In anticipation of The Walking Dead's season premiere on Sunday, October 13th, Rolling Stone will publish an exclusive interview with a new cast or crew member every day this week. Today, we're kicking things off with backwoods survivalist Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus). Tomorrow, creator Robert Kirkman addresses the show's particularly complex relationship with his comic series.
Daryl has been a fan favorite since the beginning. What it is about him that's connected with people?
It's a combination of things. Daryl was destined to become mini-Merle, so he sort of had a life sentence within a life sentence. He started off early on saying he's better on his own, but I think he's sort of finding this sense of self-worth through all these other people. You watch this guy open up. He's blossoming into this new person. There were earlier scripts that had him saying a lot of racist things and taking drugs. I talked to the showrunners back then and was like, "I don't want to take drugs. I don't want to say anything racist. I want to play him like somebody that grew up with that around him and was embarrassed to grow up like that." They were gracious enough to let me run with it.
Has Daryl's popularity made you less worried than any of the other cast members about getting killed off?
Oh, we all have that guillotine over our heads. I don't even want to think like that. If I think like that, I'll act like that. I'll be a dick. And it's not true. We all could eat it at any time.
There might be a riot.
I like a good riot.
Has the show started to open up other film opportunities for you?
I just got offered a big one with George Clooney. But it came down to a point of, "Would I cut my hair really short for this role?" I'm on a show. I can't cut all my hair off out of nowhere. This is my full-time job so I'm not going to do anything to jeopardize that. But there are some good projects coming to me. You've just got to find a window to do them. I have a son who lives in New York and I don't want to spend all my time away.
How old is he?
What does he think of the show?
First season, he was a little nervous to watch it. It was a little scary. Second season, he kind of watched it through his fingers. Then third season, I went to go pick him up after school, and he had this big smile on his face. Some of the bigger kids at school said, "Is your dad Daryl Dixon?" And he's like, "Yeah." And they were like, "We fucking love Daryl Dixon!"
You split time living between New York and Atlanta, right?
Actually, I'm not in Atlanta. I went further into the sticks in Georgia.
To really get in touch with your inner Daryl?
Well, I mean, what's in Atlanta? I like Atlanta, but there's a mall and a Chick-fil-A. What do I need to go up there if I live in Manhattan? Also, I ride a motorcycle to the set a lot, and just the riding in the South here is just magic. I don't want to zigzag through traffic in Atlanta. I'd rather be out here on the country roads, driving home.
Was that something you added to the character? The motorcycle?
Well, there was a bike on set when I got there. They never really told us whose bike it was. But eventually, they were like, "Can you ride?" And I was like, "Fuck yeah, I can ride!" It's interesting because I never had a conversation with Frank Darabont about this character. We never spoke about Daryl. Not one time. I actually met Frank on the last episode of the first season.
You'd never even met him?
No. We were blowing up the CDC and he comes up and shakes my hand. I was like, "Oh my god, it's Frank Darabont. Wow." He did the pilot, which I wasn't in. Then he wasn't there at all. He would sort of run the show from L.A.
Was Glen Mazarra on set more? Is Scott Gimple there now?
Glen was Frank's number two, and Scott was Glen's number two, so they weren't strangers to us. But Scott's different from Frank. Frank's very, "This is how I want it. This is how we're going to do it." Scott's more like, "This is the story I want to tell." Glen was sort of in between them both. They're all very good at what they do.
You've had three showrunners in four seasons. From the outside, it looks like there's been all this upheaval. What does it feel like from the inside?
It brings the cast and crew together because we fight for the show. We fight to keep it real, we fight for the story, we fight for each other. We know we have a good thing going here. It's also one of those rare jobs where right before I'm doing a scene, we'll be rehearsing and I'll go to Andy [Lincoln] or Melissa [McBride] and ask, "Should I try this? What do you think?" And they'll give me an honest answer, wanting my character to be great. I remember my first job ever, I was doing a scene where I'm crying, I'm going to kill myself, and the other actor's literally looking over my head during the take going [whispering]: "Can I get a cappuccino?" It was my first shot and I was like, "Is this how this works? Is this what we do? That's some bullshit. I don't think he heard a word I said." There's none of that stupid shit here.
Have you had any serious injuries on set?
Yeah. I've been to the doctor so many times. I've had stitches across my forehead. It was funny because that day that this happened, there was blood pouring down my face but I'm already covered in fake blood. The ambulance comes, they take me to the hospital, give me stitches, bring me back here and one of our drivers is driving me back home. We leave set, come up over the first hill and then there's an 18-wheeler on its side in a ditch, telephone poles knocked down. It had just happened and there's a lady in the road screaming, "Stop! I think he had a heart attack! He's trapped behind the wheel." So as the van I'm in is rolling to a stop, I jumped out, climbed up the truck, pulled the giant, sweaty driver out of the truck, laid him on the ground. I'm going, "Stay with me, man, stay with me! Can you hear me? Can you hear me?" Then the ambulance has come, and the EMT's running towards us and he points at me, like, "Didn't I just take you to the hospital?" And I go, "No, it's not me, it's him!" Maybe I was just hopped on adrenalin from the meds but it was pretty insane.
How do you think the show has changed you as an actor?
It changed me in a lot of ways. It made me really appreciate this art form and this job. I'll admit I went through a phase as an actor, like, "What am I doing this for? What is this crap?" This wasn't my plan in the beginning. Now I really appreciate the job I'm doing and the job everyone else is doing.
If acting wasn't your plan, what was?
Maybe just do some artwork and live in a house in Montauk with a bunch of cats. Just to lead a quiet simple life that had art in it and had my few good friends. Maybe get lucky with a girl.
Do you think at some point you'll want to get back to that?
I've always done art shows. I just did an art show in New York, where I did 30 large-scale photos of roadkill from Georgia. We sold them all. All the money went to Oxfam. I have a book of photography coming out in October. We're doing shows based around that. I have three short films that I directed and edited and shot myself that I sell on a website. I'm always doing something like that.
But Montauk and the cats – is that still in the plans?
[Laughs] Never say never.