Norman Reedus Interview: The Walking Dead & Daryl Dixon

We chat to The Walking Dead's Norman Reedus about the four-year evolution of his character, Daryl Dixon...

Spoiler alert: this article contains spoilers for anyone not up-to-date with The Walking Dead mid-season break.

If there’s been one constant throughout The Walking Dead’s four year run it’s the dedication of the cast and crew to give their all to making the best possible show. It’s been evident from the start and after a superb third season and an equally powerful start to the fourth, there’s never been a better time to be a fan. Of course one of the longest running (see: surviving) and instrumental parts of The Walking Dead’s success, comes from the fantastic work of Norman Reedus as fan super-favourite, Daryl Dixon.

In the build-up to the start of season four it seemed fitting to include Daryl, alongside Rick, as a key reason to be excited about the as-yet unknown episodes about to air and it was proved to be utterly vindicated. In the eight episodes we’ve seen so far Daryl has had his burgeoning relationship with Carol torn apart, survived raining zombies and helicopters, taken over responsibility for the group while Rick tends to his crops and most importantly, fought a tank and won. Oh yes.

The adoration for Daryl isn’t just down to his moments of inexorable cool though, or the ever developing sides to his character that have been revealed through the constant emotional turmoil he’s been subjected to, but the great performance by Norman Reedus. His devotion to Daryl and the investment he makes in bringing the role to life really shine through, as is highlighted in this interview – there’s no question too intricate that he couldn’t answer with detail and insight, as I found out when panic suddenly made me doubt one of my mine.

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I think it’s only right that I confess to being quite the champion of the younger Dixon brother, so you can imagine the anxiety I felt when midway through said question, self-doubt made me think that I’d stepped too far into geekdom, as I asked about a moment in the show that lasts for all of a few seconds. As it turned out, the answer made my day and proved that, as with his fellow cast members, there’s not a second that goes into the show that isn’t fully realised and thought through.

So as we approach the start of episode nine, breath fully bated, with the prison compromised, the group scattered (where in the hell is Judith?) and who knows what coming next, it’s my great pleasure to hand over to the lovely Norman Reedus on all things Daryl Dixon.

First of all I just wanted to say congratulations on the show and especially on all your work over the last four years – it’s been fantastic to watch.

Thank you so much, I’m excited for you to see the back eight – the back eight I think are our strongest episodes and there’s some great stuff coming up.

Oh really, because I was going to start with the last episode we saw before the mid-season break, Too Far Gone, as it was just incredible both in terms of the action and the raw emotional content – was that a more intense shoot than normal?

It was a tough one because when we lose somebody on the show it just… it sucks and Scott (Wilson) is a very good friend of mine, he was just actually staying with me in New York for a couple of days, so it’s sad when somebody moves off the show, because you really are a big family and we shoot out in the woods, away from our families and our homes and so we’ve become very, very tight.

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So that one was a tough one, that was a hard episode like the Merle episode where they kill my brother – I read that script and was like ‘Man, this day’s going to suck’ you know so… yeah it’s like that, but that last episode there was a lot going on in that one, it was a tough episode to shoot.

Did the increased scale of the action make it a more physically tough shoot?

Well I mean sometimes yeah, like the fight between Rick and The Governor – those guys just beat the crap out of each other – that was crazy. But yeah when there’s a lot of action, it’s more gruelling you know it’s hot down there and there’s a lot to do, a lot of marks to hit, a lot of weapons to play with – you don’t accidentally want to smash someone in the face with a gun and so forth, so you have to be very focused when you shoot those things.

Talking of losing cast members, as you mentioned Scott Wilson, is it hard being one of the longest running survivors when there’s no telling what’s coming for anyone? It must be a bit like Russian roulette for so many people getting the scripts?

I think we’d all be lying if we said every time we get a script we didn’t thumb through it really fast to see if we’re alive! [laughs] I mean it’s like real life, you never really know how much time you have, even with other people, so I don’t think anybody on the show’s gonna die in a hospital bed with all their loved ones holding hands, smiling, you know it’s one of those [shows].

I also have to mention your moment in Too Far Gone, which can best be described as internet gold, when it’s Daryl vs. the Tank – do you still get a kick out of reading a script and knowing that Daryl’s going to get an incredibly cool scene?

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Yeah, you know I read that and I didn’t know exactly how it was going to play off. We were looking at footage of tanks and grenades blowing up tanks from the inside out and so forth and it was a little tricky to figure out how to do that, but that was fun, that was a blast doing all of that and even the moments going up to the tank I thought were great, using a zombie as a shield and all that stuff, it’s really fun to do. But yeah the moment I read it, that I have to blow up a tank [laughs] I thought I took on a tank and won, like a little kid, it’s great!

Speaking of weapons, Daryl’s crossbow has become an iconic part of his character and is almost an extension of who he is, did you have any training or experience with one before starting on The Walking Dead?

I didn’t have any training with a crossbow before that, but I’ve now had four years to play with it, with a really good weapons expert, John Sanders, on the show who just makes us all feel really comfortable with it – you can have six people shooting AK-47s and automatic weapons all around each other and running in close circles and diving and all this other stuff, so you have to really be comfortable, I think that’s the biggest thing.

You know they can always add muzzle flashes to your gun, but when you’re running with quarter loads, or half loads in automatic weapons and you’re shooting by people’s heads, you really want to feel comfortable, so he’s very good at stuff like that. So with the crossbow I’ve become really good with it, but I’ve had four years to practice with it and I steal a crossbow every year which they always shout at me about, but now I just bolt with my crossbow, no pun intended! But I have quite a few crossbows here in my apartment in New York, which… is probably a felony!

[I laugh] That makes two of you as I know when I spoke to Michael Rooker, that was keen to keep his ‘Little Merle’ blade arm!

[Laughs] Luckily I didn’t have one of those, because I’m always hurt on set, like all the time – I’ve given myself probably five black eyes since the start of the show, real ones – my make-up artist on the show, Donna, she’s always covering up black eyes instead of giving me black eyes, because I’m one of those guys that’s kind of a klutz, so I’m always injured.

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One of the aspects I love most about the show is the smaller character moments – there’s a small bit in, I think, the second episode of season four when there’s the outbreak in the prison and you and Rick run in and you instinctively snatch a shotgun from someone inside and pass it to him – are all those little moments where you can see the characters interact scripted, or where you’ve been working on the character for four years now is that…

I love – I love that you noticed that because I made that up on the fly, I love that! And you know right before we hear people screaming and we hear a shotgun go off, so we run in and we think it’s that somebody’s flipped out and they’re starting to shoot people with a shotgun, so that’s the first thing I could grab walking in. That wasn’t in the script, Andy and I sort of came up with that on the fly and I told him “I’m just gonna grab the shotgun, I’m not going to look at you, I’m just going to hold it behind me and you just take it” and he was like “Great, great, great!” but I’m so happy you noticed that, [laughs] you’re the first person that mentioned that! Andy’s got really good ideas and we constantly add little things to scenes and stuff all the time and that was one of those we added.

That’s great, as I was a little worried asking that question that I was going to sound like a super geek, but then I am so…

No, I love it. I mean I got asked once about the arena scene when I’m fighting Merle when The Governor makes us and there was one of those, I don’t know what they’re called, but one of those pictures that rotate and replay and replay – jifs or gifs?

So there’s one of those when The Governor pulls the hood off of me and I see Merle and I actually backed up in to the chest of The Governor, I took a couple steps back into his chest and he’s the bad guy, so that was just a natural thing that happened from the shock of seeing my brother in that arena and it sort of took the power away from The Governor. It made that scene more about the brothers, which is something that Rooker and I worked on and I had somebody notice that little thing and I love it when people pay extra attention and pick these little things, it’s great.

All our characters on the show do those little things, so it’s interesting. It’s interesting for me to be on the inside and watch the actors come up with these little things, I think it’s pretty fascinating.

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Absolutely and it adds to the show as a whole, in terms of richness…

Yeah, we’re trying to make it as real as possible and we have time to work on these characters and our writing staff and Scott (Gimple), everybody really knows the characters, so it’s nice for us to have that freedom which is something you kind of don’t get in movies. I’ve had four years to make this character as real as possible and hopefully I’ll have four more, so it’s interesting when you do little things and they become storylines and points of interest, so it’s fun for me.

And talking of character developments, I know you can’t say too much about what’s coming up, but will we get to see how Carol’s banishment from the group will affect the dynamic between Rick and Daryl?

That’s another thing – that scene when Rick tells Daryl what happened, Andy, Scott Gimple, Greg Nicotero and I worked on making that scene and the conversation, open ended. I didn’t want that scene to wrap up in a little bow with either a “Fuck you, Rick” or a “I trust you, man” I wanted it to be like ‘we’re still gonna talk about this, I need to process this information first, but I coming back to this as we’re not done talking’ – so that conversation is not over.

You mentioned having four years to develop Daryl, who is a firm fan favourite now, but initially wasn’t quite as heroic, has it been enjoyable to play out the evolution of Daryl?

He’s an interesting character, I mean I’ve always had to play him with a chip on his shoulder and his back up against the wall and that’s why he fights the way he does and I think having his big brother, Merle… [there’s a break up on the line for a few seconds]  his brother made fun of him and slapped him upside the head, so once the brother was away he opened up a little bit and was finding it was ok to be him, it’s his feet on the ground and he’s becoming the sort of person that he never thought he’d have the chance to be and I think that’s just interesting to watch.

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The first time I was on set was in episode three on season one and I remember sort of finding that character in the first scene that I shot, when I was just paying attention and seeing where we were gonna go, and when they tell me that Merle’s on the roof I turned around and looked at that entire cast, which was a large cast of people that were already friends, they’d already done press together and been hanging out for a couple of months and I was the new guy, so turning around and looking at all those people staring at me made me uncomfortable, made me talk to them and turn my back to them and come back to them and turn my back at them, so at that moment I was figuring out who Daryl was. He assumes these people don’t like him and it was sort of how Norman felt on set shooting that scene – I didn’t know what to think.

So it’s kind of an evolution of the character, I don’t think that Daryl was just a bad guy from the beginning I think it’s how he was brought up and the people he surrounded himself with, which happened to be his family, which weren’t a good family.

How have you found the fan reaction to the show, because it can be quite intense at times?

I’ve never really had anybody come up to me and say they hate the show, or they hate the characters. The ones who come up to me are really into it and it’s a really fun time for our show and a fun time for the fans of our show because it’s just getting better and better and better and I can honestly say that.

After four years we’re hitting our A game and we’re just now hitting our stride, so it’s just getting better, I can’t wait for this back eight to show because they’re so good, they’re so, so good, so I’m becoming more of a fan of this show as I’m on it, it’s just getting better and better honestly.

Norman Reedus thank you very much!

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