The Walking Dead: World Beyond, AMC's new two-season event series spin-off in the Walking Dead Universe, premieres Sunday, Oct. 4. It's taken longer than expected for the horror-adventure coming-of-age drama to reach the screen, as the premiere was originally scheduled for April but got pushed back due to the coronavirus pandemic. The pilot of World Beyond was filmed over a year ago, and last fall I visited the Richmond, Virginia, set during the production of Episode 7, back before the show even had an official title. It was a sunny day into an unseasonably cold November night that happened to be "Fried Chicken Friday" at the craft services table. Here's what I learned about World Beyond during the visit.
The Walking Dead: World Beyond is about a small group of people — teenagers Iris (Aliyah Royale), Hope (Alexa Mansour), Elton (Nicolas Cantu), and Silas (Hal Cumpston), joined by adults Huck (Annet Mahendru) and Felix (Nico Tortorella) — who go on a quest away from their relatively safe and stable home community in Nebraska in search of Iris and Hope's father, who is somewhere in New York state. The setting is therefore always changing, and every episode features a new location as the characters head across the country.
This makes World Beyond different from most TV shows, which usually do some location shooting but are mostly shot at a studio, and even from The Walking Dead, which is primarily shot at the show's compound in Senoia, Georgia. World Beyond does have a facility in a former kitty litter warehouse in Richmond that's used for production-related construction and some soundstage filming, but mostly they're filming out in the wild. Much of the pilot, for example, was shot at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The filming location for this part of Episode 7 was Hadad's Lake, a water park and event venue best known as the site of the annual Gwar-B-Q, a music festival hosted by the Richmond-based costumed metal band Gwar. On this fall day, the empty playgrounds and swimming pools of this slightly run-down summer camp had an inherently postapocalyptic feel that fit the show very well.
Episodes 6 and 7 of the season are directed by Michael Cudlitz, who, after his character Abraham was infamously killed by Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) on The Walking Dead, transitioned into working behind the camera and has directed three episodes of the flagship series so far. Cudlitz was too busy to talk to reporters on set, but I observed him going over blocking with the actors and repeatedly advising them and crew members to be very careful not to step in the blood on the floor of the scene.
The four main cast members of World Beyond are all young actors in their first series regular roles, but they have the poise of professionals and are all obviously extremely well-suited for their parts. Within moments of meeting them it's clear that they're right for the part — it's easy to think, for example, "Oh, Aliyah Royale is Iris," or, "Yes, Alexa Mansour is Hope."
"When you know, you know," co-creator and showrunner Matthew Negrete, in a separate interview, said of when he knew he found the right actors. "We scoured the globe looking for just the right actors, and it took a while to solidify the whole gang. Aliyah brought the room to a standstill with her audition. She cried tears that hit the floor. I'd never seen that before. Alexa just had this magnetism. She was edgy, but also kind of hilarious and really endearing. You couldn't help but root for her. Nicolas nailed the guilelessness and wisdom that the character embodies. Hal was the perfect gentle giant… and the perfect not-so-gentle giant... I couldn't be prouder of the cast we were able to assemble, and can't wait for the world to see them in action."
Royale plays Iris, the Rick Grimes of World Beyond, whose perspective we primarily watch the show through. Iris is a very intelligent and high-achieving high school student who's the student body president at the Omaha Campus Colony and is following in her scientist father's footsteps. She's a kind and selfless friend to all, and the leader of the group. "She's the first one to run in if someone's in trouble," Royale said. "She just wants to make sure that none of the decisions she makes serve any consequences to the people that she's brought along on this journey."
Royale is the perfect actor for the part. She was just 19 during the filming of Season 1, but she has the warmth and charisma of someone you would trust to lead you on a journey. Negrete said that Iris was initially conceived as a more reserved character, but after Royale was cast the writers changed her character to be more outgoing, like Royale.
Iris' signature weapon is an S-pole — a spear-like weapon favored by campus security — modified with a triceratops horn fossil for extra stabbing power. When asked about the weapon, Royale let out a "Woo!" like Ric Flair and said she named it Shiloh. Shiloh isn't the weapon's official name, just the name Royale gave it — or her, since Royale also assigned the weapon a gender. She was inspired to give it a name by Negan, her favorite character on The Walking Dead, who has a barbed wire-wrapped baseball bat named Lucille. The name has a lot of personal significance to Royale.
"My weapon is so freaking cool," Royale said. "She's, like, taller than me. She's super cool. And I had a Siberian Husky named Shiloh when I was like 8, and I just equate them with the same level of coolness, I guess, so I named her Shiloh."
Mansour plays Iris' sister, the ironically named Hope, who is rebellious and jaded and edgy. "Hope is such an angsty teen who just does not give a sh-- about anything or anyone," Mansour said. "Hope doesn't really think that she's going to live very long. And granted, with the way things are going in the world, she doesn't have very much hope." But this journey may help her find some purpose and something more to live for.
Mansour, who is 24 and exudes coolness both in style and affect, was running out of hope herself and almost ready to quit acting before landing her part on World Beyond. She was demoralized from going on three auditions a day and not booking anything. The day of her audition for World Beyond, having "had a long night the night before," Mansour wore her little sister's T-shirt, which she threw on without realizing the graphic had a penis on it. She thought she bombed it, but she was wrong. After a couple more callbacks, she found out on July 3, 2019, that she got the job. "And the first thing I said was, 'Yay, I can fix my windshield,'" Mansour recalled drolly.
Mansour has a charmingly sardonic sense of humor — when I started to set up a question by saying that her life was about to change a lot, she interjected "Everyone keeps saying that" — and a couple of tiny tattoos, most prominently an Eye of Horus tattoo on her left middle finger, honoring her half-Egyptian heritage. The tattoos became part of Hope, too: The character got them as an act of rebellion after her father left to help study the zombie virus at another community. (Mansour's tattoos are covered up in flashbacks.)
Nicolas Cantu, who was only 16 at the time of filming, is the youngest member of the cast, a slight boy with clever eyes and mischievous smile. He plays Elton, an inquisitive orphan who wants to learn more about the world outside the walls of the community and find out more about what happened to his family. Elton wears a light brown three-piece suit made of "tuffy stitch," a durable corduroy-like material from the '90s that he discovered is bite-proof. When Cantu describes the suit, or what weapon he'd use if he were actually in the zombie apocalypse, he sounds as well-informed as Elton — almost scientific.
"I definitely relate to his character," Cantu said. "He has this kind of, like, positive nihilism look on the world that he's in. And I wouldn't say I share it to the same extent because, I mean, I don't live in an apocalypse, but there are some worries in the real world, you know?" Elton's "positive nihilism," his belief that you have to make your own meaning in life, seems to Cantu like a useful outlook to have. "And he's also just weird and goofy, too," the actor added. "I bring some of that in there in his mannerisms."
Hal Cumpston is the actor in the cast who's least like his character. The 20-year-old Aussie plays Silas, a very quiet and shy boy with a troubled past, but Cumpston can talk uninterrupted for five minutes, barely taking a breath as he tells the story of how he got the part. Here's the short version: He wrote and starred in a coming-of-age indie dramedy directed by his father called Bilched, which caught the attention of an American management company, who, in order to see if they wanted to represent him, had him audition for a show that turned out to be World Beyond. They did — and not only that, he got the part. It was his first American audition.
Cumpston, a tall young man with soft features, describes Silas as a "the Boo Radley figure" of the campus colony, outcast and misunderstood. People are afraid of him and spread rumors about the violent thing he did while he was living in a different community before he got to the campus, and he doesn't do anything to disprove them, because he doesn't talk much at all. Cumpston also compares Silas to the Hulk in that he wants to be peaceful, but there's a rage inside of him that explodes when he's pushed too far.
The Walking Dead: World Beyond premieres Sunday, Oct. 4 at 10/9c on AMC, after a special episode of The Walking Dead.
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