Exclusive: Fear the Walking Dead actor Cliff Curtis talks about what really scares him

Cliff Curtis on Fear The Walking Dead

The end is finally here ... That is, the end of the long, long wait for AMC to premiere its new Walking Dead companion series, Fear the Walking Dead, which airs this Sunday, Aug. 23, at 9/8C.  Taking the lead role is New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis, an established character actor who's starred in everything from The Piano to Whale Rider.

In Fear the Walking Dead, Curtis plays Travis Manawa, a high school English teacher in Los Angeles, who along with his fiancee, Madison, and their teenage children, find themselves in the middle of a strange and dangerous “outbreak.” Of course, we know that things are about to get a whole lot worse as Travis tries to bring his family together so they can get out of L.A.

I talked to Curtis in this exclusive interview about his character's struggle to understand what's going on, the show's slow entry into the Walking Dead universe, and why he thinks you should give the show a chance before deciding how it compares to the original.

We know your character is a high school teacher and a family man, but what else can you tell us about him?

The thing I love most about him is he's an optimist. He's a believer in humanity and the goodness of humanity. And he's a fix-it kind of guy. He loves fixing stuff. Anything you need fixing around the house, whether it's the kitchen sink, the car, the teenage kids ... he is that guy. Which can be great. And it can also be really challenging for people who don't like to be fixed.

The zombie apocalypse might be a tough world to be an optimist and a fix-it guy in.

Travis is an idealist. He believes in certain things. He doesn't want to let go of those things, because his world will fall apart, and how will he define himself? He's a high school teacher, and doesn't have a principal and parent teachers' association [to turn to], and you don't have your coffee break at lunchtime. This dude is not ready for what's about to happen.

Some of our characters are a lot more ready than others. My character doesn't have a dark past. He doesn't have some kind of military background. There's no secret weapon that he's got that going to prepare him for what's about to go down. And I think he's one of the slowest to adapt throughout the first season, which I really, really enjoy. He doesn't like guns. He doesn't like violence.

Travis certainly believes the government will figure things out and save them.

Well, of course, they're going to figure it out. … My character is on that part of the fence. Like, “Slow down, buddy. Why don't we just calm down and talk about this?” I think it's hilarious. I think it's great fun.

How is Fear the Walking Dead going to be different than the original series?

The cool thing is what they've done with the show. We're not diving into it head first. Especially the pilot and the first couple of episodes, we take time to set up who the characters really are. And so the apocalypse doesn't happen instantly. It's like, “Is there some kind of flu outbreak?” We don't know. And so we take a bit of time. We don't really know what's going on. The apocalypse doesn't happen all of a sudden.

The writers have done a meticulous job of defining the characters in such a way that it all makes sense and it's absolutely believable that the characters, as they start, you see what they become, and how they become what they become. It feels surprisingly real.

We don't know it's going to be the apocalypse. As far as we know it could be some kind of flu epidemic, which will be shut down in a week's time. It might go away. They'll figure it out after this initial flare-up. We'll get it under control in another week or so, it will be fine.

As an actor, what challenges did you face with Travis?

I often get cast as a guy who's going to kick ass and ask questions later. And this character, he's not like that. My nature is probably, I would probably jump in a little sooner than this guy. And that's quite tough to play. He's going to take some hits. He's got a really strong since of values and core, and he doesn't want to give that up as quickly as everyone around him. Because he sees the cost of that, to his family and to himself, because he asks the deeper questions, like “What are you becoming if you buy into this to quickly?”

What has surprised you most while filming the series?

It's a genre show, so it's going to feel like a genre show. It's for entertainment. And it actually feels real. You walk on to set and you're like, “Oh, my goodness. This actually could happen.” It might not actually be this particular virus or infection. But if there was an outbreak on this scale of this kind that threatened the order of things, it could actually go down exactly as portrayed in this show.

And that's the thing that surprised me, because when I walked on set, I really didn't see that coming. But now that it's happening, it makes perfect sense. It's kind of scary. I was not prepared for that. I didn't not see that coming, what happens in episode three or four.

Or the other thing which is surprising, which is always fun in any kind of show, is seeing how the characters respond to the situation. We can talk all day long about what we think we would do in this situation, but it's not until we're in a situation that [tests us]. So it's kind of like that in the show. You see a character and you're like, “I did not see that character responding to that situation in that way.” That surprises me. I didn't even think that character was capable of that. I didn't see that coming at all.

Why should people tune in to Fear the Walking Dead?

The only thing I can say is I feel when I go to work and I read the scripts and we finish our days work each day, is we're doing a good job. We're doing good work. Everybody from the whole team. And so that's the only thing that I focus on. And I think that doing good work day by day makes a good show.

We have the in-built security that we've got the creators of the original show. And we've got fresh blood and a fresh perspective. And then we've got AMC, who knows how to put shows together. They've made more than one good show, and they continue to make great shows. And we've got Gale Anne Hurd, Robert Kirkman, Greg Nicotero, the usual suspects. We've got a great team around us to create new possibilities.

But I prefer to undersell, overdeliver. So I would say, give us a chance to earn our audience. And it's a slow burn. It's not going to come off out the gate blasting. We start off with a family and a normal circumstance. And the apocalypse hasn't happened. And it's not going to hit until the end of the first season. So you've got to come in and invest in those relationships, in those people, if the show is going to really work.

And I think that's why they picked us up for two seasons, because they're smart and they know that trying to compare us with the juggernaut and the Goliath that is the other show, that's not going to help us. We just need to start off fresh with an audience.

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