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Interview: Michael Rooker Talks ‘Guardians Of The Galaxy,’ ‘The Walking Dead’ & Always Being The Villain

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Michael Rooker made his feature film debut by playing the titular role in the gritty 1985 cult classic Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but he wouldn't become a household name until taking on the role of Merle Dixon on AMC's smash hit The Walking Dead. Though his time on that series may have ended, Rooker's star has never shined brighter in Hollywood as he dons the blue makeup of Yondu in James Gunn's blockbuster film Guardians of the Galaxy.

With the film available on Digital HD and Disney Movies Anywhere now (and arriving on Blu-ray & DVD on December 9), T-Lounge sat down with the veteran actor to discuss Guardians of the Galaxy, The Walking Dead, and what it's like to always be the villain.

T-LOUNGE: Which was more grueling: Being painted completely blue for Yondu or being zombified on The Walking Dead?

Michael Rooker: The zombie makeup was only two hours or so. Yondu's makeup was three-and-a-half or four hours, so Yondu's makeup was more extensive and more interestingly detailed in color and hue. The zombie makeup, of course, was very good. In both cases, we concentrated a lot on the contacts because, in both makeups, they really, truly wanted to be able to see through the contacts to see my eyes and see how they were responding. That was very important in both cases. But both were very interesting. I enjoyed both of them.

I enjoy makeup. I don't do a lot of makeup in my normal, everyday work, but when I do these characters that require it, I find it to be very intriguing.

TL: Yondu is a pretty major part of Guardians of the Galaxy. I love the way that you play him because he's not all baddie. He's got a sweet spot for Peter and he's a little bit naïve, but he's also completely ruthless when needed. How was it for you, as an actor, to walk that line of being bad, but not being too bad?

MR: I love that line. I look for that in a lot of my roles and a lot of the characters that I play. I like to hover in that gray area. That way the audience is still a little bit uneasy, or a little bit unsure, and a little bit fearful, not knowing what's going to happen. Sometimes they're surprised by what happens, and it ends up being funny and not necessarily mean. Or it ends up being mean and funny. It's a tightrope that you're walking, but I like it. I enjoy it and relish in it. Whenever I have the opportunity to do it, I go for it.

TL: You've mostly made a career leaning more towards the bad guys. Do you ever wish that you could be the hero sometimes? Do you ever get tired of being the heavy?

MR: I look in the mirror and I'm not bad enough to be bad guys. I mean, real bad. I don't have the scar down the face. And I'm too rough-hewn to be the beautiful hero on the white horse. I'm like an anti-hero. I'm the cat that you don't expect to jump in front of the freight train, grab the puppy, and slide out of the way. I'm that guy, and it surprises people. I really enjoy surprising my audience. Just when they think they know what's going to happen, they don't necessarily get what they expect. Sometimes they're happy about it and sometimes they're a little startled at first. My job is not to give them what they want. My job is to give them what they think they want and then they realize that they really don't want it, but they liked it anyway.

TL: I know it's been announced already that Yondu will return for the sequel in 2017, but have you had any talks with James Gunn or anyone at Marvel about what your role will entail yet?

MR: You know what? I haven't talked to anybody. I'm just making this up on my own. [Laughs] I'm back, man! I'm coming back no matter what! [Laughs] Not as of yet. I know James Gunn has said that he's willing to expand on some characters in the second one and Yondu is one of those roles.

TL: And you're more than happy, of course, to be back.

MR: Indeed I am. I'm thrilled. I'm ready, baby!

TL: From what I understand, you're one of only four people that know who Star-Lord's father is (in the movie universe). How does it feel to know you hold the secret that a million hungry geeks like me are dying to know?

MR: Well, Yondu holds many secrets. Yondu is a very old soul. He's been there for a long time and he knows how to survive. I know how to survive in this universe. There's no fooling me, and there's no getting around it. It's an interesting role. I'm enjoying the heck out of it.

TL: Is it the most fun you've had making a movie?

MR: It is one of the most fun times I've ever had, yeah. I had a great time doing Days of Thunder because I love driving and I love Nascar, but wow, being Yondu is like my dream come true. I'm one of the only geek actors that really, truly knew about Guardians of the Galaxy before I was told I was going to play Yondu. Even knowing just the comics, I would have chosen to play Yondu if I had my choice. To get the opportunity to really play him was like a total dream come true for me.

TL: Back in 1985, you were making this micro-budget film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Did you ever imagine that nearly 30 years later you'd be starring in a big-budget comic book movie and being mobbed by fans at Comic Con?

MR: You mentioned budget several times there, but I'm surprised that we even had a budget for Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. [Laughs] We brought our own lunches. We were all theater people. I went to a very prestigious theater school (the Goodwin School of Drama out of Chicago), so I did theater. I was a theater guy and I loved it. I got this opportunity to do this little film and they can't find this character anywhere and my director told me that I should go in and audition. So I ended up getting the role. What do you know? It was my first movie, so I was bound and determined to do a good job. Low and behold, it's just one of this little movies that will not go away. Young people are seeing it for the first time even today. They're just as blown away as when teenagers were seeing it back in 1985.

TL: You've had a really steady, long-running career at this point, but I have to assume that playing Merle in The Walking Dead gave it an extra jolt. What has being on that show done for you and your career?

MR: An extra jolt is a huge understatement. It's more like one of those flares that explode up in the sun and shoot across the galaxies and the universes and messes up our radio connections down here on Earth. Playing Merle Dixon on The Walking Dead has literally changed my life. Because of Merle Dixon and The Walking Dead, I got to get into the gaming business. I did Black Ops I and II, and I love that part of this business. I love the gaming world and I want to do more of that.

The Walking Dead did not lead to Guardians of the Galaxy, but James Gunn was so excited to put me in as Yondu and we were very, very fortunate that my character was coming to an end on The Walking Dead. You know how I explained how The Walking Dead was a flare-up on the sun? This Yondu role is going to end up being more like the birthing of a star. [Laughs] Dude, this is the development of a black hole! It's such a boost of power. Playing Yondu, like I said before, for me it's a dream come true.

Guardians of the Galaxy is available on Digital HD & Disney Movies Anywhere now. It arrives on Blu-ray & DVD on December 9.

(All photos: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment)

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