Michael Rooker might be best known these days for his turn as divisive character Merle Dixon on The Walking Dead. However, Rooker's body of work spans nearly three decades, and he's got more credits to his name than just Merle. From the intense title role in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer to parts in Days of Thunder, JFK, and The Bone Collector, he's proven himself to be a versatile performer. Later this year, we'll have a chance to see Rooker take on what might be his most unique role to date: Yondu in Marvel's highly anticipated Guardians of the Galaxy remake.
This weekend, Rooker will be in town for Wizard World's Minneapolis Comic Con, an all-weekend event featured this week in our cover story. We had a lengthy chat with the laugh-filled Rooker about his time as Merle, getting blue in the face for Guardians of the Galaxy, and reminiscing about Mallrats at the Eden Prairie mall.
While Merle was introduced to The Walking Dead viewers as a serious racist and misogynist in the first season, he eventually grew on the audience as a survivor in a hostile world filled with walkers. Merle had quite the visceral, gruesome death in Season Three, as his brother stabbed him in the face after he became a walker. Rooker relished the chance to bring Merle's character around full circle.
"I tell people this all the time," he begins. "I have had -- so far -- the best story arc known to mankind. I just love every part of working on The Walking Dead and developing this character. So, to go out like a man -- this is kind of a crazy-weird phrase -- and become a zombie, is quite a trip. I enjoyed the hell out of it."
Since Merle Dixon isn't in the original graphic novel series, Rooker was able to work with the writers on how his character would meet his ultimate end. Instead of a big showdown between Merle and the Governor, Rooker thought it would be more in-character for the Governor to pull some shady business with his former right-hand man.
"[The writers] took my suggestions," he says. "I just didn't believe -- given the end result of that fight -- I did not believe that the Governor even had the balls to kick Merle's ass. The writers trusted my instincts, and wrote in a beat down between his guys and me. When I break down the door, they hit me with gun butts and kick me, and so it softens Merle up and the Governor just sort of finishes him off."
Rooker's favorite part of his last days on The Walking Dead was when he performed an unexpected stunt that left the crew with an unmanned car driving onward.
"The rolling out of the car was the best!" he says. "The director and everyone was in the car with me, and we're driving into the fields. The director goes, 'Now, Rooker, just open the door and act like like you're rolling out.' Right? So as we start going, I open the door, and I just rolled out. [laughs] And here they are, they're filming it, of course, and they're not worried about me. Don't think they're worried about me one iota!
"All they were worried about was that the vehicle had no driver -- it was still going!" he laughs. "We never even thought of that. But I just figured, 'I'm off the accelerator, the car's just going to roll to a basic stop.' They really had nothing to worry about, but that's all they were worrying about. They were like freaking out because they were like, 'Oh my god, the car has no driver!'"
While hindsight is 20/20, it seems obvious that a larger-than-life character like Merle Dixon would get a big following from fans and critics alike. But this wasn't always the case.
"Hell no," Rooker says when asked if he knew Merle would get so much attention. "I mean, I know people that like my work, but I had no idea that they were going to like my work. They really fell in love with this guy. Maybe I've cornered the market with characters that you absolutely love-to-hate but love, too. You cry when this guy dies."
Even though Rooker knows Merle went out in a blaze of glory, he still misses the character.
"Who wouldn't?" he says. "He's such a cad. Such a ladies' man. He's the ladies' man that never gets any ladies -- that's the problem! [laughs] Oh goodness. I would've loved to have continued to play Merle for many seasons to come, but that's not the case."
Instead, audiences can see Rooker performing again this August, this time on the big screen as the blue-tinted Yondu in Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy.
"I generally don't even worry about the physical transformations," says Rooker about becoming the cerulean Centaurian from the Zatoan tribe and one of the founders of the Guardians of the Galaxy. "I'm more of an internal transformation kind of guy. But with these kinds of things where you do truly have to have a lot of makeup it's exhaustive, and the people doing that craft are such artists."
Getting camera-ready each day meant that Rooker had to sit in the makeup chair for upwards of six hours before shooting even began. He relished the chance to watch the makeup artists work their magic on him, but Rooker reveals that more than once he got a little shut-eye on the job, too.
"All of a sudden, I'd feel these little fingers lifting my head up," he laughs. "You know, they'd been working on me this whole time while my head was down sleeping. I was probably drooling or snoring or whatever the hell I was doing. I fell dead asleep several times during those sessions."
"I'm ecstatic," Rooker says about joining the Marvel movie universe. "I'm joyful whenever I think about it. I jump up and down -- like when a fan sees me at an airport or something, and their body just sort of clenches up and they release by jumping up and down. When I think of Marvel and I think of my being in one of their films, which I hope is going to be the biggest thing yet this summer, it makes me jump up and down a little bit."
Rooker pauses and clarifies: "Inside! No, Michael Rooker slash Merle Dixon slash Yondu would never jump up and down. Don't even think it! But I do get a little weak and giddy, because it's just a beautiful thing."
Some filmmakers and actors don't watch their work after it hits the box office, but Rooker can't wait to catch the flick on the big screen and see what viewers think.
"I'm very much looking forward to seeing the end product," he says. "I'm very, very much looking forward to being in the theater, somewhere in the back watching the audience watch the film. I really enjoy doing that. I'm crazy-happy to be involved with these guys [at Marvel]. Hopefully it'll be a long relationship!"
While Rooker is sworn to secrecy about much of the film, he can't say enough about working with director James Gunn on the new superhero movie.
"Oh, let me tell you," he says. "[James Gunn] has got all the toys to make this. Marvel really let him have a lot of say. As a director, it's a big deal getting your say, so I'm very happy that I got to be in a project with my buddy again. We've been friends for a long time now. It's gonna be fun! But I'm not jumping up and down -- be cool, be cool."
It's been nearly 20 years since the cult classic Mallrats was filmed in Minnesota, but Rooker still has a special place in his heart for the movie and his character, Mr. Svenning, Brandi's father and the creator of the Truth or Date game show. He's even got the Svenning look back in rotation after prepping for his latest film.
"Who's your favorite, favorite person?" he says, the glee audible in his voice. "Mr. Svenning! Oh my god. You know, my hair is almost the same. I had to shave myself for Yondu, and I've just taken a liking to it. My head's not completely shaved, but it's very shortly cropped, and I think Mallrats fans are gonna be so excited to see an older, more mature, but definitely more handsome Mr. Svenning. [laughs] I hope they'll enjoy the look because it really hasn't changed all that much."
Local movie buffs will remember that the second installment of the Askewniverse films was made right in Minnesota at the neon-filled Eden Prairie mall back in 1995, and Rooker is eager to explore the area again.
"I may even go to that little mall," he says, excited when he hears about the ample changes made to the mall since he filmed there. "I think I will go and walk around! When we shot there, it was on its death throes. It was like, almost done."
Rooker, born in Alabama, moved to the Midwest as a teenager, so his fondness for Minnesota spans far beyond Eden Prairie.
"I love the whole area," he says. "I spent a lot of time in Wisconsin and Chicago. I grew up in the Midwest, so you know, Mall of America and all these places, Eden Prairie, were not unfamiliar to me when I was working there and we did the filming. I always look forward to going back to this region. So I'm really happy to hear that we got a big Mallrats contention. I really love this. This is great. This is really great. [Laughs] Yay!"
"I'm gonna really enjoy it," Rooker says about his time at Comic Con in Minneapolis. "I'm totally looking forward to it. What can I say? Everyday is like, 'Oh wow! I'm up, alive! There are no zombies at my heel.' I'm a happy camper, you know. So good, good, good. Love it."