Kersti Bryan’s car came to a full stop outside of a Goodwill parking lot in Atlanta. Waiting for a call about The Tales of the Walking Dead, a moment of peace and concentration kicked in as her eyes darted over a brightly lit phone. She read between the black and white letters of her latest script.
Note: This interview contains major spoilers for Tales of the Walking Dead’s premiere: “Evie / Joe“.
Fingers scrolled through pages of dialogue uttered by one of the first few characters viewers got to meet in Tales of the Walking Dead. Bryan’s excitement grew from imagining herself as the role of an apocalyptic prepper named Sandra. AMC’s latest anthology based on their hit zombie series didn’t just expand the nightmarish universe created by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore in 2003. According to Bryan, her boundaries also stretched as one of three lead characters alongside Terry Crews and Olivia Munn for Tales‘ pilot.
“I have to get to a Staples quickly,” Bryan remembered to herself in a rush to print the script out just days before shooting began in Buford, Georgia.
Tales of the Walking Dead reanimates its flesh-eating franchise for newer viewers. The series marks AMC’s third spin-off series which pits a new cast of survivors against iconic Walkers. It’s a tried and true formula which features Sandra, who proves to be more than dangerous for Joe (Terry Crews) and Evie (Olivia Munn) throughout their journey. “Evie/Joe” – the series’ first episode – lays the groundwork for self-contained stories over an anthology.
Sophie is the latest role Bryan describes as a canvas. Specifically, a chance to take a palette of identities she assumed over more than a decade in TV. Tales of the Walking Dead would also pull Bryan out of “plug-in, plug-out” appearances for shows including Elementary, FBI: Most Wanted, Ray Donovan and The Blacklist.
She would also appear in the 2021 Apple TV+ sci-fi drama Invasion as a mother protecting her son from a sweeping alien conflict on Earth. Bryan would continue appearing in a number of short films before directing Egg Party, which tells the story of six women at an egg decorating party to help a friend through infertility.
CGMagazine had a chance to dive six feet under into the acting process with Kersti Bryan, who shares more about her place in The Walking Dead universe and manifesting Sandra.
CGMagazine: How does it feel to be? Well – hopefully a bit settled down – after entering a universe like The Walking Dead?
Kersti Bryan: It’s a wild ride. I’m not gonna lie. Like, it’s been really, really fun. Because I knew what was going to happen for this character, I was so curious what the fans would say, because it’s kind of a wild character that enters in.
CGMagazine: Its fan base obviously has been around for quite a while now. We’re talking more than 10 years now (not to make any of us feel old). A lot of different deeply-rooted fans are looking at this. So going into the role, what are some parts of you that kind of stopped you, but you kept going anyways?
Kersti Bryan: So I think what happened was that I received a script that was a “dummy script”. Unlike the fans, I didn’t really know anything about what was going to happen in this thing. So I auditioned with the idea – that I thought she was a doctor, maybe. And she does something. Maybe she is not doing very well, but she’s hurting people. I couldn’t make sense of what was happening so when I got the script, I was like, “whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, what?” I assumed that my character was going to come in and come out. She was going to be killed off pretty quickly.
I didn’t know from the dummy script. I truly had no idea what to make of it. And so when I opened the script and realized “Oh no, she’s kind of a badass. A badass prepper that probably has been alone too long and some bad things have happened in the past year obviously with her living alone. But also, maybe she was always a little not well. So just to be able to take that whole arc and I didn’t know how wild they wanted Sandra to go.
I prepared in two ways. Maybe she’s precise and like a serial killer. She knows what she’s doing. Or maybe she’s unhinged. When I went into makeup and hair and the design team, they decided to give me some prompts like, “we’re looking for Mommie Dearest meets Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” And I thought, “OH, oh, okay!” So it’s like a gift. Because it could go so many ways. So that kind of allowed me that full range. Because if you say she’s a doctor. She’s just killing people out of this. But I think she’s killing people because she cares so much.
CGMagazine: Personally for you while you were doing the research and putting the work before the camera turns on. What kinds of other pieces did you get? Who else did you adopt for Sandra?
Kersti Bryan: Really, I wanted to know Terry (Crews’) work and I wanted to know Olivia (Munn’s) work. And I wanted to know Ron Underwood’s work. I really wanted to deep dive on what they were doing. And then also, I wanted to know the writer’s work and I wanted to know Channing Powell’s work – who is the show runner – because then that kind of gives me some framework of where everybody’s at. We build a story together. So I wanted to make sure I knew all those pieces. Then, I did go and absolutely watch Mommie Dearest. I watched Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? I also looked at Heath Ledger’s (Joker) performance. I had never seen it. I could never bring myself to watch it. Because it broke my heart so much that he had gone. So I actually had never watched it.
His performance, his heart, his ability to kind of show the fragility of trying to fit into the world. That was a few of the things that I started pulling things together. And then, also, you know she’s a prepper. I watched a lot of videos of folks buying bunkers and what they’re talking about. She’s so prepared. And honestly, we’ve lived through a pandemic. We’ve now lived through so many pieces. She’s not dumb. Her and Terry’s character, Joe, were preppers before the apocalypse. They were prepping for this and they were ready. So I think that they are probably feeling like they got this. But I think what is the big question is “can you do this alone?”
CGMagazine: From being one person who was stuck at home for years on end, to another person who might have been stuck at home for years on end, to playing ANOTHER person who might have been stuck at home from years on end. How easy was it to kind of fall into that role?
Kersti Bryan: That was the most beautifully framed question (laughs). It was asking someone who’s been alone, I also spent time alone and going – the answer is that I was more familiar with this feeling than I could have ever imagined. I also had done Invasion, which is a show on Apple TV, which was about a spore taking over the world but no, no, it’s aliens. And I play like a mother trying to just survive the apocalypse. I shot that in October 2020.
Like there was no acting necessary (laughs). Like it was just so clear. So the answer is what it means to be alone for that long. But also if the apocalypse is happening outside your door, and she’s (Sandra) sitting there in her bunker hearing people screaming, dying, and she has the opportunity to let people in. She could open her bunker and save lives. And she doesn’t. But she saves her own life. I think there is a bit of a story in there where I think she did try to save some people’s lives. And they tried to take her bunker. So I think that’s where you see her small collection growing. Is that she’s now not gonna mess around.
CGMagazine: Bringing in more timeliness, the episode did feature a lot of different chats. You saw Terry Crews reading out printed versions of Zoom calls and Facebook messages and stuff. How did that angle of talking to people remotely factor into this episode? What kind of decision when that?
Kersti Bryan: I think that they had met online before the world stopped. He’s a prepper, so in a sense, he had prepared probably for the end of the world, and he printed out things that he wanted to keep and things like that. I think that our chats, which my handle, which is genius, by the way, is “USHLDBSCRD” (you should be scared). So in a sense, they had like a love affair.
They had the same passions. And then the world stopped. It’s kind of a great premise, because these two people probably survive. They were ready. When he gets lonely, and really, the world is too much. He sets out to try to find her, because he’s pretty sure she would have made it. So I think that’s where the chats kind of came in. These two met online; they had a deep connection. She had asked she had asked to meet IRL and he kind of said “no.” He broke her heart.
CGMagazine: Now take me back to that moment you knew you were going to be Sandra for Tales of The Walking Dead. You mentioned there was like a dummy script and you thought you were auditioning for a nurse. Like a brick wall: whammo. Zombies.
Kersti Bryan: I opened my email. They had sent me a script. It was probably a few days before we started shooting. I was like saying “Hey, it would be great if I just knew just like a prayer.” I opened the script, and it says, “Three characters. Terry Crews, Olivia Munn, Kersti Bryan and I was like, “What? No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.” I’m used to being the plug-in, plug-out. I’ve played a lot of day players, a lot of guest stars that are part of the story, but not like (the) story.
I certainly have done films that I’m like leading the story. But really this was totally unexpected. So Sandra is in this. She’s like in this story. I start reading through, and I’m in a parking lot. It’s dawning on me that I have a lot of work to do. This is a gift. What kind of gift has befallen me. Because as a woman, I play a lot of moms. You’d never get to see my range. So it was a gift. Like I was like “what did I do right to deserve this?”
It was awesome. I was in a car outside of a Goodwill somewhere in Atlanta. I truly had pulled over to take a look. Then I was like, “I have to get to a Staples quickly and print this script out because I have work to do.” I kind of went underground for four or five days in preparation. Because I didn’t have the lead up time you would normally have to prepare for something like this. Maybe that was good. Maybe that’s great. She takes sharp turns. She’s doing a full (whistles) ride. I had my best friend at night running lines with me in the middle of the night. That kind of thing.
CGMagazine: How did it feel to finally tell your friends and family?
Kersti Bryan: I haven’t been able to talk about it until now, so I think people are a little shocked. They didn’t know. I said, “you know, I’m working on something in Atlanta.” They were like, “what?” I think that they’ve been, they’ve been surprised. And I am pleased to hear that they have been surprised at my abilities. Like “I’ve been telling you for years, people!” I mean, how close were people to piecing it together? The least you could tell them was you were at Atlanta, right? couldn’t announce anything. But I was like “I’m on this show.” I couldn’t announce anything. But I was like “I’m on this show.”
They didn’t want to reveal Sandra’s character. So it was kind of like really, I couldn’t say anything. Then, I thought we were going to be somewhere else in the run. I thought “we’re gonna be in the third or fourth episode. It’ll be great, whatever.” But then I learned that we were the premiere, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, that’s great news.” Because that’s when the fans actually are going to tune in, and they’re going to like the show or not like the show. Everybody has a valid opinion on all the things. So I couldn’t believe that we got our first take at it.
CGMagazine: When you finally had the chance to see Sandra come to life (and unalive), did you learn anything new about yourself from just sitting there watching yourself?
Kersti Bryan: Oh, my gosh. I once heard an interview with Adam Driver, and I’m going to totally ruin this. But he was kind of saying he doesn’t go see his own stuff. He does the work. He likes to show up. I agree with that. Oh my god, I agree with that. Like, I love my job. I love being on set. I love working. So watching is like a mind—-. It’s so weird, because you suddenly are like, “is that, what’s that? What what happened there?” But other performers work very differently. Some are very precise and they want to watch their takes. They want to drill in, so that’s just another way of working. My way of working is a little wilder. So your question is how to feel? Wacky, and I was terrified (laughs).
CGMagazine: When you saw that – at that moment – did you feel like you were seeing a different person? Or was this something new about you?
Kersti Bryan: I would say that I know these colours of myself. But a lot of people wouldn’t. When you’re creating a woman like Sandra, I want a woman to be the full spectrum of colours. Because there’s so few women on screen that you see that. Where you kind of either have a woman that’s in pain. Or you see a woman that’s in love. Or you see a woman that’s a sex object. We rarely get to see a full woman. So I literally took the pallet of Sandra, and I was like, “How many? How many colours? How many colours can I throw on this?”
CGMagazine: Technically you play two different characters and I have to ask: was it easier to play a human or a zombie?
Kersti Bryan: Oh my gosh. So they asked me, “Kersti, would you like to play your own zombie?” Given the opportunity, one must play their own zombie (laughs). In what world am I ever going to be able to play my zombie? This is unbelievable. I loved playing a zombie. The thing I learned about a zombie is they are so precise in the world. I had a movement coach with me. There’s the way the walker moves, the way they breathe, the way their organs have gone. They worked it all out. So that’s very cool. But they don’t have a brain. So I would say playing Sandra as a human is so much more fun.
CGMagazine: Being a zombie, I’m guessing you didn’t get a script for that then.
Kersti Bryan: No scripts, no scripts. I didn’t know I was when I was like, Oh my gosh. Oh, she’s back. Like I thought I thought she was like once. Once it was done, I was like, wow, bummer. Sandra, you’ve seen her. And then I realized, “Oh no, Sandra is never gonna give up. She’s a prepper.” So I believe that she is still down in her bunker. Just zombie-ing it up.
CGMagazine: Of course, you’ve been exposed to different actors on the set like Terry Crews, Olivia Munn. Even outside of that set with Liev Schrieber (Ray Donovan), and a good chunk of the Hustlers cast. Did being around these actors have any kind of “bleeding effect” on you?
Kersti Bryan: You meet people like Terry Crews, and Olivia. They just are vibing higher. When you are sitting alongside people that are really at the peak of their game, they’re so ready, they’re so excited to be there. It changes the tone for me, it changes the tone for the crew. What changes things so much is the leadership of a show and that comes from the star of the show. I think that was the eye-opening thing of Ray Donovan, or Tales of The Walking Dead. It changes the game for me, because suddenly I go, “Oh, I’ve gotta bring it. Like there’s no, there’s no mailing it in today.” That’s I think what I’ve taken away from some of these greats. Is that it challenges me to rise.
CGMagazine: You got to play someone in the zombie apocalypse. That’s one thing off the checklist. And speaking of which, what characters do you want to play (way) before you decide to retire?
Kersti Bryan: There was a moment when I was finishing this job, and I was like, “I think I’m satisfied. Am I retired?” I think that lasted for about 30 seconds. But oh my gosh, could you imagine in your life having just 30 seconds of moment where you’re like, “I’m satisfied. Like I’ve done my work today.”
CGMagazine: I have TikTok for that (laughs)
Kersti Bryan: It’s a rare moment. It’s such a rare moment when you’re constantly working towards something. It’s rare to go, “Oh, my god, I’m satisfied.” I want to be charged with the task of playing full complicated, amazing women. Right now – here in the United States – It’s really difficult to be a woman. And what’s happening here is shocking. So I want to keep pushing that bar where you see full, full women out there that are intelligent and clearly able to make choices that are healthy and good.
CGMagazine: Coming off the role of Sandra recently, and I know that you’d like to jump in and out between like short films, and maybe even a movie someday and then the TV show, do you feel any kind of momentum going through you after this role?
Kersti Bryan: You know, I’ve had an opportunity to work on a few other pieces this year that are going to be coming out which I’m excited by. I’m a recur on Perry Mason, which is on HBO, which is a very cool show. And I just shot a film with Neil Berger, who did Limitless and The Illusionist, these were, great, great films. And so that one is going to be a little wild. That one I’m excited by. And now I need a job. So today, I’m going to go prepare another audition. Nice. I can go back to it, we just jump back in and try again.
CGMagazine: Are you still kind of finding yourself weaving in and out of short films? Or is this happening less as you’re going into different productions?
Kersti Bryan: Yes, so I directed my first short film right before the pandemic. It was a whimsical, short called Egg Party. In short, it’s about a group of women in their mid-30s attending an egg decorating party. Each woman and the egg they’re decorating received a portrait. It’s with a Wes Anderson-esque portrait of the woman, their egg and what their egg is doing.
So it’s basically a commentary on fertility, on creativity, women trying to decide what to do about that question of motherhood. In the end, they come around, and they’re all there to be with a friend who is actually challenged by miscarriage. But each woman has a different experience. Some women want kids. Some women don’t. Some women put their eggs on ice. They’ve got other stuff to do right now. I love directing. I loved it. I would do it again in a heartbeat. Just being able to build the space to have artists do their job. It was awesome.
You can see Kersti Bryan as Sandra in Tales of the Walking Dead‘s series premiere, now streaming on AMC+. The six-episode season rolls out every Sunday.