TV: Gay Atlanta man on the life (and deaths) of a zombie on ‘The Walking Dead’

Tony Gowell, 41, has died three times. Yes, the gay East Point man has appeared in nine episodes of the locally filmed “The Walking Dead,” and bites the Georgia dust three times portraying a zombie (or “walker,” as the show’s characters call them).

Tony Gowell in and out of makeup - courtesy Tony GowellThe actor got his start as a child actor in the 1987 film “Ernest Goes To Camp” and will next be seen in the new locally filmed show “Constantine,” premiering Oct. 24 on NBC. Gowell also has zombie experience by portraying one in the box office smash “Zombieland” (filmed in Georgia) and he stays connected to the industry through his day job as director of the Dragon Con convention office and is an official moderator for various Dragon Con panels.

He sat down with the GA Voice to talk about how long it takes to get made up, attending zombie school, trying to eat when wearing zombie makeup, working with the cast, scaring Atlanta citizens, and his dream kill.

So how did you end up being a zombie on “The Walking Dead”?

It originally started with me reaching out to the director of “Zombieland” [Ruben Fleischer]. He’s someone I know loosely and I was in search of being a zombie in honor of an acting coach of mine who had passed away. He had been a zombie in “Night of the Living Dead.” So the same casting agency that hired the zombies for “Zombieland” got the contract to hire the zombies for “The Walking Dead.” They reached out into their Rolodex of zombies and I got to work on the show for two years. I was most recognized as one of the walkers that was kept inside the barn at Herschel’s farm.

What was the whole experience like?

It’s surreal from the standpoint of someone that doesn’t really work in horror very much and you see it come to life with the makeup and special effects that you don’t see on other film and TV sets. You don’t know how wildly popular a show is going to be and you’re shooting bits and pieces because they don’t give you the script for everything, so you don’t know what the finished product will look like.

How long does it take to get made up each day?

It depends on what zombie role you’re fulfilling for the day. Sometimes it’s as little as 45 minutes or it can be as long as four or five hours. If you’re showing more skin, it takes longer. When they hire zombies for “The Walking Dead,” they tend to hire all the actors they’re going to hire for the season and then rotate through those actors.

How long does it take to get it taken off?

About half the time it takes to put on. The trick to getting it off is generic shaving cream and a hot warm towel.

Did you go to zombie school?

Yes, every season for the show they have what they call zombie school. It’s generally just a meet-and-greet for all the zombies that season and for the wardrobe department to do fittings and work with the makeup artists to test the chemicals on their skin, as well as the contact lens test, as well as a movement coach so they can begin plotting how they’ll use those actors for different scenes throughout the show. You go through [zombie school] once and then you don’t go back again.

So when you’re on lunch or dinner breaks, are all the zombies just hanging out shooting the breeze in full zombie makeup?

Absolutely. You eat the best you can with all of that makeup on. If it’s a small enough scene, you’re eating with the cast and crew as well.

What was it like working with the cast?

They’re really great. They’re of course busy trying to keep their lines together but they have a lot of interaction with the background extras playing walkers. They love to chit-chat and break the ice. The days can be very long, so it’s nice to have that interaction with them.

What’s the most memorable story or experience you had on set?

My favorite is when we were shooting episode two for season one, as we were walking down Mitchell Street where Andrew Lincoln (who plays Rick Grimes) and Steven Yeun (Glenn Rhee) were dressed as zombies trying to sneak past all the walkers. It starts raining and while we were filming there was a hair salon called “Oh My Nappy Hair” and apparently they hadn’t notified their clients that we were shooting, so this woman walked around the corner and saw all of us and started screaming. Oh it was funny.

Have you been killed?

Oh yeah, tons of times. Crazily enough Steven Yeun’s character, Glenn, has killed me in every episode I have died in. He shoots me in the head with a gun in episode five of season one, in season two I was shot in the head by Steven as I walk out of the barn, and he shoots me in the final episode of season two. It’s a running joke now when we’ve done panels together at conventions.

So if you had to get killed by a character, who would you want to do it, and how?

Oh my gosh. My son has a dream kill. My son plays the walker who ate Lori in the boiler room in season three, so Andrew Lincoln had that one-on-one time with him. So my son had the primo scene. I would love to have a scene like that with Norman Reedus’ character Daryl Dixon, but I want to be the one that takes him out. I want to be responsible for killing Daryl Dixon. That would be a dream walker kill. | @patricksaunders