As Maggie on The Walking Dead, Lauren Cohan kicks some serious butt. And just like her character, Cohan has come a long way since those days on the Greene family farm. She currently stars opposite Mark Wahlberg in the action-packed film Mile 22 as the fearless CIA operative Alice, and is also set to play a CIA agent in the spy dramedy Whiskey Cavalier when it comes to ABC in 2019. But despite the fact that her time on The Walking Dead is soon coming to an end (she'll appear only in the first half of Season 9), Cohan isn't concerned about what she'll be doing when she's no longer killing zombies on AMC. As she explains to Bustle, she's always been pragmatic when it comes to her career, and she's excited for what's ahead.
When the British-American Cohan walks into the Bustle offices on a muggy New York City summer day, she exudes the sincere approachability that charmed Glenn Rhee and audiences alike back in Season 2 of The Walking Dead. She is far removed from the worlds of the zombie apocalypse and black ops missions here, but it's easy to see why she often plays leaders worthy of following. And her portrayals of female leadership seem particularly significant in the current social climate.
Starting all the way back when she played con artist Bela in Supernatural, Cohan says she has never been limited by expectations people may have about female characters. "I can't help but not be constricted by the stereotypes," she says. However, she's guarded when it comes to speaking on behalf of all women in the entertainment industry, preferring instead to focus on her own experiences. While she notes that she's "glad that we're in a time where light is being shown" on gender inequality, she's personally drawn to roles that she feels accurately portray the human condition in general.
"Take Maggie in The Walking Dead, as well as [Alice] in Mile 22," Cohan says. "Alice is at the top of her class. She's able to be in a situation, assess what needs to be done, and either know already or learn how to navigate very, very complex and life-threatening situations. That doesn't sound like a gender-specific thing to me. That sounds like something a human being has the impetus or desire to do."
Cohan notes that she's prone to being "completely over-analytical," which could explain her cautiousness when it comes to speaking in generalities. This leads her to be extremely thoughtful and measured when it comes to seeing the whole picture. It's also helped her navigate the waters of being known for a particular character for the last eight seasons while trying to plan for her post-Walking Dead future.
Though Cohan has been giving most of her time and attention to her role as Maggie, she has appeared in other projects during her Walking Dead tenure. She starred in the 2016 horror film The Boy, played Bruce Wayne's mom in Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, and portrayed Tupac Shakur's mentor in the biopic All Eyez On Me alongside fellow Walking Dead star Danai Gurira.
Mile 22 is Cohan's first major film role since The Boy, and her character Alice may remind Walking Dead fans of Maggie: She's a competent leader who is struggling to balance the responsibilities of being a mother with what Cohan calls "a potential world crisis of atom-bomb proportions." And Cohan doesn't hesitate to draw parallels between her characters.
"The physical pressures of these environments in Walking Dead and in Mile 22 help become a pressure cooker for the emotion of said character. So with Alice in Mile 22, she is at this juncture of maybe wanting to be done with this life because it's compromising having a normal life and having a relationship with her daughter," Cohan says. "So she has a great responsibility to that and there's [an] immense push and pull of career and motherhood. It's almost impossible for her to leave, to choose one over the other, and it brings people — as I would imagine — to a great breaking point."
After a seemingly unending gestation period, Maggie, too, will finally be a mother in The Walking Dead Season 9. As for how motherhood will change Maggie, Cohan notes that having Glenn's child leads her to become a more confident and decisive leader. "She makes much harder decisions than she's actually made before," she says. "I think having the child has compelled her to trust her gut even more, which isn't popular with every character, but ultimately, it's the only thing she can do. And I think that the fortifying of that instinct is what has materialized in motherhood — ownership of decision."
While audiences will be able to see the dramatic parallels between Maggie and Alice, she's also stretching her comedy muscles more as CIA agent Francesca "Frankie" Trowbridge in Whiskey Cavalier. Cohan has shown her comedic side in TV series like Childrens Hospital, Archer, and The Mindy Project, and she was eager to get back to doing some lighter fare.
"With Whiskey Cavalier, I looked at a whole bunch of things to decide the most fun direction to move into. Ironically, I was drawn to it because it's so funny, but Frankie has this really dark edge," Cohan says. "Frankie is the least emotional character in this group of people... and Scott Foley plays this very much in touch with his feelings agent. The contradiction of all this is really fun."
Cohan's casting in Whiskey Cavalier led to speculation from outlets like Entertainment Weekly that her time on The Walking Dead could be finished. Deadline reported in early February that her contract was up after Season 8, and there were rumors that she was seeking pay parity with her male co-stars Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus. Though Deadline's report noted that pay parity wasn't a requirement for Cohan to return to the AMC zombie show, Ezekiel actor Khary Payton contributed to the rumors in March when he posted an image of Cohan in character as Maggie with the caption, "Pay the woman" on Instagram.
By April, Cohan had confirmed to Entertainment Weekly at CinemaCon that she would be back for Season 9, with Deadline reporting that her contract has her appearing in just six episodes of the eight-episode first half of Season 9. Months later, Cohan told Andy Cohen on his SiriusXM radio show that her renegotiations were pretty standard and not about parity.
When asked if her perspective on the pay gap in the industry changed due to her renegotiations and the speculation around them, Cohan hesitates. "I honestly feel like the actions that I took spoke so much to the position that I take that I don't necessarily feel the need to explain it beyond that," Cohan says. Though she later adds, "It is necessary for people to support each other and for things to change. I think it does take the energy of community."
When the conversation moves away from the pay inequality rumors, Cohan opens up more about the real reason behind her contract negotiations. "When it came down to deciding how to proceed with my career, I felt that I had spent a long time in one place and I felt that there were certain indicators that it was time to move on. And that didn't mean forever, but that meant to change the way that I viewed my time and space in the show," she says. "To be able to include some other elements in my life became really important to me, because eight years is a long time to be in the apocalypse and to be playing one character. So I feel excited about exploring, and I'm so glad to have had that situation and to be able to make a decision from my principles, because it's often times like that that show you what your principles are."
Cohan makes it clear in our conversation that her time on The Walking Dead isn't necessarily over after her six episodes in Season 9. She notes that she's extremely pleased that her new contract has given her flexibility in how she can continue to be involved in the AMC series. "My relationship with the show is in a beautiful place creatively," she says, "and we really do have a completely open playing field to explore with Maggie, which is so rare and really cool."
"There's a bittersweetness to it because it was time for me to expand into doing something else additionally — and I want to emphasize the 'additionally','" Cohan says. "The potential for story with Maggie is very wide from our writers. And there's potentially room to still do both [Whiskey Cavalier and The Walking Dead] and we're definitely leaving on an up note with Maggie — and an open note."
She continues, "That's always gonna be one of my homes, The Walking Dead. I get asked if this is a farewell and for notes of finality in one direction or another and the truth is, as life so often is, it is not cut and dry. There are no concrete things and that is really cool, because it doesn't happen very often in life."
Maggie's trajectory on Season 9 of The Walking Dead isn't predictable, either. In the Season 8 finale, some viewers thought that the show was setting Maggie up to be the next major villain. From behind her desk at the Hilltop, she conspired with Jesus and Darryl against Rick and Michonne, since they had let the man who killed her husband — Negan — live. It was an ominous moment that seemed to imply that Season 9 would focus on a vengeful Maggie. But for viewers worried that Maggie's character will change too drastically in Season 9, Cohan is quick to note that she doesn't see it that way.
"We got to the end of Season 8 and ... some people were like, 'Are you the new Negan?' and I was like, 'No?!' But she is showing a new side of herself," Cohan says. And this new side comes not only from becoming a mother to her son Hershel (named after her beloved father), but from Rick's decision to show Negan mercy.
"Maggie has to lead the Hilltop and Rick leads Alexandria. And in any cross-pollination of societies, there's going to be conversations that need to be had. The unique factor here is that they are all trying to come to peace over Rick's decision with Negan. And Rick's decision to keep Negan alive gave him peace and Rick's decision to keep Negan alive gave Maggie torture and torment," Cohan says.
During The Walking Dead panel at Comic Con 2018, Cohan clarified that Maggie and Rick still love each other. But that doesn't mean their relationship isn't without conflict. "With Rick ... I'm not even gonna call it a rift, it's just sort of the maturation of their relationship," Cohan says. "I think that maturity is respecting someone even if you don't agree with them, and I think that it's a symbol of how far these characters have come as people."
While Cohan has kept the door open when it comes to Maggie, Lincoln is officially leaving the series after Season 9. So however Maggie and Rick leave things at the end of Cohan's six episodes this season will be the end of their dynamic. But it seems that Rick and Maggie's fraught relationship has pushed her as a leader, and viewers will see that at the start of the upcoming season after the time jump.
"I think that it was a ... necessary sort of disconnect for Maggie to flee the nest and say, 'OK, people are going to do things that disappoint you and you're gonna have to grow up and put your big-girl boots on and make decisions regarding the people that rely on you and you're gonna have to stand by your own decisions.' So that's where she's been driven to at this point," Cohan says. "We're gonna see that in the first three episodes — the consequence of decisions made in a position of leadership. And you can't take credit for the good and not take credit for the bad. And there's going to be a lot of challenge for her."
Despite disagreements with Rick and Maggie's leadership decisions, Cohan promises that Season 9 will still feel hopeful. "Even with the foreboding tragedies we know are coming, [this season] brings back the kind of hope that was in Season 1 and Season 2 that I fell in love with the show for," Cohan says. "It's really cool to feel that flame of possibility and hope come back into the show. And you need the dark to want to come out of it. And we really do kind of break through these shackles to begin a new life again."
Although Cohan's time on The Walking Dead will be limited from here on out, that doesn't hamper her enthusiasm for the future of the AMC series. "I couldn't be more excited about how the season begins and the part that I got to definitely be a part of and how the season continues," Cohan adds. "It's my favorite season of The Walking Dead to date."
There will still be plenty of "opposing viewpoints," which she notes will be a theme in Season 9. But that goes back to the human experience that she seeks to portray in her roles. "All we ever need to do is depict real life," Cohan says. "I just keep trying to do the best with what I have and know that I'll probably keep improving, especially if I keep that mindset. And you just hope that what you do connects with people because it was authentic to you at the time."
"I'm not reinventing the wheel, I'm just saying what I see," Cohan says.
And while not everyone can relate to being a badass CIA agent or a survivor of the zombie apocalypse, Cohan will continue to bring that relatable authenticity to every role from The Walking Dead and beyond.
Hair: Matthew Monzon
Makeup: Andréa Tiller