Believe it or not, Michael Rooker loves to laugh. Onscreen or off, he has a hearty, gravelly guffaw that is at once charming and slightly menacing. As Rooker has portrayed memorable psychos throughout his decades-spanning career, from his first big screen role as the titular Henry in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer in 1986, to the unhinged Merle Dixon in The Walking Dead, Rooker’s laugh can trigger joy or panic. Born in Jasper, Alabama and raised on the mean streets of Chicago in the 1960s, Rooker’s modest upbringing translates to his tough, everyman screen persona. Whether racing Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder, or mountaineering with Stallone in Cliffhanger, Rooker has never half-assed his way through any role, bringing intensity to everything he touches.
In what has morphed from solid working relationship into friendship, Guardians of the Galaxy writer/director James Gunn has found his muse in Rooker, who has appeared in all of Gunn’s theatrical releases since the two bonded on the Slither set in 2006. In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Rooker reprises his role as Yondu, a grizzled space pirate leading a band of mutineers known as “The Ravagers.” Paste spoke to Rooker about stealing the spotlight, his high school nickname “Animal,” and eager fanboys trying to stink-palm him.
Paste Magazine: What is it about James Gunn that appeals to you, personally and creatively?
Michael Rooker: We are like spirits, personally and creatively. The first time we met, it was like we’d known each other forever. We get each others’ humor. When we do Q&As, we’ve got a good cop/bad cop, Laurel and Hardy kind of relationship. Creatively, he tends to let me run with it. He lets me know his ideas up front, and I just go with it. He certainly doesn’t like every take or everything I do, but there’s usually something in there that works. I’m pretty free-flowing, and James is good at digging out the best parts.
Paste: You were born in 1955. Did you grow up with Tales From the Crypt comics, or was an attraction to horror and sci-fi something that came later in life?
Rooker: Tales From the Crypt was big when I was growing up, as was Vault of Horror, and all that stuff. I like horror and sci-fi almost equally, but I watch more sci-fi than horror. Does that mean I like sci-fi more than horror? Maybe. I’ve got the kids in the house now, so by the time I can watch some horror without the little ones running around, I’m already sleepy.
Paste: Since Gunn comes from the Troma universe, does he have more lust for life on-set than most of the other directors you’ve worked with?
Rooker: Yeah! I think that’s definitely true. He is really digging what he’s doing. The guy hardly sleeps for God’s sake. That’s the problem for a director, if it’s an original project. You’re involved from conception, through shooting and post. It takes years to get these things out. It’s a tough gig, and Gunn is very well-suited for it. He’s got a lot of positive energy. He’s a very smart man. Sometimes I’ll go in, all ready to go, and it’s just not there. He’s pretty open and receptive to the creative process for the actor. I think he sees himself as an actor in a small way. He’s not really good at it, but that’s okay (laughs). We all can’t be perfect at everything. He’s acted a few times—you’ve seen his work! Am I right, or am I right? He’s a nut! But if he’s acting with someone else directing, he’s really good actually.
Paste: How did you approach your character Yondu in Guardians of the Galaxy? Did you take a bit of Han Solo crossed with a Sonny Barger, renegade mentality?
Rooker: That’s really interesting man. I really enjoy what I do, as an actor. The whole Han Solo thing sounds good. Yondu comes from very cool stock. Gunn is really into doing the rehearsals. I’m not a big rehearsal guy, but I’ll go through the motions. I like to save it for the big day. I’ve found that out about myself over the years, and want to save that energy. I want to keep it as fresh and honest as can be. I’m really in the moment.
Paste: I assume that saving that intensity for the big day really worked with Merle on The Walking Dead.
Rooker: Exactly. I can’t be walking around like Merle all day.
Paste: Did everyone on the Guardians of the Galaxy 2 set feel a weighted pressure to avoid the sophomore slump, or were things looser this time around?
Rooker: I got feedback from a couple of people who were feeling pressure. But I disagreed. I’m like,”There’s no pressure at all dude!” It’s the same characters, just doing different things. Do your thing and have fun with it! I’m completely into having fun with it, even the serious stuff. I sensed some concerns from people, but I didn’t let it bother me. It was like icing on the cake for me.
Paste: Is fanboy culture something you would prefer to avoid?
Rooker: I actually love the Cons, and dig meeting the fanboys and girls alike. There’s a lot of spillover from The Walking Dead fan culture. The people who put on these conventions like to designate them as comic, sci-fi or horror based. There’s no real difference. I see the same people at the same events. They love the characters and the creative process. I have people coming up to me [about everything] from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, my very first movie, to the silly, slapstick Mallrats.
Paste: Do they try and stink-palm you?
Rooker: I get chocolate-covered pretzels all the time. I insist that they must come wrapped, or in a closed container. Vacuum-sealed, please!
Paste: What kind of place were you in personally before The Walking Dead came calling? Were you feeling burnt-out with your career?
Rooker: Before The Walking Dead, a few of the jobs before that were just like, ‘Ugh.’ I try and make everything as creative as possible, even when I get the script and can’t imagine what I’m going to do with it. I was ecstatic when The Walking Dead came along. Merle Dixon was so perfectly adapted for me. My casting director friends—who I’ve known since Days of Thunder—called me about the role. They said, “Michael, I have this role that is absolutely written for you. It’s about this redneck, racist guy that I know you can play very well. He’s such a dick that they cuff him to the rooftop. And he’s such a crazy mofo that he cuts his own hand off.” The dude has the balls to cut his own hand off and walk away? That’s me! Where do I sign? They pushed and stood up for me to get the role, even when other guys were considered for the part. Thank God I did it, because it was such a great, amazing boost for my career. The Walking Dead has truly been a dream come true for me. I’m still friends with all the people on the show, and it really does still feel like a family.
Paste: When you first started out, did you have ambitions on becoming the leading man? Did Henry change that?
Rooker: I think that all actors do. When I go on set, no matter how large or small my role, I’m the center of the set. I’m not there to support you. You may take that the wrong way. I’m there to make you better, by being as good or better than you, as I can be. When I walk on set, I’m there to take control. It doesn’t matter if I have one or 50 lines. I’m there to take focus. If you can take it from me, all the better. You’re supposed to. If you’re supposed to be the center of the set, you better be the center of that set. Otherwise, I’m taking it from you. If we were in a karate match and just sparring, that’s one thing. But if we’re doing the real deal, I’m there to win. I don’t go into a scene thinking, ‘I’m just a high-paid extra.’ I go in with the intent of trying to figure out how to make it a better scene. What’s on the page is two-dimensional. You have to go beyond the page.
Paste: What’s it like trying to steal the scene from someone like Sylvester Stallone in Cliffhanger?
Rooker: I thought it was a great character and a great role. I tried my best to steal as many scenes as possible. With Cruise and Stallone, my mentality made it better. They’re the exact same way, and come on thinking they are the center of the set. If that wheelchair race in Days of Thunder was not a real wheelchair race, it would have been bullshit. If we weren’t really climbing and jumping around in the snow in Cliffhanger, it would have been bullshit.
Paste: Can you tell me the craziest thing that happened on the Henry set?
Rooker: I was born in Alabama and grew up in Chicago. It was as inner-city as inner-city could be Chicago. It wasn’t pretty, suburban Chicago. It was a pretty rough-ass place. So I went from climbing trees in a small town in Alabama, to inner-city, concrete jungle. There were gangs galore. Every block had a different group practically. That was my lifestyle growing up. I was never in a gang, but I knew all the members of all the different ones. I went to school and played with them on the streets.
Let me make myself into a hero just for a minute. We were on the set, which was a neighborhood and apartment building, on Henry. The producer started yelling at the neighborhood people to be quiet and keep it down, because we were shooting a movie. Well, a few of the neighborhood people felt a little insulted by this guy.
About two hours later, we’re shooting in the alleyway, which was the scene with the older lady and the little puppy dog. 15 to 20 guys came walking down the alleyway, blocking the only exit out. They wanted to know where the asshole was that was yelling at his little sister to be quiet in their own neighborhood. They were gonna do him in. I said, “He’s right there!” But I added, “Can we keep him for just a little bit longer before you take him? We need to finish this scene. But after, you can have him as far as I’m concerned.” It was the complete opposite of what they were expecting to hear, and they were blown away. There was this moment of silence, with our producer Richard Fire thinking, “Oh my God. They’re gonna kill me.” The neighborhood guys stood there and waited. Suddenly, one of the guys said, “Animal? That you?” Animal was my nickname in high school. I said, “Yeah? Who’s that?” We recognized each other and he said, “What are you doing with this idiot?” I had to explain he was our producer, and that he gets carried away sometimes. But we really needed him to finish this movie because he’s the guy with the money.
From that point on, those guys became our security for the neighborhood. The next scene we did, we could hear those guys yelling, “Hey! Keep it down! Animal’s filming over here!”
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 arrives in theaters Friday, May 5.