“If Daryl Dies, We Riot.”
The slogan is on T-shirts, bracelets, and posters found everywhere fine zombie goods are sold. Over four seasons, more than half of The Walking Dead’s original characters have met gruesome deaths. Fans mourn, then move on. But when it comes to the show’s crossbow-slinging, poncho-flaunting redneck Daryl, responses to his (inevitable?) death promise to be more…dramatic.
Whenever anyone brings up his near-cult of fanatics, actor Norman Reedus’s go-to response is a laugh and, “I love a good riot.” But earlier this summer, executive producer Robert Kirkman told Comicbook.com that the threats he regularly gets from Daryl die-hards may actually cause more harm than good. “That fan reaction is going to get him killed,” Kirkman said. “I feel like it’s a dare. Like, ‘Oh, really? You’re gonna riot? We’ll see, we’ll see. No one is safe.”
Reedus’s response to this is more impassioned.
“Leave [Kirkman] alone!” he yells, sans southern twang, during an interview with The Daily Beast. “Leave him alone, don’t give him any ideas! You know what I’m saying? Take it back!”
But The Walking Dead’s fans are a zealous bunch. At the end of episode four this season, Rick seemingly kicked Carol, one of the series’ original characters, out of the group for good. The backlash came strong, swift—and straight into Reedus’s pocket.
“I was watching the episode last Sunday, when Rick leaves Carol behind. All of a sudden I got all of these text messages like, ‘What the fuck’s wrong with him? How could he do that?!’ They got seriously mad at him for leaving Carol behind!” Reedus laughs. “Andy [Andrew Lincoln, who plays Rick] happened to call me the next morning and I’m like, ‘Dude, everyone’s mad at you!’ He goes, ‘I know. I went to my local coffee shop this morning and they were like, ‘Who do you think you are? How could you just leave her on the side of the road like that?’ And [Lincoln’s] like, ‘Just give me my coffee. I stand behind my decision.’”
Every character has fans who say, “If that character goes, I’m gonna blow up a building,” says Reedus. But none have quite the following that Daryl Dixon does. Unlike most of the others on the show, Daryl is not based on anyone in The Walking Dead graphic novel series. He was created especially for Reedus after producers watched him audition for the part of Merle Dixon (the violent, racist character who ended up being Daryl’s older brother). Piecing Daryl together was a collaborative process between Reedus and the directors that resulted in a hard-on-the-outside, softie-inside guy who audiences are now fiercely attached to.
“There were early scripts that had me being racist and taking drugs and just playing Merle’s part,” Reedus remembers. “And I fought not to take drugs and not to say racist things. I wanted him to grow up being sort of embarrassed of who he was, so that when people start to trust him and believe in him, it means more to him than what you think. Being accepted is a big deal to him.”
Enter Daryl’s romances. The Internet turns into a collective version of the mom from Goodfellas when it comes to the youngest Dixon: All it wants is for him to settle down with a nice girl. He’s thought to have shared a special connection with Carol (portmanteau: Caryl). But there’s a special subset of fans devoted to a different, more badass Walking Dead pairing: Daryl and Michonne (portmanteau: Dixonne).
“Never say never,” Reedus says of the possibility. “She’s a cute girl. I’m not opposed to it.”
The two had a few close moments in episode four, when Michonne finally gives up her futile missions outside the prison in search of the Governor.
“In that whole scene, there’s so much of me telling her to stay,” Reedus says. Of the moment when Daryl tells Michonne that he’d be out there hunting with her if the trail hadn’t gone cold, Reedus says, “I like the way that played out, when she said, ‘You’re right.’ I don’t even look at her, I’m just like, ‘Good.’ I don’t like it when things get overly sentimental. You think about these characters and their life, it’s just tragedy on tragedy on tragedy. I like the fact that she’s starting to integrate into this group and she’s starting to let things go. It’s nice to see her smile.”
Those smiles don’t come often. The Walking Dead’s mortality rate, at its most brutal, can claim multiple major characters in one episode. Combined with zombie-slaying stunts and the scorching Georgia heat, conditions on set can be grueling. Happily, the actors have a special way of blowing off steam.
“There’s certain heavy scenes where Rick and I will be alone, doing something very heavy,” Reedus says. “And I’ll look over at him in the middle of the scene and whisper, ‘I love you.’ And then he’ll look over at me and whisper, ‘Fuck you.’ You know, or vice versa. We’re constantly playing with each other.”
The Walking Dead is not the only job Reedus is busy with these days. Sunlight Jr., the film he completed with Sherry Baby director Laurie Collyer and costars Matt Dillon and Naomi Watts, hits theaters on Friday. He plays Justin, an abusive man of the jean shorts and wife-beater-wearing variety, who regularly stalks and intimidates his former girlfriend Melissa (played by Watts). Melissa is a struggling convenience store employee who supports herself and her disabled boyfriend, Richie (Dillon) with her minimum-wage job—which means living out of a motel, stealing gas, and working night shifts. While Justin is the film’s least likable character, Reedus sees the good in him. He even says there’s “a little bit of Daryl in there—minus the redneck part.”
“He’s such a hard guy on the outside, but he just wants her back,” says Reedus. “He misses her and he doesn’t know how to tell her that…That’s why I loved the story, it seemed like it wasn’t favoring one side or the other. It just seemed like a slice of life, like you were a fly on the wall during a shitty time in these people’s lives.”
In one scene, Melissa comes to Justin after discovering that she’s pregnant. With nowhere else to turn, she asks to borrow money—but Justin explodes into a jealous rage, screams obscenities at her, and hits her. Reedus says even pretending to abuse an actress of Watts’s stature was mortifying.
“I remember my first line in the film was to Naomi and it was ‘I can smell your pussy through this glass,’” he says. “And I was like, I’m sorry about today! I’m sorry about what I’m gonna do to you tomorrow! I’m working with such an awesome actress and I’m yelling at her and slapping her and I was like, God, what a—fuck, man, what a dick!”
There’s also the film that made him famous: The Boondock Saints. It’s been four years since the second installment in the cult favorite series about Boston vigilantes Connor and Murphy McManus. According to Reedus, director Troy Duffy envisions a prequel TV series that would have teenagers replace Reedus and Sean Patrick Flanery as the McManus brothers.
“I never saw the Boondock Saints as a TV show, to be honest,” Reedus says. “I mean, I get it. You solve a crime and then they explain how it’s done. But that’s kind of like all the other shows.”
Though Reedus says that both he and Flanery gave their blessing for the TV show, both actors are in favor of putting an end to the McManus story once and for all with a third film. Duffy has said he is still working on the script (he has promised a “more introspective” movie that provides “a lot of answers” to fans’ questions about the brothers).
For now, at least as long as Daryl stays alive, Reedus is fully committed to The Walking Dead and his adopted family of zombie survivalists. The stakes on the show are higher than ever before: The Governor is back and the prison fence is broken—but there is one part of season four we sadly won’t get to watch: Reedus wanted Daryl to have a dog.
“Robert was like, ‘There’s no way you’re having a dog. Forget it,’” Reedus says, laughing. “He was like, ‘Cause you’re gonna need three dogs to play the one dog and no one’s even gonna look at you, they’re just gonna look at the dog.’ And I’m like, ‘Nooo, you know, it’ll be like Mad Max! He needs a dog!’ I had all these reasons, like, ‘It’ll bark if there’s walkers, it’s a companion, it symbolizes this and this. It’ll be great!’” And so we’re left wondering: If Daryl named Rick’s baby Lil’ Asskicker, what would the redneck softie name his dog?