The Broadway Star Takes on Zombies on TV's Hottest Show
By Lavanya Sunkara
From the bright lights of Broadway to the dusty roads of rural Georgia, The Walking Dead's Tovah Feldshuh has led a fascinating journey. For forty years, she's entertained audiences on the New York stage with her golden voice and captivating performances. At age 60, the Tony and Emmy-nominated actress suspended 30 feet in the air from a trapeze without a harness or a net in Pippin. She won hearts and accolades as Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in the longest running one-woman play on Broadway, Golda's Balcony. She's an adventurer whose wanderlust has taken her the world over, from India to Peru to Africa, where she climbed Kilimanjaro earlier this year, simply because she still could.
Now with instant recognition as Deanna Monroe, the leader of Alexandria on AMC's The Walking Dead (TWD), this New Yorker is loving life. When I arrived at her Upper West Side apartment, I expected her to be dressed like her character: donning a crisp pantsuit and bright lipstick, hair firmly in place. Instead, Ms. Feldshuh sauntered in sporting her workout clothes, her hair in a bun and a smile on her lips. She had just returned from her summer home fresh from yoga class and a half mile swim. She was warm, friendly, and inviting, all of the qualities that make her endearing on the series in which she debuted in Season 5.
Resident sat down with Feldshuh to discuss The Walking Dead, her upcoming projects, and the daily exercise regimen that helps her stay fit to battle zombies, should the walls of Alexandria fall.
Lavanya Sunkara: You're on one of the hottest shows and already have a big fan base. What made you transition from Broadway to television?
Tovah Feldshuh: I think what made me decide to concentrate on film and TV is that I am getting older. I can still do eight shows a week. I love the theater, but I have explored it and had the honor of being on the marquee for 40 years. So, I want to keep dancing and change partners; I want to leave something behind and to enjoy this vastly different life. It's certainly easier physically. When I got offered this part, I grabbed it.
Being on Broadway is appreciated, but it's local talent. You get good tables and invited to the Mayor's house, but it's hard to sell out concerts in Iowa, unless you win a Tony on national TV. Television actors are in a powerful position in New York because we sell seats. It's a bilateral gift. We bring a lot to them, and they give us a lot.
LS: In the comic book, the leader of Alexandria is Douglas Monroe. Why do you think the showrunner, Scott Gimple, decided to change the role to a woman?
TF: I don't know, but I feel fortunate to be chosen. It was Scott Gimple's desire, and they were only meeting women. For Deanna's character, I looked to Hillary Clinton because she was one of the politicians I knew and met. She's a very capable stateswomen. She has the most experience. She doesn't have Donald Trump's hair. She would be our Margaret Thatcher.
Deanna Monroe is a congresswoman from Ohio; Hillary is from the Midwest. The character is intellectual; Hillary is brilliant. She's undaunted and she is not defeated by her defeats. So is Deanna Monroe. Deanna is like Diana, the goddess of the hunt. She was nothing like that at the beginning. She could've been called Athena, the goddess of knowledge. She was offering this band of marvelous, honorable pirates, Rick Grimes and his group, safety, structure, education, the beginnings of culture. They were offering her brawn in a world that really exists outside the walls of Alexandria.
LS: Tell us about your experience of being on the set of The Walking Dead.
TF: I love the people, the caliber of the work, the kindness of the people in Atlanta. It's worth the heat, better than the cold here. There's such a love affair going on the set; a lot of it has to do with Andrew Lincoln. He makes people family; the whole cast and crew is like a family. When the beloved character Hershel was killed, everybody wore suspenders.
The reason TWD has such appeal is because a bunch of desperate and separated groups of people, some of whom are decent, some are killers, are trying to survive, heavily outnumbered by a force that threatens to end all life as we know it. We are back in the situation of 9/11, back in the Middle East for sure, where democracy is outnumbered. Under this endless stream of threat, who acts like a human being, who is the Andy Lincoln, and who acts like an animal?
LS: What has been most memorable on set?
TF: My most memorable moment was being flown in from Cartagena, Colombia on Monday and shooting a nine page scene on Tuesday and Wednesday. It's where Rick and Deanna meet for the first time, and this was happening in real life. We pulled it off, and AMC was pleased. I am glad I was trained on the stage.
LS: What has been your biggest challenge?
TF: I think what is coming up; how intellectual Deanna is going to stay and how physical she needs to become to survive. How much of a warrior does she need to be to make it through the day? That was interesting and challenging and I am grateful that I am an athlete. I'm running in various scenes in Season 5, and that gets accelerated. Am I a person who tries to save other people, literally? Usually I try to do that with my mouth with what I say, not using my fists.
LS: Does Deanna still believe a civilized world is possible?
TF: She holds onto it, but it's costing her a lot. She lost her son and now her husband. She has to learn what is applicable from her background that works to survive and what's no longer useful. She needs to adapt. Like Darwin said, it's not the most intelligent or strongest, but those who are most adaptable who will survive. Deanna's an elected official, devoted to democracy, so when she said to Rick to kill Pete, she went from wanting due process to swift justice, it's a huge change.
LS: The trailer for Season 6 makes us believe that Rick Grimes might turn bad. What should we expect in the upcoming season?
TF: The series gets darker and darker. Scott Gimple sticks to the big units from the comic books. If Alexandria existed, it will exist on the show. You go to a society, and the society is decimated. Terminus turned out not to be what it was supposed to be. When I go to Walker Stalker conventions, people ask me if I am good or bad, but it has to do with my precursors, like the Governor. Alexandria will have unforeseen challenges. It will put pressure on the people who haven't had a walker [zombie] experience in over two years.
LS: In an actual zombie apocalypse, which character(s) would you like on your side?
TF: He can't do it alone, but of course, Andrew Lincoln. He's had a
terrible journey on the show, but he tries to maintain his humanity.
He comes from measured intelligence, logic; he tries to hold onto his
mind and, when it's very clear, he kills people the way he kills Pete. I mean, the struggle between him and Shane in the first season, those days have changed for him. He wants to preserve and protect his children. I'd want to be with Andy. He is easy to get on, and he loves people so much.
LS: What is your next project?
TF: Flesh and Bone (premiering on Starz on November 8) is marvelous. I play the head ballet mistress. It is so beautifully shot and created by the woman who won Emmys for Breaking Bad, Moira Walley-Beckett.
On October 13, I will be bringing back my act, Aging is Optional, at 54 Below. It looks at how to delay, moment-to-moment, the march of linear time. It's about doing things that make you feel young. How we think influences what is secreted in the body and our aging process. I also swim half mile a day and practice yoga every day, not to be pretty. It makes me feel good, young, flexible, and alive.
LS: Where are you off to next?
TF: My next trip is to Madagascar to track orangutans and lemurs. My husband and I want to go to New Guinea and Borneo. Finally, I am hoping to go to Mongolia. After that, I've pretty much touched my bucket list.
LS: How are you balancing your two lives between New York and Georgia now?
TF: I am a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker. I was born on 90th and Lexington at Beth David Hospital, which no longer exists. My children went to the 92nd Street Y, and we've lived on the West Side all our married life. I commute between Atlanta and New York and my husband just bought us a wonderful vacation house [in the Hamptons]. I love my life. Happiness is a choice, and I have become a devout student of yoga. You slow down the breath to dig deep into the river of common human existence and then time is lost. People use drugs or alcohol to feel good, but Kilimanjaro does that for you, nature does that.
AMC's The Walking Dead returns on Sunday, October 11 at 9 PM with a 90-minute premiere.
For tickets to Aging is Optional, visit: www.54below.com.