On AMC’s The Walking Dead, Norman Reedus brings, very convincingly, to life the character Daryl Dixon, an angry, survivalist redneck who could be Ted Nugent’s love child. He’s so convincing, in fact, that some of his newest fans might be surprised to learn that this New York-based actor is more comfortable riding his Triumph Scrambler motorcycle than he is a horse, and it’s more likely that you will find a camera, not a crossbow, in his hands. (He did, however, recently buy a 1979 Ford F-150 truck, so maybe he can be turned.)
Reedus, an indie darling with more than 40 roles to his credit, is actually an urban-dwelling, world-traveling artist. In fact, today, Nov. 30, his “unique exhibition of photographs taken around the set of The Walking Dead” opened at Times Square. (Interested parties can bid on the items at charitybuzz until Dec. 15. All proceeds benefit Oxfam.) When asked about the photos, he explained that none were actually taken on the set of The Walking Dead – No one is allowed to take photos of anything/anyone that would reveal “plot points” – therefore, some reflect the landscape of Georgia, a state he “loves,” and the rest are of “road kill.”
Norman Reedus (center) with Anson Mount (right) and Ben Esler (left). (Ben Esler and Anson Mount star in AMC’s Hell On Wheels)
Reedus was born in Florida, but grew up, mostly, in Los Angeles. (When he was 17 years old, his parents moved to Chiba, Japan, and he lived there for 18 months.) His first big break came in 1997, when visionary director Guillermo del Toro cast him as Jeremy in his sci-fi thriller Mimic. “He paved my way into SAG,” he said. The two would collaborate again in 2002 on Blade II. As Reedus tells it, during his meeting with del Toro, the director said even though it seemed the actor “liked working in all these indie films” would he consider being in a big budget, studio production? The role that del Toro wanted him to play was Scud, a chain-smoking weapons expert.
In 1997, Reedus had the opportunity to be a model. As he tells it, Prada had been using actors, such as John Malkovich, Joaquin Phoenix and Tim Roth, in their campaign, and they were looking for a new face. “It was between me and Nicolas Cage,” he said. “It was a lot of fun.” But it was short-lived. On his first night, he was getting ready and someone gave him a Prada sweater to wear. He was also given a Coca-Cola to drink. He said that he was waving his arms around, while talking to someone, and he spilled that soda all over himself and the Prada sweater. Since, at that time, he was just a struggling actor sharing one suit with a bunch of his friends, he simply took off the sweater and used it to mop up the rest of the spilled beverage. Everyone looked at him as if he had just committed murder. That modeling gig lasted one week.
Between his comedy/crime drama Six Ways to Sunday (1997) and Blade II (2002), Reedus was cast in about a dozen films, most of which were small budget indies. There were exceptions, of course, including roles in the Joel Schumacher-helmed, Nicolas Cage-vehicle 8MM (1999), and in the Kate Hudson/James Marsden drama/mystery Gossip (2000). And then there was the soon-to-be-cult classic The Boondock Saints (1999), a crime drama in which Reedus plays Murphy MacManus, one half of a set of twins who have made it their mission to take out the bad guys of Boston. (Both he and Sean Patrick Flanery, who plays Connor MacManus, reprised their roles a decade later in The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day.)
After Blade II, Reedus acted in a variety of projects, ranging from a role on the TV series Charmed to a role in a Japanese film called Osama no kampo (2004). He is the only non-Asian actor in the cast list. Reedus was the only non-German in Christian Alvart’s serial killer film Antibodies (2005), and he and the director were in negotiations to work on another project, but it never materialized. In late February 2005, Reedus was in Germany for the Berlin Film Festival. After he attended a rock concert, the car in which he was riding was hit by an 18-wheeler, and he was thrown through the windshield. “I have a metal eye socket and four screws in my nose,” he said. He remained in the hospital for several months. Because Reedus couldn’t speak German, Alvart acted as his translator. “He sat by my bedside and translated back and forth,” he said. “We became good friends. I’d do anything for him.” Since Antibodies, Reedus has had small roles in Pandorum (2009) and in 8 Uhr 28 (2010).
Even though he hadn’t fully recovered from his injury, Reedus left the hospital a week early. Not long after, he tried his hand at directing. The result was three shorts: “I Thought of You,” which provides a brief glimpse into the head of Miles Davis; “The Rub,” a “grotesque fairy tale about the listlessness of anonymous sex; and “A Filthy Little Fruit,” the story of a failed comedian who finds himself caught in an identity crisis. His first acting project following his accident was for the Masters of Horror TV series in an episode titled “John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns” (2005). He played Kirby. “After my accident, I was super self-conscious,” he said. “My face was still swollen, and I looked like I had a black eye. My equilibrium was off, and I would trip over curbs. I felt so not myself. I was terribly afraid, but (Carpenter) talked me into doing that part.” Carpenter proved to be a good friend and ally years later, when The Walking Dead was being cast. Frank Darabont asked the horrormeister what it was like to work with Reedus, and it was on Carpenter’s recommendation that he was cast as Daryl Dixon. In an industry that tends to be cut throat and full of back biting, Reedus said that in the best of times, filmmaking is very collaborative – “people still need their team” – and that his favorite directors have allowed him to bounce ideas off of them and are “open.”
How did Reedus go about preparing for the role of Daryl Dixon? Using weapons didn’t pose him any difficulty. After all, over the years, he’s played all kinds of homicidal characters who have shot, stabbed and blown up others. The real challenge for him has been fleshing out a character that had no source material. Daryl Dixon was written specifically for the TV series, and not long after we meet him in season one, we find that he is an awful lot like his racist, older brother, Merle (Michael Rooker), a man who has been left behind, handcuffed on a roof in Atlanta. “I never wanted him to be Merle Dixon 2.0,” he said. “I didn’t want him to be just an angry, redneck bigot.” Reedus seems his character as “sad,” wounded even. “He is much better than he thinks he is,” he said. “He just wasn’t raised in a nurturing environment. He was probably an Al-Anon member. He’s not like the other characters; he’s on his own path just trying to get along with the others for the first time.” When he talks to the writers about his character, he tries “steering them in a certain direction,” and with his performance he drops in moments of sadness, hoping that the TV viewers, and the writers, will pick up on them. “It’s planting seeds, here and there,” he added. One thing that Reedus appreciates about The Walking Dead is that it’s not just a show about zombies; it’s about how people interact and how relationships are formed. “I like the fact that we didn’t all start off like we’d all known each other and had a back story,” he said. “I’m glad Daryl didn’t know Carol in high school and in the woods. I’m glad that we didn’t have that so that it makes these people seem like they’re strangers.”
The fact that Reedus has found a cult following on this horror TV series isn’t surprising. After all, he’s a long-time horror fan himself. While growing up his favorite film was The Omen (1976). “I still watch it over and over,” he said. When he was about 11 years old, he wanted to be Damien, and he would torment one of his teachers in a Damienesque manner. He said he would sit in the back of the classroom and glare at her. “It was like I was in her mind; stealing her mind,” he joked. “I was fascinated that I could make this older woman squirm; that I had that kind of power. At the end of the year, she asked ‘Why do you hate me?’ I said, ‘No, I love you.’” This experience, no doubt, was what made him consider acting as his profession. When asked about some of his other favorite films, he listed King Kong, Jaws (1975), and The Exorcist (1973). Midnight Cowboy (1969) is a film he discovered when he was much older. And it was this Jon Voight/Dustin Hoffman vehicle that made him realize that films were true collaborative efforts. “I like the power of movies,” he said.
Directing is something that he would like to do more of, and yet, he hasn’t had the time. After all, he’s been busy filming The Walking Dead – (Season 2 is supposed to go deeper into Daryl Dixon’s past.) – playing a motorcycle-riding Judas in Lady Gaga’s video, and getting his own action figurine. His schedule doesn’t look to be opening up any time soon. He’s about to begin filming on Sunlight Jr., an indie drama about a Florida couple, played by Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon, who must deal with an unexpected pregnancy while holding minimum wage jobs. And he’s busy making art, traveling, running his own production company, Big Bald Head; and raising his 12-year-old son, Mingus Lucien.
To keep up with Reedus, you can find him on the web at www.bigbaldhead.com. He also tweets under that same name.