"I'm kind of a wuss": Norman Reedus on not being a Daryl Dixon badass — and finally getting an on-screen romance

Salon talks to "The Walking Dead" star about his new film "Sky," being "sexy ugly" and his dream "Star Wars" role

Published April 17, 2016 9:30PM (EDT)

Diane Kruger and Norman Reedus in "Sky"   (IFC Films)
Diane Kruger and Norman Reedus in "Sky" (IFC Films)

Norman Reedus plays an irresistible love interest for French vacationer Romy (Diane Kruger) in the flinty little indie “Sky.” When Romy, who is dressed as a bunny in Las Vegas, meets Reedus’ Diego at the film’s midpoint, he is clad all in black. The hair not under his cowboy hat covers most of his grizzled face. This bad boy would seem dangerous if he wasn’t so damn appealing.

Diego picks Romy up for sex—he assumes she is a prostitute—because his character is not looking for romantic attachments. However, when he gives her his address, she quickly moves in with him. Their relationship provides the focus of the second half of the film.

Reedus is magnetic on screen as Diego; it’s his mix of mystery and confidence. The actor does some of his best work in indie films like “Sky,” as his indelible work in “Six Ways to Sunday” and “Sunlight, Jr.,” attest. But he is also an assured performer in the cult hit “Boondock Saints” (and its underrated sequel), and of course, playing good ol’ boy Daryl Dixon in “The Walking Dead,” a character who is intelligent, decent, loyal and compassionate—not unlike Reedus in real life.

The actor met with Salon to talk about his role in “Sky” and his image.

So, Diego is not Mexican, claims he “only fucks whores” because he eschews commitment, and has a pet iguana. What did you identify with or admire about his character?             

He's an ex-vet, which is already admirable. He's secluded himself. He stays away from anything involving the heart, and he allows himself to fall for Romy; he lets her in. It's not his first choice. He's a character who can't let people in. To have it happen is kind of admirable. I've become more secluded in the past seven years--not to that extreme. Diego holds a job, and has human interactions--going into Vegas and picking up prostitutes. He calls it what it is. I'm not like that. [Laughs]. There are certain things where we're similar...

Diego drinks, smokes, carries a gun (for work) and gets into bar fights. You seem to emit that bad-boy quality too...

I'm really not. I'm kind of a wuss. I'm trying to quit smoking. I don't get in bar fights ever. Maybe in high school I did...

“Sky” gives you what I think is a rare opportunity to play a romantic lead; you even have some love scenes. You usually don’t get cast as a romantic lead. You're kind of "sexy ugly" as they say...

Thanks, asshole! [laughs]

Was this a role you were particularly interested in playing because it's so different?

It's such a point of conversation--Is Daryl ever going to have a love interest in "The Walking Dead?" I haven't done anything like that in forever. The last girl I made out with was Debbie Harry, and she was playing my Mom! It's different. The 'sexy ugly' thing you said, I remember the first time I was ever mentioned in print in a magazine, it was Joel Schumacher who said, "Norman's not really good looking. He's interesting looking... but he's not good looking." And I was like motherfucker! I don't ever want to be seen as that guy. I don't relate to those guys and some days I look like shit, and that's totally cool.

You project a confidence and swagger that's attractive. Diego is a man of few words; in fact, he shuts the chatterbox Romy up by kissing her. What can you say about playing strong silent types? Is it harder or easier to act being all “attitude?”

Andy [Lincoln] says it on our show: I have an allergic reaction to phoniness. When he does a scene with me, he can tell by the look on my face. I have been in situations where I've acted in a scene--I nearly fainted it was so corny. I had to lie down, and they called a medic... I tried to escape and they caught me flying down the freeway... I don't know; I'm not always that confident. Sometimes I feel that the confidence to be without confidence is probably viewed as confidence. You can't do everything like you know what you're doing, but it's OK to know you don't know what you're doing. If I don't feel it, I can't do it.

Do you feel a pressure to play to your audience of "Boondock Saints" and "Walking Dead" fans?

When I met Willem Dafoe, he said, "I only ever wanted to be a working B-movie actor." I get it. I remember thinking about playing towards a hip audience or an underground audience at the beginning [of my career]--that was the work I wanted to do. I was turned off by anything that wasn't sort of like that or not relatable to that crowd. I gravitate to those films when I watch a movie.

What do you like to watch?

"Crawlspace," with Klaus Kinski. I like "The Lego Movie." I'm not trying to do a certain type of thing. There are certain movies that I'll never get and I'm totally fine with that.

Diego does reveal a bit of his backstory and has some interesting nuances; for example, when his job is revealed, or when he sets water out for illegal immigrants. What decisions did you make regarding the character and his ethics?

There's always an agenda. I like director Fabienne Berthaud's approach. She hires the right actors, puts them in the right space and story and sits back and lets it happen. She's always filming. There wasn't a time where we stopped and talked. She kept [filming] so I made choices with body language. On "Walking Dead," I didn't look people in the eye for the first two seasons unless I was screaming at them. There was a chip on Daryl's shoulder. He doesn't relate like that. Now, Daryl, on that show, he looks directly in your face. Everything he says, he means. Those choices you make over the run of a show. On film, it's [compressed]. Diego doesn't look in Romy's face, then he welcomes her, then he opens his heart to her. There are choices you make in how you look at and listen to the other characters.

Do you find it’s easier for you to get work given the success of “The Walking Dead”? Or is working on the series restricting in that you have to choose indie films over, say blockbusters because of time commitments?

It's absolutely opened more doors. I would be lying otherwise. I've always done art shows--photography, painting, sculpture--and now I get offered art shows all the time. Am I doing different work? Sometimes I'm doing the same stuff, but more doors are opening. I think anybody can have a little success and get offered more stuff. I'm not against blockbusters or indie films. I like a good story and good people involved. Would I fucking play a stormtrooper in "Star Wars"? Fuck, yeah! Cool outfit!

Diego talks about fighting being like life--you make quick decisions; it’s not for the glory. Does your life feel like that, a fight? That you have to risk danger to get what you want, to feel something?

No, I don't. I've had to struggle to get where I am now. I think as you get older, you find smaller things more fascinating and they have larger meaning. So I don't need to jump off a building to feel I'm alive. I can get that playing with a puppy.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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