Katherine McNamara On Playing A Trailblazing Woman On Walker Independence - Exclusive Interview

After countless decades of watching male-led Western content, Katherine McNamara is bringing "Walker" fans the feminist take on the Wild West that often gets glossed over in movies and TV. McNamara stars as Abby Walker in "Walker Independence" — the late-1800s-set prequel of the original Jared Padalecki-led CW show. It's not the first time McNamara has saddled up to play badass and empowering characters. Between playing the Nephilim Clary Fray on "Shadowhunters," Sonya in "The Scorch Trials," and Mia Queen in "Arrow," McNamara is no stranger to kicking ass and taking names. That skill set will undoubtedly prove useful as she navigates the mean, dusty streets of Independence, Texas, in "Walker Independence."

During an exclusive interview with The List, McNamara dished on the feminist take of "Walker Independence," working with Katie Findlay, the importance of depicting female friendship on-screen, and which real-life and fictional trailblazing women helped her nail down the role of Abby.

A feminist take on the Wild West

I love that "[Walker] Independence" is such a feminist take on the Wild West. We don't often see women at the forefront of these kinds of stories. What drew you to this particular story, and why do you think this is such an important aspect of this time period to tell?

I think it was just that. Oftentimes, we see a very specific image of women in the 1800s, in the 1870s, and in the West in particular. That's something that drew me to this project initially ... You see it in the pilot. There's a very distinct choice that Abby has to make. In the first 15 minutes of our show, her entire life goes up in flames, literally and figuratively.

She has a choice. She can either become a victim of her circumstance, or she can choose to create her own life and to create an opportunity for herself to have much more agency than any woman at that time really got a chance to have. That was exciting, and in every sense, with all of the characters, we get an opportunity to reinvent the genre of what a Western is and to tell what we hope is a more historically accurate version of what the West looked like.

Women in the 1800s need to stick together

I love Abby's dynamic with Kate on the show. It's so fun and fresh and a really lovely glimpse at the friendship between [characters who identify as] women in the time period. What have been some of your favorite moments working with Katie Findlay, and what do you think is the most compelling aspect of their dynamic?

What's interesting is that from the moment they meet, even though they don't fully trust one another, it's a bit of recognizing between Abby and Kate. They're both women who don't fit the mold of society at the time, but they don't fit the mold in very different ways. Instantly, there's this unspoken understanding and almost this unspoken humor between these two women of, "We know what we've had to do to survive in this world, and we also know how to use this world to our advantage and sometimes use the disadvantages that women have in the world to create opportunities."

It's a very interesting friendship as these two women, again, with all of the characters, push each other to recognize different parts of themselves and to recognize different vulnerabilities and different strengths in each other. Katie and I have the best time working together. We've fully become very Lucy and Ethel, both on- and off-screen. It's a joy to work with someone who's, again, so conscious about upholding the female stories we want to tell but also being very open and collaborative. We are so able to bounce ideas off of each other on- and off-screen. It's been a really, really wonderful friendship and partnership.

Embracing corset life in the West

I'm obsessed with the fashion in the show, particularly for the women. You've mentioned how excited you were to take on a period piece with corsets, so how much of a hand have you had in Abby's wardrobe? What have been some of your favorite looks, and do you at all regret wanting to get dressed up in bulky 1800s garb from head to toe?

I do not regret it one iota. Truly, it's been a lot of fun. I love a challenge. I guess the quickest way to adjust to [the] altitude here in Santa Fe is by wearing a corset on a 13-hour shoot day. Our costume designer, Marian Toy, has such incredible vision. In the same way I was talking about the color of the show, the life, and the vibrancy, she has so much to do with that — her eye, her vision, and the way in which she creates such a specific look for each character but then elaborates upon that. Every single look I've had for the show has been fantastic, some of which have been from vintage collections that we've pulled from wardrobe houses, a lot of which have been made from scratch by our wardrobe team.

It astounds me every single time, the things that they come up with. One of my favorite dresses for the show started as a bolt of fabric. She said, "We found this fabric in the costume house, and we dyed it to make it more of the tone of our show." Then suddenly, I come in a few costume sittings later, and it's this gorgeous dress that has been sculpted and crafted.

I've had entire costume fittings where we have 17 different ruffles, and we have to decide which ruffle and from which stripe of the fabric brings the most to the piece. It's wearable art at this point. And truly, as hot and dusty and challenging as it can be, it's so worth it. It brings so much to the show and allows you to immerse yourself in the world. Also, I appreciate the care and the detail and the attention to specificity of not only historical accuracy but artfulness and character through clothing that we get the chance to do on this show. It's a masterpiece.

The white doves of the Wild West

With the setting of the series, this show has a large storyline about sex work. How do you think Windy handles the topic and its portrayal of the white doves of the Wild West?

I think we present the world of the West as accurately as it [can] be, in the way that everyone gets through life in a different way. There's [no] judgment placed on anyone's choices as much — unless you're murdering someone, which we also see on our show. It's very much in the way that we try and present things in the world today. Everyone is doing what they can to survive and to make a living and make a life for themselves. Whatever that ends up being is ... As long as everyone's free to choose what they are doing, that's how it's been addressed.

It hasn't, at least in the parts of the series that I've been involved in and the scripts that I've read, it hasn't been a huge story point, and it hasn't been a huge factor up until now. I think we're getting there slowly but surely. Then again, we're only about halfway through the season, so I've only read/heard about half of what we're doing and half of the stories that we're telling. It'll be interesting to see how that progresses moving forward.

Abby Walker's many romantic possibilities

You also have some great moments with Kai and Calian. Can you tease what those dynamics look like and whether or not there's a spark between Abby and either of them?

Have you seen the cast of our show? There could potentially be a spark between any of them. [What's] really wonderful and something I love most about the show, and something we talk about all the time as a cast, is that each of the characters bring out different colors in each other. Every character relationship takes on such new, different, and interesting dynamics. 

Shooting that scene with Lawrence [Kao] in the pilot, I really only had one scene with him in the pilot, but there was such a warmth to it and such a different color of these two people who genuinely wanted a fresh start. I get emotional every time I talk about it because he was so touching in that scene and brought so much to this scene that wasn't one of the most action-packed, dramatic, or emotional scenes in the pilot, but pulled at your heartstrings because you saw these two people who didn't have much but were happy and were making a way and who found a friendship. That kind of continues. There [are] a lot of unexpected sides to Kai that I think folks are going to be excited to see. Lawrence is brilliant.

As far as Calian goes, working with Justin is an absolute joy. Building that relationship and that friendship between Abby and Calian — there's such a trust and an unspoken bond between these two, given that he found her in, et cetera, et cetera, and the way that their friendship started. I'm not sure exactly how much I can say before the pilot airs, but given the way that their friendship began, they will always have a certain bond, and they will always have this unspoken trust.

For both of them, that becomes really important as the story continues, especially given that both of them are not the most trusted people in town — Abby being a stranger, him being from the Apache community at the time. Our writers don't shy away from the ugly parts of what those roles in a society of that nature can bring out in people in the community. The fact that they have each other becomes essential to both of their survival.

The trailblazing women of the Wild West

Do you have any favorite Westerns or ones that inspired any aspects of Abby?

There [are] so many. "Deadwood" is always a great reference. I went back and watched a lot of the series "Godless" as well, because it was very female-driven and had a lot of different female protagonists in it. I've been trying to watch as many different things as I can from all ... I could go on and on and on and list a million different things and take up all of this interview time, but it's nice to get to watch as many different versions of the West as you can.

How much research did you do to prepare for the role, either in a historical sense or through films and TV?

I grew up loving Westerns. I'm a Kansas City girl myself. You take a girl out of [the] Midwest, and she's always going to end up back in a Western, I guess. I tried to do as much research as I could, given that Abby is such a different character and is a woman with such agency. [I tried] to find stories of other women that had similar journeys and [see] who they were, because you know they exist, even if we don't often see them in media. There is such a tenacity that you have to have to even survive in that world, especially as a woman at the time and a single woman of the time now.

I found so many incredible stories of women on the frontier, and people in general on the frontier, who were creating such wonderful lives for themselves, such rich lives, and having opportunities that were unexpected. There [are] countless stories out there. It provided such a wealth of information and makes me feel as though I have a community to draw from and a community to honor in telling Abby's story.

Can you think of any in particular that really touched you?

There's a book I read called "Frontier Grit [The Unlikely True Stories of Daring Pioneer Women]" that was a collection of stories about women of the frontier who blazed new trails and made ways for themselves. All of the stories in there I've tried to pull little bits from because there is such a dichotomy of grit and humor of all of these women that reminds me of the women that raised me, who have gone through a myriad of things but always come out being kind and strong and compassionate, but also with a very interesting sense of humor based on their life experiences.

Did you have anything else you wanted to add about "Walker [Independence]," or anything else you wanted to touch on?

Just the biggest thank you to everyone for being so enthusiastic and so supportive of the show even before it's premiered. I'm really excited for folks to get to join us on the trail and to see this journey.

"Walker Independence" airs Thursdays on The CW, with episodes streaming on the site the next day.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

For more discussion with Katherine McNamara, including memories of the Arrowverse and "Shadowhunters," head over to The List's sister site, Looper.