2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Q&A: ‘The Walking Dead’s’ Michael Rooker at Denver Comic Con

Published: June 14, 2014, 11:28 am, by Terry Terrones

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During Denver Comic Con I had a chance to sit down and chat with actor Michael Rooker. Best known for his role as Merle in “The Walking Dead,” the long time character actor has had a stellar career. Rooker has been as a voice over performer in several video games and has had countless roles in such films as “Cliffhanger,” “Tombstone,” “Eight Men Out” and “Jumper.” We talked about “The Walking Dead” (naturally), his film career and what exactly his plan would be during the zombie apocalypse. Here’s a transcript of our conversation.

Gazette: You started in theater, right?
Rooker: I did. I went to a theater school called the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago and I graduated in 1982. I did theater for about 3 or 4 years.

Gazette: I was doing some research on you and I saw that “Eight Men Out” was one of your first movie roles.
Rooker: It was the first film that helped me maintain an agent in New York and LA. Nobody had landed the role of Chick Gandil yet (ed. note: Gandil was the ringleader of the 1919 Black Sox scandal) and they were looking for that character. I sort of walked in off the street. I borrowed $40 from my sister for gas, drove to Indiana where they were auditioning from Chicago and ended up over the weekend, on Monday, meeting director John Sayles. I ended up getting the gig.

Gazette: One of my favorite movies of yours is “Cliffhanger.” Do people still walk up to you and say, “What were you thinking bringing your girlfriend on that kind of climb?”
Rooker: (laughing) I’m sure she’s been up there before. Maybe there were stairs, you know? It wasn’t a real climb. The real issue was the zipline.

Gazette: Did you have any climbing experience before that?
Rooker: I climbed a little bit and trained for two months prior to the film. So not really but I had a natural ability to climb.

Gazette: Your roles are usually tough, men of action types. Are those roles you are drawn to or is that just what casting directors see in you?
Rooker: I think both. They see other stuff in me that I don’t but I have a pretty good handle on it these days. I try to mix it up every so often and try to do different things but I do enjoy playing characters that are on the line between being good and bad. You don’t know which way they’re going to go. I enjoy surprising the audience and myself sometimes.

Gazette: Would you ever do another type of genre? Like say, a comedy film or sitcom?
Rooker: Yeah, of course. I don’t try to stick to one genre. Over my career there’s been a lot of different stuff, a lot of drama, a lot of serious film, some comedy but not much, but action, sci-fi and horror too.

Gazette: You’ve also done a lot of voice over work for video games. What is it about that medium that appeals to you?
Rooker: It’s a lot of fun. I know a bunch of people in that genre and I do a good job with it. I just enjoy it a lot. (ed note: Rooker pointed out his Call of Duty: Black Ops II hat he was wearing. He voiced one of the characters in the game.)

Gazette: Let’s get back to “The Walking Dead.” The Dixon brothers are not part of the comic book series. How did you decide to play the character of Merle Dixon when he didn’t really have a backstory?
Rooker: Oh he had a backstory. I made the backstory up. As we do with all our roles, unless it’s a historic figure or something like that. For me playing the role of Merle, I didn’t have to deal with the background or history that has already been written by someone sitting in an office. So I had a good amount of freedom to bring to this role what I’d flushed out in my imagination.

Gazette: Frank Darabont was the showrunner of “The Walking Dead” during your first season, did he just say to you, “Do your thing?”
Rooker: He let me flush it out. I do that well, it’s what I do. I started out my career doing tiny little roles. You learn that this is all you have, so you have to develop a history and figure out why your character is there. In the process of doing that, you develop the role. Merle Dixon was no different really. Merle Dixon was written quite clichéd and redneck, the things he was doing and saying were simple. It was my job to fill that in and flush it out and make this individual onscreen real to you.

There are things in graphic novels which don’t happen in real life and my job is to make this two dimensional character on a page come to life (ed note: Rooker is referring to a script here). It’s my job and I’m good at that. So I was very happy that I didn’t have to copy some panel that was drawn or written several years back. I was glad I was able to use my own imagination and make this character real. Make this character jump up off the page and scare the sh%& out of you so you say, “I don’t like this guy.” And then the next scene or episode you go, “Hold on. He’s not that bad.”

Gazette: That leads me to my next question. Merle seemed to evolve. At first you hate him but by the time he dies he’s an anti-hero of sorts. How much of that character was shaped by your input?
Rooker: My job was to flush out the role and develop it. Then the writers get a sense of where you’re going with the character and then they start writing stuff for you. They start patterning the writing to suit your character.

Gazette: They see what you’re doing with the role and tailor the story to where you’re going with it?
Rooker: That’s exactly what happens usually.

Gazette: How far in advance did you know when he was going to be killed?
Rooker: About three weeks.

Gazette: Were you disappointed or did you like how he was going to go out?
Rooker: I didn’t know exactly how he was going to go out. My only note to them was – he came in an ass kicker he should go out an ass kicker. Unrelenting and unapologetic. And I think myself and everyone involved, the writers, the cinematographers accomplished that. It ended up being a very cool exit.

Gazette: There’s “The Walking Dead,” you were in the “Call of Duty” downloadable content “Call of the Dead,” which I actually have a poster of in my man cave…
Rooker: That poster glows in the dark, you know.

Gazette: I didn’t know that.
Rooker: Yeah just put it in the light for awhile and George Romero’s eyes will glow.

Gazette: I’ll have to check that out. Anyway, with your work you have a lot of experience with zombies. Why do you think people have such a fascination with the zombie genre?
Rooker: It’s entertaining. I’ve been a fan of the zombie genre for a long time, since George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” and even before that there were zombies. I think it’s intriguing for us to think about re-living humans. The process of coming back is engrained in our religion and in our minds somewhere and this whole zombie thing connects to that.

Gazette: If the zombie apocalypse where to actually occur, how do you think you’d do?
Rooker: You know what, it depends on how fast those suckers move. Either way I’d be out there hunting them down every day. If you were in my group and you didn’t kill at least 10 or 20 zombies a day, you wouldn’t get supper. I certainly wouldn’t be running from them. I’d be going out and taking back what’s mine. The sooner you can do that, the sooner you can live a regular life. You notice that (on the show) they’re kind of deteriorating so maybe they’d die off. But there couldn’t be enough zombie killing and taking out for me. I’d be doing it every day.

It would be like pulling weeds in your garden. If there’s weeds all over the place you’d have to clear the garden and clear your land. So you go and pull the weeds, you just have to do that before anything could grow, before humans can grow and have children without fear of being eaten. Or the life threatening fear of them crying and drawing attention. You have to just go in and clear them out.

Gazette: What’s next for you? What’s the next step in your career?
Rooker: My next movie is “Guardians of the Galaxy.” I play Yandu. I read the comics when I was younger and he’s developed over the years. Our film follows the most recent “Guardians” but my character is from the very first “Guardians.”

Gazette: What part does Yandu have?
Rooker: You gotta wait and see. I think my poster comes out this week. People will get a good look at who he is and what he looks like. Yandu has this huge massive mohawk, this big fin of a mohawk.

Gazette: Do you have one in the movie?
Rooker: I have one but it’s different from the comic. People as you know, the lovely geeks of comic-dom, are very protective of their characters. And so, I think the character that has been upgraded and changed the most has been my character.

Gazette: Do you think overall the character stays true to “Guardians” canon?
Rooker: We try and there’s elements that Yandu had in the beginning that he still has.

Gazette: Is this a character we’ll only see once or will he be in other films?
Rooker: Nice try but I’m not going to fall for that one.