The “Walking Dead” actor, who has been part of the massive AMC franchise for 12 years and will continue after the show ends with his own spinoff, has come a long way since being discovered the day he was fired from a motorcycle shop after getting into an argument with his boss.
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His attitude may have gotten him fired — but it also opened another door wide open.
“A friend of mine said, ‘Hey, let me take you to a party to make you feel better. It was one of those big Hollywood parties in a big house,” he recalls of that night in 1990. “I was being an idiot, and got up on the second floor, looking down in the living room and just started yelling at people. This manager came up to me and said, ‘Hey, you ever thought about being an actor?’”
Shortly after, that woman introduced him to the director of “Maps for Drowners,” a play starring Lisa Kudrow. He landed an understudy role. At the time, he didn’t know what understudy meant, but they told him he’d probably never had to go on. Night one, the star couldn’t perform. Luckily, he had learned his lines; there was a William Morris agent, who is now a casting director, in the audience and the rest is history.
While nine years later, “The Boondock Saints” put him on the map, it was a movie in between that made him realize his love for acting: “Floating.” The film was about a teen kid ready to leave home as his father’s health was ailing.
“At the time, my real father was dying. We did a scene when the father kind of stands up out of the wheelchair and gives me a hug. It’s this big, emotional breakdown moment,” Reedus recalls. He asked for 10 minutes to prepare. “I called my real dad and had a conversation with him as best as he could. They came in and got me in, I put the phone away and I did the scene. I cried so much that so much stuff came out of my nose and it was just a big mess.”
From there, his career took off. At first, no studios would buy “Boondock Saints” because it was released following the Columbine shooting. “Instead of waiting, that director sold it to Blockbuster right away, back when Blockbuster was a thing,” he says. “There were three solid walls of ‘Boondock Saints,’ and then everything else.They said it was the most rented DVD in Blockbuster history. It was above ‘Titanic!’ It was ridiculous.”
While Reedus wasn’t a big TV watcher, he was auditioning all over. In 1999, he did his first pilot season and among the scripts were “The Walking Dead.” It was the only one in his pile that his team told him not to do — and the only one he liked. He originally went out for the part of Merle, but Michael Rooker booked it. After meeting Reedus, the creators made up a new character, Merle’s brother, Daryl Dixon, who wasn’t in the comic books.
“I didn’t think it would last this long and I definitely didn’t think I would last this long,” he says of the role. While “The Walking Dead” is airing its final eight episodes this fall, Daryl’s story will continue in a spinoff. “I feel like because he wasn’t in the comic book, and they let me run with it, I want to bookend it. I feel like I birthed this child and someone can’t tell me when it’s over. I want to see it either have a happy ending or not. That character, I got to really make it my own and that felt great to collaborate. At first, they had me taking drugs and being racist and all this stuff, and I convinced them that, no, no, I want to have grown up with it and been ashamed of it.”
Scott Gimple recalls his first time meeting Reedus when he came on as a producer in Season 2. “I remember shortly after my boots touched the gravel on set, Norman approached me to immediately talk about a story point. It was kind of an intense conversation right off the bat, because we weren’t in agreement,” he says. “But it was pretty cool because — BOOM — we were right into work and we both immediately discovered how passionate we are about storytelling. I immediately respected him beyond his talent as an actor. I saw he was the real deal.”
When Rooker left at the end of Season 3, Reedus gave a long speech to the writers about how Daryl now has an opportunity to “become my own person and not just mini-Merle.”
Spoiler alert: They listened. As the show continued to grow and had so many characters to cover, Reedus jumped at the opportunity to do more focused on Daryl. That’s why he signed on for a spinoff series, originally set around Daryl and Carol (Melissa McBride).
“It’s such a big show, there’s so many actors on it and there’s so much money behind it. It kind of went in a direction where it felt like all the things I had put into it and grown and learned from — I kept adding on to this pile of awesome stuff that I was adding — it kind of got overlooked because we had to feed the beast. We had to feed the show and all the people,” he says. “They hit me with this opportunity of doing something involving my character more and a world around him. I was like, ‘Yeah, let me put it to bed like that.’ I care too much about it to just go, ‘It’s over! Bye everyone.'”
For McBride, that passion and drive is what makes Reedus so good at his job — and the perfect Daryl.
“He owned it from his very first scene,” she says. “He’s unexpected, he’s involved, he’s unapologetic to feel things out and find something hidden or new. He works to make what’s good better and what is great, greater.”
And as Gimple sees it, “the Daryl Dixon that exists would not have existed without Norman Reedus. I’m not saying Norman is Daryl — but both he and his character are a complex mix of youth and wisdom, guardedness and warmth, strength and smarts. And Daryl could take Norman in a fight. Norman is a storyteller who says a lot with very little. Daryl needed that. He needed all of the colors, all the choices Norman brought Daryl.”
Reedus agrees the Daryl is much tougher than he is: “I’m a city boy putting together an art show in Paris right now. I’m taking pictures and editing! I do think Norman could ride a motorcycle better than Daryl, but Daryl would never wear a helmet.”
In April, AMC confirmed that McBride will no longer star in the spinoff with Reedus, as it filmed in Europe and relocating was no longer possible for her. Following the news, he defended her, saying she dissevered a break.
Now, he hints that there may be plans for Carol and Daryl.
When asked what a world around Daryl looks like since we know McBride can’t come back, he answers, “How do you know she’s not gonna come back?”
After a pause, he continues: “The spinoff was announced before we even announced ‘The Walking Dead’ was ending. We always thought we were doing a show that would come back to the flagship show — we’d take off, then come back to the flagship show. Then they ended the flagship show, and it was us on our own. And then we shot for a year and a half straight, through the beginning of COVID. At that point, Melissa wasn’t going to do the show. And then she was going to do show. And then she wasn’t going to do the show. And then she needed a break and I went on TV and said she needs a break. I’m telling the truth. It’s always been the truth. But you don’t know she’s not going to show up on the spinoff.
“She’s a very big part of Daryl’s story,” he says. “It’s all gonna be OK.”
Besides continuing his reign as Daryl, Reedus is also looking to the future.
“There’s a lot of things on my list. I would love to be in a big movie franchise. I still like to do independent movies and I miss it,” he says. “The art stuff, I definitely do want to do more.”
However, a friend recently gave him a piece of advice: Hit pause. “I need to stop and smell the roses a little bit. Life is too short.”
WHAT: Norman Reedus receives a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
WHEN: 11:30 a.m. Sept. 27
WHERE: 6600 Hollywood Blvd.
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