Interviewed by Michael Juvinall – Horror Society
Veteran actor and fan favorite Michael Rooker is one of those guys that is so good at what he does that he’s an actor fans love to hate. He’s had so many memorable roles in films most recently as “Merle Dixon” from The Walking Dead and “Yondu” from Guardians of the Galaxy. Rooker himself told me that before Guardians of the Galaxy came out, most fans knew him primarily from The Walking Dead, but after Guardians came out it was about 50/50 Merle and Yondu. But we can’t sell the man short with just those two roles he’s done recently, no sir. He’s had a very memorable career starting out with the extremely dark and gritty role as the infamous real-life serial killer “Henry Lee Lucas” in 1986’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. The exposure and word-of-mouth that role gave allowed his star to take off. After that Rooker was cast in major films such as Eight Men Out (1988), Mississippi Burning (1988) and Sea of Love (1989).
After these films gave Rooker more notoriety, he began playing memorable bad guys in such films as Days of Thunder (1990) opposite Tom Cruise, Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), Cliffhanger and Tombstone both in 1993. He even tried his hand at comedy in Kevin Smith’s Mallrats (1995), but it’s his horror output that has made Rooker the industry icon he is today. Films like The Dark Half (1993), The Bone Collector (1999), Slither (2006), Hypothermia (2010), and of course The Walking Dead (2010-2013) have elevated him to legend status among his fans.
I recently had the immense opportunity to sit down with Michael Rooker and speak with him about The Walking Dead, his past horror output, and what’s in store for the future.
Horror Society: Your character Merle on The Walking Dead showed up very early on in Season 1 and then you showed up again at the end of Season 2 and then Season 3. Did you have any idea after the first couple of episodes that you would be back or did you just think it was just a two episode gig?
Michael Rooker: It was going to be a couple of episodes leading up to Season 3 then I became a regular in Season 3. I came back prior to Season 3, I came back toward the end of Season 2 as a hallucination in my brother’s mind.
Horror Society: When you found out your character was going to be killed off, how did you feel at the time. Were you prepared for it?
Michael Rooker: Yeah, oh yeah. You’ve got to be. I knew about two weeks out. I had about two weeks to prepare.
Horror Society: In Slither, another one of my favorite films of yours. You had to wear a substantial amount of makeup effects in that film. Was that the most makeup you’ve ever had to wear in a film before? Was that as grueling to wear as it looked?
Michael Rooker: Oh yeah, that was the most makeup. You sort of forget you have it on but yeah, it was a tough makeup. We had to deal with prosthetics that had puppets built in, the tentacles on my head had to be operated by a puppeteer. So coordinating that puppeteer with my movements and what James Gunn was screaming out from back behind the camera what he wanted to see. It’s a complicated few moments of concentration to get done.
Horror Society: How long were you in the makeup chair every day?
Michael Rooker: Well, there were several versions of Grant Grant’s evolution. The house monster was the longest; it was about 7 hours or so. The others were of varying times. I remember that was pretty crazy.
Horror Society: I can imagine. Another one of your films I think was very good and underrated was The Dark Half. You worked with George A. Romero in that. The way I see it, without George Romero, there probably wouldn’t be a Walking Dead. What was your experience working with Romero on The Dark Half?
Michael Rooker: It was great; he’s a great guy, a great director. We’re still buddies, I see him every now and then at these cons and stuff, he comes down from Canada and joins us, we have a great time. I don’t know about that whole zombie thing but he did an awesome job, it was a very memorable film, Night of the Living Dead.
Horror Society: So was your role in The Dark Half, I really enjoyed that.
Michael Rooker: Thanks.
Horror Society: These days a lot of the younger fans of course know you from The Walking Dead and Guardians of the Galaxy. The first movie you really cut your teeth on was Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and a lot of your fans only know that movie second hand from DVD and video. I was fortunate enough to see the movie in the theater when I was 18 and I remember thinking how vile and repulsive the movie was. Did you have any idea when you were shooting it that it still be relevant and become a classic as it is today?
Michael Rooker: No, not at all actually. I just had lunch with John McNaughton and we’re still baffled and pretty happily so. When you first saw it, that experience is memorable as well I’m sure. Your reaction to the film was if you remember, films back then had a lot of action and a lot of violence and so I think people at that time were getting very calloused over when it comes to violence in the cinema. So this was our answer to that. We tried to do it in a very mundane and naturalistic kind of way. He’s just a regular guy, serial killer. He could’ve been sitting on the train on his way to work, you never know.
Horror Society: You were living in Chicago at the time if I recall. Where was Henry shot at in Chicago?
Michael Rooker: It was shot in an area that’s referred to as Buck Town and around that area. We shot a little bit in my actual neighborhood; we had an apartment location that was right in Buck Town, right off Damon.
Horror Society: If you had a dream project you could work on with no limitations, what might that be?
Michael Rooker: I don’t know. I don’t even think that way.
Horror Society: Nothing that you’ve really wanted to do that you’ve told yourself that one day I want to do this or I want to do that?
Michael Rooker: I like very subtle, very intricate pieces that aren’t very exciting and if I were to do something, I’d like it to be similar to some of the movies that I grew up watching in the 70’s and some of them were horror movies like from Australia and places like that, it’s just very subtle and quaint, normal. Not everything has to be so extreme, life and death extreme you know. They’re still making movies like that so one day I might take the opportunity to do something like that.
Horror Society: What do you have coming up that you would like to briefly talk about?
Michael Rooker: I just did The Belko Experiment and James Gunn wrote it and produced it. I’m looking forward to seeing that, we just finished filming that. You’re going to come back in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and perhaps Mallrats 2.
Horror Society: Any other genre projects coming out in horror or sci-fi, that type of thing?
Michael Rooker: Nothing in the can.
Horror Society: Thank you very much for speaking with me it was a pleasure to meet you.
*(Note: it has been rumored that we might see Michael Rooker’s character Merle from The Walking Dead again in the future. Rumors abound of a Merle and Daryl Dixon spinoff series)