Behind the scenes of AMC's "The Walking Dead," Andrea (Laurie Holden) takes stock of a zombie well-slain. Senoia, Ga., which sits about 40 miles southwest of Atlanta, stands in for the fictional Georgia town of Woodbury.
See Chatta-noogan Eddie Piper make an appearance as an extra in the latest episode of "The Walking Dead" at 9 p.m. Sunday on AMC (Comcast channel 19).
'THE WALKING DEAD' AWARDS AND ACCOLADES
* Emmy Awards: Won Outstanding Prosthetic Makeup for a Series, Miniseries, Movie or Special (2011/2012); nominated for Outstanding Sound Editing for a Series (2011/2012) and Outstanding Special Visual Effects for a Series (2011/2012)
* Golden Globes Awards: Nominated for Best Television Series -- Drama (2010)
* American Film Institute Awards: Won AFI TV Programme of the Year (2010/2012)
* Satellite Awards: Won Best Genre Series (2012) and Best Television Cast (2012)
Growing up, Eddie Piper wasn't an avid actor. He took part in the occasional high school play, but theater was something he thought he left behind after graduation.
About two years ago, though, Piper, 55, reconnected with Amy Blanc Lacy at a school reunion. And when he found out she was a script supervisor for "The Walking Dead" -- the record-setting zombie apocalypse show on AMC -- he joined thousands of others who clamor for a spot on the show.
"She told me she got some friends down for extra parts, and I said I would love to do that," said Piper, a quality manager for Filter Specialists in Soddy-Daisy.
Last summer, Lacy helped secure him a walk-on role. On Sept. 20, he woke at 3:30 a.m. and drove 150 miles to Seonia, Ga., about 40 miles southwest of Atlanta. The rural town serves as a stand-in for Woodbury, a safe haven for human survivors in "The Walking Dead" and one of the primary filming sites in the show's current third season.
For many, getting paid $100 or less to wake up before dawn for a 12-hour shift standing in the brutal heat of a Georgia summer while covered in dirt and sweat would be a tough sell. But to fans of "The Walking Dead," any amount of discomfort is worth a chance at screen time on the hit drama.
Piper says his scenes should appear in tonight's episode, "I Ain't a Judas." It's the 11th entry in the current season, which set records earlier this month with a single-episode audience of 12.3 million viewers, the largest in cable-TV history, according to a Feb. 11 story by Media Decoder, a New York Times blog.
Surviving as a survivor
From dawn until around 11:30 p.m., Piper and about 25 other extras were filmed in various activities as the fictional town's handful of unzombified survivors. Mostly, he says, they milled around the city streets, miming the day-to-day activities of weary humans struggling to find normalcy in a world ruled by the flesh-hungry undead.
While he's thrilled at the prospect of seeing himself on TV, Piper says the filming conditions weren't always pleasant, and the work could get repetitive.
In 85-degree heat, he wore two shirts, a scarf and a hat, mostly clothes he brought from home. Because of concerns with maintaining consistency between takes and while the crew changed camera angles, he couldn't vary his posture or motions, much less take anything off. Even the slightest difference between shots was enough to earn a rebuke.
"I did get yelled at once," he says, wryly. "I started out putting my hands on my hips. Then, at some point, I started crossing my arms, and they said, 'Nope. You have to do it the same way.'"
Occasionally, crew members would come through with sunscreen, and he eventually came to appreciate the hat, which at least spared him the brunt of the sun's rays. Nevertheless, he says, he didn't always need the assistance of the show's Emmy Award-winning makeup team to look suitably post-apocalyptic.
"Standing out in the sun for a while with that -- they didn't have to add any fake sweat for a while," he laughs.
The work was not without rewards, however. The catered lunch of beef-over-rice and pasta was a far cry from the catch-as-catch-can diet of most humans in "The Walking Dead" universe. Even better, Piper says, he was able to live out every extra's dream by spending time alongside featured cast members.
"Almost the entire group was on set," Piper says. "I did get to speak briefly with Andrea [played by Laurie Holden]."
Holden and Lacy told Piper they would join him Sunday in Chattanooga to watch the episode live. While he says he appreciates the sentiment, he figures their busy schedules make that unlikely.
While humans were out in force in Woodbury, during his filming session, Piper says he didn't encounter any extras dressed as zombies.
To most fans of the show, a zombie-free set on "The Walking Dead" is like Christmas without presents. If complicated human relationships are the show's meatiest feature -- the show's title also refers to the humans that must live in the suddenly desolate world -- the zombies are the putrid, rotting gravy on top.
The stomach-churning makeup that brings grotesque un-life to the show's shambling hordes has earned "The Walking Dead" a number of awards, including a pair of Emmys.
That praise is well-deserved, according to Darla Wigley, a fan of the show and the primary makeup artist for Ruby Falls' Haunted Cavern, a Rand-McNally pick as one of the country's top 10 haunted houses.
"I honestly think they are at the pinnacle [of make-up]," Wigley says. "The artists on 'The Walking Dead' have done an extraordinary job. It's created the standard for what a zombie should look like."
In addition to being an avid fan of the show, Todd Patton is the co-owner of Hixson-based haunt company Fear Connection, which masterminds the Haunted Cavern. He also is co-chairman of the Con Nooga fandom convention, which will return Friday to the Chattanooga Choo Choo for a three-day event.
Con Nooga's special guests this year include several veteran "Walking Dead" zombie extras, including Larry Mainland, Sonya Thompson, Tony Gowell, Alex Wayne and Savanna Wehunt, who played a pivotal role as Penny, the daughter of the Governor, a new character introduced this season.
In contrast to the show's run-of-the-mill walkers, most of the actors coming to Con Nooga were so-called "hero zombies" and featured in multiple episodes, if in different makeup. Instead of merely shambling around, the "heroes" have on-screen interactions with the show's stars, which usually meant getting shot, stabbed, gutted or beheaded during acts of attempted cannibalism.
Historically, landing a part as an extra might be worth a footnote on an actor's resume, but because of the massive popularity of "The Walking Dead," Patton says even bit parts can be career milestones.
"It's got such a following that it impacts anyone who is involved with it," Patton says. "People who have only been a zombie in one or two episodes are doing conventions all over the Southeast because of being Zombie No. 35 in two episodes."
The show, which constantly puts out calls for hordes of extras both zombie and human, takes advantage of that attraction, even running contests in which the winners get to be a zombie on the show.
Patton says he plans to reach out to Piper to join "The Walking Dead" roundtable discussion at Con Nooga. For his part, the convention chairman says landing an extra role on the show would be worth just about any hoops he might have to jump through.
"I would be an extra in a heartbeat," he says. "If I got the call, I would be a zombie and get shot in the head, first thing."
As script supervisor, Lacy is the editor's on-set representative, making notes to ease the editing process and helping ensure continuity during filming. Because Woodbury is primarily home to humans and not walkers, Lacy says, it is easier to secure a walk-on spot for a friend, since living roles require less coaching and makeup.
Continuity is a driving force on "The Walking Dead," she says, and it extends to the casting of walkers and humans, alike. Even major stars such as Andrew Lincoln, who plays leading man Rick Grimes, come to know some extras by name after they return for multiple episodes, she says.
"It's really neat. Everyone is really excited to be together again," says Lacy, whose three children appeared as human survivors in Woodbury during earlier episodes of season 3.
"I don't know if Eddie will come back," she adds, "but if the opportunity comes up, I'll totally ask if he can, because he did a great job."
Piper says that, if there was one disappointing aspect to his extra experience -- besides the lack of undead -- it was that his role almost became even more prominent but was yanked away at the last second.
With the sun setting after hours of filming, the crew dismissed about half the extras and began handing out prop shotguns and rifles to those who stayed, including Piper. He believes they were for use in a second nighttime scene, but shortly after he was armed, a crew member took back the rifle without explanation, so he left for the two-hour drive back to zombie-free Chattanooga.
Even not knowing whether his initial scenes would survive the editing process -- Lacy says she is sure they have -- the experience has given Piper a deeper appreciation for "The Walking Dead." Given the opportunity, he says, he would jump at the chance to do it again, whether as the living or the undead.
"It was very tiring," he says, "but it was very rewarding."
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...