The Walking Dead isn’t just about the undead — fans, and even those with a peripheral understanding of the series know that by now. It’s as much about the people trying desperately to survive as it is about the creatures they are running from. In its seven seasons on the air, it’s offered up so many characters for us to become invested in that it’s felt, at times, overwhelming. Ultimately, though, it’s also given us a chance to get to know some of the most fascinating characters in television history. Heroes, villains, and those that fall somewhere in between — the characters on TWD are truly what make it something special.
It should go without saying then, that one of The Walking Dead‘s strengths as a series is that it’s found a way to cast some of the most interesting and talented actors working today. These men and women, young and old, often deliver nuanced, layered, and gripping performances. They create characters that feel real, even when they’re up against, you know, zombies.
While every actor in the ensemble has had at least one moment to shine, there are some that have proven, time and again, how truly gifted they are at bringing their characters to life. Some of these stars are still around, helping to keep the story going even at a time where the series is faltering. Others have left us, but still remain an essential part of the show’s legacy. Here are the 10 best actors on The Walking Dead.
Warning: spoilers for all seven seasons of the series ahead!
1. Tovah Feldshuh
The Walking Dead‘s creators had a unique challenge when they introduced us to Deanna Monroe at the end of Season 5. In the Alexandria Safe Zone, she was an established and beloved leader, but to us, the viewers, she was a brand new character who could either be a savior or a threat.
Tovah Feldshuh managed to do what few others before her could accomplish, though — she infused Deanna with both an authority and an authenticity that made us feel like we’d known her forever. Deanna was far more complicated than she initially let on; while she presented an air of total calm and leadership, she questioned her ability to keep Alexandria thriving. Her grief over losing both her son and her husband in quick succession added another layer of doubt.
Through all of these changes, Feldshuh never wavered in her portrayal of the former congresswoman. In her final moments alive, despite the fact that she was slipping away, Deanna rallied and did her best to take out as many walkers as she could. The primal scream she emitted as she charged to her death was simultaneously triumphant and chilling, and a true mark of Feldshuh’s unique and admirable talent.
2. Jon Bernthal
We were supposed to hate Shane. Not at first, but it quickly became clear as Season 2 of The Walking Dead unfolded that Rick Grimes’ former right-hand man was not only a thorn in his side, but a genuine threat to his survival. His lingering feelings for Lori became especially complicated after she revealed she was pregnant. But his demise was as much about the philosophical differences between him and Rick as it was about the interpersonal turmoil.
Jon Bernthal had a unique challenge in bringing Shane’s journey from hero to villain to the screen. He had to make every turn toward darkness feel plausible. His character often acted out of anger or frustration, but there was a rational side of him, too — one that made a case for even his most controversial decisions. With his steely determination and passionate defense of his principles, Bernthal didn’t play Shane like a bad guy. He played him as though he thought he was the hero, the savior, the one who was on the right side. That made him a far more complex foil for Rick, and a much more fascinating and tragic character in the end.
3. Lauren Cohan
From the moment we met Maggie, we knew who she was: strong, capable, smart, and bold. Over the years, she’s lost more than any other character on The Walking Dead — her father, her brothers and sisters, and most recently, her beloved husband. She’s also shown resilience in the face of grief, and has the ability to move past the suffering and fight for the world she wants to live in. In that way, she is remarkable, and it’s in large part thanks to Lauren Cohan that we’ve been able to see all these sides of her.
All told, Cohan has transformed Maggie into one of the most fully realized characters in Walking Dead history. We’ve seen her humor, her anger, her vulnerability, and her fear, and there’s never been a moment at which it’s seemed anything less than completely real. Throughout Season 7, in particular, she’s managed to be the series’ emotional anchor in many ways. We went several episodes without seeing her after the season finale, and the loss of Glenn was fading into the background as the story pushed forward. Still, watching her process her pain at his brutal murder made the entire experience feel fresh again — and helped deliver some much-needed emotional resonance in a season that has left many of us feeling very numb.
4. Lennie James
Morgan isn’t the most popular character on The Walking Dead. He’s not exactly a hero, far from being a villain, and has been a hard figure to pin down over the years. But a character doesn’t have to well-liked to be well-played, and Lennie James has consistently proven that case to be true. Whether he’s in the grips of a total mental breakdown, or trying to lead others to the path of enlightenment, Morgan has shown himself to be a man of deep psychological conviction.
His lowest lows — which we saw in “Clear” and “Here’s Not Here” — were on par with even Rick’s darkest moments. And James never faltered in showing the most vulnerable parts of Morgan’s despair. Yet, he’s also managed to convincingly bring him out of that hell and into a place of peaceful calm, which is no easy undertaking. With often limited material over the years, he’s given us a clear sense of who Morgan is — and he’s inspired a range of passionate opinions about his belief system and his value to the series as a result.
5. Michael Rooker
The Dixons have always been a big deal on The Walking Dead. But, by and large, the vast majority of fans’ attention (and love) has gone to the younger sibling. Norman Reedus is great as the growly, grumpy, but big-hearted Daryl, but there was something spectacularly unhinged about Michael Rooker’s portrayal of his older brother, Merle.
So many TV show characters have to go through a kind of redemption arc before they can be absolved of their sins. Merle never got there because he was unapologetic about his survival methods. He never really stopped being the racist, sexist jerk that we first encountered in Season 1. But we still saw a change in him — a realization that there is a line that gets crossed somewhere between right and wrong. Throughout Merle’s time on TWD, we could never predict what he would do next, which is part of what made him so fun. Rooker took what could have been a pretty standard villain, and gave him an unstable energy and a ferocity that has often been unmatched, even by the series’ most evil characters. That not only made Merle one of The Walking Dead‘s most fascinating characters — it made the actor one of the series’ unsung performers.
6. Scott Wilson
Oftentimes, The Walking Dead‘s most-discussed moments are its loudest and most deranged. But time and again, the series has proven that it’s at its best when it finds quiet pause. One character that exemplified this trend was Hershel Green, the farmer-turned-mentor who helped turn Rick’s group of survivors into a family. He struggled to come to grips with the reality of the zombie apocalypse, but eventually led the charge toward finding humanity in the midst of chaos.
For Hershel to work as a character — one who was an emotional anchor for much of his time on the show — we had to believe that he possessed some kind of preternatural wisdom. Scott Wilson brought exactly that to his portrayal, and more. He didn’t make Hershel out to be some kind of saint, despite the fact that he almost always bowed down to his better angels. It was easy to see the weight of his past on his shoulders, which made his decision to choose good over evil every time all the more compelling.
7. Steven Yeun
In a lot of ways, it was easy to take Steven Yeun’s portrayal of Glenn Rhee for granted. For six full seasons, he was a constant source of stability. Like Hershel before him, the pizza delivery boy-turned-scrappy survivor was a moral compass, a voice for rationality, and an ever-present source of kindness in an insane environment. He tried to lead others toward hope — even those that sought to hurt him, or put his life in danger.
At first blush, Glenn may have seemed like one of the easier characters to pull off, but in reality he was likely one of the most challenging. That’s because he did change over the years, but it was so subtle we often couldn’t see it. He became hardened, he became tougher; the sarcastic young adult became a man. In the moments where he was brought to the brink — while watching those he loved threatened and killed, and then finally being brutalized himself — he was as vulnerable as an actor can be on-screen. It’s a credit to Yeun that this happened seamlessly on-screen before us, and that we didn’t realize how much we would miss him until he was gone.
8. Danai Gurira
Though Michonne didn’t hit The Walking Dead scene until the third season, it’s almost impossible to imagine the series without her now. She started as a gifted but guarded warrior; a foil for the governor and someone that Rick had a hard time figuring out. Now, she’s his confidante, Carl’s surrogate mother, and one of the few characters that we can always trust to figure a way out of even the most dangerous situations.
Danai Gurira has brought out many of Michonne’s most fascinating qualities — she shows us with a glance what other actors might need a whole monologue to convey. Though her physical prowess is undoubtedly impressive, it’s her emotional strength that has really emerged as her most distinguishable quality. Her reluctant optimism at finding Alexandria was palpable; her protective love for Carl comes through in their every interaction. In lesser hands, Michonne could have been just that cool girl with the sword; in Gurira’s, she has become a key part of the series’ emotional core.
9. Andrew Lincoln
The Walking Dead is an ensemble series, make no mistake about it. But the focal point of the show’s narrative has often fallen on Rick Grimes and his struggle to keep his friends and allies safe. Rick doesn’t always make the best decisions. He’s come dangerously close to the point of totally losing it on multiple occasions. And he’s displayed a frightening depth of rage and violent tendencies when times get tough. He’s also been completely broken, a crumpled shell of a man who thought he had it right, only to realize how very wrong he was.
Andrew Lincoln has shown us every side of Rick’s personality; the highs, the lows, the shattered vulnerabilities. He makes even The Walking Dead‘s most unbelievable moments — ripping a dude’s throat out?! — feel incredibly real. Lincoln’s portrayal of Rick can be uncomfortable and unsettling to watch, because it often feels almost primal. But he’s also capable of showing us glimpses of the man that he used to be — and may still someday get back to. Ultimately, Rick is the center of the series. It could not survive if Lincoln didn’t deliver, season after season. And he has.
10. Melissa McBride
If there’s anything to be said of life’s biggest adversities, it’s that they reveal who we really are. Throughout the course of The Walking Dead, we’ve watched the series’ characters undergo amazing personal transformations. Perhaps the most stunning, though, has been Carol Pelletier. She began as a beaten-down housewife, became a grieving mother, and eventually found a way to take control of her fate. Carol’s actions have been controversial, and her motives often hard to read. But anyone who says that she is just a “badass” because she can take out her enemies is overlooking the tremendous depth of feeling she’s showcased over and over again.
That’s all a testament to Melissa McBride’s unparalleled ability to create a meaningful, unforgettable moment with even the smallest of gestures. It’s the hitch her in voice when she told Lizzie to, “Look at the flowers.” It’s the way her hands trembled when she met the Saviors on the road.
At this point, it’s hard to say where Carol will land — and that, too, is a sign that McBride has taken her, and by extension, us, on a tremendous journey. Melissa McBride has done more than just make Carol into one of the most complicated figures on television today — she’s taken a supporting character and made her completely essential to The Walking Dead‘s narrative.
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