This piece originally appeared in print in So It Goes Issue.5, Spring 2015.
It has been a long time coming, but Norman Reedus is at peace. In 1991, the actor was earning seven dollars and fifty cents an hour working in a busted Harley repair shop in Venice Beach, California. He’d followed a girl from Japan over to LA, but it didn’t work out. Neither did the job. One night he found himself angry and drunk at a party in the Hills and – Hollywood being Hollywood – his abusive tirade won him a part in a play. Fast-forward twenty years and a career’s worth of roles in dark, violent and barely seen independent films, Reedus was a man in the shadows, flirting with photography, art and the idea of giving up acting for good. And then it all changed. AMC’s The Walking Dead – the critically and publicly acclaimed show about survival in post-apocalyptic, zombie- ridden Georgia – has transformed Reedus, at forty-six, into one of the most recognisable faces on American television. His poncho-wearing, crossbow-toting hillbilly with a heart, Daryl Dixon, looks like it could be just the start.
James Wright: As we’re having this conversation, the next episode of The Walking Dead is about to air. It’s playing out its fifth series and has become the number one show on US television. Back in 2010 it would have been difficult to predict that a show about the zombie apocalypse would beat the viewing figures of the NFL.
Norman Reedus: I don’t know if you can predict anything to be that big a success. I knew it was good. I knew it was cool. I knew I wanted to be a part of it. For me personally, it had everything. Reading all the pilots that year in LA, everything seemed dull. Average. But our pilot stayed with me. It stuck out as something so different, so unique. My character Daryl isn’t even in the comic books, so whether it was for one episode or ten, I just wanted to be part of the show in some way.
JW: Compared to a number of the other ‘main’ characters, Daryl has noticeably fewer lines, but remains one of the most complex and layered of the cast.What were your initial thoughts about how to ensure Daryl didn’t fall prey to becoming a negative Southern stereotype?
NR: I had lots of ideas about that.There were certain scripts in the beginning that had me taking drugs and saying racist lines. I fought not to say them. I wanted to have this kid grow up in a world of racism and drugs – the whole hillbilly-redneck thing – but have a slight chip on his shoulder about it, so he chooses not to say those things and not to take drugs. I wanted him to grow up and hate drugs.If he didn’t, he would have been just like his brother Merle.Instead,I’m little brother Daryl, a kid who wants to stand on his own two feet. In terms of the number of lines, I don’t think more necessarily equals a more popular, interesting character – there are certain people in the show who are the ‘storytellers’ as a result of the lines they speak. For others, their actions speak louder than words. Daryl is a man of few words.
JW: He begins as an outsider: damaged, mistrusting and mistrusted, but he wrestles with his inner demons to gradually become a leader of the group and perhaps the ultimate survivor.
NR: It’s worth noting that we were very careful about how that change came about. He’s one of the leaders of the group now, but he had to earn the group’s trust. It’s more interesting to have someone face south and slowly turn north than to be facing north the whole time. It’s that turn, that 180 degrees, that makes characters interesting, and we found a whole bunch of those moments for Daryl. We’re still finding them. For instance, it’s more interesting to watch a boy meet a girl and fumble through the moment trying to make it work not knowing what they’re doing, than just have some dude throw a girl up against a tree in the moonlight.
JW: Frank Darabont once said that he’d be interested in you playing Daryl gay. Did that idea ever translate into how you developed the character?
NR: That was a conversation that Frank and I had at the end of the first season at David O.Russell’s house party where he said,“I had this idea about Daryl being gay, what would you think about it?” I said, “Go for it – fuck yeah – that’s complicated as hell, let’s do that.” The storylines never really went any further than that, but I always thought it was an interesting guideline.
JW: Looking back at your filmography, there’s obviously an attraction to darker subject matter.To what extent have you let your personal tastes in film, art and music guide your career choices?
NR: I’m still taking the same photos I used to take, in the same style – making the same artwork I used to make before this job. But in terms of the darkness in me personally, I guess I’m less selfish than I used to be. I give a lot more up now, I do a lot more charity work. I think because I’m now so grateful for my life, it’s made me be a more grateful person towards the outside world as well. Plus I’m a father. I’ve grown and I’ve matured a lot in the last ten years, the last five especially. The aesthetic of what I’m attracted to and photograph, and what projects I’m drawn to are still the same though.
JW: Right,so you were never tempted to do a Christopher Walken – one of your favourite actors – and take a dud part like he did in America’s Sweethearts?
NR: You have a lot of people working with you who say, “Norman, you’re not doing that movie – it’s a really bad idea,” and I say, “But come on, there are circus midgets!” Of course I don’t think I can be the brooding dark murderer freak all the time! It would be boring to do that every single time but am I attracted to the dark murderer freak dude? Yeah, that’s my favourite! But I don’t try to do just that. I think I’ve murdered somebody in everything I’ve ever done. I can’t do that forever.
JW: You’ve been quoted a number of times saying,“I like it when devils cry and angels stab you in the back.”
NR: To play a bad guy who’s just a bad guy all the time is not very interesting; playing a bad guy who has puppy eyes and is depressed and crying on the other hand... Equally, to play a good guy who is wholly good is boring, but to play a good guy who wants revenge is interesting. It’s that tussle I like.
JW: What’s the story with the demon tattoos on your back?
NR: I was eighteen and I was doing bad things – in a bad headspace all the time. This psychic lady once told me I had these two demons that were whispering in my ears the whole time and making me do bad things. At the time, I just wanted to say,“Hey, I see you – I know you’re there.” There was something going on in my head when I was young. You get tattoos for various reasons when you’re young and insane.
JW: Do you feel that on some level, Daryl’s growth as a character over the course of the show has in any way mirrored that change in you personally?
NR: Absolutely. The character has affected me on so many different levels – we shoot the show way out in the woods in Georgia after all. I’m in the woods for eight months of the year and it’s a very different life to being in New York all year long.There’s no running around auditioning to try and find jobs for one thing! To be honest, I’m less wild. It’s really calmed me down as a person and done wonders for my head. I now appreciate my job as an actor more and am a happier person as a result. It’s like any job; if you like your job, you like going to work. I’ve been doing that for five years now.
JW: You live in rural Georgia right?
NR: Yeah – an hour and a half south of Atlanta, out in the woods.
JW: Has it become home?
NR: It has. I love Georgia. I really love it there. I ride my motorcycle with the sun coming up and look out for deer on the way to work. It’s special.
JW: Given the fact you almost took the decision to walk away from acting after close to thirty films and music videos (for Radiohead, Björk and Lady Gaga amongst others) has the success of the show somehow reminded you why you chose to act in the first place?
NR: It has, yeah. To have five years to play and build a character is a rare, rare thing. You can have little tics that become storylines, scripts and parts of characters. To have that for five years – it’s kind of amazing. In Hollywood, you do a movie and you think you’re all headed in the same direction, but there are a lot of cooks in those kitchens and editing is a funny thing, not to mention market testing and that whole world. When you’ve been doing a television show this long, with this many people, you know you’re headed in the same direction. That’s a blessing right there.
JW: The calibre of writers and actors involved in TV shows has improved so drastically over the past decade. We still seem to be in that so often discussed ‘Golden Age of Television’ with the best talent now split between film and television. Could you imagine working in television beyond The Walking Dead?
NR: I wouldn’t say that I would never do another television show. At the same time, I’m doing films. I’ve got at least four or five films coming out soon. Doing a John Hillcoat film – that’s top tier right there. An amazing guy to work with, and an amazing cast of characters. I guess it will always come down to the project. There are really good movies out there and pretty crappy movies, and really good television and really crappy television.
JW: Dixon’s Vixens, Norman’s Nymphos, Daryl’s Dolls and Reedusluts. Breast implants donated, babies named after you and countless Daryl tattoos. Why do you think Daryl, above all other Walking Dead characters, has inspired such a global following of female fans?
NR: (laughs) Ummm...There are some boys in there too...Look, he’s the guy that’s not supposed to win. He’s the guy that didn’t have things going for him his whole life and he’s the guy now in this situation who’s willing to take a stance, with his heart on his sleeve and fight for things, and he’s learning what to fight for. He doesn’t come with a whole preconceived idea of what’s good and what’s bad and what’s right and what’s wrong. He’s learning as he’s going along, which is a very human, manly thing to do – to be open to things and fight for those he believes in. This dude is the underdog – the guy from the wrong side of the tracks. Nobody even liked him to begin with. He’s finding his sense of self-worth through these people and weird circumstances and I think that’s admirable and honourable and it’s impressive – that’s the type of guy I would want to be and hope to turn into.
JW: Your book of photographs The Sun’s Coming Up... Like a Big Bald Head documents your travels over the years. The shots of the maximum- security Russian prisons are particularly powerful. What was the story behind those images?
NR: I did a film in Moscow and St. Petersburg with Andrey Konchalovskiy. He’s like the Russian Scorsese and very well connected. We had access to certain things that a lot of people would never ever get to see, so we shot a lot of the movie inside a maximum-security prison and would walk around the exercise yard. There’s a shot with a hand hanging out the window that I took when I was working out in the yard. It was so eerie, so scary. I never want to go to prison in Russia, ever.
JW: Is it important to have that creative outlet outside of acting still?
NR: 100 per cent. I’ve always taken pictures – on film and on digital. When I was trying to learn bass guitar, my friend who’s a bass guitarist said, “Pick the one you like to hold in your hand, you’re going to play with it more if you like to hold it.” I’ve done that with cameras my whole life. If something feels good I’ll take it with me. If I find another one, I take it with me. I’ll always continue to do that.
Photographer: Jamie Burke
Photographer’s Assistant: Dean Dodos
Creative Director: James Wright
Producer: Jeffrey Jah
Stylist: Liz McClean @ Brydges Mackinney
Grooming: Kristan Serafino @ Exclusive Artists Management using SK-II
Retouching: Sara Stout
Special Thanks to Fast Ashleys Studio, George & Jack’s Tap Room, Mila De Wit, Works Engineering