The Walking Dead Season Nine is setting the pace for diversity and representation on television, argue stars Eleanor Matsuura and Lauren Ridloff. Among the new characters introduced this season are Matsuura's Yumiko, a queer woman of Japanese descent, and the deaf Connie (Ridloff), whose sister, Kelly (Angel Theory), is hard of hearing.
"Isn't that cool? I feel like it's very real when you watch a show and you see people of different colors, ages, abilities," Matsuura told Variety at PaleyFest in Los Angeles. "That's the real world we live in. Of course we should see that on screen. I'm so grateful that those doors are finally being opened. I'm incredibly proud to be representing women, Asian women, the LGBTQ community. This is a big box ticked for me."
Yumiko and Magna (Nadia Hilker) are the latest same sex couple to reach The Walking Dead, which long ago introduced prominent gay characters Tara (Alanna Masterson), Aaron (Ross Marquand), and Jesus (Tom Payne). But the zombie drama gained its first characters who communicate through American Sign Language in Connie and Kelly, who in Robert Kirkman's comic books are unrelated and are instead a female-male couple.
"When I found out I was cast for the role, I was so thrilled because this has such a huge following globally. I represent so many people and show what a deaf person would actually do during the apocalypse," Ridloff, who is deaf, said at PaleyFest through interpreter Ramon Norrod.
"Sometimes I'm reading comments from the fans wondering how it's possible for a deaf person to survive the apocalypse, and I think to myself, 'First of all, we have babies that are surviving the apocalypse.' The show pushes boundaries in so many different ways, not just with people with disabilities, but also people of color and strong female characters. It's setting the bar high."
Though The Walking Dead endured some controversy in November over the mid-season finale death of Jesus, whose murder at the hands of new enemy group the Whisperers sparked cries of the "Bury Your Gays" trope, the casualty propelled the remaining half of the season as Jesus had major ties to both the communities of Hilltop and Alexandria.
Speaking to THR, showrunner Angela Kang defended the turning point and the decision to kill Jesus, saying the Walking Dead team champions "wonderful diversity and representation on the show," which Kang added is something the producers are "very proud of."
"We have a very diverse room. It's hard. I'm Korean, and we wrote out our one Korean character [Steven Yeun's Glenn Rhee]," Kang said.
"We still have multiple series regulars who are LGBTQ characters. It's hard, because we love representation. It's important to us, both in front of and behind the camera. We can't carry the entire load of representation for all of entertainment. We have to be able to tell our stories as well. It's part of the story, that everyone's impacted by these characters."
While speaking at PaleyFest, Kang explained handling the series' expansive cast is "a massive juggling act."
"If you look at the pictures of the cast on our walls, it wraps around because there are so many," she said. "It's also part of the fun to tell stories about diverse people from all different walks of life."
Connie, Kelly, and Yumiko, who belong to a tight-knit group of survivors that includes Luke (Dan Fogler) and Yumiko's girlfriend Magna, have quickly emerged as fan-favorites. Perhaps most beloved is Connie, whose dynamic with Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) has a growing number of Walking Dead fans calling for "Donnie," a coupling that would mark the archer's first onscreen romance.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.
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