For fans of The Walking Dead, Halloween might as well be a no-school national holiday. It’s Santacon for zombies, cosplay Christmas. But for Emily Kinney, who portrayed Beth Greene on the show from 2011 to 2014, this year is probably going to be just like any old night. “I normally really love Halloween, but I’m in Vancouver working, so I don’t think I’m going to any Halloween parties,” she confesses. Instead, she sees Hocus Pocus or Scream and a bowl of popcorn in her future.
Can you blame her? After playing a Southern belle turned zombie-slayer for 49 episodes, the 30-year-old must be all Halloween-ed out. “Sometimes I fantasize about working on a romantic comedy, coming home from work and not having to cry and think about people dying all day,” she says with a laugh. And while subsequent roles on gritty cable dramas like Masters of Sex and The Knick haven’t granted her that wish just yet, Kinney’s other creative outlet has been a one-way ticket to rom-com heaven.
Back in 2011, the same year she started carousing with the undead, Kinney released her first EP of original songs, Blue Toothbrush, wrought with relationship-heavy lyrics and indie folk-pop stylings in the vein of She & Him and Ingrid Michaelson. For Walking Dead fans, Kinney’s music must’ve come as a bit of a shock: One song in particular, ‘Morning Sex Is for Lovers,’ is about as personal as you can get—and certainly not something you could imagine the teenaged Beth Greene singing by a campfire.
“I wrote ‘Morning Sex Is for Lovers’ when I hadn’t lived in New York for very long yet. I don’t know if this is a Nebraska thing or maybe it’s a teenager thing, but I had never hooked up with someone who wasn’t interested in me as a girlfriend. That was new for me.”
But remember: This was the real Emily Kinney, not some made-up character. “[Music is] this thing [that] I have to do, regardless of who’s going to hear it,” she explains. A second EP, Expired Love, arrived two years later. And this year, she had enough material to release her first full-length, This Is War (October 2). The 10-song set once again finds Kinney wondering out loud if she’ll ever find that special someone—but this time, she’s thinking about permanence. “Having a boyfriend and partner is something that I really, really want, and I feel like it is something that you have to work at,” she says. (Not surprisingly, she tells us she’s currently dating a musician.)
We caught up with her to talk about her upbringing, burgeoning career and new album.
You grew up in Nebraska. Everybody we know from there has left as soon as they were able. Is Nebraska for leaving?
For me, I was always ready to leave. I was always plotting my escape. Since I was really little, I wanted to be a singer and an actor, and you can only do that [in] New York City or L.A.
Do you remember what you packed in your suitcase to leave for New York City?
I didn’t pack much. I really only had one big suitcase. I went to NYU for a semester, and while I was there, I started auditioning and got in a play, and it was my first professional equity play. So I stopped going to NYU and did the play until it closed. [But] I didn’t have an agent [and I was] super broke, so I went back to Nebraska. I worked at this coffee shop, Mo Java, in Lincoln, and saved $1,000, and [then] moved back to New York.
Your character Beth Greene meets a pretty grisly ending on The Walking Dead. What is it like actually playing dead?
I’ve died on a couple different shows [laughs]. The actual acting of the scene is not that difficult; you’re just literally lying there. Norman [Reedus] had to just carry me out. But I was so emotionally connected to the show, and it was the end of a job that I’d had for four years, so it was a difficult transition for me.
Did a part of you die along with your character?
I don’t know. I guess if you’ve played a character for four years, it does become a part of your life. And it’s not so much the character, but the show in general is still a huge part of my life. People tweet at me every day about the show, I go to conventions and see my friends, I was just at The Walking Dead Season 6 premiere. I don’t know if a part of me died, but I definitely had to say goodbye to a character I loved playing and a job that I loved having. I would say that it was more of a chapter closed or graduating high school.
It’s interesting that you should say “graduating from high school,” given that you played a teenager on the show.
Yeah, I definitely got to grow up and become a stronger woman by the end of it.
Switching gears to your music, it seems like you’re pretty comfortable writing about personal subject matter. Take “Morning Sex Is for Lovers” from your first EP. Is that how open you are when you’re not acting or talking to journalists?
I wouldn’t say I’m that open. I would say music is the place I feel I can say those things. So that’s why it becomes this thing where I have to do it, regardless of who’s going to hear it or not hear it. There’s not some endgame. I totally remember writing ‘Morning Sex Is for Lovers,’ and it was when I hadn’t lived in New York for very long yet. I don’t know if this is a Nebraska thing or maybe it’s a teenager thing, but I had never hooked up with someone who wasn’t interested in me as a girlfriend. That was a new thing for me; that was very confusing to me. So some of those first songs from that first EP were sorting that stuff out. [‘Morning Sex Is for Lovers’] was like, ‘Oh this is strange; this person wants to hang out with me, but then something turns off. They don’t want to be my boyfriend.’ Maybe I’m a little immature in that I hadn’t gone through that before.
It feels like there’s connective tissue between your EPs and This Is War. Like one minute you’re in love, then there’s the big breakup, and now you’re in self-reflection mode. Is there any truth to that?
I think you’re picking up on some of those transitions I was making when I was writing songs. I definitely feel like This Is War is me sticking up for myself a lot more in all of the songs, rather than being sad or figuring stuff out or saying goodbye. It’s definitely a step up. The title song is based on a conversation I had with someone who said, ‘Your songs are really good, but you should probably stop.’ Regardless of what people say or outside success, I just love writing songs and making music, and I’m probably not going to stop [laughs].
We couldn’t help but be drawn to the songs ‘Berkeley’s Breathing’ and ‘Never Leave LA.’ Having spent time on both coasts, what are your feelings about L.A. compared to NYC?
I feel like I sleep better in L.A., and I’m a bit healthier. In ‘Never Leave L.A.,’ I’m fantasizing about meeting someone and falling in love and moving in, and I feel like when I’m in L.A., it’s a lot more a couple-y kind of city. A lot of my friends live with their boyfriend or girlfriend, and have a dog, and there’s just a little more space for that. Whereas in New York, you can be alone and still surrounded by people, and it’s more suited for someone who’s single. I don’t know. But I love New York City. I feel like New York City is my ‘home.’ It’s been really fun trying out L.A., and I feel like I could live in L.A. for quite awhile and it would be really, really fun, but I have this fantasy where I’ll be 80 in New York City running around on stage.
That shows tremendous foresight to think about what you’re going to be doing at 80.
I’m assuming that I’ll live that long. If I’m lucky or healthy enough, I’d love that.