Warning: spoilers ahead for those behind on The Walking Dead.
We’re big fans of Michael Rooker here at Den of Geek and, quite frankly, how could anyone not be? He’s an incredibly prolific and devoted actor, whose early performance in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer still makes an impact to this day and since that breakthrough has been in an endless stream of great movies.
I’ve loved his work since Henry, with some personal highlights including his work with action legends Stallone and Schwarzenegger (in the mighty Cliffhanger and The 6th Day respectively) and if you’ve yet to see him picking on Jean Claude Van Damme, then I suggest a viewing of Replicant straight away. There was also Slither with Nathan Fillion (one of the best and most underappreciated horror films of the last decade), Tombstone, Mallrats… he even made an appearance in the superb Chuck – the list is huge.
We had the pleasure of speaking to him to about his role as Merle Dixon in The Walking Dead, a great character and one he played superbly right down to the last second. I’ve enthused at length about how great The Walking Dead is here but as always Rooker’s performance elevated an already great show and, with season three, added an extra level of threat, gravitas and pathos with the completion his character’s journey.
The interview found Mr Rooker on fine form, full of laughs and that genuine sense of love and investment for his characters, especially Merle, that always make for a fascinating insight into both the work at hand and the actor themselves. He was even gracious enough to give me extra time at the end for the last couple of questions and we ended the interview with a bit of chat and particularly an exchange about the erratic British weather that was playing havoc with his body clock – I wouldn’t normally mention such a thing, but it resulted in such a great line I couldn’t help but share “When it gets dark, then I know it’s pub time!” Legend.
So it’s my great pleasure to give you the great Michael Rooker…
Firstly, congratulations on the show, I thought the third season was just phenomenal – has the success of it surprised you?
You know what, it has not. The success of the entire show has surprised everyone I think, I mean the amount of success and viewership that it’s garnered took us by storm, but by the third season it didn’t surprise me at all that people were really digging it. The third season was crazy for me, I worked my little tail off the entire time, so I was a happy camper that Merle was reappearing and the episodes that I was part of it was my job to tear it up baby! I did the best I could and I had fun doing it too [laughs].
Well, it was a great performance! Did you know when you first signed on to The Walking Dead exactly how much of a great character you were going to get and how much of a powerful story arc you’d have?
Oh goodness no, no not at all. From season one I had a good expectation, if they were going to continue this role, I already had a handle on it, from the first time I jumped down off the rooftop and I’m in your face – I mean I’m talking about getting in T-Dog’s face, getting in the audiences face – just out there you know? Coming on to the scene like that was quite startling for people and then not necessarily pulling back, but just seeing other sides of this character and other angles, as people have these expectations – the character came in like your clichéd redneck, racist, bigoted bad guy and then you discover that ‘Oh, wait a minute!’ that’s not so completely.
There are other aspects about this person that we don’t even know about and so by the third episode that I was involved in, there’s the four and half minute monologue that completely, completely slipped everybody’s heads around and when they left me on the rooftop of course before the monologue, no matter how bad I was, no matter how obviously bigoted I was as this character of Merle, I was still able to win over the audience’s sympathy. Not necessarily by any great efforts on my part, but simply because of the fact that no matter how bad you are, no matter how politically incorrect you may be, no one deserves to die like that.
That was the key factor in winning the audience over to be on Merle’s side, was that monologue and being stuck and ended up with him cutting his hand off and preying to Jesus and God, his God, to help him and of course God doesn’t answer in like, thirty seconds, so he says “Ah never mind, I’ll do it myself!” [laughs] And that just blew my mind, that we were making a monologue and when I played that out in the role, it just became so indicative of who this character is and was, with no ability to be patient whatsoever, even with his maker! So if he’s not patient with Jesus, he definitely ain’t gonna be patient with some human, or some other guy!
[I laugh hard]
It’s true, it ain’t happening right?
So it was amazing, amazing and I just feel very fortunate to have gotten the opportunity to be on that show, I mean it was a beautiful piece of writing and it was a beautiful conceptual character that was not in the comics, that they gave me a lot of freedom to develop and it was a great opportunity to have enough time to stretch out the role, so that you could show different sides, different aspects of this character and make this character a whole and well rounded, in a very cool role and I dug it a lot.
I think well rounded and fleshed out characters are one of the great strengths of The Walking Dead, as there’s a richness to them that often gets bypassed in horror due to the conventional stereotypes and I thought the end of Merle was incredibly powerful, particularly when Daryl finds him – it must’ve been great to go out on such a high note?
It was just a blessing. It was such a beautiful blessing to get a chance to see this arc all the way through to the end. A character like Merle… to go out any other way would’ve been such a cop out. I mean that was my note to the writers, basically once I found out that I was going to be taken out I said “Well, OK, guys, I only really have one statement – Merle came in to this show and the way I played it was as an ass kicker and I want this character to go out as an ass kicker and with some sort of redemption hopefully.”
And so my gosh, it ended up being a little of both, you know? He ended up giving it all and paying the ultimate price for love basically, for the love of his brother and I think that Merle will end up being one of the iconic characters from this series. When it’s all gone and it’s stopped, twenty years from now people looking back will be thinking ‘Wow that was a very cool role’ and as an actor, my god, what else can you ask for my friend?
I also think in terms of Merle’s iconic status, he was already an imposing character but it was genius to bring him back with his prosthetic blade arm…
[Laughs] Oh my God, I know! It was just a beautiful piece of apparatus. It was great that… there’s no way the guy’s gonna walk around with a stump! Ok? If he’s gonna have a bloody stump, he better have something on it that can do so damage and so yeah he did a lot of damage with his lil’Merle! [chuckles] You know it was beautiful dude, it was beautiful.
Did they let you keep it?
It’s around somewhere, I think I’ll probably end up with it eventually.
You made a brief re-appearance in season two as a kind of spirit guide for Daryl, do you think there’s potential for that to happen again in the future?
You know there’s always that potential, we’ve already established it, but I would not even venture to say, or give hope, or any credence to them bringing Merle back in that way. I think first off Daryl has already become a much stronger character, so I don’t know if he would require his big brother’s figure to help him make decisions now. So I don’t know, but I don’t see my character coming back into the show. But they keep all options open and whatever they decide, they decide, so who the hell knows, if I’m not busy and they can afford me – hey, right on baby let’s play!
But for right now I’ve moved on, my work stands for itself in the series, so now I’m doing Guardians of the Galaxy for Marvel and Disney and I’m having a great time working with my buddy James Gunn, as director and writer, and having a joyous time over here in the UK doing that.
I was going to ask about that, as I’ve been following James Gunn’s career for years now and especially love Slither, but now you’re back together again for Guardians of the Galaxy on a much larger playing field – I presume the dynamic between the two of you is the same?
[Laughs] Yes, completely! We just enjoy working with each other so… he likes my style man, he likes my craziness and what I come up with and my creativity and I like his. I like what he does at the helm in the director and writers’ chair, its good stuff and it makes it easy for the actors to do what we do best and basically just bring it from the page, man, make it real, bring it and lay it out there, so his writing makes it all possible.
Over your career you’ve worked with Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Van Damme, who are now back on the big screen with The Expendables, would you ever join that gang?
You know what? If they wanted me to come on board and play with ‘em and get in there and do a film with them, I wouldn’t say no. I mean I’d definitely be up for it, but they know my style – I’d get in there and I’d take their scene away from them! [Laughs] I mean that’s my job, I think it should be every actor’s job to go in there and take the scene away from the other actors if you can and if you can’t… all the better, but you’re trying to get in there and you’re really fighting for the scene and you’re fighting for your ideas and you’re fighting for you moments and developing the characters and stuff like that.
Sometimes when you’re doing these action type films, like they’re doing, it’s always fun to have that competitive thing going on and basically I enjoy it and I know they enjoy it as well. I’m not saying I’m going to be in it, but who knows man, I’ve never been asked so! [Laughs] The cast are a little older than me, so maybe they don’t want the young dude in there with them! [Bursts out into a mischievous laugh] They don’t want this young upstart in there, c’mon gimme a break!
And put them all to shame!
[Laughs] I love it! I love them all, you know Sly and Arnold they were both a joy to work with and when I worked with Van Damme he was great and I had a great time with him and I just… that’s my job, my job is to go in, have a good time and enjoy trying to make everything work, so it’s very cool.
One final question – if you could return to one character from your career, who would it be?
Wow! If I could return to one… you know what my fans are gonna say – they better say Merle Dixon! [Laughing continuously] Since this article is about season three for the DVD, you know the answer, do you not!
But what a joy to be in that show and to bring that character to life, I mean he had heart and my goodness his commitment to his brother, to his last surviving relative on earth, was overpowering and I think that’s what people hooked into – they saw that and they loved it.
I might add that I wouldn’t mind doing another Days of Thunder. My God, how great was that? Playing Rowdy Burns in a NASCAR movie baby, come on, who would not want to do that again? Damn, oh my goodness! Now that I’m starting to think about it you better stop me because there are many roles that I would revisit, some of things I’ve done I think ‘Wow, I loved doing that’ – playing ‘Chick’ Gandil in Eight Men Out – oh my goodness, there’s been a lot of fun stuff.
I’ve been very, very fortunate and very blessed to have some really cool roles… and of course anything with Mr Gunn, but we’re gonna have some more fun together, so I’m looking forward to working more with him and so we’ll see what happens next!
Mr Michael Rooker, thank you very much indeed!
The Walking Dead season 3 is out on DVD now.
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