Norman Reedus Q&A: The Walking Dead's straight shooter

Daryl of “The Walking Dead” has become one of the show’s emotional cores. Actor Norman Reedus tells us how.

Connie Guglielmo SVP, AI Edit Strategy
Connie Guglielmo is a senior vice president focused on AI edit strategy for CNET, a Red Ventures company. Previously, she was editor in chief of CNET, overseeing an award-winning team of reporters, editors and photojournalists producing original content about what's new, different and worth your attention. A veteran business-tech journalist, she's worked at MacWeek, Wired, Upside, Interactive Week, Bloomberg News and Forbes covering Apple and the big tech companies. She covets her original nail from the HP garage, a Mac the Knife mug from MacWEEK, her pre-Version 1.0 iPod, a desk chair from Next Computer and a tie-dyed BMUG T-shirt. She believes facts matter.
Expertise I've been fortunate to work my entire career in Silicon Valley, from the early days of the Mac to the boom/bust dot-com era to the current age of the internet, and interviewed notable executives including Steve Jobs. Credentials
  • Member of the board, UCLA Daily Bruin Alumni Network; advisory board, Center for Ethical Leadership in the Media
Connie Guglielmo
7 min read
Watch this: Norman Reedus talks about Daryl Dixon's emotional journey

When he first read the "The Walking Dead" script, Norman Reedus didn't see it as a TV show based on comic books about zombies.

Instead, he focused on the "heartfelt" story of sheriff deputy Rick Grimes (played by Andrew Lincoln), who wakes up from a coma to find the world overtaken by "walkers."

"I read it as this guy who lost his family," says Reedus in between filming Season 8 of AMC's popular series, which airs this fall. "This tragedy happened and he was just trying to find his family."  

That also turns out to be a pretty good description of Daryl Dixon, a character written just for Reedus. Introduced as the younger brother of the comic books' racist, redneck hunter Merle Dixon, Daryl starts out as an angry man who rides a motorcycle, carries a crossbow and is a fearless killer.

Over time, though, Reedus' Daryl has changed from outsider to trusted co-leader of the group. He considers the #TWD survivors his family. "He had a chip on his shoulder, like he wasn't comfortable being him," Reedus says. Now Daryl is "somebody you can respect."

The actor, who has starred in dozens of movies, as well as TV shows and music videos before joining the series in 2010, won't give away any spoilers for the new season. But he says die-hard fans will notice it feels more like the early episodes.

Reedus spoke with Connie Guglielmo, editor in chief of CNET News, about why he prefers motorcycles over horses, how he'd write Daryl's final scene and who he'd want on his motorcycle reality show, "Ride with Norman Reedus." Here's an edited transcript of their conversation.

Mark Mann

The story goes that you convinced TWD to write a part for you. Why did you want to be on a zombie series?  

I read it and I didn't even read zombies. I read this guy who was just trying to find his family. That first episode of our show is my favorite. It was so different and it was something I would watch.  

It seemed like such a heartfelt story, right from the beginning. And then it was like — "It's a zombie show," and I was like, "Yeah, zombies were there." But I didn't really read that into it.

I think it's fair to say Daryl is now one of the most popular characters. How would you describe his journey?

When you first see him, he's such an angry guy. He basically would've turned into his brother. But he's found a sense of self-worth through these people that he would've never hung out with before.

Now that group relies on him. I mean he started out [turns sideways] like, "Don't look at me, don't look at me." He had a chip on his shoulder, like he wasn't comfortable being him. There were always scripts that had him taking drugs and being racist, like his brother was.

I fought to change those because I felt he should be more of an Al-Anon member and not a full-blown Alcoholics Anonymous member. He should have grown up with it, felt ashamed of it and wasn't comfortable with who he was. That allows him to grow into somebody you respect. Now he talks to you like this [facing front], like he means everything he says. He's super direct, super honest and you can count on him.

Now he's a leader and he calls the shots with Rick. Rick's the brother that Merle never was. It's a strange sort of circumstance how it's made Daryl a better person.

Why do you think people like Daryl so much?

He wears his heart on his sleeve. He's honest. He's not trying to trick you.

How much of you is Daryl?

I think of Daryl all the time. Everybody calls me Daryl — no one even knows my name anymore. There's a lot of me in him and a lot of him in me.

What's good about playing a show for eight years is that … you drop these little seeds behind you and they turn into trees and forests. You can create a larger story, so time really works to your advantage.

What can we expect in the new season?

It feels like our original show again. I didn't love last season, shooting it. I didn't see anyone. I was crying all the time. I was naked and eating dog food. It was just no fun. This season feels like our show again.

Mark Mann

I'm not going to ask if Daryl dies, but if you could write a death scene, would his death be spectacular or quiet?

I think you'd see a sunset. I would walk up over a hill and then a little wolf puppy would come out of the woods and follow me up. And people would just go, "Whatever happened to that guy?"

You've been described as badass, troubled, quietly hostile. How would you describe yourself?

I like quietly hostile. He seems quote quietly hostile. I don't know who said that, but that sounds cool [laughs].

Do you pick roles that reflect where you are in your life?  

I remember the first thing I was on. My [character's] dad was passing away. My dad's in a wheelchair and he stands up and gives me a hug. It's a big deal. I called my dad and just had a regular conversation and then did the scene. I cried so much that snot was everywhere and it was disgusting.

It's not that I just pick roles depending on where my life is, but it definitely helps if you can relate to something real to where you're at, you know?

Is it true you asked for a dog on TWD and they gave you the crossbow instead?

No, that's not true. The crossbow was always a thing. But this is what happens with the internet — it just becomes telephone.

Was a motorcycle always part of the role?

Early on I had a scene where I was supposed to ride a horse. I'm terrified of horses so just when we were about to shoot, I said, "Well, whose motorcycle is that?" And they go, "That's your brother's." And I go, "Well, if he can ride bikes I can probably ride bikes too." And so they changed the horse for the motorcycle last-minute because I was freaking out because of horses.

What do you have against horses?

They have giant eyeballs and they can smell your fear.

You do a show on AMC called "Ride with Norman Reedus" about the culture of riding. Do you own a bunch of bikes now?

Six bikes.

Any favorites?

I have this one that's made by Chris, this friend who has a company called LA Speed Shop. It's a [Harley-Davidson] FXRP — an old police bike that he's done up — and that bike's really cool. And [another] friend, Yaniv, who has Powerplant Motorcycles in LA, is building me a bike right now. And then the Triumph Tiger, it's a personal favorite, which is the one I ride on the show. It's an awesome bike.

If you could ride with anyone, who would it be?  

I tried to get Cher on "Ride." That would be awesome. So somebody like Cher or maybe like Marianne Faithfull. We'd both wear one-piece leather outfits with fur on the inside, like [Faithfull wore in] that movie "The Girl on a Motorcycle." That'd be fun.

You're also in video games — including a new one called Death Stranding by game legend Hideo Kojima. What was it like working with him?

It's mind-blowing. He's a genius. He came out to San Diego for Comic-Con, and he had some stuff on an iPad that he wanted to show me. I sat in a little restaurant at a booth watching this iPad and the things he'd created, and I was just blown away. I was like, "Whatever you want to do, let's do it. I don't even know what you're talking about."

It's unreal. People will do whatever he wants because he's a visionary.

You have a restaurant here in Georgia called Nic & Norman's that you started with TWD producer Greg Nicotero. I read you just wanted it to be a place where people can get great burgers.

That's another internet story [that's] wrong. First, it was supposed to just be a dive bar for the crew to go to — like a barbecue because everybody is a professional barbecuer in Georgia. And somehow it turned into a restaurant. It's doing great. The food is delicious.

And Norman's pick is a bison patty with a slice of beetroot?

Yes, I have beetroot sliced on my burger, which I'd had somewhere and thought was really good. And now Greg and I have dueling burgers and bets on who's going to sell more burgers. I'm losing horribly. So if you go to the restaurant, order my damn burger [laughs].

Do you consider yourself a tech person?

I have these little robots that clean your floors. I have like two or three going at a time. So I'm kind of a tech person. I [also] have cameras set up so I can watch my cat walk back and forth if I'm not there.

What do you worry the cat's going to do?

I just miss him, so I wanna see him. If I could teach him to talk back to me that would be awesome [laughs].

If you could have any piece of tech invented, what would you want it to be?

Crap, I don't know. Where's our jetpack? Aren't we supposed to have a fricking jetpack by now? Yeah, where's my jetpack? I'd race around on my jetpack.

Watch out video interviews with Norman Reedus at cnet.com/walking-dead-daryl-dixon