Atlanta actress Melissa McBride turns Carol into key character in ‘The Walking Dead’

Melissa McBride’s character Carol on “The Walking Dead” has seen her role in the group increase in importance over time. She is a major presence in the first episode of season 5 returning Sunday.

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Melissa McBride’s character Carol on “The Walking Dead” has seen her role in the group increase in importance over time. She is a major presence in the first episode of season 5 returning Sunday.

Carol Peletier, played by longtime Atlanta actor Melissa McBride, was a bit player on AMC’s “The Walking Dead” season one. Meek and withdrawn, she was the battered wife of nasty husband Ed. She looked like potential mincemeat, easily forgotten once chomped on.

But after a zombie killed Ed, Carol volunteered to bash his skull in with a pickax to ensure he didn’t turn into one himself.

Fellow actors and executive producers then watched her hack away with a purpose and intensity that electrified the set.

“The power of her performance blew me away,” said Greg Nicotero, an executive producer who has been with the show since its inception. “She has this vulnerability, a sensitivity. She feels like someone you can reach out to.”

With the show returning for season five Sunday, McBride is one of just five actors who remain from season one, and her role has been ramped up significantly as the show has gotten ever more popular. It’s now the No. 1 show among 18-to-49 year-olds, drawing 20 million viewers a week. AMC has already guaranteed “The Walking Dead” a sixth season going into 2016 and is preparing a spinoff.

McBride, a 49-year-old Kentucky native, moved to Atlanta in 1991 and spent a decade acting in shows such as “In the Heat of the Night” and “Dawson’s Creek.” She also acted in oodles of commercials for clients such as Rooms to Go and was a spokeswoman for Ford for a couple of years.

In 2000, she decided to shift gears and become a casting director for Stllwell Casting, where she booked actors mostly for commercials and short films. “It was a whole different kind of fulfillment than acting,” McBride said in an interview on set in Senoia last week.

Acting was in her past, she figured. When an agent asked her to audition in a Frank Darabont-produced film “The Mist,” she resisted. Her boss Annette Stilwell, a huge Stephen King fan, convinced her to give it a try.

McBride was considered for a bigger role but she didn’t want to take so much time away from her job. Instead, she found a smaller role more compelling, a two-minute scene in which she played a distraught mother. Her performance was so impactful, Darabont offered her a role for his new show “The Walking Dead” in 2010.

She didn’t even audition for Carol, which she figured was a short-term gig. She was only in three of season one’s six episodes. “I figured my character was not going to live,” she said.

McBride bonded with the other Atlanta actors on the show, all of whom she had known when she was a casting director. IronE Singleton, who played T-Dog the first three seasons, remembers McBride booking him for a Rooms to Go ad back in the day.

“She was such a free spirit,” Singleton said. “I pegged her as one of those individuals you’d run into at Woodstock.”

And once he saw her acting, Singleton was wowed: “When she’s in a role, you can look into her eyes and see her soul. She goes so deep down inside to get at Carol.”

During seasons two and three, Carol remained a secondary character. She lost her daughter Sophia to zombieland and bonded with one of the most popular characters, Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus). While they had chemistry, there has been no romance.

“Melissa is an open book,” Reedus wrote in an email. “She feels everything she says and she means everything she does. That’s why she’s so good.”

Last year, the writers gave Carol far more to do. She began secretly teaching the children how to use guns and knives. When a deadly but non-zombie-related virus began afflicting some of the survivors at the camp, she unilaterally killed two of them as a preemptive strike to prevent it from spreading.

“To Carol, there’s no time for second guessing,” McBride said. “She has to protect the people she loves.”

When she confessed to leader Rick Grimes about the murders while they were on a supply run, he exiled her, for fear this information would cause dissension back at camp.

By then, she was no longer a meek, abused wife but a strong, independent, pragmatic survivor who was able to live on her own. She ultimately reunited with young Lizzie and Mika. Lizzie, however, was so mentally imbalanced she thought the zombies were still human and to prove it, she killed her sister.

Carol, in one of the most heart-wrenching scenes of season four, felt she had no choice but to murder Lizzie. To distract Lizzie before shooting her, she told the little girl with mock cheer, “Look at the flowers.”

“I was talking to someone today about how emotionally spent I often feel playing Carol,” McBride said. “That scene was the most emotionally spent I have ever felt as an actress.”

Without revealing any spoilers, it’s fair to say Carol remains a crucial cog in this Sunday’s return of “The Walking Dead.”

McBride hopes to stay on the show as long as the producers want Carol alive. “I love this character,” she said. “She and the others are all living so immediately, so presently. There’s nothing to look forward to. They have to deal with the here and now. It’s a profound thing.”