For Walker Independence Star Katherine McNamara, Unplugging Is a Must

by Max Gao

A portrait of McNamara
Photograph by Kenny Laubbacher

Katherine McNamara wants to make one thing abundantly clear: Walker Independence is “not your mama’s Western.” Having grown up in Kansas City, the actress admits the familiarity of the old-fashioned genre has always held a special place in her heart. But when she first read the pilot of Walker Independence, the late 19th-century prequel to Jared Padalecki’s Walker, McNamara—who rose to fame as Clary Fray in Freeform’s Shadowhunters and as Mia Smoak in The CW’s Arrow—could tell something was different. Created by Seamus Kevin Fahey and Anna Fricke, the latest CW drama follows Abby Walker (McNamara), an affluent, strong-willed Bostonian schoolteacher who witnesses the cold-blooded murder of her husband during their journey to Texas, where he was set to become the new sheriff of a small town called Independence.

After crossing paths with an Apache tracker named Calian (Justin Johnson Cortez), Abby completes her trip to Independence, where she encounters a number of diverse and eclectic residents, including Tom Davidson (Greg Hovanessian), the new sheriff who fits the description of the man who killed her husband. “She’s a bit out of [her] time,” McNamara tells W over Zoom. “She’s educated; she’s independent. We don’t often see women in this period with this much agency.”

Ahead of Thursday’s series premiere, McNamara speaks about Abby’s forthcoming quest for justice in Independence, her biggest personal takeaways from working on Shadowhunters, and the healthy balance she tries to strike on social media.

What sets Abby apart from other characters you’ve played in the past?

I’ve been doing a lot of action-based stories lately, and playing a lot of characters that tend to exist in jeans, combat boots and leather jackets. Then suddenly, I’m in a dress, boots, and a corset, and I have to be a lady of Boston society from the 1800s. I’ve been craving something new and different for a really long time, and this was a perfect opportunity to still find that sort of strong female character, but within a different genre.

This show is subversive in that it honors the classic cornerstones of Westerns, while telling the story from the perspective of a young woman.

What I’ve been striving for, with Abby, is to find a way to still carry forward that fire we see in her, [while] not knowing which choice she’s going to make next. There’s this great element to Westerns where justice is an enigma. And because the world is still being formed, so [are the notions of] right and wrong, and the law is not always “justice.” There are different ways of getting justice in the West that puts characters in a bit of a gray area and allows them to take actions that you might not expect and that might not always be morally sound.

What motivates Abby to set out on a life-changing journey after suffering a devastating tragedy in the pilot? And how does she lean on the colorful characters in this town to rebuild her life?

Abby wants to make things right and avenge her husband’s death, because she can’t go home, and she can’t rely on anyone she meets yet. What’s wonderful about all of these characters in Independence is, even though they may all seem a certain way when you first meet them, all of them are trying to find their place, and all of them are looking for a fresh start, because all of them are running from something. With Abby and Hoyt (Matt Barr), for example, they push each other's buttons because they are so different, and they have such diverse moral compasses that they push each other to face [certain] parts of themselves. It's true for all of the characters in the story.

My favorite thing about the show is, yes, it takes place in the late 1800s, but it’s such an allegory for today’s world. We're at this place, coming out of the pandemic, where we have this lovely chance to reset and create the world in which we want to live, and that's exactly what you see these characters doing.

What did you learn from the experience of leading Shadowhunters that you have been able to apply to Independence?

I’d worked in film and TV a bit coming into that show, but I was 19 years old. I was the youngest one on the cast, [and] I had been shouldered with leading this series. It was based on an internationally best-selling book series with all of those expectations. Moving to a foreign country, I knew nothing and I didn't know truly what I was doing, but I was so grateful to be surrounded by an incredible cast and crew [where] we all learned together.

I learned technically and artistically how to make a television show on Shadowhunters, and I also learned from people like Harry Shum Jr. and Isaiah Mustafa, who are so renowned for their work and their professionalism. I learned from them how to create that family on set and an energy [where] people are excited to come to work—even if it’s three in the morning, we’re covered in blood, it’s raining, and we’ve been crying for 10 hours. That is the magic I’ve always tried to take into any project.

Earlier this year, you and your former costar, Dominic Sherwood, launched a Shadowhunters rewatch podcast. What has been the most surprising or gratifying part of rewatching the show with Dominic and the larger Shadowhunters fan base?

The greatest part is being able to bring in [and speak with] some of the guest stars, different writers, and people that were, for lack of a better word, the unsung heroes of the Shadow world—the people who really shaped and made the show what it was. Glenn Warner was one of our camera operators from the first to the last episode of the series. He was there with us every single day in the trenches. We got to know him really well, but never had a chance to go back and reminisce about what his point of view was. I think it’s fun for folks—who know the books, the show and the story forwards and backwards and have analyzed every single little detail—to hear the “why” behind [the creative decisions] or the “how” on things that Dom or I couldn’t explain because we were in front of the camera. There’s a reason that I’ll do anything for that fandom, because they are just the absolute best.

Let’s move on to some of the Social Qs. You have over 4,500 posts on Instagram, but do you remember your first post?

I got my Instagram account while I was still filming Girl vs. Monster, which was a Disney Channel original movie, about 10 years ago. I was in Vancouver shooting with a bunch of the other kids, and everyone had Instagram but me, so I was like, “Fine, I’ll make one.” I think it was a picture of all of us at a game night or at dinner, or maybe it was a picture of a flower I saw on a walk. I have no idea!

What’s your favorite social media platform?

I know there’s a dark side to a lot of social media, but I’ve been very lucky with the fandoms that I’ve been a part of. I use Instagram to keep in touch with people I went to school with, or long-distance family, or folks I worked with 5-10 years ago who I would have otherwise completely lost touch with. It’s nice just to get to see a photo pop up of someone’s kid I’ve never met, or some big momentous occasion in someone’s life that I didn’t know was happening, or just to check in on folks and be like, “Oh my gosh, you look so happy, and I’m so proud of everything that you’ve been doing.” I find people all the time on Instagram that I haven’t spoken to in over a decade, and it’s just wonderful to have that easy resource.

I’m also a Pinterest nerd. I’m a huge baker and a knitter, and I love Pinterest for finding ideas. I love playing with makeup as well, and I do my own makeup a lot for different events, and it’s fun to go and get inspiration from other folks’ work.

Is there anything you would never post?

I don’t think I would ever post anything that would cause a negative reaction from someone else, or be calling someone out on something, or telling someone how to or what to think or feel, or being judgmental in any way. You never know what a person’s life is really like, you never know what kind of day they’re having, and I would rather be positive and compassionate than judgmental and critical.

Describe yourself using 3 emojis.

The zebra emoji, the croissant emoji—because I’m a baker—and there are two pink hearts that are almost hugging each other. That’s how I feel toward so many people, and I probably use that emoji far too much. [Laughs.]

What’s the secret to taking a winning selfie?

It’s all about lighting. I’m definitely not the greatest photographer/selfie taker, but I do know that, having worked on many dark, shadowy sets, when you find good light, it’s worth [taking advantage of] it.

How do you tell a friend they’re doing too much on social media?

Sometimes it can get to a point with folks where they can plan their lives around social media, and that’s the dangerous line. It should be an addition to your life, not your life. In the end, it is just ones and zeroes. It exists in the ether. There’s nothing real or tangible to it. I don’t know how I would tell someone, but I would maybe just take them out and do something fun and just show them the real world is more fun than the Internet.

How do you unplug?

I love to just have adventure days. You take off, go to a new place, see a new thing, go for a hike. I also feel like travel disconnects me a lot—going to a place where there isn’t much Internet or where you are busy. It’s so essential to reconnect with the people you love and the world in which you live in that way. But I will say that working on the show has caused me to disconnect quite a bit, because when we’re in the middle of the wilderness and the desert in the 1870s, we don’t often have great Internet. [Laughs.]