Photography by Eric McNatt
Ross Marquand has had some momentous birthdays. On his 33rd, his agent called to tell him he’d landed his most important role to date: a part on AMC’s zombie hit The Walking Dead, the most-watched drama in the history of basic cable. “Going from being a broke fan watching on my couch to actually being on it—there’s nothing better than that,” Marquand says over dinner at Bar Corvo, a neighborhood Italian restaurant in Brooklyn. “I couldn’t pay bills a year and a half ago. I said, ‘I don’t know if this is going to work out for me.’ Then, luckily, I got the biggest break of my life.”
Marquand is warm and relaxed, despite having just spent three long days in Secaucus, N.J., at the Walker Stalker Con, a national horror convention where fans meet their favorite zombie slayers. His TWD alter ego, Aaron, is a gay, trusted recruiter who scouts for potential survivors with his boyfriend, Eric (Jordan Woods-Robinson), then uses his reliable instincts and tenacity to persuade them to come live in a gated community in Alexandria, Va. Aaron has a seemingly inexhaustible well of patience that runs out only if he thinks his partner is in danger. But he wasn’t embraced when the couple kissed after a harrowing incident left Eric with a broken ankle in the series’ fifth season.
“It’s a tender moment between two men in love, and for some reason that set people off,” Marquand says, referring to the subsequent flurry of angry tweets from viewers. “To say it bothered me is an understatement.” Yet he was heartened to see some hostile detractors come around to the idea. “These same fans are now like, ‘You seem cool now, like one of the guys,’ ” he says. “Maybe it seems silly, but for me that’s progress. People see Aaron as someone they can relate to. That’s kind of a win.”
Meanwhile, Marquand is shooting the upcoming season of the Hulu sitcom Deadbeat, for which he’ll bust out his Brit accent to play a James Bond-esque cat burglar. Throughout the years he has honed various impressions, and during our conversation he cycles through a number of them. He recently wrote and appeared in a set of “AT&True Detective” videos, parody mash-ups of the HBO series and the “It’s Not Complicated” AT&T ads featuring a roundtable of elementary students. His impersonation of Matthew McConaughey’s nihilist gumshoe, Rust Cohle, is uncanny as he growls at a group of clueless children about the spaghetti monster.
His accents also allow him to weave colorful stories stocked with his own characters. He recalls his recent birthday, this one memorable because it fell on both his last day of shooting TWD, just south of Atlanta, and on his best friend’s wedding. It was one of his longest, goriest nights on set, with Marquand wrapping at 7 in the morning, and needing to catch a flight at 8:15. As soon as he was excused, he changed his clothes and sped off, but he was still coated in sticky fake blood when he arrived, sweaty and breathless, at the airport. The agent at the gate wouldn’t let him on the plane.
“She looked terrified, because of course I’m still covered in blood from head to toe,” Marquand says, before mimicking her Southern drawl: “Sir, do you need help? Are you injured?” He replied, “I’m fine. It’s not my blood. I mean, it’s not someone else’s blood…”
Her supervisor arrived. “I understand you’re on a TV show?” she asked. “Yeah,” Marquand responded. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“You’re on The Walking Dead?”
Marquand pauses for effect, clearly someone who senses a good plot twist. “Then she asked, ‘Can I take a selfie with you?’” He obliged, boarded the flight, and made it to his friend’s wedding, squeaky-clean, with 25 minutes to spare.