Lauren Cohan says that it’s too late for her—she’s got the bug. No, she’s not referring to a lethal, infectious zombie bite which she has been diligently dodging as Maggie Greene on the smash AMC show The Walking Dead. Rather, she’s speaking of her ‘bug’ for acting.
Credit: Photographer: Isaac Alvarez, Hair: Makiko, Makeup: Ashleigh Louer, Stylist: Carley Rinker, Location: Shan Social House.
“I didn’t think about the downsides of pursuing acting when I first started,” says Cohan. “I just enjoyed doing it, then you start auditioning and you’re scrutinized for things beyond your control, you’re not getting the job and you think ‘I must be bonkers to do this.’ But once you realize those pitfalls, you already are invested…I got the bug, you know? And by the time you have the bug, it’s too late.”
Cohan says she became interested in theater from a literature perspective while studying English and Drama at the University of Winchester in the UK. Once she transitioned from studying plays to acting in them, Cohan says it just clicked: “I thought: this is it.”
“I wasn’t overly confident,” says Cohan. “I was extroverted and hyper as a kid, but often vacillated between that and shyness, like anyone. I still need to be comfortable in my environment before I come out.”
“My family is creative, very musical and artistic,” she says, “but I would have presumed you needed to have everything figured out before pursuing acting as a career…but that just hasn’t been my path, and the discovery of the job and discovery of my own technique is invigorating. The vulnerabilities, in you or the character, and then the license to do—to act and express what’s required of the character—turns my light on. Live in the moment, listen…and never presume anything.”
Cohan’s career has expanded across the small and big screens. She has appeared as a series regular on “Supernatural,” and as a guest on “Chuck,” “The Vampire Diaries,” “Law & Order: SVU,” “Modern Family,” “Cold Case” and “CSI: New York.” Her film credits include the film Casanova, Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj and Death Race 2. She recently wrapped up filming Reach Me, a John Herzfeld-directed independent film, alongside Sylvester Stallone, Kyra Sedgwick, and Kelsey Grammar.
Currently Cohan stars as small-town Southern girl Maggie in the drama The Walking Dead, which chronicles the lives of a small group of survivors living in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse.
“I’ve always enjoyed Maggie,” says Cohan. “As heightened as the drama and the situation of our show is, it is ultimately a very real situation. And to play a character that has a very grounded view of the world, [and] a stable upbringing with a strong, moral father…seeing the world unfold as it has from that standpoint had so much innocence. She is a family woman and even though [the story] comes with so much action and all the terrorism for all the characters within our show, she really gets to perpetuate the most basic and, what I think, important human choices: continuing to persevere on the side of good in this world, you know?”
The Walking Dead is set to air its fifth season this fall, and Cohan says that during her time spent portraying Maggie, some of Maggie’s no-nonsense attitude and positivity have rubbed off on her: “I don’t know if she’s grown into me, or if she’s been written sort of to that quality,” says Cohan.
“I’m optimistic; I don’t dwell on the negative,” says Cohan, referencing the aforementioned ‘pitfalls’ of her industry. “There are a ton of professions where you have to create your own thing, where you can’t sit in the failure. You can’t sit in any of your own sort of self-doubt. Keep going—for love, for family—that is Maggie’s journey.”
“There have been countless situations where things don’t go as planned, but I feel that somehow the world sort of opens up for something more right to happen,” says Cohan. “I did a pilot that wasn’t picked up right before I booked Walking Dead. As I go further into the job, I see how much is out of my control, and embrace that there are things to direct and things to let wash over you. I think that’s why I love The Walking Dead: we see how the characters evolve under pressure. We truncate a life’s worth of drama into a short time in our characters’ lives—maybe that’s part of our audience’s fascination too.”
‘Fascination’ may be an understatement. The Walking Dead’s 4th season finale drew a whopping 15.7 million viewers this spring, gaining 3.2 million viewers from the previous season’s finale episode. Nowadays, Cohan is easily one of the most visible actors on TV, but she has built her career from the ground up. While attending university, Cohan co-founded and toured with a theater company, No Man’s Land. Cohan says the experience of starting this project from scratch was “amazing.”
“It was a feeling that you definitely seek to recreate,” says Cohan. “I’ve been seeking to recreate it in every job since [No Man’s Land].”
Cohan says that she believes that maintaining childlike curiosity is integral to her job.
“I’m motivated by the desire to always be learning,” says Cohan. “If I stay open minded, and keep my heart and mind open, I see creative possibilities. I think we’re here to create, connect with people and live ‘in joy’ when we can.”
Another source of joy for Cohan is music. Music, she says, was a huge part of her childhood. She loves to play the piano and to sing, and she is particularly inspired by her grandfather, an accountant by trade, who composes music as a hobby.
Cohan says that every year, all of his thirteen grandchildren receive an original composition and story, each based upon a fictional character that their grandfather has created for them that year.
“He really does crack us up; he’s legendary,” says Cohan. “He’s very kooky and has instilled a musical passion in all of us.”
Cohan hopes to share that passion with others through her involvement in the Atlanta Music Project (AMP), an after-school program dedicated to bringing music classes to children in low-income communities. Each session includes homework help, dinner, and an orchestra or choir lesson. Cohan says that AMP hosts a few concerts a year, bringing together the students’ families and the outside community as well.
“It has been so successful and inspiring,” says Cohan, who hosted AMP’s Spring Concert this past May. “It is the most rewarding process. I get to go to rehearsals and watch five year olds pick up the violin and fall in love with it.”
Cohan has been spending plenty of time in Georgia, as The Walking Dead shoots on location, with many scenes shot near the Atlanta region. Born in New Jersey and raised in London, Cohan says that the Southern heat has been a huge adjustment for her. Shooting for the series, she says, can be grueling.
“It is indescribable,” says Cohan. “It is indescribably hot and taxing, and we have to be in pretty robust jeans and big leather boots to protect us. You would want to be covered up when it comes to zombies, and you want to be in tough enough shoes—you can’t be in flip-flops running away from them!”
Beyond the show’s physical demands, Cohan says that filming for the series has emotional demands as well. The series is high-stress, always fraught with life-or-death situations and blood-and-guts galore. Cohan admits that she has become desensitized to the grotesque elements of the show.
“You think you’ve seen it all,” she says, “and then I started watching Breaking Bad from the beginning thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is gross—there’s no way I can keep going!’ and it is literally a fraction of Walking Dead’s [gore].”
Cohan says that she still does have zombie-themed nightmares, however.
“I’ll have a weird nightmare where I know it is the apocalypse, and nobody believes me!” she says, laughing. “I’ll wake up and have a couple of minutes where I say…hold on, it is the apocalypse, or it isn’t?”
At least now Cohan will be prepared should there ever be an apocalyptic situation. She says that Walking Dead has taught her the importance of improvising—and a machete.
“You have to be constantly resourceful and able to assess situations quickly,” she says, “It’s about looking at the world differently. What you need for the apocalypse is perspective.”
To maintain perspective in her day to day life, Cohan says that she relies on yoga, running and reading. She says she loves interior design as well, admitting to a near-obsessive re-decoration habit. “I just like pretty normal things,” she says, laughing at herself. “So boring!”
She’s just like the girl next door—your entrepreneurial, piano-playing, machete-wielding neighbor.
Catch The Walking Dead’s 5th season on AMC, airing October 12.