I”ll be honest. I stopped watching The Walking Dead after the second season. It was a combination of the fact that, up until that time (and maybe since?), producers didn”t explain why the world became a zombie-laden hellscape and that it basically turned into a first-person shooter disguised as a TV show. I”m sure some of you out there are screaming at your computers wondering how I could miss major plot points and blah blah blah. But hey, not everyone likes every program. If that was the case, Police Squad would be wrapping up its 33rd season and The Jeannie Tate Show would have been acquired by Netflix and won multiple Emmys. But enough of a preamble.
When word crossed my desk that Universal Studios Hollywood was hiring people to play zombies for their new year-round attraction based on The Walking Dead, I knew I had to try out. I know nothing about acting. In fact, the last time I did anything resembling theater was a school play in sixth grade. But this was the chance to be a zombie. And who was I to say no to that opportunity.
After cobbling together a resume that looked more like a “Missing Persons” flyer than anything, I was almost ready. But there was one last thing before I headed to the tryout. I was informed that the future undead will be required to demonstrate “scare-abilities.” So I began my research, which mostly consisted of watching Michael Jackson”s “Thriller” video repeatedly. Realizing I”ll never have the moves of the King of Pop, I ended up in a YouTube wormhole of music videos like White Zombie”s “Thunder Kiss “65,” “More Human than Human” and ultimately, countless Slayer tunes. The only thing this really accomplished is it reminded me I really wish I knew how to play guitar. There aren”t groupies for writers.
Once I reach Universal Studios, I am quickly ushered into a line of zombie wannabes. With the exception of one older man with a long, dirty gray beard and six or seven women, it”s mostly men in their 20s. I”m promptly photographed, given a badge with a number (236), measured and sent into a dark, frigid room along with about 60 other people.
Then we wait…and wait…and wait some more.
About a half hour later, they call 30 of us into an adjoining room and I start to get a little nervous. This is going to be my moment to shine (or rot as the case may be).
The man in charge (let”s call him “The Governor”) sets a few minor ground rules – no touching, no Tweeting, pretend you”re dead – before having us do our best “group” zombie mingle. He barks out, “play it maestro,” at which point one of the judges hits the play button on a computer and The Walking Dead theme hauntingly booms through the room. Some dive headlong into the role. They shake, contort, drag and move every part of their body. I scan the room and look for ideas on moves I could mimic given my unfortunate rhythmic limitations. The best I can come up with is extending my arms (the right one twitching uncontrollably) while dragging my right foot. I soon realize I move more like Frankenstein”s monster with a sprained ankle and a tic than one of the program”s insatiably hungry walkers. At one point during this exercise, one of the men (who ultimately gets a callback), actually looks like he intends to nosh on my neck. We lock eyes – his dead, mine terrified. I calm myself as I remember the “no touching” rule. I hope he remembers the rule too.
The Governor stops the music and everyone immediately and awkwardly reverts back from the groaning and grunting of the undead to small talk about traffic on the 101 freeway and their plans for the weekend. We”re told to line up against the back wall while The Gov points out a chair in the middle of the room. It”s time for the “scare the chair” exercise.
During this portion of the audition, we”re to assume the chair represents a person, sneak up on it and, in the way only a walker would, terrify the shit out of it. I find myself in the middle of the line, so I have a few moments to come up with some new moves in an attempt to wow the Governor and his cabinet. I immediately begin to overthink things. Should I crawl? Should I run? Should I limp? What kind of noises should I make? My lack of (ok, none) improvisational experience is clearly becoming an issue. But I”m in the thick of it now, so it”s time to go for broke.
The Gov signals for the music to start again and the scaring begins. I initially watch the other hopeful walkers as they traverse the 50 or so feet to the intended target. Some are really starting to step up their game. Those who are most successful almost seem to be crunk dancing with bad intent, and it works.
As I head toward the front of the line, I start to visualize my moves. I need to be light on my feet like Andy Serkis but with the scowl of Liev Schreiber. When my number is called, I don”t deliver. I lumber toward the chair, right foot still in tow. Realizing I need to be more evil, I start hissing. But instead of the ominous cry of a zombie seeking its next meal, I sound more like air escaping a balloon. As I reach the chair, I have one “Hail Mary” left in my arsenal. I lunge toward the imaginary person and let out a guttural wail that seems louder than it should have been.
And just like that. It was over. The remainder of the group attack the chair with varying degrees of success before The Governor thanks us for our time and ushers us outside to await further instruction.
After a few tense minutes during which I instinctively hum “I Hope I Get It” from A Chorus Line, a short, stout woman comes to our holding pen. She instructs us that those numbers she calls out passed the first test and are invited to callbacks. Those who are not called are DOA.
“205. 209,” she begins. The woman quickly barks out a few more numbers before she hits the 230s.
“Two thirty…” she continues. My heart begins to race. I cross my fingers and hope the next word she says is “six.”
“Seven,” she adds. “237.”
My heart drops. Despite my best efforts, my zombie dreams are killed like so many other foot draggers.
As I head out, I catch up with one of the people who got a callback. Colton is his name and I”m dying to know what he did right and I did wrong.
“I created a back story about myself,” the muscular 19-year-old explains. He adds that he tried not to overthink things and just had his back story be him, a 19-year-old kid who moved to L.A. to try to make it in Hollywood.
So that”s the trick. Don”t overthink it. I suppose it”s not surprising when it comes to the world of zombies, it always comes back to brains. Braaaiiiins.