Taylor Towery has been stabbed in the head, shoved down a hill and shot more than once. She has stalked humans and sunk jagged teeth into their flesh.
Towery, a cheerleader at the University of North Texas, is a stuntwoman and zombie on The Walking Dead, AMC’s apocalyptic zombie drama.
“The themes of the show are so dark that people are surprised to hear the atmosphere on set is really positive,” said Towery, 19, a Grapevine native. “Everyone has so much fun. They love what they do, and it shows.”
Towery first appeared on the show last season after her father, Russell Towery, joined the crew as stunt coordinator. She has since returned several times to Atlanta, where the show is filmed.
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Learning to act like a zombie took practice, Towery said. The director never tells stunt people or extras how to behave, preferring that they put a personal spin on the character.
“You bring your own ideas to it. They let you interpret the zombies however you want,” she said. “So none of the zombies are the exact same. It’s not uniform.”
Her dad gave her one helpful tip: Think of the zombie strut as a drunken stumble.
Towery has appeared in numerous scenes, each time looking like a different zombie — or walker, as they are called on the show. She was stabbed by Andrea, played by actress Laurie Holden; attacked by Merle, played by Michael Rooker; shot by Carl, played by Chandler Riggs; and shot by Carl or Rick, played by Andrew Lincoln.
In the midseason finale, which airs Sunday on AMC, she will appear in a scene with Michonne, actress Danai Gurira.
‘It’s pretty gross’
The transformation from cheerleader to one of the undead takes about two hours. Makeup artists apply prosthetics, gluing pieces of skinlike material to her face and body, before painting her skin to get that ghoulish zombie pallor. Next come details like dried blood and lines and wrinkles to add age.
“It’s pretty gross,” she said. “I have to moisturize a lot when I get home.”
Hairstylists darken her blond hair with washable dye, then apply products to turn her mane crusty and matted. Depending on the role, body padding adds girth.
Callie Fisher, Towery’s roommate and longtime friend, said she can always identify Towery, no matter the makeup or padding. The two often watch the episodes together.
“We’ve been best friends so long I can spot her by silhouette and face shape,” Fisher said. “But strangers would have no idea. She obviously looks nothing like that in real life.”
Stunt work is a family business for Towery. When she was growing up, her father worked as a stuntman in television and films, including all three RoboCop movies.
Once, when she was around 10, her father fastened a harness to her and catapulted her into the air with a pressurized system. Passers-by stopped to ask what was happening.
At 16, Towery made her stunt debut in a small film. The script called for her to drive a Jeep and narrowly miss hitting a bicyclist, played by her brother, Dawson.
“I never planned to have any part in stunt work,” she said. “It was my dad’s thing, not mine.”
But Towery said she eventually realized that she could work occasional stunt gigs on the side while cheerleading and pursuing a kinesiology degree at UNT. Her mother, Diane, a flight attendant, also did stunt work on the side.
Recently, Towery filmed Merry Friggin’ Christmas, starring Robin Williams, in which she was a stunt double for Candice Bergen. The film is due in 2014.
She has worked on the new TV series Dallas, years after her father worked on the original. And she worked on the film Hoovey, with Lauren Holly and Cody Linley, due out next year.
‘Taylor is very humble’
But it’s her role in The Walking Dead that earned Towery the nickname “Zombie cheerleader” at UNT. Football fans have shouted to her from the stands and students have approached her on campus.
Towery was initially taken aback by the attention, said Tracie O’Neal, UNT’s head cheerleading coach.
“Taylor is very humble. This isn’t what she wants to do for the rest of her life, but it’s a good way to pay the bills,” O’Neal said. “It’s just a family business to her.”
Towery said wide appeal and intricate plots have made The Walking Dead such a hit.
“The show has something for everyone. Comic book fans love it. A lot of kids my age are huge fans, but so are their parents,” Towery said. “There are a lot of die-hard fans out there.”