Michael Rooker isn’t yet a household name but perhaps he ought to be. Show any moviegoer a still from one of his scenes and they’ll recognize him immediately: “Oh!“ they’ll say. "The villain!”
Since his 1986 breakout as the titular madman in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Rooker has built a career out of being bad, whether it’s as a murderous Klu Klux Klan member in Mississippi Burning, Tom Cruise’s bitter rival in Days of Thunder or, most recently, the redneck racist Merle Dixon in The Walking Dead.
But there’s more to Michael Rooker than meets the eye. His presence compelled his longtime friend and collaborator, director James Gunn, to cast him as the Blue Man Group castaway-turned scavenger Yondu, in Guardians of The Galaxy. In the sequel, out Friday, Yondu moves from the periphery into the spotlight, so much so that Gunn has said he considers Yondu the film’s main character. We caught up with Rooker ahead of the film’s release to find out how one of Hollywood’s most reliable character actors is enjoying life in the limelight.
When James Gunn got Guardians, did you feel like audiences would finally get to see what this man is capable of on a larger scale?
MICHAEL ROOKER: Yeah, I always knew what he was capable of, so it was a great moment for him, when he let everyone know what he was doing. He was a bit secretive at first. I don’t think he told anybody right at first, but eventually he told me and all of his other friends. We were very excited for him.
Did he have you in mind for the role of Yondu right away, or did you have to audition?
He had me in mind for something. I didn’t know exactly what it was going to be at first. And it ended up being Yondu, so it was really cool that he was thinking of me for the role. I was pretty stoked.
Were you just as stoked when you found out you had to spend ten hours a day in a makeup chair?
It was about an hour, hour and a half. No, it was about two and a half hours and it was about an hour and a half to take off.
Are these films as much fun to make as they are to watch?
I think we have a blast. I long ago decided that if I’m not going to have fun, I’m not going to do it. I have fun and that is my main goal going in, to enjoy my fellow actors and enjoy the material. So that’s what I do. And if I’m going to have a good time with it, I’m going to do it and it’s going to be a blast.
Family is a theme that runs throughout these films. Did you guys develop a familial bond right off the bat or did it take some time to develop chemistry?
It was the best. Chris (Pratt) is especially a lot of fun to be around. We have so many laughs together. He’s a good guy.
Tell me a bit about how Yondu evolves in the second film.
Yondu is not going to change is colors completely, ok? It’s a continuation. Who Yondu is in the first piece is who Yondu is in the second one. But you’re going to see more of the character so you learn more of what he’s about. There are other things going on at this point in time too, so you’re going to see a more developed character. I don’t want to give away anything yet but it’s going to be cool and it’s way more in-depth. It’s a bigger movie overall and you’re going to learn a lot more about the characters and mine is one that got a lot more attention.
This isn’t your typical superhero movie. Were you surprised that such an oddball franchise was so embraced by audiences?
You know, after doing it and after seeing it, that did not surprise me at all. I’ve even said over and over that this is one of those movies that you need to see two, three, four times. You discover new things about it each time you see it. That’s what the first movie is all about and the second one follows suit. It’s going to be really cool.
James said you deserve an Oscar for this performance. Do you agree?
Yeah, he has since said that I spiked his ginger ale, and that’s what caused him to say that. And I admit it, I spiked his ginger ale. If James Gunn says it, it’s true. Whatever he says is correct.
I’ve read that you’ve been petitioning James for a standalone Yondu film.
I don’t know who told you that, there’s nothing to that (laughs).
I know this is top secret, but what can you tell me about the new Avengers movies?
Well what do you what to know about it?
How big of a role will the Guardians play?
Wow, the weather is really beautiful today (laughs).
Okay, how about, how many NDA’s did you have to sign before stepping foot on set?
Only one, man (laughs). That’s for sure.
When you’re on a set like that, do you ever think: "Holy shit, there’s Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo, there’s Thor!?’ Do you ever just think to yourself ‘How the hell did I get here?’
Well you’re talking about a different movie. I’m talking about Guardians Volume 2. I nailed that one. I have no idea what you’re talking about.
You’re a real pro at avoiding these questions.
I’m so good. I grew up on television working on The Walking Dead and they were so secretive with their stuff that it’s embedded in me now. Even when I can talk, I don’t want to say anything. I love to be surprised myself, so even when I can say stuff, I try to get around it. So yeah, the weather is very nice.
Well let’s redirect those questions to how you felt on the set of Guardians, then. It’s obviously the biggest movie you’ve done, and it’s got this massive machinery behind it. Are you enjoying life as a movie star?
Oh, it’s a dream, I’m iving a dream. Just professionally, I’ve done a lot of movies, I have a huge resume. For young actors or whoever is listening, you just have to be ready when it happens. I got a break and I’m taking it. Not only am I taking it, I’m going to run with it. I am excited to be on these projects. And I’m excited that I’m not on set going, “What now? What do I do?”
That’s what’s interesting about your career. You’re a veteran. Does it feel now with The Walking Dead and with Guardians, your career has reached a new stratosphere? How has your life changed?
I guess being hunted down by TMZ. They are always there and they are always waiting. And the fans are there, so the fun part is trying to figure out how to avoid them or be ready for them. Every time I get on a plane, I know somebody is waiting. Early on in my career, no one knew who I was. But not anymore. They know you, they know who you are, they’ve got your resume, done their homework and tthier questions are ready. Some of them are damn good questions, too.
What are your memories of working with guys like Sylvester Stallone and Tom Cruise when they were at the peak of their powers?
You know what, I never–even when I was just starting out–I don’t want to say unimpressed, but I just did my thing. I never had an “Oh my god”moment. I don’t have that reaction to anyone. Is there something wrong with me?
You’ve played the villain a lot. Are people who meet you surprised by how nice you are?
Don’t spread it around. I tell people, “Don’t let people know I’m a nice guy, I’ll never work again.” You know what, I have fun with fans, I have fun with everyone on set or not. Regular life, walking down the street, I’ll pretty much talk to anybody.