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The roar of Norman Reedus's motorcycle engine cuts through the tranquil Georgia field housing The Walking Dead's production trailers. Even though the actor is not listed on today's call sheet — he doesn't even appear in the episode being shot — he just can't stay away from his on-screen family. "I live in Manhattan. I have a nice apartment and a lot of friends. I can have lobster delivered to my door. But all I wanted to do was come back here," Reedus says as he dismounts and lights a smoke. "I have become superfond of Georgia and the South to the point where I'm thinking about selling my apartment and moving to the country."
Over the last three years, it has become increasingly difficult to identify the differences between Reedus the actor and his poncho-clad, crossbow-wielding character, Daryl Dixon. "I don't know if that's a compliment or not," says Reedus, who has arrived on this day wearing sunglasses and a trucker hat that says DIXON TRAINING CAMP. (Throughout the interview, he holds a BB gun he usually keeps in his trailer.) The 44-year-old, originally from Hollywood, Florida, found cult-film success in the late '90s as Murphy MacManus in The Boondock Saints, but he almost quit acting before he auditioned for the AMC thriller.
"The constant up-and-down roller coaster of this business was getting on my nerves," admits Reedus, who also dabbles in art and photography. "But this job rebuilt my faith in what I do, finding the love for it again."
Reedus joined The Walking Dead in its third episode, playing one of the few characters not found in creator Robert Kirkman's comic book series; he quickly became a fan favorite. "No one brings a compelling, albeit broken, character like Daryl Dixon to life like Norman Reedus," says executive producer Gale Anne Hurd. "The viewer knows that inside his tough exterior beats a caring heart of gold."
Determined to avoid the "new guy" label, the actor threw himself headfirst into the role, which has resulted in numerous injuries. "This is my third black eye on the show," he says, removing his sunglasses. "I've been to the hospital multiple times. All of us have. You have to earn your place on the show as an actor. You have to get beat up."
This season, Daryl has earned his place within the prison council as a leader, having stepped up to fill the shoes of a battle-scarred Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and personally taken in road-weary strangers. He's also getting closer to Carol (Melissa McBride), a romance that he is in no rush to accelerate. "It has to be real, awkward and stretch out. It's one of those rare relationships on a show where all the little things are more important than just one big act of sex," Reedus says. "If you know a restaurant that has really good pie and you eat it every day, you don't want the pie. You just want a little taste, and it makes it a special thing."
Another of Daryl's relationships that had fans swooning last year is his bond with Rick's baby, Judith. But because of a dangerous flulike outbreak affecting the prison this season, Daryl must keep his distance from the little one. "Everybody's had a turn with the baby this season except me!" laments Reedus, who is aware that Daryl has been the focus of an Internet meme concerning the female reproductive system. "They're trying to keep all the exploding ovaries off the streets."
Daryl also has to recover from having had to put down his brother, Merle (Michael Rooker), who was transformed into a zombie at the hands of the Governor (David Morrissey). Reedus acknowledges that no character is safe in this postapocalyptic world and dreads the day he may have to face his own demise. "I don't want to be a zombie ever. I don't even want to put that makeup on," he says. "I don't want to say goodbye to everybody. I will play Daryl Dixon until I'm 80 years old."
Viewers' love for Daryl is apparent in the mountain of mail piled in the actor's trailer, which itself is adorned with gifts such as black cat masks in honor of Reedus's real-life pet), squirrel-themed toys and even a silicone breast implant that doubles as a cell phone charging station. Reedus credits this fan support as one of the elements that has kept Daryl from dying. "They would riot," Reedus says with a devious smile. "But everyone likes a good riot."
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.