Norman Reedus: the Walking Man

Norman reedus rotator

The “most helpful” review of the Horton Scout HD 125 on states that this crossbow is “excellent for both hunting and taking down Walkers without attracting too much attention.” The writer gave the weapon five stars. Below that, a four-star review states that the buyer desired one “because it was the one used on The Walking Dead and is a great tool for hunting.” Some kickbacks should be in order—for Norman Reedus, that is. Because, for three seasons, the man who plays Daryl Dixon—the moderately feral, insanely popular star of The Walking Dead—has used a Scout 125 to dispatch deer, squirrels, and especially Walkers, and thus is the person most responsible for inspiring actual product reviews that conflate real life with a show about the zombie apocalypse.

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An actual Scout is heavier than you’d think it should be, if you don’t often handle crossbows. And there’s no way that Reedus, or any normal human, for that matter, could actually load an arrow the way Daryl does. What makes a crossbow so powerful and deadly is the tension in the string—you use a mechanical device to cock it. And one soupy afternoon near Senoia, GA, Norman Reedus swats away a mosquito and demonstrates. 

“We take it back like Daryl’s got some superstrength,” Reedus says, and when it’s suggested that he’s deceiving America, he laughs. “I think people who use crossbows know that.” In most cases, he says, the bow he’s holding isn’t even strung—or, if it is, it’s strung loosely, because Reedus doesn’t fire real arrows. “The actual arrow you see on TV is digital,” he says.

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Reedus, 44, pushes a strand of sweaty hair out of his face, revealing its jagged framework; it’s the kind of face that already tells you what he’ll look like when he’s old. He’s just arrived by motorcycle on this independent studio lot outside Senoia for a day of rehearsals; and though his actual voice sounds nothing like Daryl’s—there’s no drawl—he looks very much like his character, with a faded black tee standing in for the sleeveless shirts that have become Daryl’s signature. Earlier, when he’d gone to retrieve the crossbow from the prop room, Reedus had spied—among the piles of weapons and rounds—a monster of a knife with brass knuckles on the handle and a blade as long as his forearm. It looked like a knife that could slice a tree in half. “Who gets this?” he asked the prop master, then slashed the air. “This seems appropriate for Daryl.” 

During his three years of shooting The Walking Dead, Reedus has become proficient with a number of weapons. He pulls back the right sleeve of his T-shirt to reveal a shoulder bruise from the recoil of an automatic shotgun known as the “street sweeper,” which he’d recently fired at a range. “Holy shit, that thing kicks,” he says. A .50-caliber machine gun also made an impression. 

Senoia—“seh-noy” in the local parlance—is a small town about 45 minutes south of Atlanta, with a Main Street so perfect it often stars as the quaint, idyllic small town in movies and TV shows. To date, it’s been featured in 24 different projects, most famously this one, The Walking Dead, in which it stood in for the fictional third-season outpost of Woodbury—and actually had to scruff itself up for the role. Residents were asked to let their lawns grow unruly, and, along Main Street, newspapers were plastered over store windows while life went on inside.

Most scenes, though, are filmed on a leafy patch outside town, here at Raleigh Studios. The bulk of the lot has been made over to look like the abandoned prison where Daryl and the rest of the gang of scrappy survivors have been holed up since last season. All four soundstages have been claimed by the show. It’s not uncommon to hear explosions and gunshots ringing out in these Georgia woods, as the cast and crew stage their daily Armageddon. But on this muggy September afternoon, things are eerily quiet as Reedus points his crossbow at a stand of trees that fans of the show would recognize as the site of Michonne’s winter campsite, and pulls the trigger. There’s a thwock when it fires and a crack as the arrow sinks into the bark. “This has a much different twang,” he proclaims, and hands it to a stranger.

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The Horton Scout, as die-hard fans know, is actually Daryl’s old bow. Last year it was replaced with a Stryker StrykeZone, a more fearsome weapon that fires an arrow at a velocity of 380 feet per second, compared with just 125 for the Horton. As a souvenir, Reedus takes a crossbow home at the end of every season, so he’s now got four in his Manhattan apartment. “No, make that six. And a Japanese longbow,” he says. “People send them to me as gifts.”

Along with just about anything else you can imagine. “I get so much shit,” he says, smiling. He’s wearing on his head a “Dixon Training Camp” trucker hat printed up by a fan. His iPhone case depicts the Mona Lisa wearing a necklace of human ears—another gift—and his motorcycle helmet is plastered in stickers made by fans, including one from a club that calls itself “Reedus Sluts.” (Other groupie collectives include Norman’s Nymphos, Dixon’s Vixens, and the Boondock Betties, inspired by the cult indie hit The Boondock Saints, where Reedus first learned to handle weapons.)

Women have powerful feelings for Reedus—who’s modeled for Prada, among other brands—and after the episode in which Daryl cradled a newborn, he nearly crashed Twitter and received a flood of strange gifts in the mail, including a pillow shaped like a uterus, several round objects said to be ovaries (but, thankfully, only toy versions), and even a silicone breast implant a woman had apparently had removed for him because she thought he seemed a little depressed in an interview. “It’s now the iPhone cradle in my trailer,” he says. The strangest present so far, he says, is probably the “plastic bag of meat” in an oily yellow sauce given to him by a woman with a “real sincere smile on her face.” She handed it to him and said, “It’s squirrel. I hunted it with a shovel.”

The memory amuses him. “The first thing I thought was, ‘Wow, you’re so fast! How did you hunt a squirrel with a shovel?’” 

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Reedus has never actually hunted or killed an animal himself. He tried fishing, once, with his son, but used bacon as bait, because, he thought, “everything loves bacon.” He didn’t get a single nibble. When he shared that news on the set, everyone laughed at him. “Apparently fish don’t eat bacon.”

Which isn’t to say Reedus is uncomfortable around animals that are already dead. To ensure verisimilitude during one famous scene, the producers dispatched him to a southern Georgia taxidermist to learn how to “properly fillet a squirrel.” (The technique, if you’re curious: “You cut it from the neck down and peel it like a very tough banana.”) And, last August, an art gallery in New York City staged a show of Reedus’ photography, offering 30 oversize, six-foot prints for sale for charity. The subject: roadkill.

“I take grotesque images and make them beautiful,” Reedus explains. “That’s my thing. I don’t know why.” 

Reedus is actually a photographer of some renown. A book of his images, titled The Sun’s Coming Up Like a Big Bald Head, went on sale in November. But when the art show’s organizers heard what he planned to display, they blanched. The audience, they told him, was going to be tourists shopping in Times Square; they didn’t want to see cats with their eyeballs popped out! To which Reedus replied, “That’s all I got. That’s what we’re going with.” And when the show opened, the photos sold out in 20 minutes.

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Reedus fits comfortably into both New York, where he lives, and the rural South, where he works. Recently, he says, he and Melissa McBride, the actress who plays Daryl’s close friend and possible nonsexual love interest, Carol, were joking about a possible spinoff called Carol and Daryl in Central Park that would have the two “squatting in the bushes somewhere.” Carol would be knitting and there’d be moonshine bubbling. “Mayor Bloomberg would have a press conference and announce that the squirrels of Central Park have gone missing.

“We even wrote a song,” he says, and sings its opening lines, somewhat awkwardly: “Carol is sterile and Daryl is feral/They’re a match made in hell…” And then he fires another arrow into the tree.

Norman Reedus has never been your typical Hollywood actor. Earlier in his life he identified more with art, which, before photography, tended toward avant-garde sculpture. An early career piece, he recalls, was a giant vagina with horns that he carved from stone; another was a cast of “a skinny little girl” that he exaggerated and then deconstructed into a massive sculpture installation that hung in the back of a fancy restaurant in Beverly Hills. Though Reedus was too nervous to be there, artist friends reported back that guests would emerge “catatonic” from the room with his art. “That’s exactly what I was looking for,” he says.

Reedus fell into acting by accident. He was born in Florida and raised in Los Angeles, then left for a period of wandering that eventually led him back to L.A. Being an impulsive and romantic twentysomething, he’d followed a girl and taken a job fixing motorcycles at a Venice shop called Dr. Carl’s Hog Hospital to make ends meet. Almost immediately, the girl reunited with her ex, moved to Hawaii, and got married, and Reedus was left in L.A. wondering what the hell he was going to do next.

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One day he showed up at work and found his boss pissed off at one of the shop’s pit bulls for chewing the sideboard of a hot rod that he was building in the backyard. The two men got in a fight, and Reedus quit. That night a friend took him to a party in the Hollywood Hills where, he recalls, “I drank too much and started yelling at people.” He was wearing large, broken sunglasses and looked ridiculous—not on purpose. People noticed. “Somebody in that crowd of people approached me about being an actor,” he says.

A week later, Reedus was in a play and had an agent. He’d been discovered, more or less, by being belligerently drunk.

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Reedus’ first film was in 1997, but the breakout role came two years later when he played the vigilante Murphy MacManus in The Boondock Saints, a violent gangster flick that was a cult smash. That same year, he had a son, Mingus, with his then-girlfriend, Danish supermodel Helena Christensen, and did some very high-profile modeling for Prada. Miuccia Prada is said to have chosen him herself. The gig came as such a surprise, Reedus says, that his first reaction was, “What’s Prada?” He was hardly a fashion guy.

“I had one suit in my closet that me and all my friends shared,” he says. But the campaign was huge. “More people probably saw that than all of my early films combined.”

Even now, Reedus i s much more comfortable in front of a motion picture camera. “I’m not the best model,” he says. “I’m not that tall, and I drink beer.”

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For the seven months that The Walking Dead is in production, Reedus makes his home in a small community of utopians about 45 minutes from the set. He enjoys having that distance to ride those winding country roads on his Triumph Scrambler, and had zero desire to set up camp in Atlanta, where most of the cast lives. “I live in Manhattan,” he explains during a break from rehearsal. “There’s nothing for me in Atlanta except a bunch of malls and some Chick-fil-A.” But he also chose this particular town because it was settled by a group of big-city exiles who wanted to create, from scratch, a kind of perfect community that would raise its own livestock, grow its own produce, compost like maniacs, and generate as much electricity as possible using solar power and other renewable sources.

So he rented what he describes as a “James Bond house” out in the woods and has made it his home, swimming every morning in the pool out back, hiking on trails in the Georgia woods, and eating the fruits of the land as much as possible by shopping at the town market. “It’s kind of like a little hippie utopia,” he says. “But mostly it’s a bunch of older ladies sitting on porches drinking Chardonnay.”

To be Daryl, Reedus must stay lean and wiry, which requires careful eating and some general maintenance. He eats clean, fresh foods, and avoids sugar, pasta, and bread; but the honest truth is, when he’s working on the show, it really doesn’t matter. “Running around the woods of Georgia in 120° heat and humidity really cuts pounds off you automatically,” he says, and his arms, which are solid and sinewy, reveal that. “If anything, they tell me to eat because I’m looking too thin.”

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Reedus is hardly a method actor like Daniel Day-Lewis, who would probably live in a lean-to and hunt possum for breakfast if he had to play Daryl. But he does try to avoid obvious incongruities. “I did a movie once where I was supposed to be roaming through the woods eating berries and sort of scavenging,” he recalls. “But I was staying in a Four Seasons.” He told the producers he might want to downgrade. “It’s hard to order eggs Benedict every morning and then go play somebody who’s doing crack. It doesn’t really work.”

During last season’s hiatus, Reedus filmed three movies, including Sunlight Jr., also starring Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon, due out in November. Reedus describes it as a “weird love triangle” filmed in Florida, in which he plays “a gold-chain, white-tank-top, flip-flops redneck” whose ex has moved on to a new boyfriend, played by Dillon. “He wants to kill me and I hate him,” Reedus says. The role called for him to be so ugly and unpleasant that every day he felt the need to apologize to Watts for his character’s behavior. “I was a real dick in that movie.”

Now that he’s the most beloved character on the highest-rated drama in cable TV history, Reedus gets plenty of offers to do film. But he has a short off-season, no shortage of hobbies, and a 14-year-old son he wants to see as much as possible. So he chooses wisely. When the production schedule allows it, he flies back to New York on weekends to see his son, who lives the rest of the time with his mother and attends the same private school as Suri Cruise—meaning that Reedus has competition for Coolest Dad in the School.

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When it’s suggested that a crossbow-wielding zombie killer has to be cooler than Tom Cruise, at least to teenage boys, Reedus balks. “I don’t know. Tom Cruise hangs off buildings in Dubai.” And then he says: “Let me tell you how cool Tom Cruise is,” and launches into a story about visiting the Empire State Building and getting the VIP tour, which involves going to the “very tip-top” of the tower, above the normal observation deck. “You go outside and the wind is howling.” There, he says, there’s a little ledge, so tiny that “if you tripped, you’d die. You’d fall right off the edge.”

The tradition is for the VIP to pose for a photo alone on the ledge, hair blowing in the gale-force winds. Reedus did so, with much trepidation, literally hugging the wall. “I wouldn’t go anywhere near the ledge because I was terrified,” he says. “In the picture, I look like I’m about to cry.” Afterward, he went inside and looked at the gallery of celebrity photos. “And there’s Tom Cruise, sitting on the edge with his legs hanging over. He’s just sitting there with a smile on his face and thumbs up—in 100-mile-an-hour winds. I almost wet my pants, and he’s sitting on the edge.”

Point being, if you ask Norman Reedus: “Tom Cruise is way cooler than me.”

When you’re the star of a show like The Walking Dead, in which the body count is so high no one bothers to keep it, there’s always a chance that the next week’s episode will be your last; any character is just a zombie bite away from unemployment. Even now that Reedus is unquestionably the show’s biggest star—a guy so beloved that fans wear T-shirts reading: “If Daryl Dies We Riot”—he frets. Every time a script is delivered, he cracks it with a twinge of fear. “I worry every week,” he says. “Every fucking week. I will not lie.”

Not that it’s so much easier to see a friend eliminated. The hardest, Reedus says, was Michael Rooker, who played Merle, Daryl’s older brother. “I read that and thought, ‘This day is going to suck.’ He was such an interesting character. I thought he’d be around a bit longer.” Reedus looks at the ceiling and characters begin to pass before his eyes. “But shooting Dale in the face was bad. Sophia was bad, Shane…They’re all bad. Mostly because it’s like your family member just moved away.”

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Too often, stars of hit shows begin to feel aimless by Season 4, after their popularity is ensured. They talk about the struggles of staying motivated, of new challenges and bigger stages. Reedus, though, claims to be more excited about the fourth season than the first. “This is our best season, the best writing,” he says. The new show runner, Scott Gimple, “is killing it.”

So what might we expect from Daryl? The cast is sworn to secrecy, so Reedus can say almost nothing beyond the fact that the episode he’s currently shooting is “lots and lots of Daryl.” Executive producer Gale Anne Hurd offers a bit more: “We always have the potential to delve even deeper into Daryl’s character and to push him to the limits. I think this season maybe people will get some insight into both: how far he can be pushed and who he really is.”

Hurd has been as surprised as anyone about how Reedus, as Daryl—who wasn’t in the comics the show is based on—has basically taken over the show. “I think it’s a combination of the character of Daryl and how he’s brought to life by Norman that resonates with fans not only in the U.S. but all over the world. When you think about it in the context of the show, who’s the one most suited to survive in this world, and who has a heart of gold? That’s Daryl, as Norman plays him…In the post-zombie-apocalypse world, his skill set is what you want.”

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Reedus is well aware of how the fans feel about him, and the feeling is mutual. He’s unequivocal about his intention to stay with the show as long as the producers let Daryl live.

“This is the role of a lifetime. I’ve done about 40 films—a lot of different parts,” he says as a producer beckons him back to rehearsal. “I’m having the best time I’ve ever had on a job in my life. I’ll be Daryl until I’m 85 years old if they’ll have me.”

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