Mercedes Mason, one of the stars of the record-breaking new AMC Walking Dead spin-off, Fear The Walking Dead, may not be a household name... but she will be.
Wide-eyed, ex-model starlet, Mason brings to the role of Ofelia the eloquence and confidence of her rich history and experience. For the past six years, Mason has played small roles in popular TV shows–everything from Chuck to The Finder to NCIS: Los Angeles–but this is her breakout performance, and one worth watching.
Born in Sweden, her last name is an homage to two childhood friends with dreams of Hollywood. “When other kids were playing hide-and-seek and cops-and-robbers, whatever normal children do, the three of us would play Director-Producer-Actress. I don’t know how this got in our heads because we were from such a small town in Sweden,” she says. They created “Masohn” out of the amalgamation of their last names and now, removing her own contribution, the H, she goes by “Mason” as a tribute to that childhood fantasy. “I’ve lost touch with both of them, but I know they absolutely will be watching from afar.”
Although she was always interested in acting, Mason did not pack up and get on a Greyhound to Hollywood at 18. “My parents, old school, said, ‘Law school, med school. Take your pick.’” After earning her B.A. in psychology, she had every intention of getting her Ph.D. and becoming a psychologist. That, however, was not how things played out. “As luck would have it, [and] it’s really just luck, the universe paved the way for me.” After college, Mason took a year off to pursue acting, “so I could look back without regret. And then that one year became two years and then...” Several years later, cue: Fear the Walking Dead.
With dreams of a lab-coated, stethoscope-appendaged daughter, her parents weren’t always on board. “Mind you, my parents would call every day and be like, ‘Great honey, we saw you in some small role in some TV show. Are you going back to school?’” That is, until she was cast as Ofelia. “It’s the first time they were truly proud of me and realized that what I’m doing is a career and not a phase.”
The pilot, which set an all-time cable premiere record with 20 million viewers, is subtle and engrossing. The ratings, by comparison, are five times that of “Days Gone Bye,” The Walking Dead pilot. Though we find ourselves in a familiar landscape, the two shows play independently and do not feed into each other.
The pilot’s overwhelming success, though hoped for, was not expected and took everyone by surprise. “We all got on the phone with each other. We were blown away. I feel so blessed that everyone watched and there was such an interest in it,” Mason says, genuinely shocked.
The overwhelmingly positive reaction to the show is surprising given the overexposure of the zombie zeitgeist. Mason explains what makes this show different, saying, “I think people have now finally understood that it’s not about zombies, per se. Zombies are more of a catalyst for understanding the human condition. It’s definitely more Lord of the Flies.” It’s a promising comparison, and any show that attempts to replicate the nuances of human nature as represented in William Golding’s seminal novel will outshine most of the formulaic drivel on cable.
This pre/parallel storyline presents a more psychological, character-driven portrait of the zombie zeitgeist than we’ve seen in the carnivorous horror genre. It also affords us a glimpse of the breakdown of society and the slow, consequent chaos. It is a timely examination of the confusion that occurs in disasters, complete with alarmists, conspiracy theorists, and naysayers. Disasters change people, and the show spotlights these changes.
“They really wanted a very family-driven, character-driven study.” That comes through in the slow-burn unraveling featured in the pilot, and the time that the series devotes to character development. “The cool thing with the show is that the audience knows more than the characters. They know where we’re headed. We think it’s just a flu epidemic. We don’t realize where we’re headed.”
But if you watched the pilot and are wondering about Ofelia, fear not. Mason, as well as Ruben Blades and Patricia Reyes Spindola, the actors who play her parents, were written in after the pilot was shot. The show was originally cast with only two families. Then, she jokes, “They hired the ethnics.” This isn’t a quota-driven decision, however. “They do not make a meal of it. Like, oh hey, here’s a Latino family. They’re eating rice and beans.” The authenticity of the characters resides in all aspects of the characterizations, including the locations themselves: Ofelia’s family lives in east LA, and all exteriors were shot in the predominantly Latino neighborhoods of El Sereno.
It is refreshing to see a show with writers and producers who make diverse casting decisions not simply for bragging rights. Ofelia’s family, who hails from El Salvador, escaped during the Civil War and that history and culture is etched into Mason’s character and storyline.
She argues that this diversity only serves to enrich and add depth and strain to the already tense drama. “It makes it a lot more interesting when you force those people into a claustrophobic situation and they have to understand each other. Because culturally, there are a lot of misconceptions and miscommunications.”
We can expect a more Hitchcockian “oh god, what’s behind that door” thrill with this newest incantation of zombie horror. The characters, in the wake of a disorienting, riotous catastrophe, will be on top of each other, looking at each other, a kind of zombie No Exit. “It’s far more psychological,” Mercedes explains.
Mason’s passion for psychology, as well as her own cultural background, helped her prepare for the role and that comes through in her studied, exquisite performance. “Understanding the immigrant concept comes naturally to me because I am the daughter of immigrant parents.” To prepare for her role, she did research on the Salvadoran Civil War and brings that sensitivity to her character. “Really understanding the revolution, what happened to people and what drove them to such extremes, how they changed. People turned against each other. When any revolution happens, it’s scary. And it brings out the best and the worst in people.”
We meet Ofelia and her family at the end of the second episode, and her trajectory is a mini coming-of-age story. Ofelia, at first sight, is quiet and respectful, a sheltered daddy’s girl dressed in a cutesy dress and demure, pink cardigan. We don’t meet her as the post-disaster, hardened and world-weary survivor; instead, we get to enjoy her transformation. “Something happens that rattles her entire foundation. She’s gotta grow up and figure out who she’s gonna be in this new world, because the sweet, naive Ofelia doesn’t cut it. And you’ll see, she starts doing some very interesting things to make sure that she and her family survive.”
Mason herself, however, claims to be ill prepared for the apocalypse. “I faint at the sight of blood. As soon as there’s a paper cut, Mercedes is dead,” she says, laughing. Perhaps, then, we can be thankful that her thespian talents led her away from medical school. Instead, she seems to shine in the face of fake blood and the undead.
See more of Mercedes Mason in Rogue's debut issue.
story by Brooke Nasser
photography by Matt Licari
styled by Tyler McDaniel
make up by Andre Sarmiento
Hair by Aaron Light
Set Assistant Jessica Czarnecki