Norman Reedus: “The More You Unravel Him, the Less You Understand”

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"He's sort of an enigma wrapped in a conundrum," a co-star says. "The more you unravel, the less you understand."Photograph by Marc Hom

A run-down corner of New Orleans’ Upper Ninth Ward, across a canal from a train depot and salvage yard, a motorcycle club called the Caramel Curves is hosting a very special guest. The Curves aren’t your typical bikers: all-female, all-African-American, and, in their halter tops and tights, notably sexier than the average Hells Angel. They pop wheelies on 1000cc sport bikes, wear helmets topped with pink Mohawks, and hashtag their Instagrams #BBOB — Bad Bitches on Bikes. Right now, as a Curve named Tru demonstrates how to do a burnout on her 1300cc Suzuki, pink tire smoke enveloping her five-inch heels, 47-year-old actor Norman Reedus can’t conceal his delight.

“Man, I couldn’t even walk in those,” Reedus says, checking out her shoes. “I don’t know how you do that!”

Reedus is best known for playing Daryl Dixon, the crossbow-toting, motorcycle-riding redneck on The Walking Dead, who over the show’s six seasons has gone from supporting character to undisputed favorite. (A popular fan slogan: “If Daryl dies, we riot.”) Today he’s in New Orleans for his new side gig — a motorcycle-themed documentary series that premieres this month on AMC called Ride With Norman Reedus. Each week, Reedus and a different “co-rider” will tour a pocket of America, stopping to hang with locals like the Curves along the way. “It’s not a gearhead show,” Reedus says. “More like a travel show with motorcycles.” Think Anthony Bourdain on bikes.

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This episode is the last of the season: It’s a three-day trip through southeastern Louisiana with Reedus’ buddy Brent Hinds, guitarist for the metal band Mastodon. They started in Lafayette, where they visited a crawfish farm and held a crawfish race. (Reedus’ crawfish won.) They took an airboat tour of the Atchafalaya Swamp, spent the night in Baton Rouge, and rode into New Orleans yesterday afternoon. “I’m so tired — my brain is fried right now,” Reedus says. “But everything that’s fun is tiring.”

Reedus has owned motorcycles for years, dating back to the Buell S1 Lightning he bought in the late ’90s, when he was living in Los Angeles and trying to make it as an actor. These days he lives eight months a year in Georgia, where he shoots The Walking Dead, and he frequently commutes to the set on a bike, cruising down winding, two-lane country roads, looking at cows and smelling the grass. “It’s kind of like my ‘me time,’ ”

Reedus says. “It’s a good way to learn your lines, and it’s a good way to wind down after a long, emotional day. You can ride for hours out here and not see anybody.”

On The Walking Dead, Daryl’s motorcycle is as essential to his character as his attitude or sleeveless shirts. After losing his original chopper to the evil Governor in season four, Daryl recently got a new bike, a Frankenstein-looking beast cobbled together from spare parts, just like one would be in a real zombie apocalypse. “Daryl sort of made himself into what he is now,” says showrunner Scott Gimple. “I wanted a bike that looked like he built it with his own two hands: beautiful but not conventionally beautiful. Like it was put together from the bottom up.”

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One could almost say the same about Reedus, who tends to cast himself as an outlier in Hollywood, a scruffy, downtown art-world denizen who recently filled a New York gallery with his photographs of roadkill. His eccentric backstory includes a mom who taught school in Kurdistan and sold coffins (she called them “eternal beds”); a stint on the early-’80s competitive youth tennis circuit, during which he trained with Andre Agassi; pre-fame roles in music videos by Radiohead, R.E.M., and Björk; and a 16-year-old son, Mingus Lucien Reedus, fathered with Danish supermodel Helena Christensen, whom he dated in the late ’90s and early aughts.

But Reedus didn’t become a household name until 2010 and The Walking Dead, after he’d hit the far side of 40. Consequently, he approaches fame with wariness and skepticism. Thanks to his hazy sense of chronology and evasive mythmaking, it can be difficult to nail down even the basics of Reedus’ biography. And he’s not particularly interested in nailing them down himself.

“He’s sort of an enigma wrapped in a conundrum wrapped in a sudoku,” says his Walking Dead co-star Andrew Lincoln, who plays Rick on the show. “The more you unravel him, the less you understand.”

When Reedus was cast on The Walking Dead, the producers didn’t even know that he rode motorcycles. “There was talk that I’d have to get on a horse,” Reedus recalls. “And I’m terrified of horses.” He saw a chopper on the set and asked if he could use that instead. “Can you ride?” they asked. “Fuck yeah, I can ride,” Reedus said.

These days, Reedus owns four bikes: a 2008 Harley-Davidson Sportster; a 1992 Honda CB750, modified to look like his current bike on The Walking Dead; a customized Hammarhead Jack Pine Triumph Scrambler; and a brand-new Triumph Tiger 800 adventure bike that he was given for Ride. “I did two episodes with it because it’s fuckin’ awesome,” he says. “My stunt guy went out and bought one, too. It’s that kind of bike.”

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One recent morning, in the parking lot of the Renaissance Baton Rouge Hotel, that same stunt guy, Gregg Smrz, is doing a final safety check. Smrz has orchestrated such spectacles as the motorcycle chase in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and Tom Cruise’s half-mile-high dangle off the Burj Khalifa in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. His job this week: to keep Reedus alive.

Around 8:30, a slightly bleary-looking Reedus shuffles out of the lobby and lights a last morning cigarette. He and Hinds hop on their bikes and fall into formation in a caravan they call the bubble: a Louisiana state trooper in an SUV up front, then Smrz on his motorcycle, a minivan with a camera mounted in the back, Reedus and Hinds on their bikes, a black Escalade driven by Reedus’ security guard, another state trooper in a black SUV, three more production vans for the rest of the crew, and a trailer that hauls the motorcycles when they’re not being ridden. That’s 11 vehicles in all, three of which are bikes. A Sunday drive this is not.

“If Norman has any complaint about Ride,” says AMC’s president of programming, Joel Stillerman, “it’s probably that the constraints of  TV take a little of the fun out of the ride.”

“Yeah, insert shots and stuff, there’s a lot of that,” says Reedus. “ ’Get on the bike, get off the bike. Take your helmet off, put your helmet on.’ But I’ve been in TV a while now — I know it’s part of the game.” For the episode they did in Texas, Reedus wanted to ride from Austin to Marfa, a six-and-a-half-hour drive, but union rules prevented it. “I was like, ‘Shit, I’ll just ride overnight and you guys can meet me there!’ ” he says. “But there’s insurance stuff, and you have to block off roads to shoot. You can’t really shut down I-10 for two days.”

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Shortly after 9 am, the caravan pulls out and heads toward the freeway. But it hasn’t gotten far when Hinds’ bike stalls. As he fiddles with it under an overpass, Reedus pulls over up ahead and waits. Eventually Hinds gets the bike started again, and he speeds off to catch up with Reedus. In one of the vans, we can’t see what happens next. All we hear is a voice on the walkie-talkie: “Oh, Jesus. He fell, he fell.”

Reedus, it turns out, had waited for Hinds on the shoulder, which was sloped and soft from the rain. When Hinds pulled alongside him, his top-heavy bike started to lean and he couldn’t stop it. He fell into Reedus, and they both tumbled down like dominoes. We arrive just in time to see the two bikes lying on the ground and Reedus bleeding from his hand and leg. The entire team, including Hinds, is in a state of barely contained panic — but Reedus insists that all is OK. He smokes a cigarette and gets bandaged by the set medic.

All patched up, Reedus and Hinds cruise to the Hollywood Casino, an old paddle-wheel steamer on the Mississippi River, where they spend a couple of hours gambling with fake money. (It’s a legal thing.) Then they stop at Middendorf’s, a seafood shack. Reedus has an appointment at a tattoo parlor in New Orleans, and he tries to decide what kind of tattoo to get. “The Lord of the Rings guys got matching tattoos — Frodo and Bobo and Dildo and those guys,” he says. Maybe he should get a Walking Dead tattoo. He turns to some AMC people: “Maybe when you guys kill me off.”

Out in the parking lot, the sun is beating down and the Louisiana air is hot and sticky. Reedus pulls off his motorcycle jacket and cuts out the lining with the nonchalance of a man who gets his jackets for free. He and Hinds mount up and ride into New Orleans, where, at the tattoo shop, Reedus ends up getting a small Lemmy on his chest, a tribute to the Motörhead frontman, who recently died. “I’m not supposed to get a tattoo at all, to be honest,” he says. “But it’s small. He actually made it smaller than I thought. It’s the tiniest, wimpiest little Lemmy ever.” Reedus laughs. “Lemmy himself would probably hate it. Rest in peace.”

The first time Reedus ever rode a motorcycle, he wrecked it. “I was in junior high, and I had this friend named Coon,” he recalls, sitting on a restaurant balcony overlooking a French Quarter street. “Sorry, Toon — Coon is another friend of mine.”

In any event, Reedus couldn’t afford his own motorcycle, but Toon had a little Yamaha dirt bike that he shared with the neighborhood kids. One day Reedus bet them he could do a wheelie down the hill in front of the school. But as it turns out, doing a wheelie downhill is hard when you’ve never even ridden a bike before. Reedus flipped and landed hard on his knee, and Toon’s mom had to take him to the hospital for stitches. That same afternoon, he got all the kids back at the school together so he could try again.

“And I did the exact same thing,” Reedus says, laughing. “Back to the same doctor. Stitches in the same fucking spot.” Nevertheless, he was hooked. “I found it exhilarating,” he says. “There was a sense of freedom, of danger, right from the beginning. We used to ride through alleys, running from cops. Kill the engine, go this way, kill the engine, go that way.”

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This was in Palo Alto, California, one of the many places Reedus lived as a kid. He was born in Hollywood, Florida, but his mom and dad split before he can remember, and he bounced around the country with his parents and without. “I lived with my family, I lived with some other families.” He seems eager to change the subject. “I’ll talk about the show,” he says, “but I really don’t want to talk about my family so much.”

When Reedus was 17, his mother moved to Japan to teach and he dropped out of high school to join her. From there he continued his wandering, to London, Spain, and eventually L.A., where he lived downtown decades before it became fashionable and safe. “There was nothing downtown but trash cans on fire,” he says of the early ’90s. “There was one place to eat, and it was the Denny’s off the freeway. It was a cool vibe, full of artists and stuff, but the type of artists who don’t go to Soho House. They were the real deal.”

Reedus says he scraped by, making weird art of his own, and at some point he met a man named Carl Legaspi, who owned a Harley shop on Venice Boulevard called Dr. Carl’s Hog Hospital. Reedus didn’t know a ton about bikes, but Dr. Carl liked him and offered him a job. “It was mostly grunt work,” Reedus says. “Take off this, change that.” The job did come with one big perk: “They had a loaner bike, a little Honda Rebel.” When it wasn’t spoken for, Reedus got to ride it.

But then the job came to an end. Over the years, Reedus has told a few different versions of what happened, but the basics are usually the same. Legaspi was working on a hot rod in his backyard when one of his pit bulls started chewing on its sideboard. Legaspi got mad, Reedus stepped in to defend the dog, and the two men got into a fight that ended with Reedus’ being fired. That same night, he went to a party in the Hollywood Hills, where he got outlandishly drunk and wound up on a balcony wearing broken sunglasses and yelling at people. Another guest took note of his theatricality and asked if he’d like to be in a play. Reedus’ response: “Does it pay?”

Legaspi’s recollection differs somewhat. Reached by phone at his current bike shop in North Carolina, he says they met during a pretty rough time in Reedus’ life. “The kid was in bad shape,” Legaspi says. “He was living like a vagabond — skid row, dude. He was hurting.”

(Says Reedus: “I’d rather not get into stories like that. I have a 16-year-old son.”)

Legaspi says a friend found Reedus a place to live, and he hooked him up with a job washing bikes at his shop. “He didn’t know squat about motorcycles,” Legaspi says. “He was definitely not a biker when I knew him. But he was a good kid. Even though he was kind of a fuckup, I could tell he had potential.”

Legaspi says that, far from being accidentally discovered, Reedus was already pursuing dreams of being an actor. “He went on a lot of auditions,” he says. “The guys at the shop used to bust his chops: ‘You want to act? Why don’t you act like a motorcycle mechanic?’ ” Eventually, he says, Reedus started slacking off; one day he showed up two hours late and said he needed to leave at 2 for an audition. “I said, ‘Leave the keys to the motorcycle,’ and I gave him his walking papers,” Legaspi says. “Then that night he went off the deep end, and I didn’t see him after that.”

(Says Reedus: “I think he’s embellishing quite a bit.”)

Whoever you believe, Legaspi wants people to know that he’d never hurt a dog. “I heard that shit, and it disappointed me,” he says. “But, you know — he’s an actor. They take a situation and they make it more. And nobody wants to say, ‘The man let me go because I was a fuckup.’ ”

For the record, Legaspi says he’d love to see Reedus again. “If  he’s doing a show about riding, why doesn’t he do a show over here? Come through the Blue Ridge Mountains and end up at my shop. I’d even go on it with him.” (Reedus did film an episode in the Blue Ridge this year. He didn’t call Dr. Carl.) He also asked me to remind Reedus of a deal they made: “The deal was, if he ever made it, he was to buy me a brand-new Mustang,” Legaspi says. “I’ll probably never get it.”

“Yeah,” says Reedus. “I’m not buying that dude a Mustang.”

When AMC first came to Reedus with the idea for Ride, he knew it was a no-brainer. “I was like, ‘Why would I say no to this?’ This is something I would do even if it wasn’t a show!” It was a win for both parties: Reedus would get paid to see cool places on his bike, and the network would get the most popular star on its most popular show an extra hour a week. Naturally, his co-stars are a little jealous. Andrew Lincoln says, “Not only does he play the coolest, most badass character on The Walking Dead, but he also gets to do this secondary thing, which is actually his favorite thing.”

Stillerman says that when they were developing Ride, Reedus insisted on two things. “One, he wanted it to be authentic to the world of motorcycles.” In other words, he didn’t want to be ashamed the next time he went into a bike shop. And two, “he didn’t want to do anything he wouldn’t do in real life. He made that really clear. ‘I’ll do a doc series about my love of motorcycles, but I can’t go down that reality path.’ ” Anthony Bourdain and Parts Unknown were big reference points, as were British motorcycle documentaries by David Beckham and Ewan McGregor.

And while a lot of networks might prohibit their most bankable star from doing something dangerous like motorcycling, AMC was more pragmatic. “I’m pretty sure he’s on his bike every day, whether we’re there or not,” Stillerman says. “So we might as well have some cameras around.”

They filmed the show last winter, during The Walking Dead’s hiatus, which limited them to warm-weather states: Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, California, and Nevada. Routes included Austin to San Antonio, Atlanta to Asheville, and Las Vegas to Death Valley, where, Reedus says, they “took these dirt bikes into a dry lake bed and just went bananas.” But his favorite ride was from Naples, Florida, across the Everglades and down to Key West with one of his motorcycling heroes, Easy Rider star Peter Fonda.

“Riding with Peter in Florida, hearing stories about Ernest Hemingway and Dennis Hopper and shit, it was amazing,” Reedus says. It was also a full-circle moment: He met Fonda two decades ago, when Reedus was just a no-name actor living up by the Hollywood sign. “They would shoot commercials in front of my house because it had the best view,” he recalls. “One morning I’m in the bathroom, rubbing my eyes and brushing my teeth, and I look out the window, like, ‘Oh, God, another fucking commercial.’ But then I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. . . .’ ” Reedus happened to have an Easy Rider poster hanging above his toilet. “And I’m looking at the guy outside, I’m looking at the poster, and I’m like, ‘That’s Peter fucking Fonda!’ ”

A while later, Reedus heard a knock at the door. It was Fonda. “He was like, ‘Can I use your phone? I’m not getting any cell service up here.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, if you sign this poster!’ ”

On their ride in Florida, Reedus asked Fonda if he remembered the encounter, and happily he did.

“I was like, ‘Good, because I’ve been telling people that story a long fucking time!’ ” says Reedus, cracking up. “I hope I didn’t make that up!”

On their last morning of filming in New Orleans, it’s pouring down rain. Reedus and Hinds visit a voodoo priestess named Sallie Ann Glassman, who has a little shop where she sells candles and tinctures and gris-gris bags. She tells them about Haiti and Marie Laveau and corrects some popular misconceptions about the spirit. “Most people hear the word voodoo and think zombies,” Glassman says. She smiles at Reedus, adding, “You probably think that more than most.”

Reedus was hoping to ride his Triumph back to Georgia after wrapping, but he finds out he’s needed in San Diego for some motion-capture work on a video game. From there it’s back to New York, where he’ll enjoy a few weeks off at home before The Walking Dead starts filming its seventh season. “I’m just gonna turn my phone off, lift weights, and listen to Motörhead until I go back to work,” he says.

When he’s not in Georgia, Reedus lives in Manhattan’s Chinatown, where he’s lived since 1998. He and Christensen share custody of Mingus, and they remain on good terms. “We’re a five-minute walk from each other,” Reedus says. “We make it work.”

Mingus, says Reedus, is a smart, funny kid who speaks three languages and has already filled up two passports. “He played in a band called God Fart for a while,” he says. “He’s a cool kid.” So far, at least, that coolness does not involve riding a motorcycle. “He’s been on the back of my bike a bunch,” says Reedus. “I tried to scare the shit out of him once. I wasn’t doing wheelies or anything, just playing with him in a safe way. But you can’t really faze him like that.” Reedus says he had a Vespa in Manhattan when Mingus was little, and a couple of times he strapped a belt around the two of them and drove him to school. “His mom was like, ‘Please don’t ever do that again,’ ” Reedus says. “I thought it was fun! I was like, ‘I’m a dad — give me a break.’ ”

Reedus already has a list of dream destinations for a possible second season of Ride. “I wouldn’t mind mixing it up and doing some smaller, stealthier crews,” he says. “I’d like to go to Vietnam. I’d like to do Rome. And there’s a ton of places in America I’d still like to go, like Arizona, through the mountains.” No matter what, though, he’ll still be on the road. “Hopefully, we do a part two,” he says. “But I will say that even if we don’t, I’ll still take those rides.”

Contributing editor Josh Eells wrote about biking across Cuba in the May 2016 issue of  Men’s Journal.

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