The hit AMC drama series The Walking Dead has returned for a third season, with higher stakes, more threatening human villains and, of course, plenty of zombies. When things pick back up, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his fellow survivors continue to seek refuge, this time in an abandoned prison, but soon discover that there are greater forces to fear than just the walking dead. The struggle to survive has never been so perilous, especially considering that Rick’s wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), is close to the due date of her pregnancy. Based on the comic book series written by Robert Kirkman, the show also stars Laurie Holden, Steven Yeun, Norman Reedus, Chandler Riggs, Lauren Cohan, Scott Wilson, IronE Singleton, Melissa McBride, Danai Gurira and David Morrissey.
At the show’s press day, co-stars Norman Reedus (who plays adept survivalist Daryl Dixon) and Michael Rooker (who plays Daryl’s older brother and The Governor’s second in command) talked about how Daryl is different from Merle, where Daryl’s story arc is going this season, what the prison set was like to work on, how much fun it’s been to bring Merle back, whether or not Merle is a likable character, and the impact both characters have made, both on the show and with fans. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
Question: Norman, now that Daryl has clearly found his place among this group, so how will the return of Merle (Michael Rooker) affect that?
NORMAN REEDUS: Daryl grew up with a brother like Merle, who’s racist and he takes drugs. He doesn’t want to be his big brother. Merle is like your drunk uncle at a Christmas party, where you’re like, “Shut up, man! Just shut up!” So, a lot of the big moments between Merle and Daryl in Season 3 are Daryl telling him that he’s not his big brother. This conflict with Merle and other people in our group puts Daryl in the middle of it. He’s trying to put out fires, and that, at some point, he’s like, “He’s my brother, but this is what’s happening.” Certain things happen where Merle tries not to be so Merle-y, and Daryl sees through it and tells Merle that he’s not him. Daryl is passing Merle. Daryl is not Merle.
The popularity of Daryl has taken off, and I think a lot of that happened with “Cherokee Rose” (Episode 4, Season 2). I really saw a shift with that episode. He won’t hesitate to kill you, but he’ll also risk his own life, looking for your little girl. There were certain moments where Daryl would go off looking for Sophia and Rick would say, “Don’t leave yet. Stay and let’s make a plan and do it right.” And he’d say, “No, I’m better off on my own.” He’s still this guy. Daryl is like an animal in an alley, in the rain. You see him and you want to go touch him, and he snaps at you and will bite you, but if you feed him and take him in for a day or two, he’ll follow you forever. Merle is not like that. Daryl doesn’t hate anybody in the group. Daryl will fight to keep everyone alive. He’s not really looking after anything for himself. He’s got no internal plan to fuck you over. He’s exactly what you see. There’s nothing sneaky about him, and he has heart.
How do you see Daryl, in comparison to Rick?
REEDUS: Rick is such a good character because he just keeps messing up, even though he’s trying his best. If he did everything right, it would be boring. But, Daryl is not Rick and Daryl doesn’t want to lead this group. Daryl doesn’t want the responsibility of these people. Daryl does his thing and he’s loyal and he’ll fight for everybody and he cares about everybody. He’s finding who he is, through these people relying on him, and he’s never had that. There’s a certain feeling of worth that Daryl has now because people need him. That’s a good feeling for him and he’ll fight for that, but Daryl is going wherever Daryl wants to go. He’s not going this way, just to fuck these people over. That’s Merle.
What can you say to tease Daryl’s story arc this season?
REEDUS: There’s more tension inside than there is outside, this season. Being inside a prison looks safe, but there’s only a small section of this prison that we’re in and the rest of it is just as scary as the outside. It’s full of zombies and there are people trying to take this prison and we’re fighting for this prison. There is so much tension inside the walls that it’s almost worse than being outside, but we can sleep there. Every day, we were shooting and thinking, “I can’t believe they’re letting us do this.” This season is amazing. It feels like a film, every day on set. We just watched Episode 4, as a group, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, even though these were people who were there while we were filming it, all day, over and over again. We saw Episode 1 at a screening for the cast and crew, so there were 400 people packed in the place, and everyone was screaming at the top of their lungs. You could barely hear the dialogue. If it does that to us, when we’re there filming it, bored and waiting for the day to be over, it’s going to blow your minds. It’s great! The people that are really fans of the show, we’re not dumbing anything down for anyone. It’s smart television. It’s not one of those shows where there are three people in an office that you know are going to be there until the season ends. Anyone could go, at any time, just like in the real world that we’re trying to play in. It’s fascinating to watch.
What was it like to work on the prison set?
REEDUS: It’s amazing! This Australian guy, Grace Walker, who did a lot of the Mad Max stuff, built the set. Every each of that thing is so perfect. There are so many little subtleties in the prison itself. There’s a chess board in one room that’s made of nuts and bolts, and other weird little things. That prison should be in the Louvre. It’s my favorite set. It’s pretty awesome!
Michael, after knowing for awhile that you would be returning, at some point, was it nice to actually get to do that this season?
MICHAEL ROOKER: After knowing that I was actually going to be back, I was wondering when, so yeah. I returned for that scene in Season 2, when Daryl was in that delusional state. That poor kid was going to meet his maker and he didn’t have the balls to get up and climb that mountain, so he had to bring back his brother in his own mind to kick his ass and give him a little tough love and tell him to get his butt up before I kick his teeth in. That was a fun scene. I saw it as a very positive scene, but a lot of people saw it like, “Dude, he’s so mean to his brother!” I was like, “What are you talking about?! He’s dying, and he brings his own brother back, in the delusional state that he’s in, to motivate him and save his life.” It was a very, very positive delusion.
Do you like Merle, and do you even have to like him?
ROOKER: Merle is very likable. What do you mean, “Do I like Merle?” How can you say that? Merle is likeable. I love Merle! Merle isn’t a bad guy. He’s just tough and a little bad, at times.
How anxious were you to see what they would do to replace Merle’s hand?
ROOKER: Once I found out [that I would be back], we did prosthetic molds of my arm. So, I knew what it was going to look like, but I didn’t really know if it was going to work or not. As it stands now, it works pretty good and it’s a good thing to have, in the apocalyptic era of our existence.
How difficult has it been to adjust to that?
ROOKER: At first, it was a bit odd. Now, when I reach to shake hands, even when it’s off, I reach to shake with my left hand and people are like, “No, we do it with the right hand, idiot!” I’m a very hands-on guy, anyway. I’ll come up and hug you, slap you on the back, or grab you and shake your hand. I’m a very physical guy. So, when I only do it with one hand, it’s odd.
Did you keep that prosthetic on all the time, or could you not wait to get it off?
ROOKER: I take it off as soon as possible, now. In the beginning, I had it on a lot, but I was like, “Okay, enough of this!” So, I take it off, rest my hand, and stretch my hand and fingers. It gets really cramped. It’s not fun, after awhile.
Norman, are you enjoying getting to explore Daryl over a longer period of time on a TV show?
REEDUS: I’ve done a bunch of movies, but this is my first TV thing. In movies, you go from here to here, and you do things to get there. With television, you do these things and drop these little seeds out of your back pocket, and if people are paying attention and pick up on them, they turn into storylines, and the ones that I’ve done are turning into storylines. There’s a freedom with this show, and all of us feel it. There’s no weak links in our chain, on this show. You feel safe with everyone, and it gives you the freedom to do stuff like that.
In the very first season, in Episode 3 when I came in, I had never had a conversation with Frank Darabont, ever. I just showed up and had these lines, but I tried to play it that Daryl was fighting because he was scared, and that’s turned into a storyline. When Carol (Melissa McBride) leaned over and kissed Daryl on the forehead, after he got shot, I flinched, but that wasn’t in the script. Now, there’s a backstory about how he was an abused child and it’s a big deal in our show. So, if everyone is paying attention to what we’re doing, with all the characters, there are all these little moments that mean so much.
They say that maybe Daryl and Carol are going to hook up. I get that question a lot. But, there’s more interesting things there. When a man meets a woman for the first time, there are all these little insecure steps that people go through that are more Daryl than, “I’m going to throw you against a tree and the moonlight is going to shine off my back.” That’s not my character. We already have that character. That’s a different role. I’d rather play these little insecure subtleties than do something, right off the bat. Because I have so many of them, I’m getting away with doing a lot of them and people are paying attention, in terms of the stories, and I think that’s why Daryl is so popular.
Michael, are you shocked by how much of an impact Merle made, and how vocal people have been about seeing him return?
ROOKER: Merle made a major impact on this show. It was quite interesting. Nobody knows when that’s going to happen. You just do your work and do it the best you can. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. But, it’s awesome! The day we did that four-minute monologue scene, right before Merle cuts his hand off, that was just me, on the roof when it was 115 degrees, literally sweating my ass off and dying up there, and everybody was into that. That was real sweat. We did maybe three or four takes, and we were done. We had so many cameras at different angles, so we didn’t have to do the customary moving cameras in, closer and closer. We switched it three or four times, and we did it all the way through, from the first word, all the way to the end, without any cuts. We did only three or four takes, but took all morning to do it. And after every take, there was a standing ovation by every crew member, so it was really cool. Actors don’t usually get that on a film set.
The Walking Dead airs on Sunday nights on AMC.