It’s no secret that stories of zombies and the undead have been around since the 1950’s, giving fans of the genre more than just brains to gnaw on! At the turn of the century, zombie stories continued to gain enormous popularity, infiltrating comic books, graphic novels, television and movies like never before. With biological weapons a reality, there is fear that one day we could all succumb to a zombie virus or be left behind to survive like on The Walking Dead or World War Z.
One show that is a little different than the rest is Syfy’s Z Nation, which has become one of the network’s biggest successes. I had the privilege of chatting with one of the stars of the series, Keith Allan (Murphy), who took time out of his busy schedule to talk about the show and his character.
If you haven’t watched Z Nation before, a little background…
It’s been three years since the Zombie Apocalypse began via a virus and most of humanity has been snuffed out! Murphy, a prisoner, is injected with an experimental cure to the zombie condition- he survives! After the prison is infiltrated by zombies, Murphy and several others escape. However, he finds himself a prisoner once again, with a band of humans who want to take him to a functioning lab in California who will use his blood to create the cure. After surviving a heinous zombie attack, Murphy is actually part of the zombie species now, so has empathy and a whole new outlook on humanity- does he want to save them? It all remains to be seen.
Murphy has been described as an anti-hero and villain, though he’s been willing (to a certain extent) to help humans create the cure from his blood. Allan explains Murphy’s point of view, that although he’s in prison for a white-collar crime, he’s used as a lab rat, then he ends up in the hands of humans that just want his blood for a cure, “he’s over it! He can only take that kind of crap for so long before starting to resent people.” Now we’ve seen Murphy’s got more power, more strength and the tables are turned where he can sort of take charge over the humans. “He’s a little over being everyone’s bitch. They can’t just push me around so I think he’s a little drunk with power now”, adds Allan.
Interestingly, in “Batch 47”, we see Murphy literally able to stare down a pot zombie, making him back down away from them. He’s definitely a part of their species now. “He does have some weird compassion for these zombies. He can see their vulnerability and they are basically judged, killed without asking deeper questions. [They’re] basically treated like meat and the only thing [people] want to know is where to hit them in the head to kill them. He’s part of that species now and has been treated like them for so long, treated as less than and he’s sick and tired of it”, Allan discloses. He adds that the compassion Murphy has for these monsters, surprises him and he is sort of seeing them in a new light.
Now that Murphy does seem to have more power, plus is not human but part of the zombie species, will he turn on humanity? Allan says it’s a possibility and mentions the speech Murphy gives at the beginning of season two, that maybe being human isn’t the best thing. “Maybe being a vindictive, spiteful, violent human being isn’t any better” than his species. In Murphy’s mind, his trust and faith in humanity is on shaky ground, especially after being tied up, imprisoned by his best friend, someone he was closest to. “Kind of all bets are off in his alliance to these people”, Allan adds. He explains that although Murphy feels a kinship with the people he’s been with the last two years, he’s sort of playing a game. “He’s really having to play his hand close to his chest and not let them know what he’s thinking, because again, he’s a prisoner or they think he is.”
I’d say Murphy is one of the most complex characters within this genre, as he is not human, but a hybrid (at this point) which is something that happened out of his control. One of the great things about a cable network versus network television, is the fact that sometimes the actors are able to collaborate with the writers in developing their characters. Allan, as well as other cast members, were given the chance to sit down with writers as they began to map out season two.
“They brought each one of us separately into the writers room and we had an afternoon where we threw out ideas, things we’d like to see happen. They’re really great in being very collaborative and really want to hear our opinions, what we’d like to see happen in the show.” Of course he quickly adds this doesn’t mean all their ideas are used, but he feels from a creative standpoint, it gives the writers a better idea of what the actors are envisioning. “They know we have a strong sense of who these characters are. It’s a really great thing to know that you’re involved in the collaborative to build this character.” Even as scripts come out, if there is something Allan might think Murphy wouldn’t say or do, the writers are very approachable and are willing to listen. “It’s a good testament to how collaborative the show is.”
In my opinion, cable networks have more of a creative and collaborative nature than network television, which I feel makes a big difference. Especially when you see shows like The Walking Dead, on AMC, who is willing to go way outside the box creatively. Although Z Nation has been compared to TWD, it’s definitely got a much lighter vibe to it. Allan agrees, “We’re doing something new. What we’re creating with Murphy is a character we haven’t seen before.” Although Z Nation has a much lower production budget than something like TWD, it’s about the characters and quality of writing, which Z Nation has in spades. “We are putting the fun back into the genre, which is one thing Z Nation doing really right, making that balance between humor, war and drama. We are able to play on all those fields really well.” While there are some moments that can be a little ridiculous, (I mean come on, a pot farm overrun by pot zombies? Really?) the fact that the characters are based in reality, that are kept real, is the difference. “I think it keeps situations from going campy but is still fun for the audience. We have scenes that are slightly over the top, but then bring it back to a really serious scene. That’s my favorite kind of horror- you’re laughing then screaming, rooting for him at the same time.”
While shows like Z Nation can take its toll on the audience, as emotions run the gambit from humorous to serious to fearful, the same can be said for the actors. One of the toughest scenes for Allan was during season one’s deeply disturbing moment when Murphy’s hair began to fall out, looking in the mirror and the realization of what he may become- a monster. Sometimes during production, scenes are rushed for the sake of time, however Allan spoke to the producers and asked that they let him take his time. Then he worked with the Director of Photography on ideas for shots, the angles, magnifying mirrors, warping the images, etc…
In my opinion, it’s such a defining moment for Murphy, as well as within the series, as he catches a glimpse of who he is now. Allan talks about preparing to shoot the scene. “It’s about an emotion you are trying to convey, about the fear of what’s happening to you. It was a great scene, one of those you have to ‘go there’. What would I do if this were really me and I saw my skin was rotting off, how would that be?” I think Allan was incredible and the audience could not only feel his pain, anguish and fear as to what the future will hold for him, but also see it in his eyes as he stared at his reflection in the mirror. It ends up being a very compelling, heartbreaking moment in the series.
In the beginning of the series, Allan describes Murphy was weak, timid and fragile, being told by others what to do. However, now that Murphy appears to be in a power position, of the zombie species and no longer part of the human race, where would Allan like to see him go from here? He’d love to see him in a really strong power position over the human race. “I’d like him to be where he is in position to sort of take vengeance on the human race. I think the audience would be on his side because they’ve seen the way he’s been treated and how people are really looking out for their own interests.” He adds he’d like “to see him very powerful and strong and kind of unforgiving.” This would bring his character full circle from when we first meet Murphy.
Allan laughs as he thinks back to shooting the zombie attack at the prison, then reveals he actually blacked out filming that scene! He describes the straps holding him down to the table were really tight and he told the director he would only be able to do maybe 3-4 takes before his voice gave out from screaming. “The director said “go!” and zombies are biting me and I’m screaming and screaming.” They continuously filmed to ensure they had enough and when they stopped, “I kind of passed out!” Talk about the hazards of being on a show about the zombie apocalypse! Now that’s dedication!
Of course on a show like this where the cast and crew put in long hours, there have to been some funny behind-the-scenes moments. Allan laughs as he recalls a scene that hasn’t aired yet. He explains that Russell Hodgkinson who plays Doc, is supposed to get into a canoe and row away. Apparently Russell made a running jump into the canoe, which capsized it, dumping him into the water! Allan says he was watching the whole thing and couldn’t stop laughing! Russell was a little upset as he came out looking like a soaked rat! Hopefully it will be on the S2 DVD (hint hint).
In being such a huge fan of zombie-type television and movies, for me I like the fact everyone bans together, is united working just to stay alive. Whether it’s Rick and his crew trying to make a life in Alexandria or Brad Pitt trying to save his family, it’s about surviving. This genre has become so popular, why does Allan think we are fascinated at the possibility of a Zombie Apocalypse? “I think there’s something inherent in human beings wanting to have common enemy. Within the human race we all have differences with people for various reasons, politics, religion, etc… but zombies is one enemy we can all agree on. It levels the playing field because we all have to fight together. It’s us against them.”
Some fans of Z Nation may not know that Allan is also a writer, director, producer and has a multitude of projects he’s working on. One he’s very excited about is trying to get a play he did in Los Angeles made into a film. He and Z Nation director Alexander Yellen actually produced a seven-minute trailer to hopefully reel in a company interested in making the movie. “It’s a graphic novel, dark comedy, crime-fighter super villain piece and it’s a lot of fun and I’m really proud of it. I love superhero stuff and this piece has a nice balance of comedy/violence/graphic novel style so hopefully we can make it happen.”
Finding out that he loves superheroes, I had to ask who his favorites are and I wasn’t too surprised when he said Batman and Spider-Man. He loved Guardians of the Galaxy, Watchmen, “I really enjoy them all, also anything with robots.” Interesting! Since he’s a Batman fanatic I asked if he has watched Gotham. Unfortunately he hasn’t had time but hopes to do catch up once his schedule permits.
Allan is really excited about the rest of season two and says he thinks fans will like where Murphy is going. He also had a message for Z Nation fans, “Thank you for your support. I really love that our audience is really digging the show and getting to love what we do.”
In my opinion, Allan’s character Murphy is one of the most unique within the genre, a true hero in the making and his portrayal is brilliant. Although Murphy is considered a villain to humans, Allan gives the audience a reason to like the character, to understand where he’s coming from, and want to root for him despite how he may end up taking down humanity for good! If you are a fan of the Zombie Apocalypse craze or just a fan of really tortured, layered characters and good writing, Z Nation is a must see!
Be sure to catch Z Nation on Syfy, Fridays at 10p/9c. Next episode comes out October 16: “Zombie Baby Daddy”. Catch up on the entire season on Syfy. Follow Z Nation on Twitter: @znation
Find more about Keith Allan and his upcoming projects on his website. You can also follow him on Twitter: @KeithAllanDuh