Over tomato soup on an icy night in New York’s lower east side, actor Norman Reedus is talking about road kill. He spares few details recounting the several dead animals he found along the highway while shooting the zombie thriller TV show The Walking Dead in Georgia. We’re huddled in the back of the narrow restaurant, Bread, which Reedus insists has the best soup in the city. The more graphic his descriptions—details of a moose he saw hit by a car—the harder it is for me to spoon down the chunky red broth.
The depiction sounds like a scene straight out of The Walking Dead, AMC’s original series, in which the Florida-born actor plays the crossbow-wielding, zombie-crushing, squirrel-hunting hothead Daryl Dixon. With the next half of the second season premiering February 12, the hit showhas garnered a cult following almost overnight, as has Reedus’ character, which was penned specifically for him. Daryl is a redneck with an unreliable temper and a tendency to think with his fists, obliterating zombies so effortlessly it could be a sport.
“He was written very angry and just like, ‘Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you,’” Reedus explains of Daryl. In all good fiction, however, our protagonists will be multidimensional and as The Walking Dead has progressed, we’ve seen a more complex Dixon, who comes into his own as a protector to a modest group of apocalypse survivors navigating through an unfamiliar world of flesh-eating freaks. “I’m trying to play him as a virgin who was constantly put down and had to fight for everything, as someone with a huge chip on his shoulder,” he suggests of Daryl’s personality. “In television, you kind of have to plant these little seeds and hope that those trees bear fruit. So I’m constantly trying to look for little moments and make this guy evolve.”
It’s hard to see someone as good looking as Reedus—a former Prada model—as virginal. But for two seasons now, the actor has uncannily channeled this loner zombie combatant, proving to be his most revered and strongest performance to date. In the past, he’s portrayed a hitman and Debbie Harry’s son in Six Ways to Sunday; an introverted artist in Gossip; a cocky convict in 8MM with Nicolas Cage; a chain-smoking weapon maker in Blade II; and last year he even rode a motorcycle next to Lady Gaga in her surreal music video “Judas.” It was his breakout role as the gun slinging Christian vigilante Murphy MacManus in Boondock Saints I and II, however, that put him on the map and earned him a host of ferocious fans.
He insists he doesn’t necessarily gravitate towards violent movies, but those he’s most known for tend to spill a lot of blood—ironic, given his view of mortality. “I have a fear of death. I don’t like the idea of it at all,” Reedus elaborates. “I don’t want to get old and die. My dad died when I was younger. He had a twin brother and I saw him die, too. My mom sold coffins for a little while when I grew up. She called them ‘eternal beds.’”
It was with his mother that Reedus jumped around a lot as a kid, living in places like Spain, England, and Japan before love led him to the West Coast. “I followed a girl that I met in Japan to L.A. But she immediately left me and got married.” He found work at a Harley Davidson shop in Venice, while pursuing a career in studio art, something he’s still passionate about. His acting career began accidentally, when someone at a party suggested he try acting.
Offscreen, Reedus is confidently soft spoken with a slacker drawl, leaning in to talk as if revealing a secret. He’s warm, approachable, and interacts with strangers like they’re old friends. He opens doors, says excuse me and thank you, and leaves generous tips. For the most part, he avoids anything too “Hollywood,” preferring a low profile, despite a five-year marriage with Helena Christensen, which ended in 2003. “We’re very easy with each other,” he says of his relationship with the supermodel, who is the mother of his son, Mingus. Now 12, Mingus is barely able get through The Walking Dead without covering his eyes, but the show has made him popular at school. Some of the older kids recently asked, “Is your dad Daryl Dixon? We love Daryl Dixon!”
Reedus finishes his tomato soup and we’re on to tiramisu, compliments of the house. There’s no more talk of road kill, but instead what’s upcoming. He’s just wrapped Sunlight Jr. where he’s an “asshole” in a love triangle with Matt Dillon and Naomi Watts. He also plans to fit in a horror movie before the third season of The Walking Dead, which begins shooting in April. With all the glorified gore in his onscreen worlds, I wonder what he does for fun, imagining his real life more glamorous than the celibate Daryl Dixon. “Oh, Jesus. I don’t have any fun at all. I really don’t go out that much to be honest. What do I do on a Friday night? I steal tourist’s purses. Break shit. Netflix.com.”