Living in the same universe as The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead is a gritty drama that explores the onset of the undead apocalypse through the lens of a fractured family. Set in a city where people come to escape, shield secrets, and bury their pasts, a mysterious outbreak threatens to disrupt what little stability high school guidance counselor Madison Clark and English teacher Travis Manawa have managed to assemble. The everyday pressure of blending two families while dealing with resentful, escapist, and strung out children takes a back seat when society begins to break down. A forced evolution, a necessary survival of the fittest takes hold, and our dysfunctional family must either reinvent themselves or embrace their darker histories.
Meet Travis Manawa, played by Cliff Curtis:TRAVIS MANAWA is a father, high school English teacher and boyfriend to Madison Clark. He’s a good man – everyone’s All-American. As the group’s patriarch, he is protective, pragmatic and resolute in his conviction that anything can be fixed. He maintains a relationship with his ex-wife and resentful son while trying to become a father to Madison’s children. Travis wrestles with the challenge of blending a family — a challenge that is exacerbated by a new, unforeseen chaos.
Cliff Curtis most recently starred in FOX’s drama Gang Related and ABC’s Missing opposite Ashley Judd, and also stars in the soon-to-be-released feature film Risen, playing Jesus Christ, opposite Joseph Fiennes. Curtis continues to garner festival accolades for his performance in The Dark Horse, based on a true story in which he plays champion chess player Genesis, who suffers from bipolar disorder.
In Hollywood, Curtis has portrayed a diverse range of roles in several films, including Runaway Jury (2003), Whale Rider (2002), Blow (2001), Training Day (2001), Three Kings (1999), The Insider (1999) and Bringing Out the Dead (1999).
Born in Rotorua, New Zealand, Curtis is of New Zealand Maori descent (with Ngati Hauiti and Te Arawa tribal affiliations). He enrolled at the New Zealand Drama School, and then the Teatro Dmitri Scoula in Switzerland. He landed his first film role in The Piano (1993). Subsequent roles in New Zealand include the camp melodrama Desperate Remedies (1993), the grueling urban drama Once Were Warriors (1994), and the lighthearted comedy Jubilee (2000).
Tell us a bit about Travis.
Travis Manawa is a high school teacher, and a divorcee with a teenage son who is in a new and exciting relationship with his girlfriend Madison Clark. She has two teenagers as well. He’s very much in love and wants to try and figure out how to make his blended family work.
What do we learn about what his values are?
He’s community minded and a family man. He cares deeply about people, helping others, loves teaching, loves his students, loves to see others think and succeed. And even though his first marriage didn’t work out, he’s come to terms with that, and the most important thing for him is to make this family work. He’s a fix-it guy, he likes to fix things. He’s pretty handy in a stressful situation because anything in his mind is fixable. He’s an optimist.
What interested you about Travis?
I like the idea of playing an ordinary guy. He’s not some superhero with special powers; he’s just kind of an ordinary guy. The problems in his life are doing a good job at work, trying to wrangle his teenage kids and figuring out his relationships. And that’s a really great place to start because what comes in our show is so bizarre and extraordinary and unnatural that rather than having an action hero response and approach, he is a very human guy and doesn’t know what to do.
How does an ordinary guy handle the apocalypse?
We can all talk about what would do in certain situations. Everybody’s got an idea in their head, but I like the idea of an ordinary guy who has to face who he actually is in the face of everything going wrong. I’m really enjoying getting into this zone where I realize he may not be “the man,” but he’s going to keep trying. He’s not going to give up, he’s not a wimp, and I’m really intrigued by that balance and being challenged and pushed to the limits of one’s psychological, physical and emotional abilities and having to cope.
That’s the great thing about families as well. As a young man you grow up and it’s about you, then you get a family and it’s not about you, and then you make new decisions in life. You think about others, and I think Travis has a lot of that and having a family, being in love – it makes people care about others. Maybe if he was on his own, he wouldn’t be strong enough. But because he believes in his family, and in the community he lives, he has more staying power then he would as an individual. You can play around with the vulnerabilities of man because when the going gets tough and you start thinking of your wife or kids, you get stronger.
I think that, in the context of family under these insane circumstances where the world is literally falling apart is interesting. It plays on that middle ground where you might feel like he may not make it, that he’s got to harden up or he won’t make it. As long as it’s believable that he cares for others more than himself, and that’s where he draws his strength from, I like the guy for those reasons. It’s nice for me.
Where do we find our characters at the beginning of Fear? What is Fear about?
Fear is the first word in the name of our new show. We’ll hear time and time again, it’s not a prequel or sequel, it’s a companion piece. It’s its own show. What it means is it is very different. And what I like about the show and what I’m learning is it feels real. This actually could really happen. Not just the whole thing about the undead or infected, but seeing how a virus could overtake humanity and then draw out the best and the worst in us and how quickly our idea of civilization can crumble. What happens if things we take for granted aren’t there? What happens if the people that we know are no longer the people that we know? We’re not treating this in a hokey way. We’re treating it in a very real, very grounded way, and it makes the show more interesting to me.
What will audiences grab onto in the series?
There are many different characters going through different situations. Most everyone I imagine will find a character to relate to. If you don’t like the character, you’ll likely relate to the situations, and those are complicated in layers. Having the believable family with enough of a spread in an ensemble cast that the audience can relate to one or more of them, and then – bang! Tragedy hits again, and hits again, and I think that’s very entertaining. For some reason we like to watch humanity go through that. We’ve been doing it since the Greek tragedies. These are our classical plays now, they’re on TV. And I think we’ve always been fascinating with what would happen? How would people behave? There is something really gripping about tragic circumstances. There’s the threat, and then the impact and for some base reason, that’s entertainment.
There’s also a kind of pantomime type of device in the show in that the audience knows what’s going on, similar to any good genre horror film. I think we’ve got enough moments like that in the show to satisfy that thrill, and there’s enough hope in the show as well for our characters. Well, I hope they’re going to be okay!
What’s the core of Travis and Madison’s relationship?
Both have been married before, both have teenage children. They need to know they can trust each other and they’ve got each other’s backs, but that’s going to be tested to the nth degree in this show. At every turn we’re going to discover our own limitations and the limitations of our relationship. It’s not only about whether we’re going to make it as a family – but are we going to make it as individuals and as a couple.
How does he deal with Madison’s son, Nick?
Teenagers are challenging at any point in time. It’s the nature of teenage parenting, but we’ve got a live one with Nick. Having an addict in your family is a nightmare, but I think that Travis loves Maddy and everything that comes with her. It’s her strength and love for her children and the idea that she’ll never give up, and I think that means a huge amount to Travis because in his past marriage he never wanted to give up and he felt like he would’ve done anything to make it work. No matter what he tried with his ex-wife Liza, it wasn’t working. He couldn’t fix it. He’s kind of this wounded soul and it’s really important to him with Maddy that he’s found someone who isn’t a quitter, someone who will fight for her family to the end. That’s the way he is.
How does Travis deal with his own son, Chris?
Right from episode one I’m estranged from my son, Chris, played by Lorenzo James Henrie. Travis is trying to reach out and pull Chris into this new family, and Chris doesn’t want anything to do with it. Chris doesn’t like Nick and certainly doesn’t want another mom in Madison. He has no interest in Travis’ new, blended family philosophy. So Travis tries to negotiate this relationship, and then when things progress, he doesn’t give Chris a choice after they see enough to understand that it’s a necessity to make a plan to get away from mayhem.
How do the hero families work together?
They’ve done a really good job of creating pockets in the show where unexpected turns pull a rug out on us, but it really comes down to families trying to protect and take care of each other. So we have the Manawa family, the Salazar family and the Clark family. In terms of setting up these different families, we’ve done a great job of establishing them and then squashing them together and watching as they try to figure things out.
Will Travis’ optimism help in the apocalypse or hinder?
Travis has the clarity of mind to see that amidst all the confusion that there is a choice to be made here, about whether to harm and kill or to not. He’s hoping this is some kind of weird disease that’ll clear up in a day or a week; it’ll pass like any natural disaster. So he’s thinking the long game and trying to figure out a way not to deteriorate and lose humanity in the process. Travis would say—how can you kill a human being just because they’re sick? And he’s saddened when he sees people disregard human life in that way.
There are a few different choices when faced with killing an infected, and everyone has to figure out where they sit. There’s the necessity to kill, or you have a philosophical belief about life, i.e., you’re doing it because you believe in an idea, and the last kind of choice is when one considers a person they love and they kill out of mercy. The last two are not out of necessity. So Travis holds this line – for as long as he can.
Fear the Walking Dead forces our characters into more and more struggle. How do these situations impact the moral compass of our families?
The show really has a good sense of building tension and then pulling out the rug. Just when you think you know where you are the rules to the game change. It’s about being shocked by the new reality. If we dehumanize a human population, and they are a threat to the living, then they are collateral damage and there is a very clean line of discernment there. The struggle for our characters is one of trying to hold onto our humanity for as long as we can until necessity takes over. Where’s the line?