Emily Kinney, who plays Beth Greene on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” was my neighbor in the small town of Wayne, Nebraska. For five years, her family lived next door to the house where my parents still live.
Emily participated in a youth theater camp I directed and sang at the church our families attended. We both moved away and the next I heard, Emily was performing in “Spring Awakening” on Broadway. Soon after, she was cast in one of cable television’s most popular shows. In her time off the set, Emily writes and performs music. Her second album, “Expired Love,” was released on October 22, 2013.
BUY: “Expired Love” on iTunes
Emily spoke with me recently from her apartment in Georgia, where she lives during filming of “The Walking Dead.” What struck me during our phone conversation was that Emily doesn’t consider herself remarkable. She has a Midwestern pragmatism about her career without the typical Nebraskan’s belief that dreams are by definition inaccessible.
Most Midwesterners pursue tamed-down versions of our wildest dreams, if we pursue them at all. When did you decide, “I have this acting dream and I’m going after it in the wildest way possible”?
To be honest, that was my plan for as long as I can remember, since I was really little. It was always in my mind that if I want to be an actor, then I want to go to New York City and I want to be on Broadway. Or I want to be on TV and do work that people can see.
What gave you the courage to leave Nebraska and move to New York to follow your dream?
I never thought, well we’re in Nebraska. It never felt like a huge separation. I think probably one of the things that made it like that is my dad is very dreamy. Like, “You want to do that? Here’s some information about it.”
I remember when I was in high school a friend of mine saying, “Oh, it would be so cool to go to Notre Dame. But that’s not really what you do.” And I remember thinking, ‘why would you not apply? Someone has to get into Notre Dame. Who do you think they pick?’ I didn’t realize until later how big a gift that was, that it didn’t seem like not a possibility.
Your Nebraska upbringing comes up a lot in interviews. Why do you think people are interested in that part of your back story?
It does seem to come up. It seems like a big jump somehow, like a different way into this kind of work.
Nebraska seems to have a hipper reputation recently. There are more pop culture references, like Penny in “The Big Bang Theory” being from Nebraska. Have you noticed that?
Sometimes in my group of friends from New York, people think, “I just want to move somewhere like Nebraska. I want to have things a bit simpler, have some quiet.” I think people long for that. Maybe people are longing to get a house and chill out a little bit, and write a song and not tweet to everyone about it.
Congratulations, by the way, on your album “Expired Love.”
How did the singer-songwriter part of your career come about?
I started writing my own music because there were so many times auditioning where I would have these gaps of time waiting for work. I still wanted to be creative, so I started writing my own music. It’s something I can do where I don’t have to wait for the script to be made. I can write my own.
With all that waiting for work, it must have been a thrill to get a recurring role in a popular show like “The Walking Dead.”
When I first joined, it was popular, but it wasn’t quite what it is now. I sort of thought, “Oh, this is going to be awesome. I get to be in this cool zombie show.” But I assumed my character would die.
Is it unnerving to know your character could be killed off at any time? How does that affect your acting?
In some ways it helps your acting because it’s sort of like your character. You never know what’s going to happen next. The thing that’s hardest about it is the life stuff. Planning. It’s an issue that you have as an actor anyway, forever always, never knowing what job’s next. It also is hard because you do get invested in the friendships you make on set. And then when someone else’s character dies off, they’re not around anymore.
Writers talk about distinctions between plot-driven and character-driven stories. What are the challenges of developing a character in a series that tends to be more plot driven?
I think actually this is one of the shows that does a good job of taking time to have slower episodes where you get to know the characters. But still, there have been times during the show where that’s been a challenge. And what you do is, you do all your work filling in the gaps. What do you imagine your character went through? You have to do that work on your own and then trust that somehow it’ll come through, even if all you have is the line, “Ahh! Zombies!”
You seem to be more focused on your craft than on becoming a celebrity. Does being more recognized now make it harder to focus on your craft?
Oh, that’s such a good question because it’s something that I never thought of. I love that when I go to work on “The Walking Dead,” people are actually going to see it. And maybe they’ll check out something else that I do. I’m not acting to become famous. I’m acting and it’s awesome to be recognized so I can get more acting work. Because I want to keep doing it.
How do you handle the whole Walker Stalker thing? It’s a cute name, but some fans really do seem stalkerish, like the Internet version of guys in Nebraska who follow you in their pick-up trucks while you’re jogging and lean out their windows to catcall at you.
I’m kind of learning as I go. Sometimes my mom will be like, “Oh my gosh, there was this picture someone photoshopped.” I don’t know where she finds these things, but I’m like, “You know what? You just have to let it go.” Like you were saying, you go for a run and someone hollers something annoying to you. How much is that going to affect you? You’re still doing something really good for yourself and you still enjoy your run. I’m having a great time acting and singing, and I don’t know how much I’m going to let someone not let me enjoy this while it lasts.
A friend who is also from Wayne says her grandparents were preppers before anyone had heard of preppers. Older Nebraskans store supplies not because of a zombie apocalypse, but because it was necessary for survival a few generations ago. As a Midwesterner, do you have a unique take on zombie preppers?
That makes sense to me, but I wouldn’t say my family were huge preppers. Although recently my dad gets into all of that. Now my dad’s like, “If something were to happen, you’d need this thing or you’d need that thing.” I think that comes from television and culture and this idea of being ready for the end of the world.
In another interview, you said people wonder how we’d treat each other if something like that happened. Would it bring out the best or the worst in us? What do you think?
I think people would be the best. When we’re scared, sometimes we’re mean to each other, but I really feel like the good would come out. In New York City, when there was the big hurricane last year, everybody was staying at friends’ apartments. People were going into stores and paying for things even though all the lights were out. People were sharing cabs.
That’s kind of what happened in Wayne. You know with the tornado they just had. You expect that in a small town, but maybe it’s not particular to a type of community or region.
I think it shows how even though there are millions of people in New York, there’s a sense of community that’s really special. And it turns on, you know. Part of it is because you see that you’re with people. You’re not alone in your car, you’re on the subway. If you’re in cabs, you’re talking to the cab driver. You’re out, and you’re part of a community. There’s an ownership, the same way that in a small town there’s an ownership, and if you live there, you want to volunteer and you want to help. And I think other cities have that same sense. I think you find it in a lot of places.
Link Love for Emily: