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ATLANTA, Ga. — Like the undead creatures he has played on “The Walking Dead,” actor PJ McDonnell just keeps coming back.
The native of Grayson County has shambled his way through three episodes of the mega-popular zombie survival TV series in the past two years. Two gunshots to the head and a decapitation by sword weren’t enough to keep him down.
He’s also had roles in several indie films, in which he has actual lines beyond the hissing and snarling of the TV show’s “walkers.”
McDonnell lives and works as an actor and musician in Atlanta, where “The Walking Dead” is filmed.
After graduating from Grayson County High school in 1998, McDonnell attended Radford University.
“I got my first real job out of college at The Wolfhart Haus dinner theater in Wytheville, playing bass in the orchestra pit and serving tables, while saving money to move to Atlanta, in hopes of kickstarting my music career.”
One of the early highlights of his music career was when he was asked to play bass with The Coasters — the first vocal group in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — for a New Years Eve show in Huntsville, Ala.
“Let’s fast forward 10 years, two albums, thousands of shows and thousands of miles in the road, as well as a brief stint in Nashville with my band Pistol Town,” McDonnell said. “In 2011, I took a stab at the growing film industry in Atlanta, after searching for new and creative ways to spend my days off.
“To be honest, I sobered up, and was trying desperately to find anything to keep me from having too much time by myself.”
Ironically, he says his first job on a film set was as a featured extra in an AA meeting in the movie “Flight.”
Then came a vague casting call for extras in the Atlanta area, which turned out to be for “The Walking Dead.” The show casts dozens of actors for zombie roles large and small, but McDonnell’s parts have been meatier than some. Instead of shuffling through the background or being part of a horde, he has gotten to interact with — and be killed by — main cast members.
McDonnell was invited to attend the show’s “Zombie School” and meet the production team. He auditioned in front of executive producer/special effects makeup designer Greg Nicotero, executive producer Gale Anne Hurd and stunt coordinator Russell Towery.
“Zombie School involved Greg giving helpful pointers for our zombie walk, and Greg and Russell demonstrating to us the proper way to take a kill, like taking a bullet versus getting hit with a baseball bat.”
After learning how to die convincingly, McDonnell got a few acting tips. “I do remember them making a joke out of not being stiff, like a Frankenstein’s monster zombie.”
Three weeks after the audition, McDonnell got word that he was working on the first episode of Season 3 in 2012, which introduced the fan-favorite character of Michonne (played by Danai Gurira), a hardened zombie killer whose weapon of choice is a katana.
His appearance was a memorable one. “I was a cool scene involving Michonne decapitating myself and another walker and the same time, and afterwards the camera moves to the floor, and it pans to my head, which is still alive.”
The special effects crew created a prosthetic head of McDonnell for that scene.
“That same day, they took a production picture of me which ended up being featured in several major publications,” including the official “Walking Dead” magazine, illustrating an article about the makeup effects.
He came back for Season 3’s tenth episode — as a different walker, of course — in which he attacks a family trapped in their car on a bridge being overrun by zombies. The scene featured main characters Merle and Daryl Dixon (Michael Rooker and Norman Reedus).
This season, he was in the second episode as yet another walker, in a scene in which Michonne is attacked on her way into the survivors’ prison stronghold. This time, he was shot in the head by Carl (played by Chandler Riggs).
“They have released a couple photos of me from that episode that have been featured in Entertainment Weekly and USA Today in the past few weeks,” McDonnell said.
Playing a zombie involves an intense makeup process.
“Typically, I am in the trailer for a solid two hours, while they apply prosthetics and paint. The guys at KNB Effects Group are a virtual ‘who’s who’ of the special effects makeup world, and are such rock stars that the time really flies while I am in the chair.”
Filming in the humid Georgia heat under layers of rotting flesh makeup is a challenge.
“It’s tricky. The secret is really wearing bug spray and hydrating a ton throughout the day. They constantly are retouching us up, as well,” McDonnell said.
“Wearing the contact lenses is the toughest part, actually. I would compare it to looking through milk. Usually a production assistant will walk me around set while they are in, so I don’t run into anything.”
Asked if he will make any return appearances, McDonnell is silent as the grave.
“I am not allowed to discuss anything about the upcoming season, unfortunately,” he says, noting that actors have to sign nondisclosure agreements to avoid leaking spoilers.
McDonnell’s acting career outside “The Walking Dead” is also taking off.
“I have been in several indie productions recently, including ‘Hell Hole,’ a horror comedy where I play the town drunk/anti-hero; ‘Life With Hope,’ a spiritual web series about the comings and goings of a town and its church.”
He also has roles in several yet-to-be-released projects, including “The Thin Line,” “Rxurrection,” “The F.E.W.,” “Norman Dates,” “Bad, Bad Things” and “Dead Inn.”
McDonnell is represented by East Coast Talent, and he says he “couldn’t have a more hard-working agent on my side, as well.
“I am also very blessed to get to be enrolled in Kristen Shaw’s Acting Studio. It is a Strasberg Method based program.”
He is happy with the diversity of roles, and isn’t worried about being typecast as a zombie. “I get to play everything from a thug brought back to life, to a preacher, to a time traveling skeleton.”