s willing to do to survive.
MTV: That final scene was such a beautiful and heartbreaking shot, of Madison cradling Travis and he’s just sobbing. For you, what was the toughest day on set?
Curtis: That was definitely a very challenging scene and technically very difficult, because you’ve got to do multiple angles, wide shots, close ups, simple wides, crane shots. So you stay right in that emotional state and you keep tuning it out, and then you break for lunch and come back to it and do it again. And then you’ve got to turn around and get all these other angles. You’ve got to stay in that sort of emotional state for hours and hours. It was definitely a challenging day and technically a difficult scene for Elizabeth [Rodriguez], who played Liza. She did a beautiful job.
But the stuff that I really liked in Season 1 was the blurring lines between reality and our show. Because they did such a great job of 'This is a traffic jam,' or 'There’s been some kind of shooting on the motor way,' and then we see it the next day on the internet, which feels very real. Then the next thing is a protest that overspills into riots on the streets, and that looked and felt really real. That felt and looked like Los Angeles does right now. There’s helicopters flying around, and that’s really real.
And then the part where they pushed what we haven’t seen... [It] was the part where the military turned up and locked down the suburbs with machine guns and spraying X’s against houses that look contaminated, and those that look dead, and the truckloads of bodies. That just kicked it up into a whole different level of reality, because that felt like if it went down and it was real it would look a lot like this -- and that you would be shocked. You wouldn’t know what was going on. The roads would be down, you’d be contained by the military, and basically you’re under a state of siege by your own military. Now, in Season 2 we're going east -- we’re going to sea, we’re going to the desert -- and I think it’s going to be a phenomenal seascape backdrop for the drama to play out. I’m really excited about that.
MTV: In the pilot episode, it being such a character-driven show, I remember thinking that Los Angeles really felt like a character. Obviously, after the pilot, production moved to Vancouver, and some people felt like that was kind of lost in the final five episodes. But now that you guys are bringing the setting out to sea, does that become, yet again, another character?
Curtis: Absolutely. I would’ve loved it if we had stayed in East Los Angeles. I think Travis -- and I pitched it in the writers' room -- he doesn’t want to go with this guy Strand. He doesn’t like this guy. A part of Travis wants to go back to his neighborhood, and like a good patriotic American, stand his ground and fight it out on home turf. He wants to organize grass roots because that's the world he understands. Jumping on some random guy's boat and going out to sea, I don’t think it’s a natural fit for Travis. So it’s going to be interesting seeing how that plays out.
MTV: Strand is definitely one of the more fascinating characters we met last season.
Curtis: Absolutely. He’s so much fun, and Travis can’t stand him. To Travis, Strand is a mole -- he’s got no compass, no sense of good as far as Travis can see. He'd sell his mother! He's the guy who's not meant to be trusted. But for me, I love him. I think it’s so great to have that element on the show because it gives us that balance of masculine characters who can show up while Travis is dealing with his dark soul [Laughs].
MTV: Do you like to play a character like Travis who’s a little more vulnerable and going through a little more emotional turmoil?
Curtis: I think it's great. I think he needs to step up a little bit more, accept the world that he’s in and be a little more pragmatic about it, and come to terms with the fact that these human beings, that whatever’s going on with them, that he needs to deal with them. He can no longer be near just the people he wants near. He has to come to terms with that, and that’s going to be a challenge for Travis. Whatever decisions or actions he takes as he struggles to maintain his humanity, he does. He keeps winning that fight, but I don’t know how he’s going to keep winning that. I think that’s what makes him more interesting to me.
MTV: At the end of Season 1, the whole family is together. Nick and Travis don't have the best relationship. They're very different characters, but they're both going through some inner turmoil. Do you see these two lost souls doing more together in Season 2?
Curtis: I'm more focused on the relationship between mine and Kim’s character, seeing how they come together and reconstitute their relationship. I want to see how they build a family out of that, and keep their family and take care of their family. But Nick is in the Strand camp, and Travis doesn't really align with that. So I think there continues to be tension between him and Nick. And then I don’t know how he’s going to overcome the riff between himself and his son after what he’s done. That’s just all over, it’s just acrobatics. There’s a lot he has to figure out because I can’t see a world where they’re going to be getting on very well after that.
MTV: It will be a challenge, but they don’t have a lot of space to work with. They’re kind of trapped on this yacht, so they have to deal with it.
Curtis: Yeah, they kind of do. That’s what’s going to make it cool. You can't run away. There’s nowhere to go. What happens when people get off the boat? Oh my lord. I’m very happy with the boats, and hanging out in the sea, so it's all good for me, but I don't know about Travis. We know zombies can’t swim, but can they drown? Can they just hold onto the boat and not die?
MTV: Speaking of zombies, there were some complaints last season that it took too long to get to the walkers. Now that they've faced their first walker horde, will Season 2 hit the ground running and get straight to the mayhem?
Curtis: I don’t know. I don’t know how there can be that many zombies out at sea. I don’t know how that works. They can’t swim, so I don’t know how you’re going to get a horde of zombies attacking the boat in the middle of the ocean. Maybe they jump onboard a cruise liner that's been infected and then it's like a bunch of zombie pirates. There’s all sorts of potential things that could happen. Obviously, if we’re off the west coast of California, lots of people are on boats so they probably wouldn't be out there on their own. And that’s what you’re going to worry about -- those crazy human beings!
"Fear The Walking Dead" is available on DVD and Blu-ray today, December 1, 2015.