Andrew Lincoln, 41, is reprising his role as Rick Grimes, the leading man in AMC's The Walking Dead, the fifth season of which premieres on Oct. 12. The show, which sees bands of frazzled survivors trying to navigate a zombie-laden apocalypse, has grown progressively darker (and more popular) over the past few years. A lightly edited interview with Lincoln follows.
TIME: When you showed up to the show's premiere without a beard, fans freaked about what it could mean for this season's plot. How do you feel about being the man whose facial hair can launch a thousand blogs?
Andrew Lincoln: I think I was quite clear on the red carpet that it's one of three things: It's either an extended flashback, I found a razor or I'm dead. I always knew that this season we were gonna need a bigger beard, but I had no idea the sort of shockwaves that being clean shaven would make. Going to L.A. for the premiere was astonishing. It sort of always is amazing and overwhelming and hysterical. We're in this bubble for most of the year — being clean shaven did turn quite a few heads.
The fans are extremely passionate. Aside from the beard, what's the most surreal fan experience you've had recently?
I suppose the first time I saw my face tattooed on somebody's body. That was pretty overwhelming.
How do you normally get back into being Rick — get back into his head, aside from facial hair?
This is the longest I've ever lived with a character. This is my fifth year of living with this man, and he has changed radically since season one. It's very interesting seeing my face again because the last time I saw it was four years ago. And my son [who is four years old] had never seen it clean shaven, so there were a couple of Skype sessions that were quite emotional, to say the least, trying to convince him that I'm still his father.
Playing this guy is kind of a roller coaster. It's dependent on the scene and the people I'm working with. There are certain people that have been on the show just as long as I, and it's a gift to be able to walk into a scene with them. There's no work needed, you just look at the other person and you know the history you share, and you just start talking and listening. The scenes just come alive.
Because of the nature of the show, we lose a lot of people but gain a lot of great people. There is a sort of welcome that you have to give people, but there's also a rite of passage. If you're going to be part of the family, we generally beat you up. There'll be some interrogation scene. You'll get dirt kicked in your face and, generally, cuts and bruises will happen on your first season of The Walking Dead.
Which was harder to get used to, doing the gory scenes with the walkers (the show's zombies) or the cruelty between living human beings, which has become the core of the narrative?
You can chart the journey of the show, certainly, in Rick's eyes. Initially, the walkers were an incredibly scary proposition, and such a shock. Season one and season two and sporadically throughout the rest of the seasons, they have huge shock factors. They're scary! In the wrong circumstances, they can be a real life or death threat.
The thing I'm more interested in, certainly this season, is the human factor. We are moving into a much more terrifying and psychologically scary landscape because the people that inhabit this world now, after two years, are either very dangerous, very pragmatic, or very organized, or all three. That makes for very interesting drama.
This season, there are some great performances coming from new actors, but also established characters that the fans love. And it just feels like we're moving into a much more dark and dangerous area. It's sort of like we're entering the heart of darkness this season.
The Walking Dead's creators aren't sentimental about killing off major characters. Rick is central to the show continuing, but does it stress you out to worry about your colleagues who might or might not make it?
Yeah, it's the one bad thing about the job. Any other TV or film projects that I've been involved in, you generally get an ensemble and you stick with it and you bounce around all the different permutations of drama — and then it finishes. This is not that kind of show.
And it's incredibly painful losing great friends and great characters. That's the other thing I regret — you lose that relationship with those brilliant people. That dies with them. You'll never communicate with them in that way again. Herschel, or Shane, or Laurie. It's the only job that I've ever done that is like this, where the show's DNA changes all the time.
The churn in characters has turned the program into an actor's show (Sonequa Martin-Green from The Good Wife; Chad L. Coleman and Larry Gilliard from The Wire). Has that surprised you given what you thought you were getting into — a gory, action show?
I think it's the greatest compliment that anybody could give us — the people working on this show — that the serious and really fine actors want to come and do good work on the show and join the party. I don't think there's any better way to compliment a set or a crew or a cast than that. This season in particular, I have to take my hat off to the casting directors. They've done an amazing job.
It is a double-edged sword. You make these incredible relationships and then you lose them. They'll always be a part of the show. I was just laughing about it last week. The bonus is I get to work with most of the greatest actors in SAG.
Are you desensitized to violence now?
No. Funnily enough, I read a script for a movie recently and I couldn't finish it. I was terrified. It was the most scary thing I've ever read. I had to phone my agent and say, 'It's really great. I think it's going to be a hit. But I can't do it because it's too scary.' It was unbearable. The show hasn't desensitized me at all. I think I'm still as soft as the day I walked into the job.