Michael Rooker on Merle Dixon, Guardians of the Galaxy, and recreating his Mallrats look
Michael Rooker might be best known these days for his turn as divisive character Merle Dixon on The Walking Dead. However, Rooker's body of work spans nearly three decades, and he's got more credits to his name than just Merle. From the intense title role in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer to parts in Days of Thunder, JFK, and The Bone Collector, he's proven himself to be a versatile performer. Later this year, we'll have a chance to see Rooker take on what might be his most unique role to date: Yondu in Marvel's highly anticipated Guardians of the Galaxy remake.
Courtesy of Wizard World Warning: Spoilers ahead for The Walking Dead!.
This weekend, Rooker will be in town for Wizard World's Minneapolis Comic Con, an all-weekend event featured this week in our cover story. We had a lengthy chat with the laugh-filled Rooker about his time as Merle, getting blue in the face for Guardians of the Galaxy, and reminiscing about Mallrats at the Eden Prairie mall.
While Merle was introduced to The Walking Dead viewers as a serious racist and misogynist in the first season, he eventually grew on the audience as a survivor in a hostile world filled with walkers. Merle had quite the visceral, gruesome death in Season Three, as his brother stabbed him in the face after he became a walker. Rooker relished the chance to bring Merle's character around full circle.
"I tell people this all the time," he begins. "I have had -- so far -- the best story arc known to mankind. I just love every part of working on The Walking Dead and developing this character. So, to go out like a man -- this is kind of a crazy-weird phrase -- and become a zombie, is quite a trip. I enjoyed the hell out of it."
Since Merle Dixon isn't in the original graphic novel series, Rooker was able to work with the writers on how his character would meet his ultimate end. Instead of a big showdown between Merle and the Governor, Rooker thought it would be more in-character for the Governor to pull some shady business with his former right-hand man.
"[The writers] took my suggestions," he says. "I just didn't believe -- given the end result of that fight -- I did not believe that the Governor even had the balls to kick Merle's ass. The writers trusted my instincts, and wrote in a beat down between his guys and me. When I break down the door, they hit me with gun butts and kick me, and so it softens Merle up and the Governor just sort of finishes him off."
Rooker's favorite part of his last days on The Walking Dead was when he performed an unexpected stunt that left the crew with an unmanned car driving onward.
"The rolling out of the car was the best!" he says. "The director and everyone was in the car with me, and we're driving into the fields. The director goes, 'Now, Rooker, just open the door and act like like you're rolling out.' Right? So as we start going, I open the door, and I just rolled out. [laughs] And here they are, they're filming it, of course, and they're not worried about me. Don't think they're worried about me one iota!
Courtesy of Wizard World
"All they were worried about was that the vehicle had no driver -- it was still going!" he laughs. "We never even thought of that. But I just figured, 'I'm off the accelerator, the car's just going to roll to a basic stop.' They really had nothing to worry about, but that's all they were worrying about. They were like freaking out because they were like, 'Oh my god, the car has no driver!'"
While hindsight is 20/20, it seems obvious that a larger-than-life character like Merle Dixon would get a big following from fans and critics alike. But this wasn't always the case.
"Hell no," Rooker says when asked if he knew Merle would get so much attention. "I mean, I know people that like my work, but I had no idea that they were going to like my work. They really fell in love with this guy. Maybe I've cornered the market with characters that you absolutely love-to-hate but love, too. You cry when this guy dies."
Even though Rooker knows Merle went out in a blaze of glory, he still misses the character.
"Who wouldn't?" he says. "He's such a cad. Such a ladies' man. He's the ladies' man that never gets any ladies -- that's the problem! [laughs] Oh goodness. I would've loved to have continued to play Merle for many seasons to come, but that's not the case."
Instead, audiences can see Rooker performing again this August, this time on the big screen as the blue-tinted Yondu in Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy.