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Lawrence Gilliard Jr. takes on a new role in AMC's 'The Walking Dead'

ArtThe Wire (tv program)AMC (tv network)Dominic WestBaltimore School for the ArtsWendell Pierce

Lawrence Gilliard Jr. is going forward and moving back in big ways these days.

Sunday night, the 42-year-old actor who played D'Angelo Barksdale in "The Wire" debuts as the newest member of AMC's "The Walking Dead," as TV's most popular series with young adults starts its fourth season.

And in an interview last week, the Baltimore School for the Arts graduate, who grew up on the city's west side, said he had recently moved back to Baltimore after living in Los Angeles the last nine years.

"Although I was born in New York, I moved to Baltimore when I was young," Gilliard says. "And I like to say New York birthed me, but Baltimore raised me. A big part of my heart was always in Baltimore."

Gilliard said getting the job in "Walking Dead," which films in Atlanta, got him and his wife, actress Michelle Paress (who played Baltimore Sun reporter Alma Gutierrez in Season 5 of "The Wire"), looking east.

"Once I got the job on 'Walking Dead,' I started thinking about how I always wanted to get back to the East Coast," he says.

"My mom lives in Baltimore, and I have a lot of family in Baltimore and New York," he adds. "I went to school at the Baltimore School for the Arts, and now my daughter is going there. ... [S]he wanted to go to my alma mater, and I wanted her go there. So it all kind of came together. My daughter gets to go to a great high school. I get to come back to the East Coast, which I love. And my family's here."

Gilliard says he feels "blessed and fortunate and lucky" to be joining a series that is already one of the medium's biggest hits.

"Last week, we had the season premiere screening in Los Angeles," he says, "and there were so many fans it was just insanity."

But he acknowledges that he wasn't one of those fans before getting the call to audition for the drama about a band of humans trying to survive a zombie apocalypse.

"I hadn't watched the show before I got the part, so I didn't know too much about it," he says. "My wife, however, is a huge, huge fan of the show. She watched it religiously every week when it came on. When I got the audition, I didn't tell her, because I didn't want her to freak out."

Once he got the part, Gilliard says, he "did a marathon" and watched the first two seasons.

"And then, when I got on the set, they set up the third season for me to watch. So I've watched them all and become a huge fan of the show."

Gilliard says the cast has been "great" in welcoming him "with open arms into their family" as a character named Bob Stookey.

"Bob Stookey is an ex-military guy, a medic," he says slowing down and picking his words more carefully in an attempt not to drop any "spoilers" before Sunday's debut.

"I'm sure people who have read the comics and graphic novels [on which the series is based] know that he battled alcoholism," Gilliard says. "So, that's one issue he's dealing with — along with there being a zombie apocalypse."

In the comics, Stookey is white and in his 50s, while Gilliard's TV version is African-American and in his late 30s or early 40s. So don't assume everything from print translates directly to the screen.

"When they find him, they find him alone in the woods," he says of the surviving humans living at a place called The Prison. "They allow him to be in The Prison. And then his story is basically about him trying to fit in — and if they're going to let him fit in, if they're going to trust him enough or, you know, kick him out."

Gilliard says Stookey "does go on a journey," and "it's a very good journey actually." But then he catches himself and says, "I can't really get too deep into it. All I can say is that I think fans are going to find it an interesting journey."

The actor's real-life journey from the west side of Baltimore to the BSA, and then on to Manhattan and the Juilliard School is the one that fascinates and resonates — especially with his return to the city and the symmetry of his daughter now following in his footsteps.

After high school, Gilliard says, he went to Juilliard to continue his study of classical clarinet, expecting a career as a concert musician.

"The plan was to go Juilliard, graduate and then go across the street and play in the New York Philharmonic — that was the plan, anyway."

But he says that started to change when he "woke up one day" and felt like "he didn't want to practice" any more.

"And that's when you start to worry," he says. "Why did I not feel like practicing today? So I started wondering what was going on. And, basically, you feel like you're going insane. You're in one of the greatest arts schools in the world, and you're not wanting to participate. So I really started looking around."

Gilliard says he saw a pattern to his young life. While at the BSA, he went to all the plays that his classmates staged. And now he was doing the same at Juilliard.

"And I thought, 'Hmmmm, maybe there's something there that I need look into. And I went and took an acting class outside of Juilliard and found I had a passion. Yeah, and so I just jumped on that train — followed that path."

Gilliard has appeared in more than 30 feature films and made-for-TV movies, included John Waters' "Cecil B. Demented" and "Gangs of New York," since he started professionally in 1991. He's also appeared in such TV series as "Homicide: Life on the Street,' "Friday Night Lights" and "Army Wives."

But it is his work as D'Angelo in "The Wire" for which he is most widely known. His superb performance in Season 1 played a significant role in helping establish the series critically.

He cherishes the memories of being part of an outstanding ensemble that included Idris Elba, Dominic West, Wendell Pierce and so many other fine actors — even as he laughs about living at the home of his mother, Edith Gilliard Canty, while filming.

"I actually did, because she wouldn't have it any other way," he says. "You know, if I'm in Baltimore, I've got to be at home — in my old room."

He says it was "weird" that first season, because growing up, he had lived in "West Baltimore in the Franklin Square area very close to the Lexington Terrace projects where the Barksdales were operating" in "The Wire."

"I actually played football for the Lexington Terrace projects," Gilliard says. "It's really crazy that I came back and did that particular show."

At middle age, Gilliard seems very clear about the mentors and moments of passage in his life.

"The Baltimore School for the Arts changed my life, it really did," he says. "But before the School for the Arts, I was still living in West Baltimore and could have gone in another direction."

Along with his mother, he says, there were four strong male figures who helped guide him to the right path: his stepfather, Curtis Canty; a Franklin Square Boys Club director named Lonnie Fisher; and neighbors James Reeves and Frank Wheeler.

"What the School for the Arts taught me was a great work ethic," Gilliard says. "They showed me — not just taught me — that if you work hard, you can see the effects. They gave me that lesson, and I have used it at every stage of my life. And I am still using it now in my new role on 'The Walking Dead.' "

Watch it

Season 4 of "The Walking Dead" begins at 9 tonight on AMC

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ArtThe Wire (tv program)AMC (tv network)Dominic WestBaltimore School for the ArtsWendell Pierce
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