Michael Rooker Interview: 'The Walking Dead' Ambles into Season 3
Image attributed to AMC
Born in Jasper, Alabama, Michael Rooker left the Deep South at thirteen years old to live with his mother in Chicago. His breakthrough film role was playing the title character in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a film based on the confessions of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas.
Rooker has appeared in numerous films over the years including Mississippi Burning, Eight Men Out, Sea of Love, Days of Thunder, JFK, Cliffhanger, Slither, Super, Tombstone and Mallrats. He has made appearances in the television shows Crime Story, The Equalizer, The Outer Limits, CSI: Miami, Las Vegas, Law & Order, Chuck, Criminal Minds, Psych and Burn Notice.
“Merle is not a bad guy. Merle is a survivor, and he’s living now along with every one of these survivors in a world that is different. You no longer have to be politically correct. You can do whatever you want. There are people in this group that want to set down these rules that society had set down prior to the zombie apocalypse just to try to maintain some semblance of a civilized world they’re living in, but it ain’t civilized anymore.”
The versatile actor currently portrays Merle Dixon on AMC’s post-apocalyptic drama series The Walking Dead. The third season of the show is scheduled to premiere on October 14, 2012.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Michael, tell me about your childhood in Jasper, Alabama.
Michael Rooker: I spent the first thirteen years of my life raising hell, causing trouble and getting run out of the house with broomsticks.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were bad?
Michael Rooker: No. I was a boy, and I would do boy things like chase the cats and fight with my cousins and all that kind of stuff, cause racket and get under people’s feet. They’d be like, “Get out of this house!” I spent the first thirteen years of my life playing, climbing trees and running through the woods.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Not thinking about being an actor?
Michael Rooker: Oh, never, never. I didn’t get into that until I was working through college. I did a two year school in Chicago called Wright Junior College, and that’s where I kind of discovered that I was pretty good at understanding and deciphering what’s in between the lines, so I was much better at understanding the “why” they were saying it than what they were saying. Everybody could understand what they were saying. That’s the easy part.
The “why” is sort of open for debate, so I guess in the courses I was taking in school, professors felt I had a really good knack for understanding the “why.” I was good at that and had no idea I was good at acting until I auditioned and got into the Goodman School of Drama. It was a three-year course on acting. From the time you woke up until the time you went to sleep, you were studying in one or two plays and all that kind of stuff.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your first movie, released in 1990, was Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a film based on the confessions of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas.
Michael Rooker: Right. I had worked little gigs here and there, but mostly I was involved in theater. I did theater for the first three or four years, and then I did television and film work.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Henry was a heavy role for an inexperienced actor.
Michael Rooker: It really was. It was a very challenging role and script.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The film was based on a true story. Did you research serial killers?
Michael Rooker: I read a little bit, and what I was reading wasn’t really grabbing me. I think what I saw was more of what helped me and influenced me in developing the role which was a little video piece of him (Henry Lee Lucas) talking and being interviewed by a Texas Ranger after he had been captured. In those videos was probably the most powerful kind of tool that I got to use before I actually began studying the piece. The rest was just my imagination.
My dad was a very soft-spoken individual, but when he spoke to us kids, everybody in the room would stop and listen, so even though he was soft spoken, you stopped and listened to what he had to say. That was the energy, kind of what I keyed into for that role. It worked quite well.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you receive any crazy fan letters after that performance?
Michael Rooker: There are a lot of Henry fans out there. It’s a very well respected movie, and I have three or four generations of fans based on that little film and probably thirty or forty seconds of footage from that film has gotten me more opportunities to do more different roles than anything else. It has actually gotten me film work, although I have to say on the other side of that double-edged sword, it has probably scared away some filmmakers, so I’m sure I’ve lost work.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you typecast after the film?
Michael Rooker: Well, I got cast in a movie called Eight Men Out because of Henry. Arnold “Chick” Gandil’s a tough guy, but he’s not a murderer or psychotic or anything. I got cast primarily because the producers, Sarah Pillsbury and Midge Sanford, saw thirty or forty seconds of that footage from Henry that Eight Men Out director John Sayles edited out and sent to them in California. As soon as they saw the footage, they were like, “Cast him!”
Getting that movie to play the first baseman “Chick” Gandil, not only cracked the door open, it blew it wide open! That got me my agent in New York City, which ended up getting my agent in Los Angeles, which ended up getting me seen for Mississippi Burning and Sea of Love. It just started the ball rolling, and I was going from one film to another film. It was that domino effect which lasted for quite a long time and is still going. I think the longest I’ve been out of work in my entire career, actively searching for a job, was maybe seven months or so in my whole career.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Mississippi Burning was loosely based on the FBI investigation into the murders of three civil rights workers. Did you personally witness racial discrimination growing up in the South?
Michael Rooker: Oh, yeah. I grew up in the South, and when I was a little kid, they were still segregated. I experienced it more actually when I moved to Chicago than I did in the South. Even in the mid to late 1960s when I was growing up, I didn’t experience it that much, but I experienced it more when we moved to Chicago. There was a lot of segregation there and a lot of racism going on at that time, not just between whites and blacks, but Hispanics and the Mexican people.
Chicago was a segregated city and segregated literally from neighborhood to neighborhood. It was really amazing. You had to know which neighborhood to walk through. If you walked through the wrong neighborhood, you’d get your ass kicked simply because you looked a certain way. I moved from Alabama into that which was a whole new culture shock. You had to learn the rules. You had to sense when to turn and walk the other way. You had to know when to fight and when to run.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Michael, you were involved in the film Super a couple of years ago.
Michael Rooker: It was a very fun movie. I had worked with James Gunn, the director, before in Slither, which had a bigger budget than Super. Super had no budget at all. Everybody did it as a favor gig for James. We had become friends. Whenever I’m free, and he’s doing a movie, it may not pay a lot of money, but I’m going to be in it. As a matter of fact, I directed a little piece called Pennhurst. It’s still in the works. James and his brother, Sean Gunn, are part of the sequence that opens my movie, so they work for me this time around. I got a little payback for them.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have done so much television work.
Michael Rooker: I have more TV credits than I ever thought I’d have or ever wanted to have (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve been in two of my favorites, Criminal Minds and Burn Notice.
Michael Rooker: Oh, yeah. I’ve done both of them.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I believe you played a good guy on Criminal Minds.
Michael Rooker: I don’t play the bad guy all the time. Most of my characters are kind of tough, though.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you a guy who likes to do his own stunts?
Michael Rooker: I’m very physical. What I do I don’t consider stunts. A stuntman is going to consider everything a stunt. That’s how they get paid. That’s what they do, but as a physical actor and also from the theater, I learned martial arts, so I’m a very physical person. I enjoy getting down and dirty. It’s just like being a kid again. I like wrestling around, pretending to be hit and falling over a table. Gosh, that’s the best part! I love that stuff, and I don’t consider them stunts.
I just consider it as part of my job because many of the roles I play are like that. The stunt guys know that it’s better if the actor can do it, but they don’t want the actor to get hurt. That messes up production and messes up you playing the role. I’ve done some dangerous things in my career, but you live and learn. You think, “I can do this, but I don’t want to do this.” There’s always a chance that you could hurt yourself, and then you can’t work or be out of the film for a few weeks.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have a favorite film role?
Michael Rooker: I really enjoyed Days of Thunder. Driving the car was just so amazing! I enjoyed Eight Men Out and loved getting to play baseball all day.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Let’s talk about The Walking Dead and the return of Merle Dixon. Isn’t Merle a bad guy?
Michael Rooker: Merle is not a bad guy. Merle is a survivor, and he’s living now along with every one of these survivors in a world that is different. You no longer have to be politically correct. You can do whatever you want. There are people in this group that want to set down these rules that society had set down prior to the zombie apocalypse just to try to maintain some semblance of a civilized world they’re living in, but it ain’t civilized anymore.
There are monsters out there that will eat you. You’re no longer the head of the food chain, baby. They’re eating your ass up, so survival is key and Merle is the ultimate survivor. We haven’t really seen Merle doing much surviving except for what happened on that rooftop, and that is extreme. That proves to everyone watching that Merle is a human being and not some classified bad guy. Merle is a human being that is big time living, surviving and fighting. That’s who Merle is.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): He has one arm now?
Michael Rooker: He has one hand. Thank goodness, he still has his arm. That would be really tough to do a role with one arm. That would so suck.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Reminds me of the one-armed bad guy in The Fugitive.
Michael Rooker: We’ve come a long way, though. They would do the whole green screen thing now, but you’d still have to have the arm taped down because you would move differently. Your balance would be different. With no hand, from the waist down, it’s still going to be an interesting thing for me as an actor. I do things left-handed anyway, so I’m practicing even more.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It shouldn’t be too much of a disability since the right hand was lost, and you are left-handed.
Michael Rooker: It’s a disability, but you can still get around. There’s a wrestler in the MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) who has maybe just his thumb, and let me tell you, when he slams that forearm down on you, you ain’t getting out. He hits with it, too. There is no disability going on. There is no disability with Merle. He’s missing some digits and a thumb, but there is no disability.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The Walking Dead is shot on 16mm. I guess that is what gives it a special gritty look.
Michael Rooker: I like watching the show on my old black and white set.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have many fans from The Walking Dead.
Michael Rooker: There are Rookerholics, the Dixon Vixens, the Dixon Dolls, and then there’s the Rooker Nation. We have a bunch of fan-based Twitter and Facebook sites that are all about Merle and Daryl Dixon. Terms have popped up completely from the Internet like “Get Rookered.” I’m a verb now (laughs). When you get Rookered, it can be construed as a negative or positive, but mostly to get Rookered, it ends up being tough love. It’s tough love coming at you. That means you’re getting smacked down or shook up, but it always ends up being positive. Your getting Rookered is a good thing.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you personally on Twitter or Facebook?
Michael Rooker: Yeah. I started doing that a couple of years ago before The Walking Dead, so I have a little footprint on the Internet and have a website. Some of those sites out there are totally controlled by zombies and aliens (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is there a role you wanted over your career that you lost to another actor?
Michael Rooker: There are a few of those, oh my goodness. Looking back over my career, the roles I really dug are the roles of people that are really tough folks, not all the time tough in a negative way, but just really tough like gritty and real, real people with dimension and depth. The harder the role, the better I like it.
When I read a script and go, “Wow. I don’t know how to do this or I know how to do this, but it’s going to be a kick ass gig,” those are the ones I want. You do the easy ones, and it pays the mortgage, but you’ve got to find a way to make them intriguing. The ones I usually choose, if I have the choice, are the ones that are really quite ambiguous in a way. You don’t know if the guy is bad or good, and you can see a little of both.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is there a release date set for Brother’s Keeper?
Michael Rooker: Probably next March. It was filmed in Georgia.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I read that it was classified as a Christian film.
Michael Rooker: Yep. I wouldn’t describe it as that. In reality, it’s about these two brothers, these twins, and one brother goes beyond the call of duty. Through his faith, he ends up saving an innocent man.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Perhaps it is classified as Christian because there is a moral to be learned.
Michael Rooker: Exactly. Yes, it does. The film is beautifully shot.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In all of your acting work, I don’t see much comedy.
Michael Rooker: I really enjoy comedy and would do much more of it if I had the opportunity. My timing is pretty damn good. I’ve done a few, Mallrats is one, but not many. I wish I could do more. Edgy and sardonic is great, but not this “yuck yuck” stuff. I love physical comedy and Mallrats was quite physical.
Mostly on television, it’s situation comedy stuff. It’s written well, but I don’t really see myself doing that. Primetime comedy is where you have to have so many laughs in so many minutes. I don’t think I’d be very good at that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Michael, what advice would you give to a novice just starting out in the business?
Michael Rooker: Keep trying. Every time you go for an audition, you’re going to learn something. Keep working. I was always given that advice. If you get a gig, do it. It may not be the perfect job for you, but you will stretch and learn something new. You’ll meet new people and new connections, people that are doing the same thing you’re doing. You build your family of acquaintances of work related friends and eventually things that go around come back around. You may work with them again one day when you’re further along in the business. Be patient and don’t give up. Just keep on working.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are your two daughters interesting in acting?
Michael Rooker: One is in high school and is very mathematical. She wants to be a physicist. My other one is an artist. She sculpts and makes jewelry. I consider myself an artist and feel very connected with artists whether they’re painters or jewelry makers. We’re all made from the same cloth.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Absolutely. How do you relax, Michael?
Michael Rooker: I go to the shooting range. I’m a shareholder in one of the largest shooting ranges in Los Angeles County. I love hitting targets. I like the diversity of rifle and pistol shooting. I love skeet shooting. I’m not a master of any. I just really enjoy going out there. It’s very relaxing.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What do you watch on television?
Michael Rooker: I hardly watch anything. Sometimes, I watch myself. I’m a big fan of The Walking Dead. I watch that every Sunday with my family. We all sit down and watch it together. I enjoy the show and like to see what these people are going through. I’m just like everyone else in the fan base world of The Walking Dead, like, “What? I can’t believe they did that! Why did they take him home with them? I’d let that son of a bitch rot!” You know, everybody’s got an opinion.
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