Lauren Cohan on her new show, ‘The Walking Dead: Dead City’

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Lauren Cohan on her new show, ‘The Walking Dead: Dead City’

There’s something special about New York City just before dawn, says Lauren Cohan. “It’s a different kind of beauty, empty and desolate. You get the romance of your own relationship with the city.”

Cohan’s new Manhattan show is bathed in that kind of ambient desolation—except it’s less because of the hour, and more because most of the city’s residents are now flesh-eating zombies.

AMC’s “The Walking Dead: Dead City,” which premieres June 18, represents a new day for Cohan’s character, Maggie Rhee.

The farm girl who became over 11 seasonsan indomitable walker-killing mother and one-time leader of the Hilltop Colony, ventures into NYC with Negan (former Alexa cover star Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the reformed baseball-bat-wielding maniac and killer of Maggie’s husband, Glenn (Steven Yeun).

It’s an inspired pairing, and things are going to be awkward: In the “Walking Dead” finale, Maggie tells an apologetic Negan that she can never forgive him.

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For an artist who has spent more than a decade steeped in fictional death and destruction – yes, the walking dead on the show may be metaphorical, but also, there’s a lot of killing – Cohan really comes alive and talks about the experience.

She brings the same level of physical and emotional brutality to “Dead City,” so decompression between shoots is key.

Cohan joins me on Zoom from her family’s place in southern New Jersey, hair pulled back, wearing a fluffy, very un-Maggie-like sweater. “When I’m here,” she says, “I always make the trips longer than they should be.”

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan, Lauren Cohan as Maggie Rhee "The Walking Dead: Dead City".
Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan and Lauren Cohan as Maggie Rhee in “The Walking Dead: Dead City.”
Peter Kramer/AMC

Now 41, Cohan was born in Cherry Hill but moved with the family to England, her mother’s native country, in her early teens.

She’s got the British accent to show for it — which might come as a surprise given her Southern twang on “TWD” — but she’s always happy to be back in Jersey.

And Jersey was where much of this six-episode “Dead City” chapter in the “Walking Dead” saga was shot.

Its plot revolves around Maggie’s mission to isolated, zombie-infested New York to rescue her now-teenage son, Hershel (Logan Kim), who has been kidnapped by a villain known as the Croat (Zeljko Ivanek).

Maggie, the Everywoman turned fiery leader, must continue to fight for her loved ones while somehow holding on to her humanity. “For me, there’s this emotional component,” Cohan says. Along with the action and chaos is “all the vulnerability involved in these characters’ lives,” she tells me. “It’s something I take seriously, and I feel really lucky to have been able to do it for so long.”

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Perhaps more than any other character on the hugely popular “TWD,” Maggie embodies the dramatic, often traumatic, changes necessary to survive in terrifying circumstances.

From the moment she joined the show in its second season, Cohan’s performance was a masterclass in how to infuse survivability with grit, charm and humor.

In one of her earliest episodes, she seduces Glenn matter-of-factly amid the ransacked remains of a pharmacy, a sexy reminder of how life goes on even amid the end of civilization.

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But for someone who has steadily risen to become one of the show’s big stars, Cohan is eager to share the spotlight with everyone who brings this terrifying dystopia to life on screen. “I don’t want to be a star,” she says. “If there’s a world where I can work, and be part of a team, and never get all the credit and never have all the responsibility, that would be a happy life.”

As rewarding as it is to watch the new series begin, the real value, Cohan says, is being on set in the moment. “It’s the doing of the thing,” she says. “That’s the gratifying part. And to work with good people. You all have something you’re trying to achieve, and that’s a unified vision.”

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Cohan graduated to executive producer on “Dead City,” and she’s happy to talk about learning the behind-the-scenes ropes.

“I’ve been invited to be involved in post-production as much as I like, which is really where I dive in and get super excited,” she says. “I like to watch how editors work. I have shadowed directors a few times. And I love just being involved in the detail of every creative decision. You know, how the prop master comes up with a functional yet cool weapon that will make people say ‘wow!’ but it also fits the character. I was able to be there and learn and be part of the conversation. It’s just a big learning curve.”

As settings go, apocalyptic New York is a juicy one.

Few fictional cities have been destroyed so frequently and colorfully — think: the Statue of Liberty in the sand in “Planet of the Apes,” or the frozen skyscrapers of “The Day After Tomorrow.” “Dead City” leans into that tradition with relish.

“‘Escape From New York’ was a definite reference,” says Cohan, referring to the 1981 John Carpenter sci-fi thriller in which a young Kurt Russell must fight his way out of a futuristic prison colony in Manhattan.

“Dead City” sees a New York overrun with walkers, and cut off from the rest of the country. “Being in a city as populous as Manhattan makes for huge hordes of walkers,” says Cohan, “who have to be tethered in different ways.”

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Our heroes (and anti-heroes) are also plagued by a more frequent source of horror: In a scene that would send chills down the spine of any apartment dweller, Maggie and Negan are ambushed by a swarm of cockroaches while hiding for walkers.

Luckily the cockroaches were the CGI kind. And Cohan was on hand to witness the digital bug magic. “It was a fun one to watch in post-production,” she says. “The magnification in the sound of the bones, their shells grinding together.” There was initially some discussion about which vermin would be the most disturbing. “I think there was a time when we thought about doing it with rats,” she says. “But it was so much more insidious that it was cockroaches.”

As for the significant physical demands of the role, Cohan is an old pro at this point, and because of a back injury she suffered in a car accident a decade ago, she has to take extra care to maintain a strong body. to maintain that Protect her during her regular action scenes.

“You just have to take extra care so you can do things right,” she says. On “Dead City” she has a stunt double named Dejay Roestenberg whose praises she enthusiastically sings; but she also does a few tricks of her own, including crossing a narrow beam (while harnessed, but still) 25 feet in the air.

She was “definitely hyperventilating” beforehand, she told Entertainment Weekly.

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Cohan emphasizes that a workout should be about feeling good in your body, not about stats. “I was a sporty kid,” she says, “but I was never a person who went to the gym. A gym routine became something that was part of the job for me, but I feel like it’s only really had success when I kind of switched it back to the mental fitness. If it’s results-oriented, I’m just going to burn out eventually. For me, it’s like, OK, I come up to myself so many times a week. It’s the preparation to to be flexible for life.”

Among the many workouts she does to keep things interesting, Cohan’s favorite is dancing.

On her own, a la that Robyn song. “I just do it for the sheer joy of it,” says Cohan. “You can do it anywhere. I just dance until I’m dripping with sweat. I never have any injuries if I dance every day.”

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She also hit the pavement while shooting the first part of “Dead City” in Manhattan. “I would just walk the length of it, about 20 miles on a weekend, because you can. It’s so restorative.” In the Hamptons, where we shot Cohan, she goes to Montauk, preferably during the off-season, to hike: “I like walks on the beach, and just finding all the quiet places. I like cozy little coves.” You won’t find her in the sun – “I’m trying to take care of my skin!” – or surfing. “I did it once, like 15 years ago, and the whole time I was so aware of whether I was going to fall off or the surfboard was going to hit me in the head!”

But she relishes an opportunity to wear floaty, fun fashions like the beachwear she’s modeling for us.

It’s a relatively new feeling, just letting herself enjoy days like this. “For the longest time I had a resistance to what I considered the superfluous parts of the job,” she muses. “And I guess I didn’t allow myself to have fun. Or I thought I wasn’t serious when I was having fun.”

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Now she’s hoping there will be more “Dead City” premieres to dress up for down the road. “We are definitely set to go further [the first season],” she says. “The TV landscape is a little different and a little more shaky than it used to be. But we really hope the show does well and can lead to a second and third and fourth or fifth season. We feel like we’ve just cracked open the egg — now we have to make an omelet.”

Photographer: Ben Watts; Publisher: Serena French; Stylist: Anahita Moussavian; Photo Editor: Jessica Hober; Fashion Assistants: Madeleine Shepherd; Alycen Humphrey-Case; Hair: Seiji Yamada at Forward Artists with Trim New York; Makeup: Mary Wiles at Walter Schupfer Management; Location: Hero Beach ClubMontauk

Lauren Cohan on her new show, ‘The Walking Dead: Dead City’

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