The Whisperers made their presence known in The Walking Dead's Season 9 midseason finale, revealing their existence to Daryl (Norman Reedus), Michonne (Danai Gurira) & Co. by killing Jesus (Tom Payne). So far, all non-readers know about the Whisperers is that they're living humans who peel the faces off walkers and wear them as masks. They shuffle around slowly to make people think they're walkers, except for when they move quickly and get stabby.
Their unique style poses a new challenge for the show's special effects makeup mastermind/executive producer/midseason premiere director Greg Nicotero. During a visit to the set of The Walking Dead last fall, Nicotero told reporters that the Whisperers have a very different design than usual walkers — they're masks rather than makeup, which gives them a terrifying blank affect he likens to Michael Myers from the Halloween franchise. "The face doesn't move, so you cannot judge any kind of emotion," he continued. "So every time we shoot with a group of them, I look at them like, 'that's f---in' weird, man.'"
The Whisperers on the show look a little different than they do in the comic. As drawn by Charlie Adlard, the Whisperers have a sagging, melted look that Nicotero didn't think would work on-screen. He also didn't want them to look like Leatherface from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, who's wearing a primitive mask made of flayed skin. So instead, he gave the masks a bone structure. The masks have deep eye sockets so that the brow sticks out enough to create a shadow over the eyes "so that when you look at the faces... you get nothing there," he says. The masks are then "over-textured" to look shriveled and decayed. They're not quite like anything that's ever been on the show before. They're also oppressively hot and difficult to breathe under, so they're not for the claustrophobic. But no one has complained, per the executive producer. In fact, Nicotero says that Samantha Morton, who plays Whisperer leader Alpha — officially revealed for the first time putting on her repulsive blonde-haired mask — is a "f---in' rockstar" who loves her creepy new face. She and the other actors appreciate acting outside of their comfort zones.
"It's challenging," Nicotero says. "It's pushing them to this whole new place of like, you gotta act, but it's 110 degrees in your head, and you're sweating. But they all love it." Ryan Hurst, who plays Alpha's second-in-command Beta, particularly loves his gold teeth. According to Nicotero, the teeth weren't in the script, but Hurst thought his big bruiser of a character would be even more imposing if he had cool teeth, so Nicotero acquiesced. Imagine a seven-foot-tall, bearded, gold-teethed maniac coming at you, you know?
During the set visit, reporters were posted up in the mess tent, and as we were leaving, the Whisperer extras were arriving to eat. They were carrying their masks like fleshy puppets, with a hand inside to keep them from getting smushed. They were clearly exhausted after a long day in the Georgia heat that their masks had made even hotter, but they still looked f---in' weird.
The Walking Dead returns Sunday, Feb. 10 at 9/8c on AMC.