You would think a TV show that’s based on a comic book series about zombies, set in Georgia, where the main characters get killed and eaten on a weekly basis, would be at best a cult hit. How could a show like this be a ratings homerun with a rabid fan base that includes comic geeks and housewives alike? "The Walking Dead" goes against all conventions and its success depends on its unpredictability.
Unpredictable is the only way to view Michael Rooker, better known to “The Walking Dead” fans as Merle Dixon, a surly survivor spitting bigoted remarks without regret. His character is built against his relationship with his brother, Daryl Dixon, one of the show’s fan-favorites. Last season’s finale was only a month-and-a-half ago and shock-and-awe of it will still be fresh when Rooker walks the floors of the Myrtle Beach Convention Center this weekend at X-Con World, Myrtle Beach’s comic book/sci-fi/fantasy convention, and talks with fans.
We got the chance to corner him and pick his brain about his fearless portrayal of Merle, his thoughts on Myrtle Beach and his past and future roles. (Spoiler alert: This interview does contain information that will ruin last season if you haven’t seen it.)
QUESTION | “The Walking Dead” has become rich with iconic characters in a culture gone crazy with zombie pandemonium. Your character of Merle seems to transform from a symbol of vile bigotry to a survivalist capable of sacrifice. Are you happy with the way Merle’s story played out?
ANSWER | First off, I wouldn’t use the term vile. I also wouldn’t defend the choices he made. I would say he was completely unpolitically incorrect, and he doesn’t give a damn what people think. He’s a man in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, where life as we know it is gone. If you’re not saving his ass, you’re just taking away from his food. It’s not his job to save your ass, he’s here to survive. Fans or outsiders who judge these characters based on the world we exist in today aren’t getting it. The show is about people making decisions when there aren’t good decisions to make. I would set Merle against the other characters on the show. They all make vile decisions. Is the so-called hero, Rick Grimes, any better? He’s made harsh decisions, too. That’s the great thing about this show: it asks moral questions and asks the viewers the same questions. People dig that, they’re debating it. Hell, it’s an hour-long show that’s followed by another hour-long show (“Talking Dead”) that talks about the choices made on the show.
Q. | So, do you see Merle’s story arc as a journey of redemption, a hero’s journey?
A. | I don’t judge, but I think that’s who Merle is. He’s an ass-kicker. He came in the show that way and he went out trying to survive while protecting his brother and the group. I don’t think he intended to die and turn zombie. Americans don’t think that way, we’re not kamikazes, we’re never say die. He preferred to live, it just didn’t work out for him, but so be it.
Q. | After 14 episodes as the very human Merle, what was it like turning into a zombie and doing the dead stagger?
A. | I did a movie called “Slither” a few years back. It was seven hours in makeup every day. This only took two hours. It was a walk in the park.
Q. | You’ve played your share of the racist redneck role. Do you ever think your roles in movies like “Mississippi Burning,” “Rosewood” and now Merle have typecast you at all?
A. | I don’t think about that when I work. I think I’ve been cast in rough-and-tough roles. It just happens my most memorable roles are when I play the extremist. My first movie role, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” comes to mind there. And Merle Dixon is about as extreme as you can get. But it’s opened a lot of doors for me. In addition to movie roles, I’ve done three video games because of Merle. In the end, I just do my own shit and do it my way. I take my lead from the director and I listen to the other actors then I fucking go for it. Usually, I get what I want and what they want and what audiences want.
Q. | You were born in Alabama and spent your youth there, did you ever vacation in Myrtle Beach?
A. | No, but I was here last year, too. I like to get out, get a cup of coffee, drive around a little and experience a place. When I got out of the hotel, things started to come back to me. Before last year, I drove through here right after a hurricane. The roads were a mess. Trees were knocked down, destruction all over the place. It’s great to see it like this.
Q. | With all these despicable characters on your resume, who has been your favorite of the good or ordinary guys you’ve played?
A. | Wow, I don’t know. The three that come to mind are Rowdy Burns from “Days of Thunder,” Bill Broussard from “JFK” and Chick Gandil from “Eight Men Out.” I will say Henry has a special place in my heart but Merle is the king mouse right now. I’m very pleased with him. My fans dig him and the fans are so loyal. I love to get out there and do Q-and-As and signings. The best part of all this is the fans. If you’re not doing it for the fans, don’t fucking do it.
Q. | There’s a lot of Internet chatter about your involvement with another Marvel Comic adaptation next year. (Rooker was reportedly cast as Yondu, one of the “Guardians of the Galaxy.”) So, without broaching a subject you can’t discuss yet, what’s in your future?
A. | I can’t really talk about it but I will say I’m giddy and very fucking excited to hear they’re making the “Guardians of the Galaxy” comics into a film. I’m a fan of the books and they’re rich and smart and beautifully done. I did work with the director, James (Gunn), on “Slither” and “Super.” If it were true, it might mean committing to a multi-film franchise. But what I can say with certainty is I’m a lucky guy. To be my age, to be in shape, mind and body; I’m still kicking 20 year-olds’ asses down at the dojo. And it feels great to have opportunities and the experience to take advantage of them. You may get opportunities early in your career, but you don’t know what you’re doing and you can screw it up. At this point, I don’t second guess myself anymore. I’m a fucking lucky guy.
- Derrick Bracey, for Weekly Surge