Every actor who works on AMC’s The Walking Dead knows that any day could bring word of their character’s demise. It is, after all, a zombie show. Still, it’s hard to imagine The Walking Dead without Norman Reedus, whose beloved Daryl Dixon has become the most popular character on the most popular TV show in the world. But before he stepped into that role, Reedus was a movie actor, with roles in films like The Boondock Saints, Blade II and The Notorious Bettie Page. He’s bouncing back into film with Air, a post-apocalyptic thriller costarring Djimon Hounsou, the first big screen film produced by Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman. Reedus and Hounsou play janitors who must take care of the cryogenically frozen remnants of the human race in an underground bunker system. Although there are no zombies, the tension comes from the finite amount of oxygen that these two characters have available to survive once things go horribly wrong.
In this exclusive interview, Reedus lets slip about the tension of getting a call from his Walking Dead boss, the impenetrable beauty of Djimon Hounsou and a trailer full of dildoes.
How did Air come to you?
Robert Kirkman gave me that call, “Hey, I need to talk to you,” and I was thinking, “Oh, God, I’m going to get bitten by a zombie. This is the call, right? It’s coming right now.” And he said, “No, I have a script for you. And knowing Robert and Dave [Albert, producer] I already knew that what they put their hands in would be quality stuff. We already had a good working relationship and we’re friends, so I felt very comfortable going into it. Then I read the script and it had this crazy claustrophobic feel that was fascinating to read. You’re reading it really fast, but you have to take a breath every once in a while because you just feel claustrophobic. If you can feel something physically while you’re reading something, it’s a good sign that there’s juice in it.
Air has a very 1970s, Alien vibe with the dark, sterile underground bunkers.
It was cool. I liked the mix of high tech and low tech because it tells a story. You have high tech equipment wrapped in duct tape. It tells you that stuff was put together last-minute, which they also do on The Walking Dead. When they introduced the prison, you’d see a row of jail cells and you’d see blood splatter right here, blood spatter right there, and then a ton right here. And that tells you that when the infection was going down they executed each person in the cell, and then people at the end of the cell started figuring out what was going to happen so they bum rushed the guy and there was a fight. I like that attention to detail, so I thought it was awesome.
Given the on-set claustrophobia, what was the shoot like?
We didn’t have any fun on this movie. Are you kidding? They worked us to death on this one. You remain as light as you can, and you joke around. We joked around at certain spots, but it was a very serious film. And there were certain things in the film that were funny — like putting a sock on a door knob is funny when you want some private time. But after you’ve been doing it for that long is it still funny to us? Probably not. It’s just a thing. But I’m glad the audience got little things like that. But we joked around a little bit. We’d be in the makeup trailer in the morning — I’d suffocate during a portion of the film and capillaries are bursting out of my face and I’m a shade of purple — and I’d look over at Djimon and there’s this beautiful guy getting more makeup on to make him more beautiful and I’m turning purple; and I’m like, “This is bullshit. Can somebody mess this guy up a little bit?” Then there was a scene where I asked him to hold the bottom of his foot towards me so I could kick the bottom of his foot while I’m screaming at him, and I broke my toe kicking this dude. So yeah, I was that guy.
Any practical jokes?
One day I came back to my trailer and it was filled with dildos, vibrators, and pictures of Djimon in his underwear. The entire crew was in on that one.
Director Christian Cantamessa comes from the video game world — how’d he handle bringing this to life?
He’s a high tech dude wrapped in duct tape himself. There were certain things that we were saying in the movie that I had to re-ask what this meant, “If I shut this, this countdown goes to what? And this valve does what?” So it was nice to have him there to put it all in check. He reminds me of Guillermo del Toro. Guillermo would be behind the monitor during fight scenes going, “Pow, pow, pow,” and yet there’s this infectious attitude that makes you want to jump on board.
How have you seen Robert Kirkman evolve as a writer since you started on The Walking Dead?
Wow, man, I thought he was pretty good before. He’s very hands-on with the cast and the crew and the storyline, and he knows the characters as well as anyone. Every new script he puts out gets better and better because it’s more detailed because he knows the characters more and he knows what they’re thinking. He puts them in situations that you wouldn’t normally find them in. Just his knowledge of the show makes him better and better and better.
What role do you feel he’s played in the success of The Walking Dead, not only in television, but in the video games and other offshoots that they’ve done since the original comic?
None of this would be here without Robert. I think he’s the wizard behind the curtain on our show. He created this magnificent world and it’s turned into a television show and video games and a phenomenon. It’s solely in the hands of Robert.
Of all the things you’ve been able to accomplish, what was it like to actually see yourself in video game?
It was cool. My son was playing it and I forgot that I cussed in it, so he turned around and gave me this look with his mouth open like, “Oh.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, I cussed in that.” It was cool. It’s nice to see yourself in video games and action figures and tattoos and everything else. It’s fun.
RELATED: Gamer Next Door: The Walking Deads Norman Reedus Wants To Give Huge Orgasms at Comic Con