When The Walking Dead's mid-season finale left Daryl Dixon's life hanging in the balance until February, the Internet almost collapsed. And for good reason: All we wanted for Christmas was to know that Daryl was safe and sound—and, if it wasn't too much to ask, to maybe see him playing Joseph to baby Judith's Jesus in a prison nativity scene. Instead, we're left listlessly trudging through the winter with haunting visions, recalling the premature departures of Jimmy Darmody and Ned Stark.
Our love of Daryl can be chalked up to the fact that Norman Reedus's nuanced portrayal of the southern lone wolf with a heart of gold adds a depth that can make the other characters seem one-dimensional. Somehow, he shows up first on our lists for every hypothetical situation (ex: Who would you most want to get a beer with? Who would you want with you in a knife fight? Who would you want to discuss the intricacies of Love Actually with?) In an exclusive interview, GQ caught up with Reedus, the actor who, armed with a crossbow and a scowl, has slaughtered his way into America's apple-pie heart.
GQ: Daryl's the ultimate survivor—how does this happen?
Norman Reedus: I had that same question, but I guess I was just outnumbered. I wanted them to put some bruises and blood on my face so it didn't look like I just gave up. When I was walking with that bag on my head, I tried to play it as scared as possible. I wanted to up the sibling ante a little bit and give Merle this look that said, "Big brother, save me" as much as possible.
GQ: It was a little bit surprising that Daryl wasn't just going apeshit trying to break away, but it added a certain vulnerability to the character.
Norman Reedus: Merle's face totally changed when I came out, too. We did some rehearsal and I was playing it a little more defiant, but when I went in that other direction—as sniffly and lost as possible—Merle's face is completely changed. I love that look that he gives me, like, "Oh fuck, I got us in this situation."
GQ: Daryl's the ultimate fan favorite—I think that's pretty much a given.
Norman Reedus: I talked to [showrunner and executive producer] Glen Mazzara the other day, and he told me he gets tons of mail that's like, "Don't kill Daryl." He was doing interviews and they asked, "So, you ready for Christmas?" and he's like, "No, Christmas is going to suck. I'm gonna have hate mail all through the holidays."
GQ: For a character who doesn't get the most lines, he's unusually complex.
Norman Reedus: When Daryl was first introduced, a lot of bloggers and fans of the show hated him and generalized him a Southern, redneck racist. I live in the South, and that's not really the case, certainly not in 2012. I'm not saying it doesn't exist, but you can't just categorize everybody who lives in the South as awful rednecks.
So it's more interesting to fight against that, and for him to have heart and want to help. Feeling wanted is a big deal to Daryl; he's never had people rely on him before, and that's what keeps him there. He could take off on his own and still make it, so why is he staying? You have to find all these different reasons to make it interesting for him to want to stay, and I think having this feeling of self-worth, maybe for the first time in his life, is one of those reasons. There are more things to do with this guy, still, and I'd hate to just throw it away to be a cartoon.
GQ: Do you think he's destined to take over leadership at some point?
Norman Reedus: No, I really don't. It's like with Randall in season two—Randall had information that would save the group, and there's this big discussion of, "Should we keep him? Should we put him to work? Should we kill him? Should we let him go?" And Daryl just said, "Fuck it, I'll take care of it. I'll just go in and beat the shit out of him 'til he tells me something." In his mind, he did something that would keep people alive, but he didn't come out and go, "Hey guys, I took care of it! Pat me on the back!" He just kind of slyly came out with bloody knuckles and said, "This is what's up." I think he's more that guy than a look-at-me, leader type. I don't think he really sees it as leadership; people have their duties in the group, and they do those duties.
GQ: How do you like working with the writers?
Norman Reedus: Oh, I love working with the writers, especially when certain scripts are more collaborative. I don't think anybody knows our characters better than the actors and that's just the bottom line. The writers write episodes that work for a TV show as a group and tell a story. The actors know their parts in telling those stories. We have a very good group of writers and they're all cool and they all listen and have great ideas to play with and the show wouldn't be as big of a success if we didn't have such talented writers.
GQ: How much input do you have into your character? I read that you wanted Daryl to be an Al-Anon member rather than an actual drug addict or alcoholic.
Norman Reedus: I thought it would be very one-dimensional to have him be mini-Merle. You have to think about the backstory and think, how does growing up with an older brother who's just hardcore nasty affect a young guy? Does he follow in his big brother's footsteps? Yeah, maybe in the beginning, but as he gets older, he probably wants to become his own person.
He's reinventing himself with this new world; there was an early script with a scene where, after the Sophia's death, Lori comes up to me and I'm taking all my brother's drugs, and that's just really not what I wanted this guy to be. I wanted him to be embarrassed of the way he grew up, and to be embarrassed when some racial slur came out of Merle's mouth. So I talked to the writers and, to their credit, they helped me develop this character, and I think one of the reasons Daryl's so popular is because he's fighting against this terrible thing he was doomed to become.
GQ: I can't imagine there are a lot of shows that would allow an actor to play that big of a role in shaping their character.
Norman Reedus: You pick your moments to fight for your character, and sometimes you have to just trust the writers and the people who are looking at the show overall. I just read this interview with Jack Nicholson, and he said sometimes he does things his way, and sometimes you just have to trust the writers, otherwise you're gonna do the same thing over and over that you think is cool. I think it's interesting to have a cool character not look so cool, you know? I don't mind if there's snot running down my nose, and my hair's all fucked up, and I look all weak, and it's not the best lighting. Good! Keep it that way! It's more interesting. Can you imagine if I just walked up to the camera and fuckin' struck a pose every fucking time with perfect lighting and perfect hair and did the same fucking thing every single time? It'd be boring as hell.
GQ: In what ways are you like Daryl?
Norman Reedus: Uh, I'm shy. I'm socially awkward. I'm a loner myself. I'm more of a listener than a talker. I value friendship—I'd do anything for my friends, and I think he's like that. I'm not afraid to take chances or go off on my own. And a lot like Daryl, I'll go off in a direction and try something completely wrong, and learn my lesson, [laughs] you know what I'm sayin'? And then all the obvious reasons I'm not like him one bit; I mean, I'm driving back to Manhattan with a cat in my lap right now.
GQ: What kind of cat do you have?
Norman Reedus: It's just this fat, black alley cat. My son wanted a black kitten when he was a kid, and I found it in the East Village in some rescue shelter, but it was born in a box and the guy that was getting rid of it was like, "You don't want this cat. This cat's never gonna love anyone." And the first time I saw it, it was like just hissing and scratching everything it saw and now it's like this big, fat, chill cat.
GQ: Chandler Riggs [Carl] said a lot of the adults on set act like kids, specifically you and Steven Yeun [Glenn].
Norman Reedus: I've always said that Daryl and Carl get along well, because Carl's like an adult kid and Daryl's a childlike adult. We goof off all the time on set. Andy [Lincoln, who plays Rick] and I, we'll do some big scene and when the camera's not in our faces and we're standing there together, I'll go, "I love you!" and he'll go, "Fuck you." Or vice versa. Yeah, we're always fuckin' around.
GQ: I'm pretty sure if given the option, most people would take Daryl as the one to have during an apocalypse. Do you think you'd be able to hold up as well personally?
Norman Reedus: Man, I'd probably do okay for a couple weeks, and then I'd just be really depressed. I mean, I like motorcycles, and I'd probably just get a backpack and a gun and whatever cash I can find and just grab my son and throw him on the back and head north.
GQ: You ride bikes?
Norman Reedus: I do, I have two motorcycles and I'm building a third one. I like bikes a lot. I have my own bike in Georgia, which is actually in [special effects make-up supervisor] Greg Nicotero's garage.
GQ: How long have you been riding for?
Norman Reedus: Geez, I've been riding since junior high, actually. It's amazing. I ride a bike to set when the weather's nice; it's the best way to get to set and back. It clears your head, and it's beautiful here.
GQ: What's better than that? You ride a bike to work, you go hack zombies for a little bit, and then you just call it a day.
Norman Reedus: Right? It's the best life ever. I'm so fortunate, it's ridiculous.