Michael Rooker has been a fantastic presence on the screen ever since making his debut nearly 25 years ago in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and it’s pleasing to no end to see him in a Marvel movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, under the direction of his good friend James Gunn. Rooker plays Yondu Udonta, who in the comics was actually an original member of the Guardians (back in 1969) but on screen is the leader of a band of smugglers and bounty hunters who boast Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) within their ranks until Quill stumbles into founding the Guardians himself.
There’s a father-son dynamic between Quill and Yondu that’s compelling and complex, and as always, Rooker himself hints at a lot more going on underneath Yondu’s blue skin and rugged leathers. That’s the mark of a great character actor, and it’s easy to see why Gunn has used him on previous films like Slither and Super. The rest of Rooker’s resume boasts iconic titles like JFK, Mississippi Burning and Tombstone, but he gained a whole new following as the racist redneck Merle Dixon on The Walking Dead, a vicious antagonist who ultimately redeems himself through self-sacrifice.
Den Of Geek got to sit down with Rooker at a recent press day for Guardians in Los Angeles, where we spoke about playing Yondu, his five-hour makeup and wardrobe process, working with Gunn and the legacy of Merle.
Den of Geek: The first thing that occurs to me is that you’re way overdue to be in a Marvel movie.
Michael Rooker: Dude, I like you already! Yeah, yeah. I’m really happy to be in a Marvel movie, yeah. This is like my buddies, you know. “Dude you want me to do what?” Mr. Gunn. I’m your whipping boy. Whatever you want is yours. Thank you very much, you know. Because it’s turned out to be a dream come true and a beautiful role. Hanging out with my friend and meeting all this great cast we have. Great. It’s a total joy.
Have you ever auditioned for any of the other ones?
I have not. This was literally my first Marvel thing. Not my first Disney. I think Tombstone was Disney.
How did James pitch it to you? What did he tell you about this universe and this character and what you’re going to have to do?
At first I don’t think he knew, you know. He might have known but he didn’t really say anything to me. He just says I’m gonna write this role for you, you know. And then, of course, after it was all written and everything he told me basically who Yondu is and gave me a lot of backstory information –that kind of stuff helped me a lot. And I don’t need a lot, you know, as an actor. I’m sort of a wash and wear kind of guy. I get the script. I look at it and for some reason — some weird, odd thing — I just know how to do it. So I just do it.
So you don’t need to write out a biography for your character like some people like to do?
Oh yeah, exactly. I mean I’ve got backstory. I do have all this history and stuff but it’s all in my head usually. I don’t need to write it down. It’s just there. And sometimes I don’t have to do that. It just comes along as we go along. It just develops as we do the piece.
Of course with these characters there are decades of history. Did you go back and look at the comics?
I knew about it before but then I went back and just read more stuff. And then I find out that Gunn is like, “No, don’t read any more of that because this is different. I don’t want to corrupt your mind by knowing too much.”
Yondu was actually a founding member of the original Guardians, back in 1969.
That’s right. It was pretty amazing stuff.
Were you a comic book fan growing up?
I was, because both my eyes are kind of dominant. It’s not so cool when you’re a kid learning how to read. So you’re like flipping and flopping and both eyes are fighting each other. So comic books was a way that I supplemented the story, you know. I was able to understand exactly what’s going on not by reading all the words but the whole panel, which was kind of cool. That’s kind of how I learned to read.
That’s interesting because a lot of people would say comics are not real reading.
It’s the only way I could learn. You know what? We should tell people. Kids should read more comics because look what happened to me.
Tell me about the makeup process.
It was actually a total of five hours before I was camera ready. An hour and a half of prosthetic makeup and some basic makeup stuff. And then I’d have like a little break for a meal. Then I’d go into the paint room for another hour and a half or two hours. We’d get it down to like an hour or sometimes even under that. And then it’d go back up to an hour and a half. It was different each time. But after that I did wardrobe and all that combined would equal out to about five hours.
I just read a quote from the costume designer in which she talked about having some fun fittings with you and how you really got into how you wanted to move and how you wanted the clothes to move. How important is it for you to be involved in the feel of the costume, the weapons and so on?
I definitely want things to be practical. I want to be able to move and turn and kick and fight and draw my weapons. So yeah, yeah, yeah, it made you feel a certain way how heavy it is, how light it is. It was very cool and I had lots of layers. There were lots of layers on me and buckles and stuff. And I had a dresser come in every day and dress me because I had already had all the makeup on and so if I had gone through this whole process of pulling on boots and doing all this stuff, you know, all the stuff would be wiped clean. So I had somebody and they’d come in and help me every day and it took quite a while. Five hours all total, you know, with everything.
But it was quite good. Sometimes you spend that time just chilling. Sometimes it’s spent thinking about getting ready for the scene you’re about to do…I plan my whole day of shooting in my mind getting ready, preparing. Because sometimes you’ve got to jump back in time, forward in time. It’s not all in sequence.
You have done several films with James Gunn and you play off each other really well. What’s that relationship like and why do you think he keeps coming back to you?
He must like me, I don’t know. For some reason the guy likes me. I like him too. He’s okay (laughs). Yeah, you know, we dug each other from the first. The first audition was for Slither. Ended up hitting it off right away, like meeting a buddy that you feel like you’ve been pals with all your life, you know, in past lives even. I don’t know what it is. But it’s “you’ve got my back, I’ve got yours,” that kind of thing.
You certainly get the sense that Yondu is a very complicated character. Do you think it’s possible we’ll get to see more of him?
Oh, there’s way more. I think that’s what I like. When people leave a movie, if they have more questions than answers, then I’ve done my job. So I’ve done my job on this one. And I think a lot of people want to see more of Yondu. That’s what I like. And that happens emotionally and physically. They want to see this guy do stuff again or sometimes they want to find out more of what makes them tick, you know. That’s my forte and I like it a lot and I love leaving the audience wanting more and knowing there is more which is really cool.
We were all disappointed when Merle bit the dust.
I was totally disappointed. It was like, “Oh my God,’ you know. But the timing was so exquisite. And it wasn’t planned out. I’ve had people come up to me and ask if it was my choice to leave because of Guardians. And I said no, it wasn’t. It just happened. It was meant to be…it just happened and it’s like when people say, “One door closes, the other one opens.” And it’s weird that for this situation it ended up being perfect.
Do you still watch the show?
Oh, I’m still a big fan. I’m still yelling at the screen going, “What are you doing? You wouldn’t do that! Come on. No way. You made that choice.” For some reason this show really gets people talking. You’ve got generations hanging out watching the TV show. And they’re digging it and they all like it. I know when we first started doing the TV show there was an age bracket. That’s blown completely out of the water. There’s no age bracket for that show anymore. That’s why it’s so popular everywhere in the world. Everybody watches it.
Do you feel like it opened up a new audience for you?
Oh, big time. Oh yeah. People cry when they come up to me all the time. The lady who makes the caramel corn over at the Arclight (a theater in Hollywood) –- she came out from making caramel corn just to see me and as she approached me I could tell she’s about to break down and weep. She just came over and we looked at each other and she said, “Can I just hug you?” I said, “Of course. Come here.” And I could tell she was about to cry and I said, “It’s okay, it’s okay.” All is cool and, you know what, I’m happy and Merle has moved on to Marvel heaven. He’s in a better place.