The Walking Dead: Dead City Q&A — Jonathan Higginbotham (Tomasso) and Karina Ortiz (Amaia) Love NYC, Even Undead

On The Walking Dead: Dead City, Jonathan Higginbotham and Karina Ortiz play Tomasso and Amaia, two New York City survivors who link up with Maggie and Negan on their quest to get back Hershel. In this Q&A with, we talked to both actors about the excitement of joining The Walking Dead Universe, their character’s journeys, and the joy of representing real New Yorkers on the small screen. [Be warned, spoilers ahead!]
Q: What excited you the most about Tomasso and Amaia and what was it like joining The Walking Dead Universe
Karina Ortiz:  My personal journey was that The Walking Dead was one of the shows that I actually did watch, not when it initially came out, but later. I remember someone suggested I watch it and I was like, "I don't want to get into zombies and gruesome stuff right now. No thanks!" They ended up convincing me to watch it and I was basically hooked from the beginning. It was one of the shows that I actually really enjoyed and was invested in. I was like, "Oh man, I wonder what's going on in New York," and obviously since I'm Dominican I was like, "Where are the Dominicans in this show?" I was thinking about that as I was watching it because I was so invested!
So, when I got the audition for Amaia, I didn’t realize that it was a spinoff. The names were changed, so I didn't know it was Negan and Maggie, but once I got more information, I was like, "Oh my God, this is awesome!" I was sooo excited. It's really such a beautiful feeling to be able to work on something that you really really like. The Walking Dead Universe is such a big universe, and I was very honored to be a part of it.
Jonathan Higginbotham: I hadn't seen the series, but I knew how big it was. When I got the audition, in addition to Tomasso, I also read for Armstrong. I'd had the chance to read a couple of different scenes with a couple different characters, and it was exciting to see where the characters were going and how complex they were. I also watched some trailers from the Universe, and I was like, "Oh, I get why there's such a huge following." When I got the role of Tomasso, I was like, "Okay, I know there are all these comics, so let me read through the comics." And reading through the comics was so exciting!  I remember waking up in the morning and diving in and having audible reactions while reading them. Then I just went ahead and binged the original series. By the time we got on set, I was so excited to actually be a part of it all, you know? Just the idea of doing it in New York was also so appealing. Knowing that for so long it was based in and around Atlanta — and then of course with FEAR we explored further — but I couldn’t help thinking, "Okay now, what would it be like in a place like Manhattan?" It was so cool to be part of the team that actually made that happen.
Q: It’s always so exciting to meet other survivors in The Walking Dead Universe, but this is the first time we’ve met characters who couldn't flee their metropolitan setting and actually managed to survive there. In Ep 4 Amaia talks a bit about the early days of the fall and what it was like being trapped in Manhattan. Were you both given backstories for your characters, and if so, how did those stories help you shape these characters and in turn your performances? I'm always curious about that because I know that historically within The Walking Dead Universe, they're usually pretty open about having the cast pitch ideas as well.
JH: Yeah. I feel like Eli [Jorné, showrunner] was super open to our ideas throughout the whole process, so that was really nice. I think Amaia mentions that she was born at Columbia-Presbyterian, but other than that, I don't remember getting much of a backstory for Tomasso. I had my own ideas about what Tomasso had been through leading up to this point, and that was really fun for me to dive into. To think about what it would be like during the early days of the apocalypse in New York City. I loved thinking about that, and I started creating my own backstory that progressed as we continued to film the series.  
KO: Yeah, there weren’t a lot of things that I was given as part of Amaia’s backstory, which really allowed me to get creative with it. Even the story with Amaia and Tomasso, I had some ideas, Jonathan had some ideas, and we spoke about it one day to get on the same page. We wanted to talk about exactly what was going on in their lives when they meet — I thought that helped us connect even more. I really wanted to honor this character. She was originally written as Latina and I wanted to be more specific so I asked Eli if we could make her Dominican, so that was my little touch. I wanted her to have the curly hair to represent and I just made sure that I was as authentic as possible. I wanted to feel it in my chest — the emotions around survival and the people I love. I sat with myself thinking about what it would feel like to be abandoned by your government and the army. I think that not having a backstory gave me an opportunity to really create and go through the feelings of losing everyone and gaining a different family — gaining a partner like Tomasso. I thought it was really cool that we were able to do that. Jonathan was so giving and open with me that we were able to have so many conversations about it and I really appreciated that.
As a viewer, I really liked the little nuggets. Tomasso mentioning his nonno, which made me think okay maybe he's got some Italian in him, and I picked up on some of the Dominican stuff Karina! I'm Venezuelan and Jewish, so I loved all the representation. For all of us in New York that are a little bit of this and a little bit of that, it's nice to see that reflected in a show that's based in New York City. It has that flavor, it has that sazón.
JH: They weren't very specific about Tomasso's background when I did the audition, but I remember when I got the new scripts, it had been written in that he was mixed, and when I saw that I was like, "Oh great!" I just felt so thankful to Eli for being aware of that and putting that in. It was a moment that I felt really grateful to be working with people who were open-minded and willing to make those changes.  
Q: One of the most moving things about The Walking Dead Universe is how survivors connect with each other and form family units that push them to continue to survive and persevere. It’s also really interesting to see how rituals play a role in those moments of connection. Can you talk a bit about the scene at the dining table when each character places a memento on the table and chants in unison—it was touching to see this ode to those who had been lost.    
JH: That was such a cool moment. I think that was a brilliant thing for the writing team to put in there. I think we did a couple rehearsals and then we were just in it, and it felt very spiritual. Tomasso feels like the raid was his fault and he feels like he was the reason that Esther died. I think that moment around the table was a way for him to forgive himself in a sense and remember her. I think everyone had their little memento, their little piece of someone that was close to them. It was just a great way to celebrate them and for Tomasso a way to move forward, as hard as that is. It was a really special scene.
KO: It really was. There are so many different ways that different groups in the Universe deal with death. Some accept it right at that moment, grieve, and move on. Some bury people and move on. But I think that for our group it felt like it was a very conscious decision to mourn in this way. It was really important to always honor when we lost people so that we didn’t lose ourselves as human beings along the way. It’s so we don't forget that it’s still worth putting in the time to honor the people that we love, the family that we lost. So we came together to share this meal, and spiritually do this chant because it releases, it heals, it's sending it to something that's bigger than us. If it's there or not we're still going to choose to believe that there's something there, to have the faith, to keep us going. There’s no purpose to living if you're not loving and honoring the people that you lost. I loved that they wrote in that ceremony, and I felt that connection, I felt the love from everyone that was there. Everyone went with it, and everyone committed to it. It was a really beautiful feeling.
JH: There were 10 of us and everyone brought a little bit of their own thing into that moment. Michael [Anthony] was leading it and giving us a beat. I'm not very musically inclined, but the layers of vocal variety happening in that room was amazing.
Q: So, let’s talk about the scenes in the tunnels. This isn’t the first time our survivors have had to travel via underground tunnels, but ohhhh boy the methane aspect gives these tunnels a whole other level of insanity. What was it like filming in these sets with your characters on the precipice of terrifying methane poisoning?!      
KO: They did a really great job with the set! It looked so real that it was easy to fall into that world and accept it. I remember some tunnel stuff in The Walking Dead, but I thought it was really cool that this time it was in New York. This is full on, full on! If they're stuffing the bodies down there that’s on a whole other level. I think the art department did an incredible job and it was just easy to mentally fall into those circumstances. I had a lot of fun playing in that.  
JH: I remember walking in there the first time and being like, "Wow, where are we? This is crazy! This looks so real!" It was cold in there too. Like Karina said, it made it very real, and it was easy to be in the moment and feel what that would be like. With all the bodies on the ground — stunt teams in there as well as zombies — we had to be like "Humans, raise your hand!" to make sure that we weren't going to fall on real people. [Laughs] So it was all so exciting, scary, and really, really fun.
I loved the inclusion of the fatberg. I feel like that's very New York to be like, "We gotta put a fatberg in there."
KO: They did a great job! So good!
JH: They really did! I remember not wanting to touch it, going up to it and just being like, "I don't know what this is made of, but I don't want to touch that!" [Laughs]
Q: The proverbial sh-t hits the fan when Tomasso is called out by Maggie for being a double agent. It seems that his intentions were good, but that doesn’t lessen the blow when Amaia realizes what he’s done. When Tomasso tells Maggie about this community The Croat told him about, it becomes clear that he wanted to get there with Amaia and start over. It’s hard to blame him for trying!  
KO: Even hearing about the scene triggers a response in me, an emotion, because of how hurt she was. That was a really powerful scene. Jonathan, again, you were such a great scene partner, every time. You were always giving. I was always connected, so it was also very heartbreaking to be broken by you. And I meant that, I allowed myself to be completely betrayed.
JH: It was so painful. I loved the complexity that was written into Tomasso's character and that's definitely something that I was excited to play with. But that scene particularly, like you said, he's trying to do this for the betterment of their survival. This is the best thing that he could figure out to keep them safe, and yes, he had to do some things or hide some things to make it possible for them to get there. It was so great working with Karina. I remember the first time doing this scene on camera and seeing her face, like, "S–t, like damn, I did a really bad thing. And maybe I should have done this differently or how could I have changed this?" Yeah, it just hurt. I remember feeling so much for the character and so much of it was based off of Karina's response. Then having to deal with Maggie after that. Lauren's [Cohan] incredible to act with and her response to the whole thing, her calling me out and being angry, was great. Everything comes crashing down in that one moment.
Q: It’s really sad that Tomasso and Amaia don’t make up before their demise. Their love story ends up being a tragedy, but it’s one that will forever be included in The Walking Dead Universe. What memories of working on the show will you carry with you? 
KO: I remember the first day on set. Stepping into the world that Lauren and Jeffrey [Dean Morgan] have been working together for so long in and it's like, "Okay, I don't know how I'm going to fit in here… is it going to be weird or maybe it’ll take a long time." But I remember Lauren opened her arms and hugged me, so I hugged her back and I was like, "Oh my God, yes!” She was just so open from the beginning and so was Jeffrey with his sense of humor, so I felt really welcome from day one. That was a good memory for me, that nervousness right before being welcomed in that way. It really did mean a lot to me.  
JH: Yeah. The first day was so amazing, so many open arms and big smiles. It was wild because I had just finished bingeing The Walking Dead, and now I'm sitting on set doing scenes with these two people who are so prominent in the series — who are so amazing and so iconic. Their generosity as actors and as people made it so easy to act with them. All the directors we had were incredibly welcoming too. We had three different directors that we worked with, and each had their own vibe and their own way of moving and working on set. Each one was so uniquely themselves.  
*This conversation took place before the SAG-AFTRA strike.
Full episodes of The Walking Dead: Dead City will be available to stream on (with a cable provider login), the AMC apps for mobile and devices, while AMC+ subscribers get early access to episodes on Thursdays. AMC+ is available at or through the new AMC+ app available on iPhone, iPad, Android, Fire TV, Apple TV, and Roku. AMC+ can also be accessed through a variety of providers, including AppleTV, Prime Video Channels, DirectTV, Dish, Roku Channel, Sling, and Xfinity. Sign up for AMC+ now.