The Walking Dead’s coolest, most fan-friendly cast member gets candid about fame and getting killed off.
This feature appears in Complex’s October/November 2013 issue.
Sometimes, all you need is a crossbow. Just ask Norman Reedus. For 13 years, the Florida native toiled in anonymity as a character actor. In 2010, things changed—dramatically. That year, Reedus, now 44, landed the role of a lifetime: Daryl Dixon, the tough-guy redneck with a heart of gold on AMC’s mega-hit zombie series, The Walking Dead. Armed with that aforementioned crossbow, Reedus’ complicated yet endearing character has fired arrows into countless walkers’ skulls on his way to becoming a fan favorite. Younger viewers play with his action figure. Creative fans send him stuffed squirrels. Female Dead loyalists bestow him with sex toys and silicone breasts. As the show gears up for its fourth season, Reedus can’t help but think to himself: Damn, it feels good to be a Southern, zombie-killing gangster. Even if the Emmys keep hatin’….
How has the vibe been on set this year, filming season four? Does it change from year to year?
It changes drastically all the time. I think one of the good things about this show is that we’re not in an office. It’s a moving target all of the time. We’re not in an apartment complex; we’re constantly on the run. I think that’s what makes it interesting. Plus, we have a bunch of new people, new characters. The dynamics are changing between characters. And, I have to say, these are the best scripts I’ve ever read for the show. These are the best scripts we’ve ever gotten. This will be our best season, no doubt.
Why do you think that is? Is it because of the new showrunner, Scott M. Gimple?
It’s the writing. It’s the characters’ stories. It’s just well thought-out. A lot of time and planning went into this season, in advance. Like I said, these are the best scripts we’ve gotten. Every time we get new scripts, Andy [Lincoln, who plays Rick Grimes] is calling me, I’m calling Andy; Steven [Yuen, who plays Glen] is calling me. We’re talking about how good the scripts are.
Reading the recent Entertainment Weekly cover story, the common words said by every cast member were, “More character development.”
Yeah, it’s all about character studies. Different characters bring different dynamics to the group. Instead of having an episode where a large number of characters only get one or two lines a piece, the episodes are all focusing on a smaller number of characters this season.
Would you attribute that to the new showrunner, or is that just the natural progression the show had to take?
You know, it’s a little bit of both. Scott is definitely the quarterback right now, and he’s killing it right now. But also, this is season 4, and everybody knows their characters so well, and it’s less experimenting. Our heels are dug deep into the sand on this one, because everyone knows their characters so well, the writers know this world so well, and the directors know the actors so well by now.
With experience comes a lot of knowledge, and we have a lot of knowledge going into season four. We know what works and what doesn’t work for all of the characters. It’s definitely a new ballgame with the same players and also some new players. It’s definitely my favorite season that we’ve done so far.
What is it about Daryl that you now know works so well?
Well, he’s interesting because he’s not what you think he is at times, and then other times he’s exactly what you think he is. He was kind of doomed to become Merle in many ways, and now that Merle’s out of the picture, he’s able to develop a certain grace with these people that he didn’t feel comfortable doing before. It’s those people that are keeping him there. Even when people were looking for Sophia, it was, “Daryl, don’t go—let’s stay together and think of a plan.” And he was always like, “No, I’m better off on my own.”
I think he’s learned to work with a group now. The relationships that he’s developed with these people are the glue that keeps him there. He has a sense of self-worth that he didn’t have before. It’s interesting. He’s a very complicated character.
It’s interesting to wonder who’s more important to the group: Daryl or Rick? Personally, I think they’d be more doomed if Daryl left.
Well, he’s not like Rick. When things need to be done, he’s the first one to get up and make sure they get done. But I don’t think he wants to sit around and pow-wow with people, or look into their eyes and let them know that things are going to be OK. He’s not that socially advanced. [Laughs.] I think he feels it, but he doesn’t want to talk about it. I always say that he’s this guy who needs a hug, but you don’t want to approach him. He has a lot of respect for Rick; Rick’s sort of become the brother that Merle wasn’t.
Taking a step back, I want to go back deeper into your career. You co-starred in more than 40 projects between 1997 and 2010, before The Walking Dead. Do you look back on your time as a character actor with fondness?
Back then, I never worried—I always worked. I wasn’t plotting out my career in any way. I didn’t go for projects that would splash me on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. It was more about what was interesting. I would get certain scripts, just read the words “circus midget,” and say, “Awesome, let’s go!” [Laughs.] I’ve always liked to keep busy—it didn’t matter how big the project was. It just so happened that The Walking Dead turned into the biggest thing on TV.
Did the stability of television appeal to you when you first tried for the show?
I didn’t really think of it like that at the time. I only realized that after filming the third season. Like, wow, I get to do so much with this one character. In a movie, you get an hour, so to have four seasons is quite a blessing, to develop a character.
When I first started acting, people didn’t want to be on TV. They’d come up and say, “Hey, I got a TV show!” And you’d pat them on the back and say, “Nice… Keep trying!” [Laughs.] It wasn’t the thing to be on. All the sudden, over the last few years, TV became better than most movies. I was perfectly happy doing just films, but then one year I just decided to go out to Los Angeles for pilot season and try it out. I was reading tons of buddy-buddy sitcoms and dramas set in hospitals and police precincts, and then this project about zombies, backed by AMC, Frank Darabont, and Gale Anne Hurd. I immediately said to myself, “Forget all these other shows—what’s this one?”
Were you a fan of horror?
Totally. The Omen was my favorite movie growing up. I used to sit in the back of my grade school class and glare at my teacher, pretending I was Damien. [Laughs.]
It doesn’t get much more “horror” than that for a little kid.
It’s funny, I was recently talking to a friend about the first horror film I ever saw, and I remembered that it was at a drive-in. My neighbors took me to see this weird little movie called Cars That Eat People. It’s crazy! It’s this gang of people who drive all different cars—one guy has a VW Bug with spikes on it—and they just terrorize this town with their cars. I remember watching that movie and thinking, I love this!
Certain scenes stuck in my head, and then I’d see scenes like Carrie covered in the pig’s blood [in Carrie]—it didn’t take long for me to realize that I wanted to be a part of those kinds of movies, ones that have long-lasting images. I’d like to think that some of the zombie kills in The Walking Dead fit that bill.
Considering you never chased fame, has it been difficult adjusting to having such an enormous fan base?
Yeah, it can be taxing at times, but it reminds me of this film I did, The Boondock Saints . It did nothing at first, but it became this big cult phenomenon because people told their friends about it. We were accepted into Sundance, but then it got dropped. Then, Columbine happened. The Boondock Saints was this film that nobody would touch, but the heat on it grew and grew, and people started recognizing me, and I started seeing [The Boondock Saints] T-shirts. It felt like the people’s movie—it didn’t belong to the studios anymore. We were the rebels, the black sheep.
Which could also describe Daryl Dixon.
Exactly. What I took from that is, the people out there watching the film and talking about it were underdogs like us. We all made that movie a success together. It felt better for it to happen that way, rather than to have to bombard places with posters and heavy marketing. It feels like that for me with Daryl. He wasn’t in the comic book; [Walking Dead developer] Frank Darabont created him for the show. Now, it feels like we did it. It’s not just me—the fans, the writers, and the producers all made Daryl what he is today.
Was there a specific moment when you realized how big Daryl had become?
It still happens little by little all the time, actually. The amount of fan mail I get is crazy. Last season, they were bringing fan mail to my trailer in this mini tractor with a pulley on the back—that was the only way they could deliver all of it. This season, though, they’ve put the kibosh on me receiving so much fan mail. It was overwhelming. But, think about it—it’s not that hard to look cool when you’re carrying a crossbow. [Laughs.]
Speaking of underdogs, The Walking Dead is TV’s highest-rated show, yet it’s been largely ignored when Emmy nominations come around. Is that frustrating?
The people who choose the Emmys aren’t our demographic, to be honest. I would rather have our ratings than for us to win awards, but it’s still frustrating. I think Andy [Lincoln] deserves that award. As an ensemble, we deserve an award, but he’s the spokesperson for our show. He’s our quarterback.
Even fans of the show love to criticize it, whether to say there’s not enough action or that there’s too much.
Everyone’s a critic because they have a laptop. [Laughs.] I get that all the time: “Your hair’s too long! You need a haircut!” Well, I’m on a show where my hair’s constantly growing. There’s no Supercuts in the zombie apocalypse. Or it’s, “Why’s he wearing that jacket?” Because he found it—just deal with it. There’s always going to be that. There’d be an episode where we talked a lot, and all of a sudden one person writes on the Internet, “They’re talking too much!” It becomes this big thing.
But the show’s not about zombies, it’s about people—everyone’s infected, so what are you going to be in this world? What do you stand for? At what point do you lose yourself in what you’ve become in this world? You have to be patient as a viewer. It should be evaluated as a long journey, not just one episode.
With whole series streaming online and available on-demand, viewers aren’t big on delayed gratification.
That’s true, but the thing that’s always made TV so special is that you get weeks upon weeks to build stories and suspense. Those are the tools we’re allowed to play with, so why not play with them? Personally, I’m one of those people who wants to wait for next week. I’m excited for Sundays to come. I get it, though. I got into Arrested Development late, but I watched them all back to back and loved them. I just hope there are still a lot of people who appreciate the patience it takes to invest in a TV show’s story as it airs. I’d hate to lose that.
On The Walking Dead, no character is safe from death, but Daryl seems immune. Your former showrunner Glen Mazzara once said, “Who wants to be known as the writer who killed off Daryl?” Does that make you breathe a sigh of relief?
Actually, I’m afraid that the more people say, “Daryl can’t die,” the writers are going to be like, “Oh, yeah? Watch this—we can do whatever we want.” [Laughs.] I never want it to be “The Daryl Show.” He’s just one character on a show full of many great characters. I don’t want too much pressure to be put on anybody about that. As an actor, you don’t want to think, I’ll be here forever. You want to play it like it’s real, like you can die any minute. It should be a desperate situation. I love this job and I hope I never go, but you never know.