Over the course of his more than 25-year career, veteran character actor Michael Rooker has lent his talents to a wide range of films, from mainstream dramas like JFK to cult horror films like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Known for his intense and often villainous roles, Rooker most recently graced television screens as the vile redneck Merle in AMC’s The Walking Dead.
Rooker also has a small supporting role in James Gunn’s subversive new dark comedy, Super, which stars Rainn Wilson (The Office) as a lifelong loser who dons a costume and fights crime as “The Crimson Bolt.” In the movie, Rooker plays one of Kevin Bacon’s thugs, who becomes a target of The Crimson Bolt’s pipe-wrench of justice.
During a press tour in support of Super, I had the chance to talk with Rooker about the film, his role on The Walking Dead, and also his efforts to get into directing. Check out our full interview below (as well as heck our preliminary report for Rooker’s most important quotes on the upcoming season of The Walking Dead).
SR: You’ve worked with James Gunn before (on the cult monster film Slither), is Super something where he called you and said, “I need you in this movie”?
MR: No, he didn’t want to call. I was wondering why he’s not calling me to maybe do something in this movie. He didn’t want to call me because he was embarrassed, because the only role that was really right was one of these thug roles, which have maybe half a dozen lines between them. So, he was a little embarrassed to call me and ask me to do this.
Finally I talked to him and said, “What, are you embarrassed to call me? What? I did such a bad job on Slither you don’t want me to work with you anymore?” [Gunn said] “No, I would love you to work with me, I would love you to do something in this, but there’s not a lot here.” And I said, “Well, what’s here?” So, we decided that I’d play Abe, and Abe had maybe three lines, I don’t know.
You know, when I first started my acting in the professional world, I did a lot of small roles. And small roles I think, for actors, sometimes even experienced actors, are very good for you because you end up having to invent everything yourself. So it’s kind of rewarding and refreshing, you know, to have to use your imagination in that way. And so that’s what happened with Abe. This little role of Abe ended up being a pretty cool little role.
SR: Well that’s good that you got to work with James Gunn again because this is certainly a “James Gunn” movie.
MR: Oh God, is it ever.
SR: It’s pretty twisted in a lot of ways.
MR: [Laughing] It’s crazy as hell.
SR: You have experience over the course of your career playing these sort of sociopathic types, so, from your objective perspective, is Rainn Wilson’s character, The Crimson Bolt, a total psychopath, or is there some redemption to him?
MR: Well, he’s not killing innocent people. He’s not hurting innocent people.
SR: Well, he’s hurting people who butt in line.
MR: That’s sort of a good thing, I guess. You know? The people are rapists, or child molesters, or drug dealers, and that’s actually brought out in the movie. The newscasters think he’s this way, and then later on they decide “maybe he’s not so bad after all.” But, that’s odd?
MR: I mean, he’s just coming up and smacking people on the head with a pipe wrench.
SR: If I heard about that on the news, I’d be a little frightened to go out.
MR: [Laughing] And so, yeah…he’s a little nutsy. The character is a crazy guy. By himself, you know, as you saw at the end of the movie.
SR: So even by the end of this sort of redemption story, I don’t think he’s all mentally there.
MR: He hasn’t gotten any better at all. It’s just a matter of time before possibly something else spurs him on and he goes off to do Super 2.
SR: Well, switching from one crazy character to the next, tell me what’s going on with everyone’s favorite racist drug addict TV star Merle from The Walking Dead.
MR: There’s an actual campaign on the Internet right now, and you can go on and it’s hashtag MoMerle [#MoMerle on Twitter]. I said as a joke one day to someone on Facebook, they wanted to know if I was coming back, I said, “I don’t know if I’m coming back.” This is when I didn’t know if I was coming back or not. I said, “Well, call up AMC and tell them you want Mo’ Merle.”
And, lo and behold, there’s a whole Internet campaign now for “Mo’ Merle.” And it all started as a little joke I made like six months ago.
SR: That’s the power of the social Internet. If they can get Betty White to host Saturday Night Live, then they’re going to get Merle back for Season Two and more.
MR: [Laughing] They’re going to get even “Mo” Merle.
SR: So, when you initially joined the production, was it something where Frank Darabont said, “We’re going to lose you early in Season One, but you’ll be back”? Were you promised time in Season Two to flesh out the character.
MR: I wasn’t promised anything really. I did the job sort of a la carte. They didn’t have a lot of money that first six episodes, and they still don’t have a lot. They’re already preaching, “We’re poor,” you know, but they are. I don’t know what their budgets are, but they’ve got to do 13 now.
SR: And that’s a high production value TV show.
MR: And probably with not a lot more budget than they had in the first season. I’m not sure what it is. I just hope and pray that everything is going to be as good, you know, and as raw as the first season. I mean, it was obvious that he wanted this character to evolve. The way it was written originally, I was only in one episode. Then it was my hand.
SR: Did you get a credit for that?
MR: [Laughing] No credit for my hand, no.
SR: You should get some small percentage for that performance I think.
MR: [Laughing] Yeah, if they ever sell the hand I want half.
MR: So, I only had the one show, episode two, and it was only my hand in Episode Three. So [Darabont] went back to L.A. and wrote the opening sequence, the whole four-minute thing, from Merle for Episode Three. That was freshly written because of what I’d done in Episode Two.
They kept joking with me… I was getting ready to leave. They were saying, “You can’t go, you’re in Episode Three.” I was like, “Right buddy. I’m in Episode Three. It’s my f**king hand.” I’m thinking it’s my hand… in my mind I’m in one episode. I’m literally getting ready, I’m packing, and they’re like “Dude, you can’t go…The script’s not here yet, but you’re in Episode Three.” And I said, “Oh… well cool, okay. Awesome!”
SR: Frank wrote a hell of a scene for you.
MR: He came back and the script was like a four-minute long rant with Merle going through all sorts of mental gymnastics, you know? And it was awesome. It was beautifully written, and I looked at it and just thought, “Wow.”
SR: I wonder what this scene has to say about Merle’s character going forward, because he goes through this sort of delirium and he’s talking to God. It’s almost like a religious conversion of sorts. When we see him later in the series is he going to be this badass? He’s already killed some zombies with his stump, so presumably he’s a pretty serious dude, but he’s also had this sort of religious awakening. Is that something that’s going to play out in the character somewhere?
MR: You know, I e-mailed Frank and I said, “What’s going to happen?” but he hasn’t gotten back to me. Whatever happens, I think that we’ve touched on some really cool ideas and moments in that speech. You know, the whole religious thing was wonderful to bring out. I would love to see hints of that later on, you know. I’d like to see hints of that kind of stuff. His desire to be the boss and in charge. And his knowledge of democracy, which is a gun in one hand and raise your hands or I’ll shoot you. You vote for me or you’re dead.
SR: That’s interesting because there’s this little movement online that’s asking, “Is Merle going to be The Governor?”
MR: It doesn’t seem like Merle is The Governor. Merle is Merle. I think if I come back, I’m going to be even bigger than The Governor. [Laughing]
SR: Because what they’ve done, in a very interesting way, is synthesized some of the characters from the comics into composite characters on the show.
MR: I think they’re going to continue doing that, and my character may end up being some sort of composite of The Governor/Merle/something else. I don’t know. They’re not going to stick to the graphic novels at all. The graphic novels are written wonderfully, but they’re graphic novels. This is little films. This is TV, so it has to be written in that way. Which, they better, otherwise it won’t work really. It’s a different medium, so we have to evolve it and change it and make it work for what we do.
As far as I know, I’m coming back, I just don’t know when. I don’t think I’m coming back in the very first part of the season. They still have storylines they have to get going and all that. I think it’s advantageous for the show to wait a bit… so that when I do come back, when my character does reappear, I think it’s going to be a big deal and there’s going to be hell to pay.
SR: Well, I know people are waiting for it. They’re waiting for Mo’ Merle.
MR: [Laughing] It’s fun. It’s just an awesome, fun role. I had a great time doing it.
SR: It’s funny that you say that, because it’s like “I had a great time playing this racist jerk.”
SR: But you can pour a lot of energy into that kind of role.
MR: It can be anything you want it to be. It’s not in the graphic novels. You don’t have to follow any sort of template. It’s all your imagination just doing it. So we’re going to have fun doing it and whatever happens is going to be cool, because whatever happens is in Frank Darabont’s brain – somewhere back in the corners of his brain – and he’s going to come out with something cool. Frank Darabont, after every table read, his final words would be “Keep it real.” As long as we keep it real, I’m a happy camper.
SR: We’re certainly excited. I know a lot of people have reacted very strongly to the show.
MR: The show is awesome. My character is very well-liked. They love this guy – this crazy, racist, sexist weirdo guy who’s on cocaine…
SR: Well, if people can like The Crimson Bolt, then they can like Merle. I don’t know, maybe that says something about our culture or society.
MR: [Laughing] It totally does. I mean, one of the biggest laughs in Super is when the Crimson Bolt comes out and smacks the guy with a wrench who’s butting in line.
SR: Oh yeah. Nobody likes line butters, but come on.
MR: [Laughing] Boom! And then he smacks the girlfriend and the laugh is even bigger.
SR: They love it. It’s twisted. It really is.
MR: It’s so twisted.
SR: I only have a little bit of time, so I’d like to talk about your directorial debut, which is Pennhurst. [A low-budget ghost story film shot on location at the abandoned Pennhurst State School and Mental Hospital in Pennsylvania.]
MR: Yeah, Pennhurst. If they ever get enough money to finish it off. It’s a work in progress. We still need to film some more stuff. So, I’m fighting with them right now tooth and nail to give me at least another week. They want to give me two days. I’m like, “I can’t do this in two days.” So we’re back and forth right now.
SR: Do you need to shoot pick-ups or are you filming new scenes?
MR: There’s some other stuff I want to film and some pick-ups. It’s a work in progress and I hope everything works out so that we get to add to what we’ve already shot. You know, I got into this knowing that it’s a work in progress and we don’t really have enough money to do the whole movie right now. So, we used the money that we had to film what we could. Now we need to – we’ve written more stuff for it. It’s kind of a kooky, weird way of working on a film. It’s definitely very low-budget, independent style.
SR: You’ve worked on a lot of independent films like that, so that’s not uncommon, but this is your first time directing.
MR: My first time being behind the scenes going, “No, no, no. I need four days! Five days! Don’t give me one day!”
SR: Was it too much stress, or were you bitten by the director’s bug? Do you want to do more?
MR: I would do it again, yeah. I kind of liked it. It’d be nice to have actually enough money to do the whole movie at the beginning. [Laughing] So you don’t have to really bicker and fight about scraping up enough money to get the four days or five days that you need.
SR: Well, if you still want to direct after going through a torturous indie experience, then that’s probably a good thing.
MR: Yeah, that’s definitely a good thing. I’ve already been like, “Oh my God guys… go do it yourself.” I’ve already been there two or three times already. We’ll see, hopefully we get enough money to make it work and make it make sense and make it kind of scary and kind of fun and goofy as well.
At this point, I had to cut off my interview with Michael Rooker, but I had a great time talking with him about Super, The Walking Dead, and Pennhurst.
Check back for Screen Rant’s review of Super soon, and for more updates on The Walking Dead, which airs in the fall.