Onstage at New York City’s Rockwood Music Hall, Emily Kinney has a story to tell.
“So, there’s this boy I really like. He lives in Brooklyn and we’re perfect for each other. Like, perfect. There is one problem though. He has a girlfriend, Julie.”
Kinney—looking very Brooklyn herself in a black belly shirt, flannel and denim shorts—plucks a fan from the front row, who happens to be wearing a shirt she designed. Tiny stick figures are scrawled into an equation. “As you can see, I’m also a very talented artist,” she deadpans. She reads aloud: “You plus me (minus Julie) equals true love!”
With backup from a bassist and a percussionist, Kinney dives into audience sing-a-long “Julie,” one of nine shimmery, sugar sweet songs about stoner boyfriends, jealousy, and lost loves from her second EP, Expired Love. She seems a little nervous, but the few dozen people in the room have almost certainly heard her sing before—and millions more have definitely watched her kill zombies.
Kinney plays Beth Greene on AMC’s The Walking Dead, a teenage, compassionate caretaker-type who, until recently, was remembered mostly for a sparkling cover of Tom Waits’s “Hold On,” sung for her fellow survivors at the prison they used for shelter. For a season and a half, Beth was a peripheral character on cable TV’s most massive show. But the destruction of the prison and a new partner in survival (Norman Reedus’s Daryl Dixon) gave Beth a chance to shine—and it turns out there’s more to her than just a knack for taking care of other people’s babies.
“The drink was a teenage, rebellious ‘live your life to the fullest’ kind of thing.”
Faced with a stubbornly morose Daryl, Beth storms off to do what any real person might do given the circumstances—she goes and finds herself a damn drink. “She’s really just a teenage girl,” Kinney says. “In some ways, the drink was a teenage, rebellious ‘live your life to the fullest’ kind of thing, but also I really feel like it was a way to help her through loss. There’s something about wanting to experience life, instead of just wandering around with this old dude.” (She then laughs and voices the disclaimer, “Well, not really old, but older.”)
Beth’s first drink is almost the world’s saddest bottle of leftover peach schnapps—the only drink in an abandoned bar that other post-apocalyptic survivors didn’t think worth stealing. Daryl, insulted, smashes it to bits and finds her moonshine instead. It’s a funny scene in a show that doesn’t have many laughs. And it’s not unlike Kinney’s own first experience with moonshine, also offered to her by a fellow cast member—though not the actor you’d probably guess first.
“Actually, my first time drinking it was with Scott Wilson,” she says of the actor who played Beth’s elderly father, Hershel. “He invited us all over to his house for dinner and, I can’t remember if he said he made it himself or if he bought it locally, but for some reason he had moonshine.”
Moonshine isn’t the only thing Beth and Kinney have in common (though Kinney, 28, is ten years older than her character and grew up in different small towns of Nebraska, not Georgia). Like Beth, Kinney was brought up in a religious family as one of three siblings. And, of course, Kinney shares her love of singing with Beth—a characteristic she tries to manifest visually, too.
“I definitely feel like Beth is an artist,” Kinney says. “Eulyn [Womble, The Walking Dead’s costume designer] and I talk about what colors Beth wears, or even little things like her necklaces and earrings. That’s why even in these horrible circumstances, you still see a random little braid in her hair, or if you look closely, you’ll see that her earrings aren’t matching. That’s one way I really did have some input and was able to create someone, even though she didn’t get to talk a lot in the second and third seasons.”
Kinney’s most personal creation, however, is Expired Love, a collection of snapshots from past relationships. “I’m one of those people who’s very loyal, so it’s hard for me to give up on people. I often date the same person over again,” she laughs. “We stop dating and then maybe I’ll meet someone else, then a few months later I’m re-dating the other person, even if things haven’t gone well.”
But growing up means giving up on certain things—especially old boyfriends. “Writing this album was about putting some of those moments away and leaving those relationships behind,” she says.
Like every actor on The Walking Dead, Kinney isn’t sure if or when it’ll ever be time to leave her role there behind—the show’s mortality rate is notorious and the last time we saw Beth, she was stuffed into a stranger’s car and whisked off into oblivion. Kinney’s gotten comfortable in Georgia for now, having bought an apartment in what she calls a “golf cart community” in a town next to Atlanta. And she especially enjoys spending time with cast mates Lauren Cohan and Steven Yeun.
Still, she knows the worst may come any day.
“Everyone should be scared for whoever their favorite character is,” she says. “I think they should be afraid for everyone, because that’s how the characters feel. You never know what’s around the corner, just like us in real life. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t love who you love or invest in who you invest in. If you start to like Beth, you do. Or if you love Maggie and Glenn’s relationship, you should! Enjoy it.”