Ross Marquand (Thtr’04) was about to give up on Hollywood.
“I was at the end of my rope,” said the 35-year-old actor (top left), reflecting on the summer of 2014. “After about 10 years of living in L.A. and trying to make it work, it just dawned on me that it might not happen.”
He’d appeared in independent and short films, had a role in Mad Men, playing Paul Newman in a 2013 episode, and done a lot of voice-over work. But a career-making role eluded him and he planned to try his luck in New York theater.
Then Marquand got a call about auditioning for a zombie apocalypse show, AMC’s The Walking Dead — the highest-rated TV series in cable history. About a week later, on his birthday, he was cast.
“It’s really changed my life,” said Marquand, an Eagle Scout who grew up in Littleton, Colo., and also counts mountain climbing and firearms among his skills, some of which come in handy on the set of The Walking Dead.
The blockbuster show, based on a comic book series of the same name, is about regular humans trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. Marquand joined the cast in season five as Aaron, an openly gay former NGO worker in Africa who tries to recruit fellow survivors to a safe zone.
Now in its seventh season, with an eighth planned, the character-rich drama is conspicuously gory, a selling point for hordes of viewers: More than 21 million tuned in for the current season’s premiere.
So far, Marquand has appeared in more than 30 episodes. The resulting notoriety has expanded the audience for his spot on impressions of some of Hollywood’s most famous actors. After Vanity Fair magazine published a video called “Nanoimpressions with Ross Marquand,” in which Marquand impersonates Matthew McConaughey, Kevin Spacey, Al Pacino, Michael Caine and others doing everyday things, he found himself performing on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”
Kevin Spacey himself has singled out Marquand’s impression of him as top-notch.
The impressions are funny, but The Walking Dead is primarily a drama — the sort in which heads are bashed, throats ripped out and entrails on display.
In the controversial seventh season opener, two beloved characters meet their end in a graphic scene at the hands of another (baseball-bat-wielding) human survivor named Negan, underscoring one of the show’s themes — that in the post-apocalyptic zombie world, survivors can be bigger threats than zombies.
“I certainly understand people’s feelings, and I think it’s good that they have strong feelings,” said Marquand. “It means we’re doing our jobs — people are actually feeling connected to these characters, and when two of their favorites are killed off, it affects them. I think that’s wonderful.”
Of fans who found the scene too much to stomach, “we hope we can win them back as the season goes on,” Marquand said, “because I will say that this season is the strongest yet.”
Outside The Walking Dead, Marquand has been sampling what else showbiz now has to offer. A fellow Walking Dead actor, Danai Gurira, cast him in her play, Familiar, for its 2015 world premier at the Yale Repertory Theater. He’s provided the voice of Han Solo for the video game Star Wars: Trials on Tatooine. (He does a mean impersonation of Harrison Ford, who plays Han Solo in the movies.) Other projects are in the works.
Marquand is meanwhile settling into his new measure of fame, “a bit of a shock” at first, he said. “Now it’s a part of my life and you just have to roll with it.”
Overall, success has been a welcome door-opener.
“It’s great to have to go from almost being $40,000 in debt to being on this massive behemoth of a show and having opportunities sent to you,” he said.
Freelancer Kurt Anthony Krug is based in Michigan.
Photos courtesy Ross Marquand