If you’ve seen the footage from The Beatles’ famed appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show — the swaying, spellbound audience shrieking, beaming, quaking, hyperventilating — then you have a pretty good idea of how things went when Norman Reedus joined Montclair Film Festival 2016 for a spirited discussion, part of MFF’s In Conversation series.
When moderator (and Montclair resident) Joel Stillerman, President of Original Programming at AMC and Sundance TV, called Reedus out on stage, the theater exploded with the thunderous caterwauls of excitement and affection from hundreds of Daryl devotees. Throughout the event, lone voices would boom from the audience, “WE LOVE YOU!” or “NORMAN REEDUS FOR PRESIDENT!” followed by whoops of assent around the theater. One might expect an actor with this level of acclaim to get a little big for his britches, but Reedus received his welcome warmly, even shyly, and that only adds to his appeal.
Stillerman kicked off the conversation by asking Reedus about his childhood. Even when picturing Reedus as a kid, it’s easy to imagine him wielding a crossbow and wearing a leather vest and a scowl, but he assured the audience he was anything but a smooth operator. “I was definitely not the cool kid,” he said. “I had braces at one point, and I was super pigeon-toed.” But there was a mischievous streak in him even then. “There was this cool kid with a mohawk who worked at a yogurt shop, and I remembered he had tools in the back,” he recalled, laughing. “I took wire cutters [to the braces] and — ka-tink, ka-tink! — which completely shredded my mouth.”
Leaving home at a very early age had a profound effect on Reedus both personally and professionally, especially when it came to playing a man as self-sufficient as Daryl. “At the time that I left, it was definitely time to go. All those experiences like that, especially as a little kid, help you make things,” he said. “There’s a certain level of honesty that you can’t really fake. People ask me like, ‘How do you become an actor?’ One of the first things you should do is pack a bag and go around the world, gain some life experiences.” He remembered his arrival in Los Angeles and his first foray into acting: “Somebody invited me to an acting class. I went in there, looked at everybody, and was like, ‘There is no way I am coming back here.’ I think a lot of it was just to get the nerve up to try something new.”
It was on the set of his debut film, Floating, that he recognized his full potential as an actor, and how he could channel his own experiences into a powerful performance. In the film, Reedus plays Van, whose father is confined to a wheelchair as the result of a drunk driving accident. There is a particularly emotional scene when Van’s father gets out of the wheelchair to hug his son; Reedus, on his first film set, wasn’t sure what to do. “The director said, ‘What are you going to do to prepare?’ I was that green,” he recalled. “He gives me a phone and I call my real dad, who was, coincidentally, in a wheelchair, and we had a normal conversation.” Emotionally cocked, he hung up the phone and filmed the scene, crying so much on the first take that snot poured torrentially down his face, rendering the shot unusable. When the group broke for lunch, a defeated Reedus retreated to his trailer, only to have an epiphany. “I begged them to use [the take], but they wouldn’t,” he said. “I went back to my trailer and took a nap, and this grip came up and said, ‘I know you’ve never been in a movie before, but I want to tell you that nobody spoke at lunch. They barely touched their food.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s what this is.’ And then I kind of got hooked.”
“You’re always trying to find yourself,” he added. “I think all those moments growing up help you be that open person.”
While playing a character as revered as Daryl Dixon on a number-one television show has its perquisites, there are also some drawbacks, especially for an actor Stillerman described as “all about the work, who would do it for free.” When asked about the “trappings” of fame and fortune, Reedus commented on how “knowing too much” about an actor can disrupt the immersive fantasy of the film-going experience. Additionally, the Internet, especially social media, has allowed wider access than ever before into the private lives of actors and celebrities, and the lines between role and actor often blur. “People think you’re your character,” he said.
Reedus affirmed his gratitude for the critical and commercial acclaim of his work, but he acknowledged that the lack of anonymity can prove stressful. “I can’t go to the store anymore,” he lamented. “Even on the flight here this morning, after working all night and getting all beat up, feeling cranky in the morning, there go people [recording] with their cell phones, and I’m like, ‘I know what you’re doing!’” On another recent flight, Reedus recounted, he had to finish his sandwich in the lavatory because everyone was videotaping him eating.
Although he is best known as an actor, Reedus is also an accomplished photographer of a published collection (The Sun’s Coming Up…Like a Big Bald Head), and Stillerman invited him to discuss his affinity for the art form. He charmingly downplayed the label. “It’s weird to call myself a photographer because there are so many photographers who know way more than I do,” he said. “I just take pictures. I’m not an artist; I just make art. I just act in things.” He shifted the conversation toward the short film that he wrote, directed, shot, and edited himself. One of the shorts developed in 2005 while Reedus was convalescing in a German hospital following a serious car accident in Berlin. Reedus feared that he would never act again. After reading a piece about Miles Davis and receiving a gift of green plastic army men from a friend, he got an idea. “I’m in a hospital gown with a patch over my eye and my whole head was hamburger, and I wrote a script in my head about being inside the head of Miles Davis,” he said, using the green army men to block shots.
Returning to the source of his creative impulses, Reedus revealed, “I like to take really dark things and find beauty in them.” The subjects in The Sun’s Coming Up… Like a Big Bald Head (titled after a Laurie Anderson lyric) range from tender, sun-dappled shots of Reedus’s son to up-close roadkill and taxidermy to fetishistic portraits of wolf-masked women pouring syrup on a stack of flapjacks. The masks are a recurring motif, as Reedus is an avid collector of masks. “I like the idea of hiding behind a mask,” he explained. “I wear sunglasses all the time. You feel a little more comfortable being faceless.”
Motorcycles are another passion, which dates back to the outlaw days of his youth spent cruising around town looking for mischief, zigzagging down side-streets with the cops struggling to hold their pursuit. Reedus joked about his innumerable accidents and the steady stream of stitches he received from popping wheelies downhill on a friend’s ride. Stillerman announced that Reedus’s new show Ride with Norman Reedus will air on June 12 on AMC. In this documentary travel series, Reedus will ride his chopper to a different city alongside a special guest each week, waxing badass on biker culture, celebrating the top motorcycle craftsmen and mechanics, and visiting the most beloved tattoo parlors, bike shops, and dive bars.
“That’s what I love about this show: a lot of it’s off the cuff,” he reflected. “You meet these super-interesting people and it’s kind of like how you would talk to a therapist or a bartender after a while, because you’re with each other so much. You really feel like you get to know each other. It’s such an interesting show and it’s so fun.”
From there, Stillerman steered the conversation back to the serendipitous start of Reedus’s acting career. “I met someone while drinking at a party, so I strongly recommend going out drinking,” he quipped, prompting applause from the crowd. “I was screaming on a balcony, which I thought was funny, and had broken some glasses and somehow that led to me being introduced to someone who was directing a play. I got cast as the understudy and the guy didn’t show up for the first day, so I went with it. I did the play and [casting director] Lora Kennedy was in the audience, and she ended up casting me in The Boondock Saints.” The film, considered Reedus’s breakout, was a smash.
In both The Boondock Saints and The Walking Dead, moral ambiguity is a prominent theme. Stillerman wondered if Reedus gravitated toward roles and plots that explore that ambiguity. “It’s so complicated — what paths people choose to take and the reasons they choose to take them,” he said. “What are you willing to fight for? What are you unwilling to fight for? You have to pick your battles, and it’s a real opportunity to show what you’re made of.” This is especially true in the world of The Walking Dead, where the fights occur largely out of self-preservation. “You’re not trying to impress anyone,” he said. “When your back’s up against the wall, you swing a little bit differently.”
What followed was a more in-depth conversation about The Walking Dead and its inception, to the delight of the cheering audience. Reedus had heard of the massively popular comics but had not read them until he was hired for the show. “I bulked up on the comics, but I’m not in the comics so I didn’t know if that was the right thing to do,” he joked. Reedus had originally auditioned for the role of Merle Dixon, Daryl’s firebrand brother. The crew was so impressed with Reedus that they created the character of Daryl in order to feature him on the show; he would go on to become the series’ most popular character.
What was it that initially drew him to the character? “He had such a chip on his shoulder,” Reedus explained. “When I first came to set in Episode 3, that whole cast was already friends and had done publicity shots, had bonded, and I was this new kid. When I gave my first lines with Merle, I turned around and saw all these new faces, and automatically I felt like the odd guy out.” The original trajectory for Daryl was markedly different than what we see on the show, and Reedus is grateful for that. “The deal was he was always going to be Mini-Merle. It’s like being trapped inside of a trap. I remember, in those earlier scripts, they had me taking drugs and saying racist stuff. I want to be in Al-Anon; I don’t want to be in Alcoholics Anonymous,” he said. “I want to have grown up with that but not be proud of that. And now that [Merle] is out of the way, it gives him an opportunity to be the man that he never would have actually become if Merle was still around during the apocalypse. It gives him all these reasons to shed layers.”
Over six seasons, Daryl Dixon has grown from a feral misanthrope into a much more richly textured, complicated character. But he hasn’t lost his bite. “If you were in an alley and you found a coyote, it would snarl at you, but if somehow you could get a little closer the next day, and a little closer the next day, feed it and pet it, it would just stay here,” Reedus said, gesturing down near his legs. “But it would snap still. Sometimes [Daryl] snaps even harder than he would have before, because he has to fight for it. I like being that guy.”
Toward the end of the conversation, the floor was opened to questions from the audience, to whom Reedus gave a warm reception. The first question began with a profession of undying love, followed by an acknowledgment of those (apparently few) Walking Dead fans who hate Daryl. “When you play in a show that’s so emotional, people have their favorites,” said Reedus. “I think if you make art, the idea is to have people talk about it, so any talking is a compliment, really.”
Deirdre, an acting student at Montclair State University, asked Reedus about how his process differs when playing a character over many years as opposed to one-time role. “This is my first long run of anything and it’s great! Little things turn into storylines sometimes. You can do something way over here and pick it up way over there, especially interacting with the other actors,” he replied. “You get to know them personally and the bond is stronger, so you play off each other better because you know what the other is thinking.”
When asked about whether Daryl would eventually fall in love or have a sexual relationship, Reedus said, “Once you do it, it’s done. I don’t think he’s that type of guy yet. If he falls in love, he’ll always be in love. I don’t think he’s a ‘throw you against a tree in the moonlight’ kind of dude.”
Music was revealed to be another profound source of inspiration for Reedus when preparing for a scene. “Last night was a lot of Slayer,” he laughed. “Andy [Lincoln] and I swap music all the time. I always thought it would be interesting to get the cast together and make a playlist of all the bigger scenes and what they were listening to.”
Another audience member asked whether Reedus would like to continue directing; the answer was an emphatic yes. He expressed an interest in directing short films and music videos, and also mentioned a feature he’d written with a friend several years ago and was talking to the late Heath Ledger about starring in.
Reedus also discussed a restaurant he is opening with special effects artist Greg Nicotero. It is called Nic & Norman’s and will be located in Senoia, Georgia. The Walking Dead has previously filmed in Senoia.
Dana, an English teacher, asked about the best life lesson Reedus learned from Daryl. “That it’s okay to be you,” he said. “It’s something I wish I’d said to myself as a kid: it’s okay to be you.”
Toward the end of the evening, a flustered audience member stuttered, stammered, and sweated until, overwhelmed with Reedus fever, she had to take a seat to steady herself and allowed another person to take her place. Reedus was so tickled by this that he picked up what appeared to be three foot-tall painted statue of Daryl, strolled to the edge of the stage, and handed it to her, which did not aid in her resuscitation. A laughing Stillerman explained that, unbeknownst to Reedus, he’d set that one-of-a-kind statue up simply as a stage decoration. “Don’t sell that on eBay; if we see that on eBay, we’re going to find you,” he said dryly.
“Thank you for just being a regular guy that anyone can go up to,” said the next patron simply, to which the audience roared with applause. Reedus thanked her graciously.
Reedus was asked about whether he was actually handy with a crossbow off-camera, and he boasted about his legitimate talent. He relayed a story about his appearance on a live Japanese television show, on which he was challenged to hit an impossibly tiny target from a great distance. To the shock and frenzied excitement of the showrunners and audience, he was successful.
Since directing has become a major interest, Reedus discussed how it impacts the decisions he makes when acting and vice versa. “They both can be stressful, but they’re different,” he said. “Behind the camera, you’re looking at a bunch of different stuff, but in front of the camera, you have to concentrate on yourself.”
The last question of the evening came from a young girl who asked, “Why are you so cool?” and he closed out the night by doling more of The Walking Dead items on stage to members of the audience.
Written by MFF blogger Michael Traynor.