Emily Kinney: Letting Everybody In

This story appears in the Fall 2014 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below. 




Let me start by stating that I am not a “Walking Dead Head." So don’t expect long ruminations on Daryl and Beth’s relationship, or speculation on Beth’s condition or what’s going to happen in Season 5. Better yet, don’t expect me to address all your begging questions about her character on “The Walking Dead” at all because I didn’t ask. I know all too well the fandom surrounding a favorite show (see: “Breaking Bad” fans). It’s all been chewed to death by “Dead” zealots anyway. There’s just no way to know who gets killed off without watching. And if I did know, I’m no spoiler. But it doesn’t even matter, because it ends up that Emily Kinney is not Beth. Maybe she was Beth, once. Standing across from her in a downtown Atlanta studio, Kinney’s a mature doppelganger at best who is both confident and sophisticated. Leaning against an exposed brick wall, with smoky eyes and punk-rock boots, she’s a far cry from a 16-year-old farm girl with dirt on her face.

What she is happens to be somewhat of a mystery. Part singer, part actress, part professional Instagrammer, part professional zombie killer, she’s too quiet to be a stage ham and too grounded to be your average starlet. As an ascendant, multi-talented artist, she quickly becomes more than her show, which is ultimately just a platform for expression (albeit a 13-million-viewers-and-growing platform) that she happens to star in. 

She’s sipping a venti Starbucks green tea when I ask her about her creative process. Her answers are like a railroad switch locking in and out between tracks as she quickly shifts back and forth between a calm clarity and flickers of cheer. The blue pools of her eyes widen when she speaks about vegetarianism or her favorite Brooklyn bands. But she quickly shifts back to restrained thoughtfulness when delving into her motivations and creative processes. She communicates from an obviously guarded standpoint, but it doesn’t appear defensive or anxious; she’s just gauging the situation, feeling out the people around her. “Now I have separate teams helping me [that] want to take every opportunity for acting and every opportunity for music,” she says, responses dosed out in between baby sips from the candy-green straw. “As each grows ... it’s hard to balance and decide which opportunities to take advantage of because you get to this point where you can’t do everything, you know? Only recently has it felt like, ‘how am I going to manage all this?’ like I’m making choices of one against the other.” She gazes off in one of her innumerable reflective pauses then states, “And I love both so much. I want to do everything.”

This love for music and theatre has been with Kinney since childhood. She was born and raised in Nebraska, which is “similar in some ways to rural Georgia — it’s very flat. Where I’m from there’s lots of fields and little farming communities. [My hometown, Wayne, Neb.,] is pretty tiny, around 5,000 people.”

She grew up playing piano and writing poetry, and by high school Kinney was writing songs for fun, “mostly for myself, but I’d sing them for my mom or my friends.” But she had also fallen in love with acting, participating in one-act plays her senior year and entering the theatre program at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln — despite feeling like she was waiting to move to New York or L.A. the entire time. “It’s funny ... I hadn’t done a lot of acting at that point. I always did musicals because I could sing,” Kinney admits. “But when I visited Wesleyan I realized I needed to learn the craft of acting so I [enrolled]. But I always knew I needed to get out of Nebraska.” She made the jump to New York at age 19 with her acceptance to New York University’s theatre program, which ended with Kinney in debt after a semester — “I mean, I couldn’t afford NYU, you know?” — and forced her to return to Nebraska with an even stronger desire to go back to New York. Kinney saved up $1,000 and made the move again.

“It was a bit of a back-and-forth journey,” Kinney muses before adding enthusiastically, “It was crazy! When I think back on it I’m like, ‘what made you think that was enough money to move back?’ I must’ve thought that was a lot of money [for New York] ... But even before I had a place to live, I was looking for a job and going to open auditions and casting calls. I was like, ‘GET A JOB NOW.’” The sudden burst of energy catches me off guard after the quiet and soothing telling of her life up to that point.

But here marks the beginning of Emily Kinney’s life as a working actress. It comes with the excitement of her nurturing a dream of leaving her Midwestern home to pursue an acting career, which has become reality. She worked at a coffee shop, auditioned for roles and immersed herself in the Brooklyn music scene by going to shows and befriending musicians. “I actually liked working in coffee shops,” Kinney says with a soft-spoken chuckle. She wasn’t writing songs professionally, but she frequented music nightclubs on the regular. “I was going to auditions all day, but at night I’d sing backup for fun or see my friends’ bands.” In 2009 Kinney landed a role in the musical Spring Awakening, where her friend (and noted Broadway multi-instrumentalist) Conrad Korsch pushed her to commit to songwriting as seriously as she had devoted herself to acting. Something she did while performing in the traveling stage version of August: Osage County the following year. These songs were later released on Kinney’s first record, 2011’s The Blue ToothbrushShe also began booking shows for herself around the city.

That same year, while working various guest spots on TV and film, Kinney also landed the role that has, in retrospect, become the biggest move of her career (and presumably a major reason you've read this far): farmer's-daughter-turned-zombie-ass-kicker Beth Green on AMC's ratings-juggernaut "The Walking Dead." At the time, however, Kinney didn't see the role as her "star" moment: "I saw it as a gig and approached it like any other job," she says. "I was already a working actress. I was excited to work with [director] Frank Darabont; I'd seen some of the first season and I knew the show had a huge following. But I didn't know it would become four years of my life. I figured I'd work on a few episodes, then move on."

Instead, Beth evolved from a suicidal teen dealing with the zombiefication of her friends and family to a mature caregiver for the survivors and the show’s embodiment of hope in the face of despair, all while dealing some serious damage to the zombies themselves. And on occasion, she sings. “Between Seasons 2 and 3 [the producers] had seen me play clubs in New York, so they knew it was something they could [add to my character] if they wanted,” Kinney explains. “[Executive Producer Glenn Mazzara] called me and said, ‘I have an idea — there’s so much action that we need ‘down moments’ so I was thinking you and Maggie could sing a song, because I know you sing.’” 

Kinney liked the suggestion — "In Seasons 2 and 3 there aren’t a lot of Beth scenes and this was an instant way for the audience to identify her” — which has since resulted in Beth covering Tom Waits as well as last season’s piano-ballad version of Waxahatchee’s “Be Good” while scouring a funeral parlor with Daryl. That song also appears on Kinney’s cleverly feisty solo album, Expired Lovewhich was released in March of this year.

Expired Love does away with the theatrical balladry and at times fussy musicality of  Blue Toothbrush in favor of intimate songwriting. The new album is more direct and earnest, while retaining Kinney’s gift for extended metaphor and picturesque narrative, evidence of her roots in poetry and creative writing. She wistfully recounts the moments big and small that define relationships and break-ups, while writing a love letter to the New York of her dreams. Expired Love is hopefully romantic without feeling saccharine.

During her show in Decatur, Ga. just days earlier, she took time to discuss with me the veracity of the incidents/subjects in her songs; Kinney deftly confirms their truth while telling everybody she still builds on the original ideas with her imagination. She later tells me music is “where I’m really honest. The thing that makes me really happy is when I can say exactly what I mean.” It’s no surprise then that fans feel a personal connection to Kinney herself, even if she also stresses a bit of artistic remove from the Kinney in the songs.

“The Walking Dead” has undoubtedly given Kinney’s music career a giant measure of visibility, which she is thankful for, but she tells me she’d be fine if the intersection hadn’t occurred. “It’s this weird thing because I welcome the audience ... but when I started writing songs it was more of a personal, private endeavor.” Her eyes roam a space somewhere behind my head for a time, before adding, “Music is precious to me in a certain way, but I don’t know if I was necessarily trying to keep it separate [from acting].” Later on in our conversation she clarifies this by saying, “There’s something personally fulfilling in writing a song and getting it out to the world. So if I have the opportunity to get my songs to as many people as possible ... I want to do that, too.” 

As the day progresses, she unwinds and becomes comfortable, acting as if one of the crew — eating a slice of pizza in between lighting setups and joking around talking about mediocre nonsense. That starlet gloss still provides a halo, but she might as well be the girl next door. She’s made for this kind of success, but she seems at ease doing, well, anything. “I definitely hoped [success] would happen; it always felt like everything was clicking,” she shares. “But if I didn’t work for a year and had to work in a bar or something ... it doesn’t scare me. I’ll always be making stuff. I remember walking from my job [at the coffee shop] to do one of my first off-Broadway shows and thinking, I’m living the exact life I wanted.” 

Our chat concludes when Kinney must return to the glamorous job of posing for a magazine editorial, now on location at Criminal Records, a local record store with a cult following. She has a natural, professional ease in front of the camera, but there’s also a certain lack of ferocity that hints at her artistic introversion. She even breaks a pose at one point to laugh and say, “‘Full sass’? I can’t tell if I’m at ‘full sass.’” If you’re observant enough, you see Kinney’s internal guard at work, regulating what and how much of her person is exposed.

A man fumbling with a scrap piece of paper walks up to Kinney. She’s almost done with this look and the hair and makeup crew are buzzing about to create editorial perfection. “My daughter is a big fan,” he breaks in, speaking in barely audible tones. “Do you mind signing this for her?” She smiles graciously and takes the paper and pen without hesitation. Even in a secluded location, she’s a noticeable star. It makes me think about her growing fan base that wants access to the “real” Emily. “It’s interesting to have people feel close to you through the show and feel like they know you through your music, like they’re your friend,” she tells me after she’s done autographing. “It’s an experience that I’m coming up against now more and more. It’s exciting, but I feel shy some- times. Especially depending on the day. I might not want to talk to anyone, but ... I’m trying to get better at it. I think you learn how to let people in, but still I like to be protected.”

But aren’t you exposed the most when you’re performing music, I ask. “I like bringing the audience into my little bubble. I like it when it feels like they’re in there with me. So I feel exposed,” she says and then pauses. “But I guess I like it.” Kinney laughs as if she’s embarrassed for having the revelation. “I guess that’s what I want.”