Michael Rooker reaches for stardom on TV’s hottest show
By Carl Kozlowski 03/21/2013
Michael Rooker is easily the most famous person ever to emerge from Jasper, Ala. And he owes the wave of fame he’s riding now as a star of the smash TV series “The Walking Dead” to his combination of good ol’ boy charm and a badass ability to kill zombies.
Despite the fact that he is easily the friendliest of the hundreds of celebrities I’ve interviewed over the past 16 years, Rooker is actually beloved for being one of the toughest character actors in Hollywood. Considering his first starring role was playing the title character of the horror cult classic “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” that might not be surprising.
He’s taken that innate ability to intimidate people with his gravelly voice and thousand-yard stare to the bank in more than 100 film and television roles, including the rare distinction of playing villains against three of the biggest action stars in the world: Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude van Damme.
But his current role as Merle, the older of two zombie-slaying rednecks whose Machiavellian desire for survival can’t always be trusted, last week led to crowds of international fans swarming him at the corner of Hollywood and Vine in Hollywood during a recent photo shoot.
He doesn’t mind the attention, cackling as he’s surrounded by two actors from England, three women tourists from Colombia, even an utterly ecstatic man from Bangladesh, all of them wanting to pose for pictures with him and begging for inside secrets from upcoming “Dead” episodes. This is as clear an example of Hollywood’s power to shape world culture as one is ever likely to find.
“Nobody ever saw it coming,” Rooker says later, leaning way back in a chair with a wide grin and sporting giant trucker sunglasses, a worn baseball cap with a cartoon of a beaver on the front and a sleeveless black leather vest over a worn T-shirt. “We started out with only six episodes, and that means they’re not sure. But that first six kicked ass and blew up big time.”
For the five or six people who may have not heard about or seen the show, “The Walking Dead” is an adaptation of a graphic novel series by Robert Kirkman, in which a former sheriff’s deputy named Rick awakes from a coma to find that most humans have been turned into zombies. Rick gets taken in by a band of human survivors and helps lead the charge in the battle for survival.
The series was created by Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Green Mile”) and is executive produced by Pasadena’s own Gale Ann Hurd, who has overseen two power shifts at the show in less than three seasons, sparking reports that the production is riddled with behind-the-scenes tension.
Rooker declined comment on that aspect of the series, but in keeping with the idea that conflict can spark creativity, the show has not only met with wild critical acclaim but also the highest ratings in cable TV history, with nearly 13 million viewers. That easily places it among the top 10 series on TV, cable or network.
“We make the show natural and easygoing, and it’s about the human condition and how people respond to emergency situations,” Rooker says when asked about the show’s massive appeal. “If you bring it to real life, it relates to how you would respond to a flood or an earthquake? What kind of human being do you become? Do you help others or run away? Every episode asks you to figure what you would do in that situation.
“The show asks who’s right and who’s wrong and is there an answer either way?” he continues. “But I don’t care what people say. I just do it, get my payday and go home.”
That laid-back attitude toward his busy career is surprising, considering Rooker is a highly trained actor who graduated from the elite Goodman School of Drama in Chicago, the city he moved to at age 13, when his parents got divorced. He admits that there are some movies “you pray will never be seen,” roles that he’s done “to pay the mortgage.”
But, ironically, his breakthrough role as a slightly fictionalized version of notorious serial killer Henry Lee Lucas attained notoriety because he and his director John McNaughton put extra care into the production. That meant that what was intended to be a cheap slasher film became more deeply psychological and disturbing, making it too brainy for horror audiences and too brutal for mainstream filmgoers. “Henry” sat on the shelf for four years before it was released in 1990 to rave reviews that instantly made Rooker a hot commodity.
While he admits that his favorite way of dispatching the undead is by slicing them with his character’s knife (aptly named “Little Merle”), he personally owns and travels with a gun when he drives cross-country to distant shoots.
In fact, so passionate is Rooker about guns that he co-owns the popular Angeles Shooting Ranges, in Angeles Forest, near Sylmar. As one might expect, he is not a fan of the government’s current push for gun control.
“People who don’t use guns don’t understand guns and don’t know they are a tool,” says Rooker, the passion in his voice rising. “They don’t understand that there’s nothing wrong with hunting or being able to protect yourself and your family. They’re fighting against the Constitution, the very document they’re sworn to uphold, and that has got to stop.”
Rooker smacks the palm of his hand onto the table as he makes that argument, but a moment later he’s back to his usual wide grin and upbeat spirit as he sums up his attitude toward zombies and the success they have brought him.
“All that the zombies are wanting to do is to eat, walk around and maybe find a TV to stare at for awhile, so give them a break,” he says, a grin slowly returning to his face. “I think all of it is too much for TV, but I love action and horror, and when you combine the two it’s the best thing in the world. The fan base is amazing. We have little kids who are major fans. It becomes a family affair. I don’t know how their kids are, but they’re not afraid.”