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Norman Reedus on Motorcycles, Multitasking, And That Mid-Season Finale: “This Was A Rough One”

Some of the most fascinating people in today’s culture are distinguished not just by their craft, but also by their passions. We call them the New Alphas.

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Spoiler Alert: Do not read if you haven't seen season five episode eight of The Walking Dead, “Coda”

For those of you still reeling from Sunday’s heart-crushing midseason finale of The Walking Dead, the man behind the show’s most popular and emblematic character has some advice that just might help. “Stay close to your loved ones and just tell them it’s all going to be okay,” says Norman Reedus, the onetime model and motorcycle mechanic who plays the crossbow-wielding Daryl Dixon, whose gut-wrenching farewell to Beth is still sending shockwaves across the Twitterverse. “Then think of all the new stuff you are going to get in the New Year. Think of all that good holiday fun you are going to have.”

Also, it may be a good time to remind yourself that such shocks as Beth’s demise are more or less what you signed up for when you started watching this show in the first place. “All our midseason finales are heavy for different reasons, but yes, this was a particularly rough one,” says Reedus, underplaying it just a touch. “That’s the nature of our show: whether you are killing somebody or somebody is trying to kill you, heavy things happen.”

Reedus— who admits spending his day job plumbing the emotional depths of surviving a zombie apocalypse “weighs on you a little bit”— has his own means of therapy. “I do my best thinking on a motorcycle,” says Reedus, 45, on the phone from his home in New York, where he arrived the day before Thanksgiving after the 13-plus hour ride from The Walking Dead’s Georgia set. “I’m able to decompress on a motorcycle. On a motorcycle, it’s a different kind of a vibe then anywhere else: you are wide open and it’s a feeling of freedom and isolation all at the same time. I get excited about things while I am on a motorcycle.”

It is also from the back of a bike that Reedus, who last year published his first volume of photography, The Sun’s Coming Up… Like a Big Bald Head, finds much of the inspiration for the art he creates away from the killing fields of The Walking Dead. “I did a whole show in Times Square of nothing but pictures of roadkill that I found on the street while I was riding to work in Georgia,” says Reedus, who prefers not to ride in the traffic of his home city. “I just found myself referring back to [The Walking Dead executive producer and special make-up effects supervisor] Greg Nicotero, and what he does [creating zombies]: you find the lost person behind the monster, and that’s what makes it scary and also sad. The more I did that, the more I started recognizing the roadkill wasn't just roadkill— it was once somebody’s cat.”

Reedus also finds plenty worth capturing among living subjects (he’s thinking his next show might be portraits), but as anyone familiar with his work could attest, his photography, like his acting gigs and most everything else Reedus finds himself drawn to, has a decidedly dark streak. He can’t help it, he says, he was born that way. “I have always sort of gravitated towards dark things, even as a kid I used to draw them,” says Reedus, who was born in Hollywood, Fla. but moved to L.A early on. “I think when you’re young and you are into dark things, it’s kind of fun to find something funny in it. With the fun, sometimes you can make something real that’s less scary, and you can laugh at it.”

While his photography may not necessarily serve as an escape from Daryl’s bleak landscape of walkers, the more he exists in that world, the more he feels compelled to create images of his real one, be them dark or otherwise. “I always thought I would do more than one thing at once,” he says. “All my life, I’ve always had a couple of things happening all at the same time. I don’t know why I’m like that, if it’s my lack of focus or I am just flighty, but I have always felt the need to do multiple things at the same time.”

He works in different disciplines, but that doesn't mean they don't feed into each other. “I think it started out as totally different things and as I get older they sort of blend into one thing,” says Reedus, who is also a painter. “How can I put this? Like, I feel like if you can understand piano and you can learn piano and you can understand tones and timing and rhythm and space, I feel like later on, you can use that to understand how to cook. You can learn flavors.”

Reedus, father to Mingus, his son with former partner Helena Christensen, takes this same restless, learning-as-you-go approach to parenthood as he does to creating art. “My son is very much his own person,” explains Reedus, whose son turned 15 this past October. “I am still kind of trying to figure out my stuff out and he is trying to figure his stuff out too, and it’s a very even-keeled combination of both of us on this road together. I don’t think he is a Mini-Me so much as we are both related and we are both very similar and we are both in the process trying to figure ourselves out.”

When he was Mingus’s age, he didn't have a clue what lay ahead, only that he wanted to go out searching for it. “I was only kind of serious about what’s around the corner and what’s over that horizon and the next,” he says. “My dad used to joke about it, that I used to always say, ‘Why? Why? Why?’ to everything. It was more like I wanted to discover more stuff. So I was always like looking for what’s around the corner.”

For some, Reedus’s latest project, a book of Daryl Dixon fan art called Thanks For All The Niceness, might smack of self-aggrandizement; for him, it’s further evidence of his seemingly bottomless curiosity and desire to connect. “I originally wanted to do it with art of every actor from the show, but I had to remove everybody but me in the book for life issues and so forth, so I did,” explains Reedus. “Then I thought, ‘Oh man, that’s kind of narcissistic.’ But then I’d already worked so hard on it with so many people for months and promised all these young artists that they would be published artists and all the money was going to charity, and couldn’t just back out. But when I started to put them all together, it became very little about me. It became more about the people and their artwork and their interpretation of Daryl. Some people made him scared and some people made him super tough, but it was really about them in the end and their interpretation.”

Fortunately for all of those fans and countless others, Daryl’s journey continues on, unlike Beth’s. “Hopefully, this chapter won’t end for me anytime soon,” says Reedus. Until that day comes, he’ll deal with the fragility of life on a show that regularly features losses as dramatic as the one that came Sunday by taking pictures, painting, riding, and always, always searching. “Sometimes you deal with fears and anxieties in ways that you don’t realize that you are dealing with them,” he says. “I feel like they’re sort of in the unsatisfied feeling that you get even when you are satisfied. Like, if I am taking a photograph, I can take a hundred pictures of the same still thing and still try to find different things in it. I can do the painting or whatever it is, and I’ll never feel like there is ever a time when I am ever truly done.”