Tony Gowell: A ‘Dead’ Man Walking

You may remember Tony Gowell from David Atlanta’s recent Men of David contest – we certainly do. His outgoing personality and drive to help represent different parts of Atlanta’s LGBT community helped push him to the runner-up position in the Men of David contest.

While his primary job is at Dragon Con, where he serves as the Convention Office Director year-round, Tony has also been an active part of Atlanta’s film industry. While he’s been involved as an extra on several productions, and has also worked as a background casting director, he’s mostly associated with his time on the breakout series The Walking Dead. We spoke with Tony recently about his work on the series, including the way the series turned into a family affair, his spots at fan conventions, and exactly what’s involved with turning into a zombie.

David Atlanta: How did you get your start in the film industry?

Tony Gowell: I began in high school, taking several different theater courses. I went to a really large high school that had lots of different subcategories for performing arts. I was able to take some really great course work. There were lots of opportunities to explore different facets, instead of just being grouped together as, “Oh, you’re an artistic type. You can be in drama or art class or band,” and those being the only choices.

One of the things that were brought for us in the performing arts history class I took was extra credit to audition for film and television productions in the Nashville area. So my first audition was for a film called The Man in the Moon, and one of my classmates actually got a part. Her name is Reese Witherspoon – most people have heard of her. She went on to become absolutely amazing and prolific in the film industry. I did not get cast in the movie, but we both received the extra credit. I worked on a couple of the Ernest movies. I did Ernest Goes to Camp.

After high school, I took a long break from the film industry, because my life transitioned into college and building a relationship with my husband. We’ve been together for 19 years. So building that relationship, and then just finding different career paths, I fell out of it. But in 2009, I reached out to Ruben Fleischer, who was the director of a little movie called Zombieland. I told him that I always wanted to be a zombie, and my reason for being zombie is very different from what I think most people would want to say is their reason. That performing arts history teacher – his name is Kent Cathcart, and at that time, he had been such a great acting coach for me. He really pushed me to do some projects. So not only did I do those movies, but I did some community theater as well, and some charity projects. I really got involved in finding out that the world was much bigger than the high school I was going to. And he was such a kind, wonderful man.

Well, he passed away in 2007, and he left that mark on me that anything can happen. He was one of the original zombies in Night of the Living Dead, so that had always stuck with me as the best honor I could give him: to try and be a zombie in something. So in talking to Ruben, I gave him my reason for wanting to be a zombie in his movie, and he said, “Oh, you’re hired, no problem.” And then I got to work on Zombieland, and I worked in several different scenes. I worked in the print work, so I’m actually on the movie poster for Zombieland in one of the scenes.

The same casting agent that cast Zombieland got the contract for The Walking Dead, so as human beings, we’re ultimately lazy. We go to what we know. So they, of course, flipped through their Rolodex of people that they hired to play zombies for Zombieland, and said, “Hey, you want to do this again for this TV show called The Walking Dead?” “You mean, like the comic book? I guess. Absolutely, I’m in.” And it was a great opportunity to work with Frank Darabont, the director of The Shawshank Redemption who is one of the most amazing directors. And to have the opportunity to work with him, because he filmed the pilot and created the vision of what the TV show is today.

DA: And your son also works on The Walking Dead, right?

TG: Absolutely. He was encouraged by a friend. I would never have encouraged him to do those things, because background work is thankless and it doesn’t pay well. But he really wanted to be a zombie also, and he had gone to the “zombie school” for season two, so we worked together on some scenes. But he really came into his own in season three. Not only did he do a photo shoot with Entertainment Weekly, where he landed the cover as a zombie, but he also got to be the zombie who ate Lori, who was one of the main characters in the first couple of seasons. He’s had quite a bit of exposure, and it’s kind of surreal to see his image, even though he’s done up like a zombie, tattooed on someone’s skin, and then you’re seeing a picture of it, and thinking, “That’s my kid.”

DA: Now, you’ve gone to different conventions as a guest because of your time on The Walking Dead. What’s it like going to a convention from that side, as opposed to where you normally are with Dragon Con?

TG: Going to any kind of convention or event as a guest is a huge honor, because it gives you the opportunity to represent something you’re passionate about to people who are coming to see you because of their passion for the same thing. So you get a chance to geek out, but it’s at a different level. People who are fans of something, they look to you as a conduit, because they themselves have this fixation on what it’s like to work in film and television, and then you have to be that face to not necessarily spoil and bring all the truths to the forefront of how grueling it can be, but to let them know you’re a fan also, and you appreciate their times and energies that they’ve spent to come and see you and talk to you and get your behind-the-scenes stories that maybe aren’t known, because what you see on television is the way it’s edited together. For every two minutes you see on television, there’s a 16-hour workday. So there’s a lot more that people never see or hear about.

DA: Playing a zombie, that’s a lot of makeup work. How long does it take to get into makeup?

TG: It really depends on what the script calls for, for your role. If you are seen in the distance on a show like The Walking Dead, the amount of makeup you need is not as much as if the camera is up your nostril, that close to you where people have to see every fine detail of your skin. From the special effects silicone or the rubber or the different things they put on your skin to make you look more ghastly, to the makeup and the different levels and layers of your makeup – because they have to layer it to give it that dimension – to the creature effect contact lenses. Everything has to be perfect the closer you are to the camera. So really, it depends on the script of what you’ve been hired to play that day.

In giving away a Walking Dead trade secret, they refer to the walkers who are that close to the camera or that close to the principals as “hero walkers.” Then you have your mid-ground walkers, who are the ones who are still in makeup, but not as much. Then you have background walkers, who are sometimes just wearing a mask, and they’ll have their eyes darkened out, which adds to the amount of time that is not needed at the end of the day to get out of makeup, and you can go home faster! The more intense the makeup is, the more time – it takes about 50% of the time getting into it to get out of it. So if you have a two-hour makeup session, it’s going to take you an hour to get out of it. So at the end of a 16-hour workday, the last thing you want to do is mess with silicone pieces. You have to use strong astringent alcohol to break the bonds of the makeup and the glues that they use. So it depends on how much skin is showing.

Someone like my son, Alex, where it was important for them to show his skin in the boiler room scene as having eaten the lead – he was shirtless. So they put him in a fat suit, and that fat suit had to be melded to his skin, so he was in makeup for five hours. Whereas someone like me, I’m in long sleeves; you’re just seeing my hands and my head. I would be in makeup for maybe an hour and a half.

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