Emily Kinney found fame playing Beth Greene, the naive teenager who managed to survive four seasons of a zombie apocalypse in the AMC horror drama “The Walking Dead.” In the latest season of the Showtime series “Masters of Sex,” she portrayed a sex surrogate volunteering for a scientific experiment.
But when the 30-year-old actress and singer-songwriter seeks comfort and solitude in real life, she turns away from the screen and to the poetry and prose of Mary Oliver.
One of Ms. Kinney’s most valued possessions is “Blue Pastures,” a collection of short essays about the creative process written by Ms. Oliver, the best-selling poet and National Book Award winner. Ms. Kinney received the book in 2009 on the opening night of her first major acting role. Playing the part of a teenage daughter in “August: Osage County,” she was younger than most of the other actors in the play, which was touring nationally. She spent much of her down time alone in her hotel room writing songs, and started referencing that book, which she described as a good guide for artists.
Among Ms. Kinney’s favorite lines from that essay: “I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt.” She says it’s a reminder to press on when she retreats from her family and friends to write but feels guilty about not spending enough time with them.
The book’s opening essay, “Of Power and Time,” struck a particular chord. “She writes about how if you pick off others’ energy, it can be hard to hear your own thoughts,” says Ms. Kinney, who regularly travels with least one of Ms. Oliver’s books. “My family has always known that I’m the kind of person who needs to go to her room and listen to her music. Taking that time for yourself is a really beautiful thing about life.”
Born in Wayne, Neb., Ms. Kinney splits time between New York and Los Angeles. She studied theater at Nebraska Wesleyan University, but her first experience performing was singing in church as a child. Later on, she took up writing short stories and poetry. While her primary claim to fame is as an actress, she also released her debut album, “This Is War,” last year.
“Music is a tool to tell stories and communicate with people about how we feel,” Ms. Kinney says. “My songs are little poems that I fit to the music.”
Ms. Oliver has also influenced Ms. Kinney’s lyrics. While her tunes revolve around love and romance, she says that the songs on her album went beyond talking about expired love, a theme of her older ballads, instead focusing on standing up for oneself.
Paul Vincent O’Connor, one of her “August” co-stars, gave her “Blue Pastures.” Inspired in part by the present, Ms. Kinney regularly hands out copies of Ms. Oliver’s writing.
After filming the second season of “The Walking Dead,” she gave Lauren Cohan, who plays her older sister on the show, a journal containing “The Journey,” one of Ms. Kinney’s favorite poems by Ms. Oliver. She also sends friends cellphone photos of the poem, which in 36 lines describes ignoring others’ expectations while “being true to yourself,” says Ms. Kinney, who likes to refer to that piece on sleepless nights. “I often pass it to other actors when I feel it might be useful as it’s a very healing and motivating poem.”
It also helped her bond with her “Walking Dead” co-star. “It was a big shift in my life, because the show was getting a lot of attention,” Ms. Kinney says. “There were so many things pulling at me, people asking, ‘How can you help me?’ Lauren and I connected over that.”