Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
Hands down, actor Michael Rooker is one the funniest, nicest, slightly insane gentlemen you are likely to meet. Although he was born in Alabama, he moved to Chicago shortly after becoming a teenager. While in college in Chicago, he started taking acting classes and became a fixture of city's theater scene, although not with any particular company; he was a kind of journeyman actor. It's hard to believe that his first film role was as the title character in the cruel and captivating HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, directed by John McNaughton and based loosely on the crimes of one of America's most notorious serial killers Henry Lee Lucas.
For a time, it seemed the Rooker was in roles of various sizes in damn near every movie released. Based on Rooker's work in HENRY, John Sayles plucked him up for a role in EIGHT MEN OUT. After that came fantastic performances in MISSISSIPPI BURNING, SEA OF LOVE, MUSIC BOX, DAYS OF THUNDER, JFK (probably my favorite of Rooker's supporting work), THE DARK HALF, CLIFFHANGER, MALLRATS, BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA, KEYS TO TULSA, THE TRIGGER EFFECT, ROSEWOOD, THE REPLACEMENT KILLERS, THE BONE COLLECTOR, JUMPER, and as the disgusting man-turned-monster in James Gunn's SLITHER. Rooker has seen a major resurgence in his popularity recently thanks to a small, but memorable role the the biggest asshole of the zombie Apocalypse, the currently handless Merle Dixon, on AMC's "The Walking Dead."
Our reason for getting together recently was the Chicago premiere of his latest collaboration with Gunn, the magnificent SUPER, in which Rooker plays villain Kevin Bacon's right-hand man Abe. But we covered so much ground in this interview, I thought this would make a perfect candidate for an AICN Legends column. The man is a jokester, who loves to tell stories about the work he's done and the people's he's worked with. When I informed him I'd be the one moderating the Q&As at a post-screening SUPER event that night, he looked at me with mock indignation, walked over the the door, opened it, and yelled at the publicists outside in the hall, "Get this motherfucker out of my sight!" Boy, I hope he was kidding. There's a lot of ground to be covered here, so let's get to it. And for those who missed the SUPER event in Chicago, Rooker will be back in town August 12-14 for Chicago's premier horror convention, Flashback Weekend. Details on that in the summer. Please enjoy the hell out of the lovely and talented Michael Rooker…
Michael Rooker: Awesome man, it’s good to meet you. Sweet.
Capone: I interviewed James [Gunn] a couple of weeks ago. I'm getting a sense that so many people are coming tonight. It’s going to be a really good crowd.
MR: I hear it’s a great house. It’s like 500 seats?
Capone: I think it’s more like 700.
Capone: It’s an old-fashioned movie palace. It’s a beautiful theater; you’re going to love it.
Capone: Let’s first just talk about how you and James Gunn found each other way back in the pre-SLITHER days. Did you know each other before that?
MR: No, no. I went in for an audition for SLITHER and I came into the room.
Capone: So you didn’t know him?
MR: I didn’t know him from before and I went in and walked into the room, it was my turn, a couple other actors were waiting in the waiting room. I come into the room, and he stands up and he applauds. [laughs] He’s applauding me as I come into the room and I’m like, “Maybe wait until I read this and then see if it’s worthy of applause.” But he was a big fan already, and I didn’t know that. So, that’s his sense of humor, so it was very funny.
Capone: I keep reading that you guys playfully insult each other back and forth; you seem like you have a really great relationship with him. Tell me about the sort of relationship you have with him, both working and otherwise.
MR: He has a sexual tension for me I think. I am a hot number, you know. [Laughs] I think he digs me; he likes my legs maybe.
Capone: Well when you shave them and they look so shapely, how can he resist?
MR: I know, I know. We really mess around. We poke each other all of the time joking and going back and forth all of the time and we were that way on the set too. He’s a great guy, and I get along with him very well. On SUPER, I was laughing at him practically because he was so stressed out. We have so little budget and so little time, and he was stressed out and he’s directing hard and really trying to get this thing done, and I’m over there in the corner like laughing at him.
Capone: In SUPER you are playing this garden-variety goon, and as much as you sometimes play villains or heavies, you don’t play the goon very often. Would you have done that for just anybody?
MR: No, I just did it as a favor for Gunn. He didn’t even want to ask me to do it. He was a little embarrassed to ask me to do it, and finally I said, “Well what can I play? What can we do?” So, we decided on Abe and then it was like, “There’s not much.” There were like three lines or something.
Capone: If you blink, you may miss him.
MR: Yeah, “What are you doing with Abe?” So yeah, we made it fun even with that amount of screen time, I think Abe has an interesting persona.
Capone: He certainly is the most competent of the bodyguards or whatever they are.
MR: He’s the most confident and kind of has some moral fiber.
Capone: That’s true, a little sympathy for people.
MR: Sympathy for the girl, and he secretly kind of likes her I think, that’s my little thing. So you add these little things, and when you do small roles like that, you’ve got to bring it man, you’ve got to bring your imagination and think of all of these connections and stuff. It fleshes out the role, no matter how big or small the role is on camera, no matter how many lines you’ve got, you still have to do your homework.
Capone: Growing up, what kind of films do you remember really just wanting to absorb?
MR: I was like a comedy guy. I really enjoyed slapstick. We saw everything from horror to… Anytime there was something they wanted to do, [my parents] just dropped us off at the theater, and we would just watch all of theses things. [Laughs]
Capone: I’m familiar with that practice.
MR: There was a lot of comedy back then with Abbott and Costello and the Three Stooges on TV. BEING THERE is probably one of my favorite movies.
Capone: Really? Wow, that’s one of mine too.
MR: BEING THERE, I laugh. I just love that movie and even today I’ll watch it and I’ll laugh all the way through the movie. Those beautifully done, excellent performances.
Capone: It could never be made today.
MR: No, never. They would read it and go, “What? This ain’t funny. What do you mean?” Because there’s not a yuck-yuck joke line every four lines that we are used to know. The comedy comes from the situation and the looks and the physical whatever is going on in the scene, and that calls for someone who is very talented, who starts doing this genius kind of stuff, and that’s why it’s one of my favorites. I’ve always enjoyed comedies—physical comedies are my favorite—and I’m good physically, so as my career went along people discovered I can do this and I can jump over cars and I can definitely kick people’s asses. So they are like, “Oh man, get that guy.” I’ve played a lot of kind of on the edge characters, tough guys, and it’s been good. It’s paid the mortgage over the years.
Capone: You went to drama school here and you have roots here. What kind of theater were you doing pre-HENRY? What theater companies were you involved with and what sort of shows were you doing?
MR: I was freelance, so I just auditioned wherever. Whatever was going on I would audition for something. I did several kind of "Irish plays" that were sort of in style around that time. Everybody was doing a Brendan Behan, or they were doing an Irish piece or whatever. So, I was able to get into those. I ended up doing several Irish pieces and definitely more contemporary work, not classic. I knew that I wasn't too interested in doing Shakespeare. I mean, I could, I have training and I could do it, but I’m more contemporary kind of stuff. As an actor in Chicago you work in a lot of the smaller houses. I ended up getting my equity card and then not working, so I started working more in film and TV, that kind of thing.
Capone: With HENRY, you almost want a more elaborate story, but it really was just an audition for [director] John McNaughton to find you, right? He didn’t see you in a play or on the street; it was just an audition.
MR: I came from a play, the director of the play did the prosthetic makeup for HENRY, so he turned me onto the piece that was being auditioned for. He said, “Yeah they are doing this little T&A slasher movie and they can’t find the guy. Why don’t you go over and try out and audition.” I did and I ended up getting the job.
Capone: When they actually gave you the script, was it just another job at the time, or were you kind of shocked by what you were reading?
MR: There’s not a lot of plot to the script really. They had some material for me to read, and I don’t even remember which scene it was, but I came in after or before work, so I had my work clothes on, and those are the clothes I ended up wearing in the movie.
Capone: Wow, the jacket?
MR: [Laughs] The jacket and the pants.
Capone: What was the job?
MR: I cleaned offices.
Capone: So, it was janitor’s outfit.
MR: Yeah, I would put it on after school. I had the job all through school and I could go and at any time during the night and clean these two floors. It was a small architectural firm, and so a lot of the trash and stuff was just paper. It was an easy gig. So, I was able to do that and help pay my way through school. I did that for a few years.
Capone: To me, those clothes were the reason he was able to blend in and almost go invisible through life, never really stand out.
MR: That was a combination. The shoes were from a pair of shoes I think I bought went I drove a CTA bus. I drove a bus.
Capone: No kidding.
MR: Yeah, so I drove the bus and I had those on. I used those shoes for HENRY, and the pants and stuff were from cleaning the office.
Capone: I didn’t grow up here, but I went to school here back in the late 80s and I have a real vivid memory of coming downtown for the Chicago Film Festival to go see HENRY's premiere. I went to school just north of Chicago, and had to be one of my first trips downtown, to see HENRY.
MR: And you rode downtown on a CTA bus!
Capone: Well on a train. And I didn’t know downtown very well, so I was afraid after that movie to walk outside the theater walk through Henry's territory. But it was many years after that that the movie actually came out. There was a lot of buzz around it, before it ever got a release.
MR: So you had seen it early on.
Capone: Right at the beginning I guess, yeah. I’ll never forget it.
MR: Where did we screen that for the first time?
Capone: I’m not even sure it’s at a theater that’s still open.
MR: No, I think that theater was closed.
Capone: Was it The Biograph?
MR: The Biograph!
Capone: Was it there? I think you're right.
MR: Yeah, you’re not the first one to tell me that there were afraid to go back to their car, or walk around town. They were looking over their shoulders. [laughs]
Capone: Did you realize when you were making it that it was going to become as impactful or notorious as it’s become?
MR: Oh, goodness no, not at all. I had no idea if it was ever going to be released.
Capone: I guess that’s a legitimate concern.
MR: Well, it was the first film role that I had an opportunity to do that had any sort of real through line--beginning, middle, and end kind of arc. So, it was quite a challenge. It was probably one of the most challenging roles I’ve had.
Capone: Was it frustrating that it took so long to come out? Did you think in any way that was going to kickstart your career?
MR: No, not at all. [Laughs] I had already gone on and moved on. I had already done more theater, done EIGHT MEN OUT. My career had already gotten started. HENRY didn’t start the career, but HENRY was very instrumental in starting the career, because maybe 90 seconds of footage from HENRY was the footage that was the deciding factor of whether or not I would be cast in EIGHT MEN OUT or not. So, if it wasn’t for HENRY I wouldn’t have gotten EIGHT MEN OUT, which ended up getting me my New York agent, which ended up getting the real ball rolling as far as film work, because after that I did MISSISSIPPI BURNING and then more TV stuff and SEA OF LOVE and more TV.
Capone: I have to say about SEA OF LOVE: because I had seen HENRY, when I saw SEA OF LOVE, and you showed up in the movie almost sort of in the background, I knew you were the killer. It ruined the mystery of the movie for me, because I was like “Why else would he be in this movie? Henry's in the movie! Of course, he’s going to be the killer!”
MR: [laughs] "Henry's in the movie!" He’s making some lame corn hole joke or something.
Capone: You were like the cable guy, right?
MR: I was the cable repairman. [Laughs]
Capone: But I knew it was you. "Why else would he be in this movie?”
MR: It’s either the butler or the cable repair man no matter what.
Capone: I recognized you, and it wrecked the movie for me.
MR: “That’s that guy that played that Henry guy.”
Capone: You had said your career had already been rolling by the time HENRY actually made it out, were you afraid that it coming out was going to hurt your career?
MR: Oh no, it didn’t matter. I wish I had had some sort of PR campaign going, because it came out at the same time as DAYS OF THUNDER, so it was in the theaters at the same time that DAYS OF THUNDER was out and also HENRY V. So, I hear stories people tell like, “Oh my God, I went to HENRY V, and it was PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER.” [Laughs] In a lot of citiies, they were playing in the same theater complex, and people were mixing them up. How funny is that shit? You think you are going in to see some Shakespeare and you step into HENRY.
Capone: Let me go back really quick to EIGHT MEN OUT, that’s you second film, but with John Sayles. Tell me about working with him and how you were cast. [Laughs]
MR: No, that was awesome. You know, I was a Chicago actor and at that time you could be multi-listed with all of the agencies in town. So, I was already at the point where I was so frustrated with the agency situation here and the TV and the film situation that I had decided just to sever it and just do theater. I love doing theater, so I would just do theater, and I decided, “That’s what I’m going to do,” and so I went around town and I was so frustrated with all of these agents I fired everybody. I fired them, got my headshots and everything. Six of them, I was multi-listed with six different agencies and I got all of my material back.
It was very cool to firing an agent, I’ve got to tell you. Other actors are standing there looking at you, “You’re fired,” and them realizing, “Oh yeah, that’s right, we do hire them don’t we?” I think a lot of actors forget that. Anyway I got all of my stuff back and low and behold three days later I get this call on my home phone about EIGHT MEN OUT. They wanted me to tape, and I’m like “Oh, where is this again?” It was in Indianapolis, Indiana, and I said, “Well I’m going to be there over the weekend, why don’t I just pull by and do it there?” They were like, “Oh yeah, okay that’d be great.” So I would lie through my teeth. I think I told them I was going to have a family BBQ down there or something, just to get the audition, because I would do anything to not have to videotape, because video looked really horrible back then and so I lied.
I got down there and I borrowed $40 bucks from my sister and drove down and ended up having an argument with the casting director, because John Sayles wasn’t there. The only agent I had not worked with, I called and said, “Hey, I got this call from these people doing a movie called EIGHT MEN OUT, John Sayles is directing it. You could be my agent, just set up the appointment,” and so they did and I got the appointment and went down there and the agent sort of lied to me “Oh yeah, you’re reading with John Sayles.” So, I was like “Wow.” I went and I borrowed money from my sister and drove down there. John Sayles, of course, was no where to be seen, so we're having this argument about “Where’s John Sayles?” “Well he’s not here.” “What do you mean he’s not here?” She was like, “You’ve got to read for me first,” and finally, we started going back, and I was still teed off, because John Sayles wasn’t there. Going through the hallway I go “Well if I was going to play any of these roles at all, I would play this guy right here” and I smacked the wall [as if pointing to a photo on the wall], and she turned and looked at me and looked at the wall and the photo I smacked was Chick Gandil. And it ended up being the role that I ended up playing, Chick Gandil, and it was the only role that had not been cast yet.
So, of course, she was like “Give me those pages. Take these instead.” And she gave me the sides for Chick Gandil, and I went in and I ended up winning her over, and they ended up asking me to stay over for the weekend and I said, “No problem.” I slept in my car and ended up eventually getting the role. To finish the story off, I ended up getting the role because of HENRY, because I couldn’t get cast. Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury were the producers in L.A., and it was their time to cast. John had already did his casting allotment. Chick Gandil was the role that they were going to cast, so I couldn’t get cast unless they agreed, and they were not going to cast me because I had not done anything. So I had given the casting director the VHS of HENRY, and she’s like “Well he did do this thing; I don’t think it’s what we are looking for though,” and John Sayles was like “Let me see it, because we are not going to cast the guy unless he’s done something.” So he edited out just that little piece from when I talk about my mom at the table. He edited out about 90 seconds. They saw it and said, “Boom, cast him.” Ninety seconds of little footage got me the role in EIGHT MEN OUT. Along with whatever else. [laughs]
Capone: One of my just absolute, all-time favorite films is JFK. If I stumble upon it on cable, it gets watched to the end. Even if that story is 100 percent fiction, it’s still one of the best conspiracy stories that I’ve ever seen. My favorite line of yours in that is the one where you are talking about the type of place Louisiana is, and you say, “How do you know who your daddy is? Because your momma told you so.” At the time when I first saw the movie for the first time, I didn’t even know what that meant and I still thought it was great, just the way you deliver it.
[Rooker claps and laughs]
MR: Yeah, yeah.
Capone: And that’s still pretty early on for you, getting in what I think is Oliver Stone’s best movie and just being surrounded by those great actors Did you know Laurie Metcalf from Chicago? You both were part of that group of investigators around Costner.
MR: Well, I didn’t really know Laurie personally, but I knew she was with Steppenwolf and all of those guys and I knew a couple of them, and we were all Chicago guys and girls, and at that time Chicago was hot, man. If you were from Chicago, you got an audition. I was out in L.A., and when they found out I was a Chicago actor, man it was opening doors. I swear to God, it was crazy and around that same time that’s how we were all getting cast. Steppenwolf did so much for the theater community and the acting community here in Chicago. And because they were good at their craft, all of the other actors who were from Chicago were “good at their craft.” [laughs] Which of course is not true, but at least it gave us other actors who were not from Steppenwolf an opportunity. I was always a freelance guy, so I never was in any of the theater groups, but I capitalized on it anyway being from Chicago. It was great.
Capone: I do want to talk about some other of your films, but I do want to ask really quick about "The Walking Dead," because obviously people are recognizing you from that even though you were only in a couple of episodes so far. And because your character is not in the comic books, we don’t know when or if he'll reappear. Some events that will come in the next season are anticipated because they were in the comic books, but Merle is not, so we don’t know what’s going on with him. Do you know when you are coming back?
MR: I know I’m coming back, but I don’t know exactly when.
Capone: I don’t think AMC thought it was going to do as well as it did.
MR: I have a feeling AMC had no idea it was going to do well at all. I think even the makers, Frank Darabont and all of these guys, they had no idea that it was going to do this well. Nobody did and it did and it surprised the hell out of everybody. I have a feeling that they definitely didn’t think they were going to get… If they got another season, there would only be six more, that kind of thing. All of a sudden, we get 13 episodes.
Capone: What was it, the biggest cable series premiereever?
Capone: That’s unbelievable.
MR: Isn’t that crazy?
Capone: It’s like they got caught with their pants down and had no idea what to do.
MR: Originally, I was only in one episode, episode two. And Frank was there on set watching episode two, and he liked what he was seeing, so he went back to L.A. and wrote that whole teaser for me in episode three, the section before episode three begins. Each episode starts out with a little teaser, so he wrote this entire teaser, four minutes basically of Michael Rooker monologue on going through hell and back. You know, zombies are at the door, and I thinking I’m dying and praying. What an awesome piece of writing for any actor. I mean it was like “Wow,” I saw this and was just blown away, and it was very cool, so that’s it. I was in episode two and the teaser for episode three, and then of course they are looking for me and my hand, it was almost as good as me being in the episode.
Capone: That’s true, your presence is definitely there.
MR: My presence is still there.
Capone: Even through the ending of the season, because I assumed you would come back before the end of the season. It’s like “Where is Merle? It’s going to happen.”
MR: Isn’t that crazy? Merle is probably one of the most talked about characters of the six episodes.
Capone: You’ve gotten opportunities to do it before--I don’t know if it’s ever been quite as severe as Merle--but is it fun to just let that inner asshole out?
MR: [Laughs] It is awesome, man.
Capone: With all of that racial stuff. Most racists keep it hidden, but he doesn’t care.
MR: There’s no need to care anymore, the fucking world is gone. So why care anymore about this kind of shit and being politically correct and stuff? And he’s higher than a kite. The day you meet him, the day you see episode two, he's completely out of it. His brain is fried, and he’s out there shooting zombies’ heads off and things that any good red-blooded American would love to do.
Capone: Plus, he’s wearing leather in Atlanta heat.
MR: Oh yeah. It was an awesome role. It was a fun, crazy, out-there role and it was one episode. When I read it, when I agreed to do it, it was one and that was it, so that had to have somewhat of a beginning, middle, and end as an actor. The way it was written, I come on really strong, you come in in the middle, you don’t know who this guy is. So within seconds you’ve got to know who this fucking guy is, and that was my job as an actor to basically blow people’s minds, like slap them in the fucking face and kick ‘em in the balls, with the lines and the words and the attitude.
Capone: Was it kind of freeing that you could do whatever you want with the personality basically, because he wasn’t a part of the comic books, since there wasn’t that structure? Or do you prefer the structure?
MR: Oh it’s always kind of… You don’t know where it’s going to go now, so it can go anywhere really. Especially after Frank Darabont went back to L.A. to write the teaser for me . He did an amazing job with that, so it opens up the gate for Merle to re-enter, and when I do re-enter, it’s going to be quite an experience.
Capone: So, you really don’t know when that’s going to happen or how it’s going to happen?
MR: Don’t know how or when. It will probably be in season two some time.
Capone: Did they just say “Keep your schedule open from here to here?” Anything like that?
MR: They haven’t told me shit.
Capone: Darabont has done a lot of Stephen King adaptations, and I don’t really think you’ve been an actor unless you’ve been in a Stephen King movie. And you were in a really good one in THE DARK HALF with of my favorite people in general, George Romero, directing. What was that like?
MR: That was very cool. It was my first time I got to meet and work with George. He is a really, really wonderful man, and we’ve become friends and we're still friends, and the piece was fun and weird. It was a crazy piece. I play Sheriff Pangborn, just a regular-old small town sheriff, a little pudgy regular guy and in all of the middle of this stuff that’s happening. It was a crazy, crazy interesting piece.
I always remember the animal handlers that we had for all of those birds. How they trained all of those birds to fly certain ways, it was always very intriguing, and then George had these guys that knew all about flies and worms and things like that for the zombie stuff. He had little boxes of different flies, and some flies would buzz around a carcass and some would be down on it and they would stay. Pretty much they were trained flies. Certain flies have certain characteristics when it comes to their food or what they eat, and he had different levels of flies that could do different things, like tiny little gnat-like flies that sort of flew fast, and some flies flew slow, and some just sat on the object and suck out the juices .But yeah, it was like I was blown away by how detailed this stuff was.
Capone: Animal wrangling.
MR: Fly wranglers. [Laughs] It’s amazing. It’s crazy, dude.
Capone: You've lately been mixing up the bigger films with the indie work. I’m wondering, with the indie films, when you get a script from an untested filmmaker, how do you decide which ones to have faith in and which ones you don't?
MR: I go with the one that pays me money usually. If they’ve got their money and they are willing to pay me money, I’m there. I am such a whore. [laughs]
Capone: Artistic integrity right out the door.
MR: “Art? Forget it baby, I’m here for the money!”
Capone: “I’ve got my art films already. My resume is full of them.”
MR: But I do my best work with whatever role I get. Whatever film I’m in, I try to do my best and I try to make it as honest and real as possible. So I try not to do too many really bad ones, but you know what? When it comes right down to it, let’s see, you've got a car payment, a mortgage, gas, water, electric. Dude, it’s life; you’re no longer single, you’re no longer with no children. You’re not like a 20 year old out there hanging out and sleeping on somebody’s couch. You’ve got to work and you’ve got to pay the bills. All of that comes into play, but I have been very fortunate in my career that it’s really up to me. I’ve turned down projects and I still do. Some things just don’t sit well, I don’t like the idea, it’s not right for me. But I can rationalize away anything for a good paycheck. [laughs]
Capone: Alright, that's the kind of honesty I appreciate.
MR: That’s the quote, “You can rationalize away anything for a good paycheck.” All of us actors have to eventually come to that threshold.
Capone: I’m sure that’s true.
MR: And you know what? But you get good. You get better at your craft, so you are able to satisfy your creative need even in a bad movie. It’s not all rationalized away. It’s always good to bring in a good paycheck, but sometimes you do like the James Gunn movie SUPER. None of us did that for money, of course. We didn’t get any money. I mean everybody got paid the same.
Capone: I hear Nathan Fillion got some money.
MR: [faux anger] Nathan Fillion can do anything he fucking wants. Nathan got to wear some stupid outfit. The only real reason Nathan did the job is because he asked Gunn, “Well, can my face be covered?”
Capone: “I don’t want my 'Castle' fans to see me in this.”
MR: That's exactly right. [laughs]
Capone:Alright man, I’ll see you tonight.
MR: Okay, bro. Thanks a lot.
-- Capone firstname.lastname@example.org
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