By Curt Wagner
1:27 AM CST, November 14, 2011
Norman Reedus never wanted Daryl Dixon, the redneck he plays in AMC's "The Walking Dead," to be a younger version of Daryl's racist brother, Merle.
He's definitely showing more sides of Daryl in Season 2 of the hit series, making the fan favorite both tender and tough. He's still a loner, but he's slowly opening up to individuals in the group.
He's also become a real hero in the face of the zombie apocalypse. While other members of his group are ready to hang up the search for young Sophia, Daryl remains committed to finding Carol’s daughter—most likely because he feels a kinship as the survivor of abuse himself.
"You feel for Daryl," Reedus told me at the beginning of the season. "He’s just as ferocious as ever, but you understand why he’s not just a nut, he’s not just Merle again.
“He’s a guy that’s just incredibly emotionally and spiritually damaged.”
It’s a standout portrayal by Reedus, one that Andrew Lincoln, who plays Rick Grimes, called “phenomenal.”
“What he’s done with this role is beautiful and bewitching, and really intelligent as well,” Lincoln said in a separate interview. “Norman’s a great, great actor.”
In the two most recent episodes (spoilers if you haven't seen them), Reedus showed the depth he’s found in Daryl, who last week told Carol a lovely story about the Cherokee Rose and, in Sunday’s “Chupacabra,” went all badass again, pulling an arrow out of his own side to use it to kill a zombie, eating squirrel sushi and making a necklace out of zombie ears.
Oh, and did I mention he had a hallucination in which Merle belittled him and told him that Rick and the group are not his friends? As Reedus said during our conversation, Merle’s influence still runs deep—which explains why, when Carol leaned in to give him a thank-you kiss, he pulled away and tried to refuse her compliments.
"The dogs with the loudest bark are the ones that are most afraid,” Reedus said, explaining his approach to Daryl, about whom we will learn even more devastating backstory. “I’m trying to play [Daryl] sort of like a scared, wet animal in an alley. He’ll lash out at you, but he’d really love it if you took him inside and gave him some milk.”
Here's more of the conversation Reedus and I had earlier this year. We talked about Daryl, the zombie apocalypse, crossbows, Mothra and “The Boondocks Saints.” But first, he was very happy to hear that he’s made me pass out.
Thanks for doing the interview. First off, I wanted to tell you that you made me pass out in Season 1. When Daryl found his brother’s hand, the look on your face—I just went “plop.”
Oh, right on. [Laughs.] I don’t know, is that good or bad?
Well, it’s good I guess. I mean I wasn’t driving or anything, right?
You weren’t flying a plane. … So like anything dramatic will make you just pass out?
Yeah, it’s usually peoples’ reactions after either stabbings or body parts being chopped off. But it’s never the actual visual of that happening.
Wow. Why is that? That’s awesome. I mean it’s weird, but it’s awesome. Can you watch all of the second season and then call me every time you pass out? Because I bet I make you pass out again. … That’s my goal for the rest of the season. I’m going to make you pass out.
So anyway, you’re down in Atlanta right now, right?
I am. Well, I’m in Senoia—well, I’m actually staying in Noonan which is like 10, 20 minutes from Senoia where we film, and Senoia is about 45 minutes south of Atlanta, like out in the sticks.
In the sticks, just like on the show.
Yeah. We’re nowhere near a Starbucks.
So speaking of civilization, would you do as well as Daryl does in the apocalypse?
Hell, no. No, I would probably go to—I’d probably break into some skyscraper penthouse apartment and lock myself in there and just cry. I’m nowhere near as tough as Daryl; I’m kind of a wimp. … I don’t know what I would do to be honest. But I definitely don’t think I’d be out sleeping in the woods.
How do you like playing somebody who lives off the land and is able to handle his crossbow and machete and all that kind of stuff?
It’s definitely my favorite job I’ve ever done. It’s kind of got this lesson aspect to it. I really like playing Daryl. He’s becoming more and more complicated, which I find super interesting… But he can go out and he could live in the woods by himself, and he can handle himself in a zombie apocalypse. He’s a hunter; he’s a tracker. He hunts his own food. He can get along fine.
But he’s got a different struggle than everybody else. You imagine growing up with a big brother like Merle and then you find out about his family history later on. But the thing about him is he’s socially awkward; he can’t emotionally have a connection with anybody. He doesn’t trust anyone and he knows that people don’t trust him. He knows the way that people look at him. So he’s sort of like finding his place in this group with everybody else, but it’s this sort of delicate give-and-take balance going back and forth.
Like they give a little, I give a little; they take a little, I take a lot. He’s an asset to the group but he just can’t sit around and chitchat. He doesn’t want to talk about himself. He doesn’t like the attention on him. And he doesn’t like to get involved in other people’s emotional drama. And then he’s kind of watching these people like its television. He’s studying who he can trust, who he can’t trust; where his alliances are. He butts heads with people. He takes a leadership role from time to time and he just wants to belong, but he doesn’t really lead them.
He seems to be almost getting along better with everyone as they’re not getting along with each other.
That’s exactly what’s happening. If you’re going to compare him to any other characters he’s most like Carl to be honest. He’s kind of got this childlike mentality about him. He’s kind of discovering things in a new way in this new environment. So it’s interesting. You see everyone, everybody just start deteriorating and he’s sort of excelling.
He is. And he does just sort of take over—an “I’ll take care of this” attitude. I’m thinking in the early episodes of the zombie autopsy.
Yeah. You know, he’s not afraid. That scene we were going back and forth on who was going to do it and if he’d do that. It was initially written where I’m like, “Scoot over, let me do it.” And the lines are kind of written like, “Get out of the way.” [It was a] “who the fuck do you think you are” type of thing.
But I’m trying to play it like, which they let me do it—I’m trying to play that like I’m the pool boy, like I’m the gardener. I get the dirty work; I’ll do it. Like I don’t feel like I’m on the same level as everyone else. ... I’m trying to play it like I don’t feel like I’m in the same social class as the rest of them. It gives me somewhere to go. It gives me opportunities to earn that, which I don’t even know if Daryl at that point knows that’s what he’s doing. But as an actor playing this part I’m looking for places to go and things to prove and challenges to meet.
Was it difficult even maybe in the first season to make this guy likable? Or did you worry about it at all?
Well, I didn’t really worry about it because I kind of had an idea of what to do. But I never ever had a conversation with Frank [Darabont] or with anybody directing those first three episodes I was in from the first season. But I never had one conversation with anybody about Daryl, not one conversation. So I had what was written on the page and it was kind of like, “Fuck you, you tried to stab me.” And I really wanted to play him like yeah, he’s a hothead and yeah, he’ll cut you and yeah, he’ll blow up at any second. But also, he lost his big brother, so I tried to have like some sensitive little moments in between the fuck yous and the squirrel-throwing and so forth.
Are you better known for “The Boondock Saints” or “The Walking Dead”?
Oh man, definitely Season 1 when it hit I was still probably a little “Boondockie,” but I don’t know. I think it’s getting about even right now, I mean just from, you know, people on the street and so forth, but I don’t know. I’m getting recognized a lot and it’s a lot for Daryl.
I’m really blessed to be given the opportunity to play Daryl and like just from the amount of gifts I get. I get like, Zippos with Daryl Dixon on it and it’ll say like “Redneck Badass.” I get Bobbleheads, T-shirts, paintings. It’s kind of awesome. I have a whole collection of Daryl stuff.
If Murphy and Daryl got into a fight and I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, who would win?
You know what I think would happen is I think they’d beat each bloody and then they’d probably start cracking up and become friends and go have a drink, that’s probably what would happen. And I bet Murphy would break the ice. I think Murphy would see through Daryl and be like, “Yeah, let’s have a drink,” and Daryl would go, “Yeah, let’s go.”
Do you have a sort of favorite horror genre of monster--vampires, zombies, any of those kinds of things?
I kind of like the Japanese stuff. I like Godzilla, I like Mothra, I like stuff like that. If you mean like werewolf, mummy, zombie, vampire?
You’ve had experiences with vampires too, haven’t you?
Well, you know, I did “Blade,” but those are like some beefed up stupid Ninja vampires. I like the old vampire stuff. I like the Anne Rice stuff. One time I got invited to her Halloween party in New Orleans a long time ago and I wish to God I went to it. But I like vampires but then I don’t like vampires with six-packs and like hair gel. And I like werewolves, but I don’t like werewolves that look like lumberjacks. So I don’t know. I like “An American Werewolf in London.”
What’s your favorite Daryl weapon?
A crossbow, of course. You can’t not look cool holding a crossbow.
Thanks for your time and great job on the show.
Dude, thank you, man. I hope you faint a bunch.
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