‘Walking Dead’ star Michael Rooker on tough love, Merle’s code
Michael Rooker has a sizable fan following — one amassed during a decades-long career that stretches back cinematically to his breakthrough role in the chilling underground film “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.” The grisly low-budget movie established Rooker’s bonafides when it comes to projecting an air of charismatic menace, a skill set he’s employed for a range of roles in film and on television, including the character he plays on AMC’s hit zombie series “The Walking Dead.”
And while Merle Dixon might not seem like the most affable guy, he does have his own code of honor, a kind of unique morality heavy on self-reliance and self-preservation, but not entirely without heart, especially when it comes to his brother Daryl, played by Norman Reedus.
“Merle does have a code that he lives by,” Rooker said on the Georgia set of the show earlier this year. “You know a lot of it already because you’ve seen him with Norman. His upbringing was with his brother. Tough love, moral code — if you fall down, pick yourself up. If you don’t pick yourself up, you’re going to get in trouble, so do it now.”
Merle’s brotherly love for Daryl ends up affecting some of the show’s survivors in unexpected ways this season, which marks a return for the actor after a considerable absence (he appeared briefly last year in a hallucinatory dream scene).
Taking a break from wearing the apparatus his character employs in the place of the hand he lost thanks to Rick Grimes way back in the first season of “The Walking Dead,” Rooker jokes about how Merle spent his time away — “Merle was in the Bahamas, sunning himself, chilling out” — but he’s clearly happy to have found a new role in the ensemble as the go-to muscle in Woodbury, working opposite David Morrissey as The Governor.
He’s also an eager defender of the character, who, though a fan favorite, isn’t exactly the most approachable of the survivors who populate the bleak Southern landscape in the series, adapted from Robert Kirkman’s acclaimed comic book.
“Merle for me has always been not at all what I think most people think of Merle, as somewhat of a cliched Southern bigoted redneck,” Rooker explained. “Merle’s been around the world, been around the corner a few times, had some knocks and bruises, encounters with law enforcement. And you know what? He’s a tough mofo, you don’t want to mess with him. In the way I sort of envisioned and developed the character, so far Merle is not some sort of psychopathic killing machine — when it comes to zombies, yes, he absolutely loves it and is quite good at it. [But now] Merle’s kind of found a home, but there’s still something missing, his family. His family is his brother.
“Family, that seems to be a big thing with this character,” Rooker continued. “Him and his brother are blood and that’s deeper and stronger than anything. It means everything to them and I think a lot of people tune into that from all the fan groups that have developed from this, that seems to be the throughline that connects them all, that brotherly love, that tough love. The way Merle brought up Daryl probably. If Daryl came home moaning about somebody picking on him, I see Merle picking him up by the nape of his neck, dragging him outside, going over and calling the guy out and saying, OK, let’s have it out. The tough straightforward attitude and way of dealing with issues, it’s a crazy kind of respect that people enjoy with characters like Merle.”
Given that Merle seems to comfortably fit within the range of roles Rooker has played in his lengthy career — tough-minded types that don’t suffer fools in a range of productions from “Days of Thunder” and “Mallrats” to “Slither,” “Super” and a host of TV shows — is it safe to say that Rooker’s drawn to these types of characters, hard-luck survivors with a possibly violent streak?
Yes and no. What the actor seems to enjoy most is moral ambiguity, men who can’t easily be categorized as good or evil.
“I have an affinity for people who are a lot of time are on that wire, good, bad,” Rooker said. “There’s no good guy, bad guy in my mind. We all are capable to doing great heroic deeds and stupid things as well, mistakes. I like characters that are tough but would jump out in front of a semi to save a little kitty… Merle likes kitties and little puppies, little kids. Merle likes these little innocent things. Merle doesn’t like idiotic, stupid people, small-town sheriffs who leave me cuffed to a pipe on a rooftop and stick their noses into affairs that they don’t need to be sticking their noses into.”