The Walking Dead’s Wounded Warrior: Melissa McBride on the Rise of Carol

The actress who plays nosy little boys’ worst nightmare, Carol, on the time her character was almost killed off and how she will do “whatever she has to do” to survive.

03.09.15 2:15 AM ET

Melissa McBride doesn’t think of Carol Peletier as a badass. Sure, her character escaped the tyrannical grip of an abusive husband to become one of The Walking Dead’s toughest warriors. And sure, she’s done gruesome, necessary tasks like capping a little girl in the head, singlehandedly blowing up a cannibal safe haven and threatening to have a nosy young boy eaten alive by walkers. She is cunning, calculating, and deadly—but “badass”? Nah.

“You’ll be outside the walls. Far, far away, tied to a tree, and you’ll scream and scream because you’ll be so afraid,” Carol tells the terrified boy, named Sam, in Sunday’s episode. “No one will come to help because no one will hear you. Well, something will hear you. The monsters will come. The ones out there. And you won’t be able to run away when they come for you. And they will tear you apart and eat you up, all while you’re still alive. All while you can still feel it. And then afterwards, no one will ever know what happened to you.”

McBride becomes a real-life bogeyman, looming taller and taller over the boy with every word, ensuring he’ll never rat her out for stealing guns from the Alexandrians. The scene is unsettling but not out of character for Carol—she’s known for doing whatever it takes to keep her adopted family alive, moral gray area be damned. (R.I.P. Karen, David, and Lizzie. And Sam, if he doesn’t keep his trap shut.)

Still, to McBride, “Carol is still just Carol, you know?”

“If [Carol] were sitting here, she’d go, ‘They call me badass? Really? Sheesh, okay, I guess,’” McBride, 49, laughs.

“She doesn’t seem like a badass to me, she just gets to do badass things,” McBride adds. “I see her as someone who has just really risen, step-by-step-by-step to become a fighter. She’ll do whatever she has to do.”

The rise of Carol has become one of the show’s most compelling storylines, all the more remarkable because it was almost cut short. McBride’s character was supposed to die early in Season 3, when Rick’s (Andrew Lincoln) group first colonized a walker-overrun prison. Glen Mazzara, then-showrunner, broke the news to McBride, who saw more potential in Carol than the writers were giving her credit for. McBride made the case for keeping Carol over a conference call with Mazzara and the writers, laying out her take on Carol’s story.

“I thought it was a shame because there’s just so much to her,” McBride says. “She yearned for things, she had desire and strength inside. She was isolated because of this relationship she was in. I don’t think Ed [Carol’s ex-husband] would let her hang out with the ladies in the neighborhood [before the apocalypse.] Her errands were probably very short and she was held on a short leash. Then at some point, she’d get so mad at herself for being in that position, she’d start to tell herself the same thing: ‘You’re no good, nobody’s gonna love you.’ And the cycle gets looped and looped and looped.”

“But I can see her being that woman who watches those Tony Robbins motivational tapes when he goes to work,” McBride adds. “There’s the real estate idea: ‘Maybe I could do that. He wouldn’t know. Maybe I could do that and save money and get out of here.’ I think she had initiative, she was just stuck in that place of fear. That fear is very real; it’s a physical fear. To get out, she’s got to be methodical and smart. She was what they call a self-starter.”

Needless to say, the writers were convinced; two seasons later, Carol is an indispensable member of Rick’s team.

The issue of domestic abuse is inextricably tied to Carol and has played out in McBride’s own life as well. (“It’s hurt a lot of people that I know,” she says.) McBride says that through Carol, she’s met people who have taken her character as inspiration for developing enough forward momentum to escape their own restrictive situations.

“Men and women both have come to me and told me their stories. How they got away, how they took control of their life,” McBride says. “Whether it was domestic abuse or some other thing in their life that had control over them and was dictating to them who they should be or what they should do. Or somebody who, like in my case, a lot of years ago I had a very difficult time saying ‘no.’ Then all of a sudden you’re living your life for other people.”

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Season 5 has featured several nods back to Carol’s troubled history, including a visit to an abandoned women’s shelter in Atlanta, where Carol mentioned staying for days at a time before zombies took over the world. In last week’s episode, “Remember,” Carol told a revised version of her backstory for Alexandria’s leader, Deanna, to make herself seem as peppy and helpless as she looks (“I get to be invisible again,” she later tells Rick, gleefully):

“I did some reading, gardened. Always had dinner on the table for Ed when he came home,” Carol tells Deanna. “I miss that stupid, wonderful man every day. I really didn’t have much to offer this group so I sort of became their den mother and they’ve been nice enough to protect me.”

The joke, of course, is that seeing warrior woman Carol in a baby blue cardigan and mom jeans—or thinking of her as a “den mother” in need of protection—is so incongruous it’s laughable. (So is thinking of Ed Peletier as “wonderful.”) Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) voices the sentiment when he shouts after her, “You look ridiculous!”

Fans like to imagine the two will pair up one day, a hope some have held out since at least Season 3. It’s not looking likely, but that doesn’t stop some from getting heated up about it. “Once [fans] start getting nasty to each other, it’s heartbreaking to me and so unnecessary,” McBride says. “I have to walk away and try to avoid things where I might see something like that. There’s just enough nastiness in the world, big, serious nastiness that I don’t understand why people [do it.] To what end, I don’t get it. It hurts people.”

For McBride, a Kentucky native and former casting director, being the subject of shipping wars and fan debates still feels like new territory. She’s not quite used to fame just yet. “A lot like my character Carol, I feel like we’re sort of navigating a new world together,” she laughs. “She has the apocalypse and I have this. You’re required to do things you’re not necessarily comfortable doing. It’s a wonderful challenge for me and I’m trying to grow and learn more about myself in the process.”

Just like Carol.