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If ever there were a Hollywood actor who's wild at heart, it's Michael Rooker.
The rough and rowdy character actor was first seen in a chilling performance for 1986's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and later became an action-film fixture in numerous '90s blockbusters like Days of Thunder, Cliffhanger, and Tombstone.
Since then, Rooker's starpower has been amplified due to recent acclaimed roles as Daryl Dixon's savage older brother Merle on AMC's The Walking Dead, and the blue-skinned alien Yondu Udonta in both Guardians of the Galaxy movies. Next summer he'll co-star in director James Gunn's Suicide Squad 2 in a role heavily guarded by Warner Bros.' studio brass.
SYFY WIRE spoke with Rooker on the eve of his virtual appearance at GalaxyCon Live on Saturday, June 27 to learn about his strict dietary habits during lockdown, how to best watch the Guardians of the Galaxy films, his favorite scene in The Walking Dead, and filming his upcoming sci-fi horror flick, Monster Problems, in the wilds of Australia.
What have you been doing to stay inspired while film production has halted?
I'm always inspired. I just have to stay in shape and stay healthy. That was my main thrust, to not eat too many pastries and stay on a doable schedule. Basically to stay fit. Everything's my guilty pleasure. I'll eat or drink anything, so I have to watch myself. I have a great appetite and enjoy good wine and beverages and can eat as much as a moose, so I need to be careful.
How can your virtual appearance at this weekend's GalaxyCon help fans stay connected?
Well, it will be all verbal but there will be some visual elements to it. There's no physicality to it but in reality, there is. You're not just stuck behind the camera, there's still animation and stuff going on so I think it will be pleasurable. We'll have a good time and it will help people concentrate on their questions.
Sometimes people get carried away with the visuals when you're right there in person, with all the other people walking around and a lot of distractions. This way there are no distractions and you'll be able to get more from the experience.
You've been off of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 for three years and on to other projects. When you look back, how do you summarize your time on both films and working with James Gunn?
When I think about it, I had shaved my head for the first one, and kept it shaved for quite a while, even into the second one. So I walked around and hung out with no hair for quite a few years and I gotta tell you, I enjoyed the haircut. But it's good to have a little bit of hair back. [Laughs.] I like to tell people to watch both Guardians of the Galaxy movies, one after the other, with a good meal and some beverages, and enjoy the evening. You'll be able to get the full experience of how all the characters spill over into the second one, especially Yondu.
There's a big difference from your perspective of him in the first one versus the second. It's good to see them back-to-back and I always let people know that when they ask.
Were you able to keep any of the costumes or props from the GOTG sets?
I don't know where any of those mementos or props went. [Laughs.] I don't know what you're talking about. Really. I have no idea where they are. Oh, THOSE! Marvel gave me a few things and James Gunn gave me a couple of things. It's really pretty cool to know that I have the actual orb from the very first one. I do have Yondu's glass frog too. And the fin. Then for the second one I have a couple of props as well.
Yondu's death scene and the Ravager funeral in vol. 2 made just about everyone emotional. What was your reaction when you first read those scenes in the script?
My goodness, that was a grand celebration indeed. Pretty amazing stuff. It was so moving. Having the biggest laugh with, "I'm Mary Poppins, y'all," and then having one of the biggest emotional moments in the sequel, giving your life for your son. What daddy wouldn't? So it was really a well-written character. I owe it all to James Gunn. James is just a fabulous writer. That character was drawn out so perfectly. As an actor, he made it easy for me. Very amazing. It was a beautiful celebration of Yondu's life, to allow it to move on through his surrogate son.
Did you get to interact with your old Cliffhanger co-star Sylvester Stallone after your scenes in GOTG 2?
We did get to hang out together a bit on set. We took selfies together. [Laughs.] There's a photo of each of us taking a selfie of us. The photo of us doing that looks like we're each taking a photo of ourselves. It's like, look at those two major mega egos taking photographs of themselves while standing next to each other. It's a great photo.
What were your associations with sci-fi movies, TV, or comics growing up?
A little bit of all the above. Not an expert with any of them and not totally geeking out on one thing or another. Even today, my tastes are very eclectic. I like it all.
Your portrayal of Merle in The Walking Dead is one of the franchise's most memorable characters. Why do you believe fans related to his journey so intensely?
You know, it's really hard to explain. I'm not completely sure why that all occurred but it did, and it ended up being quite an amazing sequence of events. Merle Dixon… what an unbelievable character. Wow. And to have the opportunity to have the time to develop it.
It's basically three years of work, and they held off on the second season. I'm not sure AMC knew what to do with the character. They held off and they held off, and the moment I came back in the sequence when Norman's [Reedus] character has fallen down into the ravine and I end up being his guardian angel who comes to him and antagonizes him enough to force him to get up and climb. It was just a gorgeous way to bring the character back.
Then in the third season, I come back full strength which is so very memorable. But from day one all the way to the death of Merle, my favorite sequence was in the beginning, on the rooftop. I'm handcuffed to the roof. T-Dog drops the key down the pipe, I can't get loose and I end up cutting my hand off. That whole sequence for me was unbelievable, to be able to do a nine-minute monologue was fantastic. To watch it again is simply amazing. Frank Darabont, my man, thank you for casting me. And Gale Anne Hurd, thank you for casting me in that role.
Are you surprised The Walking Dead is still alive years after you left the show?
Yeah, I thought they'd just close it up after I died. [Laughs.]
In your 35-year career, you've played everything from a serial killer, baseball player, mountain climber, and cowboy, to a race car driver, a racist thug, and an alien warrior. What do you look for in projects?
Something that's going to end up helping me pay my mortgage. I'm telling you, man. [Laughs.] Hey, life is too short, you know. Come on, have fun with it. Even in the intense roles I've played, I still want to have fun with them and enjoy.
Monster Problems is a new Paramount horror movie you've got coming out next year. What can you tell us about that production and other projects that were delayed?
Man, I've got like four projects that were postponed because of COVID-19 and they'll all come out next year. F9, Suicide Squad 2, The President Is Missing, and my TV show that may or may not come out. So I'm very excited about all of them.
Monster Problems we did down in Australia and it was fantastic. And it was before all the fires. You'd look out over these huge mountain tops at all that greenery and it was just beautiful majestic scenery. It was all scorched and burned later. And all the poor animals. Just a horrible thought that it was devastated that way. Nature is very interesting. It's probably already grown back and lush again.
In Monster Problems, I'm a survivor and I pool up with another survivor who ends up being a young girl. And we help each other out and learn to survive on the surface amongst all the monsters and creatures that have evolved. I end up being a mentor and survivalist teacher. A very interesting concept and I had a great time doing it.
What can you tell us about your involvement in Suicide Squad 2?
As far as I know, everything has been filmed. I had a fun time playing the role. That's always my priority. I always have to have fun, otherwise, why play it? I am totally in the movie though — but still can't tell you who I'm playing. [Laughs.]
You've mentioned hoping to someday come back into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Any top picks for characters you'd like to play?
Well, all of the works that Marvel has done of late have been amazing. I mean, who doesn't want to be in another Marvel "It" project. And there have been quite a few of them as late. So who knows. But I did do this new project for DC, so you never know, we'll see how it goes.