October 23, 2013 - Joe Constable has an extra special role in a popular cable tv show airing Sunday, but it's doubtful anyone will recognize him.
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The 1996 Brandon High School graduate is one of the primary zombies on "The Walking Dead," scheduled to air at 9 p.m., Oct. 27, on AMC. Constable portrays a zombie that has been cut in half and in trailers for the third episode of season four, can be seen resting against the base of a tree.
"When do you get to do this stuff in real life?" he asked. "It's hard to watch the show now, because I know a lot of the gags and how cool the actors are in real life. I still watch it, it doesn't ruin it, but it's different. You're also excited to see what they are actually going to air."
Constable, 36, has been a fan of "The Walking Dead" since its first season. A registered nurse at the VA Hospital in Ann Arbor, he sometimes does a zombie act for his patients on the oncology floor, trying to distract them from their own sometimes dire circumstances. A colleague at the hospital suggested he should try out for the show "The Walking Dead," which depicts a world that has seen the zombie apocalypse and survivors who are trying to avoid becoming victims.
Constable searched online for how to become a zombie on the show and then sent an e-mail, along with his photo, as requested. Six months went by and he thought they weren't interested, when he received an e-mail from the show's casting department, requesting more photos, as well as height and weight information. They sent a reply advising him that filming takes place from May to November on the set located just outside of Atlanta and that only 24-hour notice may be given for a scene.
Constable lived in Georgia for several years before moving back to Michigan two years ago. His 14-year-old daughter Taylor still lives in Georgia, as well as his brother, and Constable visits frequently.
With the invitation to have a role as a zombie extra, Constable talked it over with his fiancée, Elanor Hallman, who was then pregnant with their daughter Violet, now 4-months-old. She agreed it would be an interesting experience and in April the couple drove down to Georgia and Constable attended zombie school for a day. The teacher at the school is "The Walking Dead" executive producer Greg Nicotero, who is also a director and head of special effects, said Constable, who was given a name tag with a number.
He was one of roughly 50 people trying out to be cast as a zombie.
"They want creativity," said Constable.
"He told us, 'No Frankensteins, no arms out.' If he sees you do that, you're out. Zombie motivation is to eat (live humans). You walk around like you're drunk. They just want to see you walk."
In May, Constable received another e-mail that he'd been selected.
"I was stoked!" he exclaims, acting like anything but a zombie as he paces around the room and speaks animatedly. "I was going to be on 'The Walking Dead!'"
Constable notes there are three different types of zombie roles—background zombies, midground zombies, and the extra zombie role everyone wants—a hero walker, which may have a bite scene, or a good kill scene. He had some background/midground zombie bits filmed in May, but in June, back in Michigan, the casting director called and asked if he would be interested in doing a special scene and if he could coming down for a fitting. Constable rearranged his schedule with the help of co-workers.
Down in Georgia, he was fitted with a prosthetic set of ribs for the show. The following day, at 5:15 a.m., he sat down in a chair, where he would remain for the next three hours as two make-up artists set to work on him.
"They are true artists, they make everything by hand," he said. "They were so humble and so cool. They make fun of the zombie make-up sold in stores. These guys have spray and mix colors, they used a brush and glue, and they bring dirt in. They glued living moss to me, put a bald cap on me, put this film over my face..."
Special contact lenses were also placed in Constable's eyes, which made his vision blurry—all he could see was shapes.
In the scene, Constable's head is up against the base of a tree and it appears he has no lower body. The make-up artists continued to work on him outside.
An Army veteran, Constable noted the show is a lot like the military—"hurry up and wait."
"The make-up guys are perfectionists and they will keep going until the cameras are rolling."
Although he can't reveal details of the storyline or the scene, Constable said the director did five or six takes, during which worms were also poured on him. He groans and moves around.
"Greg (Nicotero) had to tell me to calm down a little—he said, 'You're a rotting zombie and you're starving, but here comes food, like live bait,'" recalls Constable. "When the scene got done, I got a round of applause from the cast, the props people, the camera guys. I was on cloud nine. The director gave me a high five. They were so happy, they all gave hugs and the writers were taking pictures with me."
Another of the highlights of the experience was meeting some of the actors, including Scott Wilson, who plays Hershel Greene on the show.
After the scene was complete, Constable had to be completely clean of make-up before he left the set that Monday. He then got in the car and drove back to Michigan, and a few days later, on June 15, his daughter Violet was born.
"I could only do this with Elanor's support, she's my number one fan," he said.
Constable returned to Georgia in September for an eating scene as a different zombie. He hopes to be invited back again next month and notes his daughter Taylor is very excited that her Dad is a zombie. He has no plans, however, to change careers.
"Two things I learned—one is that I do feel for the actors," said Constable, who as an extra was paid $8.50 an hour and earned a $50 bonus for one scene in which he had to eat pulled pork made to look like a small child. "They have a lot of pressure on them for these scenes and they have to stay on site from May through November. To have a family is hard if you're an actor. They don't have a regular life at all. On the other hand, it's totally fun. It's a fantasy world like when you're a kid, who wouldn't want to do that for a living?"
He has now had the best of both worlds.
"It's like a bucket list item," he said of his experiences with "The Walking Dead." "Who can say they've been on one of the top cable tv shows?"
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville