‘It feels like season one again’: Norman Reedus brings new life to the Dead

By Karl Quinn

Just keep walking: Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) finds himself in France for the first season of his standalone The Walking Dead spin-off.Credit: Emmanuel Guimier/AMC

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When Norman Reedus landed the part of Daryl Dixon, the younger brother of racist criminal Merle (John Rooker) in season one of The Walking Dead, he had no idea he’d play the character for 174 episodes across 11 seasons and a dozen years.

“I don’t think anybody knows they’re gonna have a show that lasts this long and it’s such a big hit,” says Reedus. “It’s kind of lightning in a bottle when it happens, you know? I had no clue. And I’m still enjoying it, which is crazy.”

He’s far too diplomatic to just blurt it out, but reading between the lines you get the strong sense he’s enjoying it a whole lot more right now than he has for a long time.

The spin-off named after and focusing on his character transfers the action to France, which surely has its appeal under any circumstances. But what has him most excited is that it has allowed him to capture that lightning in a bottle a second time.

There was something unique in that first season of The Walking Dead way back in 2010 that he’s been searching for ever since, he admits.

Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon.Credit: Emmanuel Guimier/AM

“That first group of actors, I think all of our agents were like, ‘Are you sure you want to do this’,” he says, throwing back to a time when a show about zombies seemed an utterly risky proposition. “But we all believed in it, we believed in [creator] Frank Darabont and Gale Anne Hurd [producer of Aliens and the Terminator movies], and [cable network] AMC had really good shows out at the time, Breaking Bad and Mad Men.

“We went into it treating it as real as possible, and it had all these elements that if you didn’t, it would slide into Cornyville real easy. So everybody played it real, and that first group of actors became so close, and had such respect for each other and wanted each other to do the best they could do, and it was a real sense of family right from the beginning. And I think that camaraderie between the actors and the crew set the tone that you could feel through the TV screen.”

However idyllic that first season of the post-apocalypse may have been, the mechanics of making a hit show soon took over as the ratings climbed past 14 million viewers per episode in the US – a previously unthinkable figure for a cable show.

Reedus says he and Andrew Lincoln, the English actor who played main character Rick Grimes for nine seasons and will soon appear in his own spin-off, used to read Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, which was filmed by Australian John Hillcoat, hoping to draw reference points for their own show.

“We thought if it would even get to season five we’d have no teeth, we’d be completely emaciated, we’d be complete savages,” he says. “And then, as a television show becomes a juggernaut of a franchise and there are 12 million dolls of you and lunchboxes and pinball machines, it becomes a machine, and the machine’s gotta feed the machine, and it’s gotta get bigger in the numbers. It’s insanity.

“I’m still trying to tell this as a simple story, but you see characters and their pants are a little tighter [because they’re eating well], and there’s makeup, and you’re like, ‘Wait a minute, are we doing The Road?’”

The new series is “an opportunity to flip the script” on all that, he says, to strip the concept back to its core elements and “tell a simple story that’s very complicated”.

For the first time, Reedus is a producer on the show, and that means there’s much more chance of his suggestions being incorporated. He was there six months before filming started, scouting locations, casting actors, tweaking the scripts. If this show works or fails, it is in no small part down to him. (And so far, it appears to be working; AMC has already commissioned a second season.)

Daryl is asked to help shepherd Laurent (Louis Puech Scigliuzzi), a young man who may or may not be the messiah, to safety in northern France.Credit: Stan

Other than McCarthy’s harrowing post-apocalyptic masterpiece, his inspiration on the spin-off, he says, was the music of Brian Eno. “There’s something about Eno using simple sounds and making them complicated that is very pure. There’s an emotional feeling there, and you just get lost in it. This kind of has that element in a weird way.”

Throwing Daryl in at the deep end – in a country he doesn’t know, with walkers who have developed new characteristics, with humans whose language he doesn’t speak and whose cultural reference points he doesn’t share – has upped the stakes and injected a fresh sense of urgency to his situation, as he is tasked by a nun (the excellent Clemence Poesy) with guiding to safety a teenager (Louis Puech Scigliuzzi) her order believes is the messiah.

Reedus and his wife, the German actress and model Diane Kruger, walk the red carpet at Cannes in May 2022.Credit: Pascal Le Segretain

As for the inevitable comparisons to The Last of Us spawned by that plotline, Reedus says his show was written before the HBO series went to air, and his team of writers was more concerned with “not treading on the toes of The Wolverine” (in which Hugh Jackman’s character is tasked with protecting a child). Reedus adds he hasn’t seen The Last of Us yet, though he will watch it eventually.

“I haven’t watched anything but South Park in, like, four years,” he says. “It’s my comfort show. I know every line to every episode of every season. I need to broaden my horizons.”

Looking further afield has certainly breathed new life into The Walking Dead, he says. “It’s all new, it’s all fresh, and it feels like season one again, which to me is great.”

But if getting lost in France has been a game changer, isn’t there a danger that this show too will become its own machine?

“I’m sure it will get bigger and bigger because it’s really good,” he says. “But the purer I can keep it, the simpler I can keep it, the more Brian Eno I can keep, the happier I’ll be.”

The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon is on Stan, which is owned, like this masthead, by Nine.

Contact the author at [email protected], follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin, and read more of his work here.

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