Before he landed a role on The Walking Dead as a crossbow-wielding redneck zombie hunter, or fathered a child with former Victoria's Secret model Helena Christensen, or made vigilantism look cool in The Boondock Saints (I and II), or had an action figure made in his likeness (complete with poncho), Norman Reedus thought maybe he'd be an artist. "I did this one show where I cut up a piece of rock and made a giant vagina with a clitoris," he says, smiling roguishly as he downs his umpteenth cappuccino at a Little Italy cafe near his Manhattan apartment. "I was living in downtown Los Angeles before that was a thing, working at a motorcycle shop called Dr. Carl's Hog Hospital." Having fallen in with an artsy crowd, he "would weld or smash together metal rib cages and pelvic bones and jawbones. All my artwork is like this – grotesque, but really beautiful in a way."
So it's fitting that Reedus, 45, would later find himself playing The Walking Dead's unkempt and yet adored Daryl Dixon, head-butting the undead on a show that's both TV's ickiest and AMC's most popular. In fact, Dixon was meant to be a pretty ugly character – early drafts of the script cast him as a racist druggy – until Reedus saw fit to fix him up. "It was written very 'Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.' I said, 'I don't want to do that. I don't want to take drugs. I want to have grown up in that environment and then been embarrassed of it.' " That inner turmoil (and Reedus' oft-bare biceps) has turned Daryl into the show favorite and Reedus into the type of actor whose fans go by such monikers as Reedusluts and Dixon's Vixens. He's been sent a breast implant. He signs a lot of butts. "I've seen daryl tattooed on maybe a thousand people. I've been asked to put my breath in a bottle and seal it up. I've had babies named after me. There was one lady who asked me for an autograph, and she pulled a chicken out of her shirt – she wanted me to hold her chicken." (He did.)
Today, though, he's endearingly rumpled and slightly frazzled. "I woke up at 6:45, made breakfast – eggs, cereal, fruit, just a smorgasbord – woke up my son, organized his stuff, drove him to school, came back, tried to organize my house, FreshDirect came, I started to answer emails, and made a bunch of those," he says wryly, nodding toward his coffee. Because The Walking Dead shoots in Georgia seven months of the year, Reedus' time in New York is often spent in father mode. "He's a cool kid," he says of his 14-year-old son, Mingus. "He started a band called God Fart. I've got a video of him skateboarding around the streets of New York in an old dress." Of course, having a dad who fights zombies on TV certainly helps with the cool quotient. "He's funny, though. I was just going through his closet, and I was like, 'What can I get rid of? We're downsizing. What do you not wear anymore?' " Reedus laughs. "He made a giant pile of Daryl Dixon T-shirts."
Reedus' own childhood was one that he says prepared him well for playing the outsider. He was born in Hollywood, Florida, but his parents split when he was a young boy, and by the time he was in his late teens, he'd lived in at least a dozen cities, as his mom jumped from job to job. "She was a Playboy bunny, taught kindergarten in Harlem, sold coffins for a while – she called them 'eternal beds.' " Over time, Reedus got used to this itinerant life. "It became just the way that it was. All the weird little defense mechanisms you put up as part of being the new kid in school, being in a new area, constantly having to bounce around – it kind of helped me do what I do now in a weird way." Having been "in general a shitty student" who hung with the punk rock kids, he'd "almost" graduated before dropping out to travel. "I remember telling one of my teachers, 'I'm going to move to Japan.' I think it was in geometry class, and she was like, 'You should. You should leave.' " Reedus did, moving first to Tokyo, then London ("I ended up squatting in a house with a bunch of people, worked at a postcard shop in Piccadilly, basically lived off potatoes"), and then Spain ("I was living sort of by the ocean in a shitty little apartment where salt water came out of the tap"), before following a girl to L.A. and getting the job at the motorcycle shop. The night after being fired – "I got in a fight with the owner over a pit bull who was chewing the sideboards of a hot rod I was building in the backyard" – he got so drunk at a party in the Hills that his bad behavior caught the attention of some industry folks. "I had a friend's big, broken glasses on, and I was going off. It was a production," he says. "It was a thing." When asked if he might want to be in a play, his first question was "Does it pay?"
He's since appeared in more than 30 films and a slew of music videos, including ones for Radiohead, Björk, and Lady Gaga. "Gaga's people asked if I could ride a motorcycle. I was like, 'Um, I'm on a motorcycle right now.' " He's modeled for Prada, Levi's, and Lexus, despite his own assertion that he's "probably not the best model – I'm short, 5-foot-10, and I drink beer and can't sit still for very long." And throughout it all, he's kept doing art, most recently directing a set of three very dark short films – "My mom watched and she looked at me afterward and said, 'You just ruined Christmas.' I think she was joking" – and publishing a book of photography entitled The Sun's Coming Up…Like a Big Bald Head, which he says is "literally a snapshot yearbook of the past 15 years of my life." There are adorable pictures of Mingus interspersed with such visual gems as the roadkill he'd pass on the back roads of Georgia as he drove his motorcycle to work. "I kept sending texts out to the cast: 'Hey, when you're driving to set and you see great roadkill, can you remember kind of where that is?' I had the whole cast looking for roadkill." Reedus grins at the thought. "They found some good stuff."