When zombies are chopped, maimed and decapitated on the TV drama “The Walking Dead,” there’s often a crossbow-wielding New Yorker behind the carnage.
Norman Reedus, 43 years old, plays Daryl Dixon, a character frequently at odds with the band of survivors that AMC’s hit show follows through a zombie apocalypse. His character is angry — someone who “just flipped over tables,” as Reedus sees it — and finds humans as untrustworthy as the zombies.
Speaking in Café Roma near his Chinatown apartment ahead of the show’s Sunday return, Reedus said his love of tough guy roles comes from his hard-as-nails mother, a former resident of Hell’s Kitchen who now teaches in Kurdistan.
“My mom taught high school in the Bronx,” he said. “She taught kindergarten in Harlem. So when this job came up in Kurdistan, she was like, ‘I can handle Kurdistan.’”
Reedus’s acting career bloomed late, beginning in 1997 with “Mimic.” His obsession with acting, and with New York, came via celluloid.
“The first film I saw where it seemed like an art form — the editing worked, the music worked, the acting, the directing, the locations, the extras, it all came together as a film — was ‘Midnight Cowboy,’” he said. “I was just fascinated with film after that.”
After moving to New York 14 years ago with his then-girlfriend, the model Helena Christensen, he immersed himself in the local arts scene and set up a production company, Big Bald Head, to shoot short films.
Reedus also helped establish Collective Hardware, a five-floor arts space on the Bowery, which closed in 2010. “We had edit bays in there, we had a full-floor gallery, we had a special effects company called Ill Willed that were making giant saber-toothed tigers for the Discovery Channel,” he recalled. “We had all the ingredients for make amazing art there.”
The dark themes of his zombie-survivor role on “The Walking Dead” fit with his non-acting interests. He recently showed his photographs of roadkill and taxidermy, taken during breaks in filming the series, at the Wired store in Times Square.
Reedus said he tries to disconnect from the entertainment world when he’s off the job. “When I come here, I’m with my son — I’m just daddy when I’m in New York,” he said. “I know maybe two actors in all of New York … I know Willem Dafoe.”
That association comes from their roles in the 1999 crime-drama “The Boondock Saints,” which turned Reedus into a cult icon and helped him land his current TV gig.
“I knew as soon as Norman did his audition, it was immediately clear that he was the guy,” said Robert Kirkman, executive producer on “The Walking Dead” and writer of the original comic book on which the show is based. “I know that he was a huge get because of his status in the fan community.”
Reedus’s newer status as a fan favorite on the zombie show — he claims to have 30 fan-made dolls of his Daryl character stashed in his Chinatown abode — has put his retreat from the limelight under mild threat.
He recalled being recognized recently while taking a cab from JFK Airport. ”As soon as I get in the car, the guy’s like, ‘Man, that’s messed up what happened to Sophia in that barn,’” Reedus said, referring to a grisly scene from the show’s mid-season finale last year.
Another side of being famous for a TV show co-starring a cast of blood-thirsty corpses: Reedus is aware that his days are likely be numbered.
“I like that people are so into this,” he mused. “But it is a zombie show. We never know who could get bitten.”