The Walking Dead's Lauren Cohan may star in one of the goriest shows on television, but in real life, she can't stomach the sight of her own blood.
"Giving blood, or being near a needle, is the absolute worst," she says, wrapping her hands around a mug of half-decaf coffee in a restaurant near Central Park in New York City. "At one recent physical, I thought, 'I'll just look so I know what's happening, and it won't be bad'—and I fainted. The fake stuff? No problem. Just don't enter my skin."
The fake stuff, of course, has been ubiquitous on The Walking Dead—the gritty AMC hit series about a zombie apocalypse—since the show's debut in 2010. Lauren plays Maggie, a farmer's daughter turned zombie butt kicker, a role that's as emotional as it is physical. With the series now in its seventh season, we sat down with Lauren, 34, to talk about keeping in shape for the role, crying during workouts and, of course, killing zombies.
Your show is filmed in Georgia, so what's the best part of working outside of the Hollywood bubble?
We're an hour south of the city [Atlanta]. I've learned the power of deep connection—the people, the material, and the story. The most fun part is that it's family. I am so close with everyone, and we've had the same core group of people together for so many years. And now we have a generation of Walking Dead babies. We have game nights, we cook together, we eat together.
What's your go-to meal to impress a crowd?
This is my favorite season. I literally go crazy this time of year. I want to put scarecrows up. [Laughs] And one of the best things I do is a pumpkin soup, served back inside the pumpkin, with toasted pumpkin seeds and pesto on top. I also make this stir-fried trout with daikon radish and miso that's even better the next day.
Maggie has evolved so much over the years—and the role has gotten more physical. Is there anything you've been able to do physically that surprised you?
From a physical level, it's extremely challenging. Some scenes are much more difficult than others. Sometimes I didn't think I'd be able to run as much as I have on the show. There's so much running and action. But I love the physical element because it's a good release for a lot of the emotional tension.
Have you had any on-set injuries?
Oh, millions. I had a couple of car accidents when I was in my early 20s, and I used to have such a bad back. The first couple of years of the show, I would always hurt my back, but since then, doing such a physical show has propelled me to take extremely good care of myself. Now I'm in the best condition, strengthwise, that I've ever been in my life.
What are your off-screen workouts like?
I have the best regime ever right now. I work with a trainer, AJ Fisher, and we do three to four days a week, either in person, if we're in the same city, or on Skype. I do all core-based alignment training and strength training. If I don't die at the end of 90 minutes, then it hasn't been a good workout. [Laughs]
Do you legit cry?
I get to the point where I'm just hysterically laughing, thrusting a 40-pound weight over my hips. And she has the sweetest tone of voice, like a primary school teacher, and she gets me to do the craziest things. She's like, "Just one more," and I'm like [fake crying], "You don't understand!"
Lauren's wearing: Dress the Population dress ($268; bloomingdales.com).
I can't work out with people yelling at me.
Me either! When I'm in that place where I can't continue, I need to be nurtured. Because that's getting to my deepest weakness, and I'm like, "Don't yell at me when I'm feeling my deepest weakness!" So I do that, and then on the weekends I'll do yoga, and one day a week I do a rest day. Today's my rest day.
So no physical activity?
[Smiles] Well, I'll do 20,000 steps. But just walking!
You grew up in New Jersey, and then you moved with your family to England when you were 13. What were you like as a kid?
I was very skinny. You know when your knees don't even look like they're attached to your body? Kids at school called me Snap, like my legs were about to snap because they were so thin. I was so gangly, even sneakers looked awkward. Everybody kind of goes through some phase, and it's hard if you're singled out for anything. But there was this one boy in particular who made fun of me and, it's funny, then later, when we were 18 or 19, he wanted to go out with me.
You meditate. Why is doing that so important to your overall well-being?
I think what happened was I didn't have a very good balance with exercise and food. I'd be stressed-out and I'd eat too much, or I'd be stressed-out and I'd stop exercising. The last few years, I've been focusing on consistency and balance, and it's made a huge difference. I have timers on my phone for everything: It's time to meditate, it's time to do this. The best way for me to put it is that if my spiritual life isn't bigger than my outside life, then I'm out of balance. I make my spiritual life a priority. I'm taking the time to be a better person so I can be of service—putting other people before myself.
You've gone on meditation retreats where you've had to be off the grid for 10 days at a time. Is it hard to unplug?
It's sometimes pretty hard to motivate, but once you're there, it's so delicious. You don't have any obligations because you've given your phone away, and it's extremely effective. But you do it, and then you come out of it and you eventually go back to your old ways. So it's important to find a way to live that way day to day.
Lauren's wearing: I.D. Sarreiri bodysuit ($328; net-a-porter.com).
What else have you done to nurture your spiritual side?
At Christmas, my boyfriend came home with me, and my family did sort of an airing of grievances at the dinner table. It was inspired by a Seinfeld episode, and we went around the table and said things that had hurt us, and it got very real. It was great—there were tears and revelations. My family is very close, so it was all in a healthy way. Having a good man in my life has helped me. I don't want to experience all these things in life without my family, or without a good partner. It would be...empty.
Do you ever feel those Hollywood pressures to look perfect all the time?
Sometimes, but I've definitely learned to let go of some of that. One thing I always think about is, at the end of the day, nobody really cares about you as much as they do about themselves. It's a very reassuring thing, in a good way. Pay attention to yourself, and use that energy and put it towards yourself.
Have you gotten any good words of wisdom lately?
Somebody said to me the other day, "If this moment isn't the best moment of your life, you're doing something wrong." And I think about that all the time. Because me not liking where I'm at is such a waste of energy. And being able to be there for others is only coming from self-acceptance. You have to do what makes you feel good, but for me it has to come from that spiritual side first.
Lauren's simple pleasures
I believe in spending on... Flat shoes. I'll go on flat shoe binges if I see a cute pair.
My red carpet style icon is... Sophia Loren. I'm always trying to keep that idea of classic, romantic Italian in mind.
I feel most myself when... My family is around.
I feel sexiest... Getting dressed up and going on a date. The normalness of my relationship is very sexy to me.
My vice is... I don't drink. But pizza, I literally love pizza. And chocolate cake, too.
My favorite jeans are... Imogene + Willie, from their store in Nashville. Those jeans give you the best butt.
My favorite place in the world is... New York City.
I would not hold it together if I met... Bruce Springsteen.
Photography by James White. Styling by Karen Shapiro. Hair by DJ Quintero at Jed Root Inc. Makeup by Genevieve for Lancome/Sally Harlor. Nails by Kylie Kwok at Tracey Mattingly.