It’s noon on set of The Walking Dead in Atlanta, Georgia, and the sun is at its highest. There’s no one else around, except for a few stray prop zombies stored under a porch, as actor Norman Reedus rides in on his black Triumph motorcycle.
In person, dressed in a vintage Circle Jerks shirt and smoking a cigarette, Reedus is as badass as the characters he plays on screen.
In the more than 40 roles that he’s played since he started his career more than 15 years ago, most have tended toward the homicidal. "I’ve killed somebody in everything that I’ve ever done,” Reedus says. Even before he starred as Murphy MacManus in the 1999 cult classic The Boondock Saints, the actor was often cast as the dark, trigger-happy bad boy. "When I first started acting, I was so insecure and so on the defensive that I just scowled at everybody,” he recalls. "I’d go to some fancy thing and I’d just eyeball people and wouldn’t talk. I think that scowl—that, ‘what are you looking at?’ sort of thing—became a career somehow.”
That demeanor has kept him busy. In 2012, the 43-year-old actor will star in the third season of The Walking Dead, premiering on Sunday, October 14, as well as in a new art-house film, Sunlight Jr., alongside Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon. Also on the docket are the upcoming film Pawn Shop Chronicles with Elijah Wood and Brendan Fraser, and, as rumor has it, a third Boondock Saints.
Reedus was born in 1969 in Hollywood, Florida, but he spent his childhood growing up in Northern California, Japan, London, and Spain. In his early twenties, he followed his then-girlfriend to Los Angeles. She quickly dumped Reedus and moved to Hawaii with an ex-boyfriend. He then ended up living with some friends in Downtown L.A. and worked at a motorcycle repair shop in Venice called Dr. Carl’s Hog Hospital. On the side, he painted, photographed, and sculpted.
He quit the repair shop after a disagreement with the owner—over a difference of opinion on why the owner’s pit bull made a habit of chewing on the owner’s hot rod. The night he left the shop for good, he joined his friend at a movie industry party in The Hills and got trashed. Drunk and feeling playful, Reedus screamed from the home’s second floor until a manager approached him and asked if he wanted to be in a play. And just like that, he became an actor. He had never even considered the profession before.
In 1997, Reedus got his first big break when Mexican director Guillermo del Toro (of Pan’s Labyrinth fame) cast him for the sci-fi thriller Mimic. Two years later, his role in The Boondock Saints earned him a dedicated fan following. Despite the film’s negative critical responses, viewers seemed to go nuts for the actor’s portrayal of a charming Irish American vigilante.
But it wasn’t until he joined the first season of the critically acclaimed and Golden Globe nominated comic book-cum-AMC series The Walking Dead in 2010 that Reedus’s career truly took off.
As the story goes, Reedus initially auditioned for the role of Merle Dixon, a racist, drug-addicted hot-tempered redneck. Though in the end they gave the role to Michael Rooker, they decided to create a new character specifically for Reedus: the volatile crossbow-wielding Daryl Dixon, Merle’s younger, damaged, zombie-hunting brother. As a main character in the series not originally in the comics, the creators took a risk in bringing him on, inviting much early criticism and skepticism from diehard fans.
It didn’t take long, however, for Daryl—a lovable recluse and brute—to become the show favorite, and for the actor to attract yet another cult following. "With television, you kind of drop these little seeds in the ground and hope they turn into trees,” he says. "You hope that people are paying attention.”
As the comic’s creator Robert Kirkman told USA Today, "I feel absolutely blessed he has honored the show with his presence… We love writing him.” In fact, there’s talk of writing the character into the comic book series.
And while Reedus may not relate to Daryl’s violence and volatility, he does identify with his softer, more broken side. "There are certain things about him that are very much like me,” he says, listing his loyalty to friends, his difficulty trusting people, and his dislike of the limelight as qualities they both share. "I don’t like a lot of attention,” he says. "That’s probably why I’m wearing sunglasses.”
Even so, Reedus is grateful for the show’s success and the positive reception he and his character have received—proven, of course, by his collection of fan mail paraphernalia, which he posts on his blog in appreciation.
But with two seasons under his belt and a third ready to air, it’s Daryl’s complexity that Reedus seeks to take even further. "I hope it lasts forever,” he says. "I hope that it’s a zombie show where you never know when you’re going to kick it.” —Sasha Levine (@sashalevine)