Last Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead featured one of the show’s most heartbreaking scenes ever as Daryl Dixon found the brother he had finally been reunited with — Merle — hunched over and eating human flesh as a zombie. Not only did Daryl find his big brother dead (or undead, as it were) but he then had to rekill him to put him out of his zombie misery. Now, the man who plays Daryl, Norman Reedus, reveals how he used the loss of his father to prep for the scene, what it all means for the future of his character, and how the cast said goodbye to the man behind Merle, Michael Rooker. He also says to get ready for one insane season finale on Sunday night.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me your reaction when you first read the episode or heard what was going down?
NORMAN REEDUS: I was bummed to see Rooker go. He’s such a strong character and such a good actor. He brought so much to the show so I was bummed to see him leave. I would have liked to have explored that relationship a bit more. And he’s always fun to play scenes with so I was bummed about that. I’m bummed every time someone leaves the show, to be honest.
EW: Merle and Daryl are so linked on this show, but you guys didn’t really work a whole lot together. You had the big hallucination episode in season 2, that one episode after you left Woodbury, and then a few big scenes in the last one, but not nearly as much as one would think. What was it like working with Rooker? I’ve seen him on set and the dude is like a spark plug.
REEDUS: He’s a Tasmanian devil, that guy. That’s Rooker. We have such a good rapport as friends and I think that translates to the screen because we just know each other really well and we get along really well and we’re similar in a lot of ways. It just helps. There’s a lot of understood brother stuff that happens that’s not really explained but you can tell. I know what my brother is going to do. I know what my brother thinks and it translates to other scenes when we refer back to each other. He’s nice to bounce with because we have this camaraderie.
EW: How did you prep emotionally for that final scene when you discover Merle as a walker and know you have to put your brother down? What did you draw on or use to get you to that place of just absolute personal devastation?
REEDUS: I listened to some songs that remind me of my dad to start off. My dad passed away a long time ago and it was a big emotional scene when that happened. I listened to a song that reminded me of my dad and sort of thought of that.
EW: What song was it?
REEDUS: It was a Willie Nelson song. When someone dies on the show you want to give them the biggest exit you can. I just wanted to break. I just wanted to collapse on the inside and I wanted to go back to a little kid. I just wanted to be crushed in a way you see my heart break. I wanted to curl into a little ball and be a little kid right there.
EW: That’s what it felt like. It went beyond shock or sadness. It was like a whole other level of pain.
REEDUS: With my dad, there were a lot of things I didn’t know and a lot of questions I would have liked to have asked him. I would have liked to get to know him better. In some ways, it’s kind of like that relationship. We’re two brothers that have been looking for each other. There’s a chance for a new sort of life there. Daryl’s not the same guy he was back then. There are parts of Merle that are changing you can tell during that episode, and there’s this hope out there that things might get better and there’s a chance that we can be other people and take it to a different level and we can grow and maybe start a dialogue that wasn’t there in the beginning. Sort of like my dad, I didn’t get to ask him these questions. I didn’t get to know him on a level I would have liked to have known him. It’s similar.
EW: Is that the hardest scene you’ve had to do on the show so far? On one hand, I could see it maybe being exciting to flex some different acting muscles, but to get to that place where you need to be must be emotionally exhausting.
REEDUS: Going into that, I wasn’t really thinking Oh, let’s nail this. Let’s do a good job. I was more thinking, Oh, f—, here we go, We got to do this. You know what I mean? It wasn’t so much, let me show some acting chops. It was like, Oh, this is gonna suck. Here we go.
EW: You just keep stabbing him in the head over and over at the end. Daryl seems to releasing all this anger at that moment. Is that pent-up anger at his brother? Is it anger at his death? Or maybe a bit of both?
REEDUS: It’s more like anger at this world right now. Rage is one of those things that is fear based. That sort of rage comes from being afraid. Daryl is the type of guy that’s always had his back up against the wall. He’s always had to fight. It’s just at the world and this is my life, and these are the cards I was dealt and it’s just frustration and anger at everything. It’s not just Merle. I’m not like, ” I hate you Merle!” It’s more like “Life sucks! And I hate it! I hate it! I hate it!” It’s more like that.
EW: What does this do to Daryl? Does it make him even more introverted? Or is it a release, a feeling that he can now move on and not be burdened with the problem of his brother? What’s the emotional impact of this on him beyond this scene?
REEDUS: I think it shuts him down a little bit more. I think it hardens him a little more. That rage is still there and I don’t think stabbing him over and over again is releasing that rage. It’s just opening a new door. I would expect Daryl to become more introverted and be a more hardened person. He just grew up a lot right then.
EW: Did you guys give Rooker the standard Death Dinner you have for castmembers after they bite it?
REEDUS: Yeah, we had a nice dinner. Everyone shows up and everyone’s bummed and tears are shed. Castmates are all hugging each other and having drinks and being sad about it. I just talked to Jon Bernthal who still watches the show and he was going on about how good Rooker was. He really brought that character to a whole other level and it could have been such a flat character and a character you’ve seen before, and it wasn’t. So we sat around, had some drinks and talked about what a good job he did and how much we’re gonna miss him.
EW: So what can you say about Sunday’s finale?
REEDUS: It’s explosive. Everybody wants this dude dead. Everybody hates this guy. He’s hell bent on destroying what we have and we’re hell bent on chopping his face off. Every single person wants to kill him, and he’s out for some bloodthirsty revenge. He’s offended everyone on a super personal level. It’s a fleet of bulls smashing into a fleet of elephants. You know what I’m saying.
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Michael Rooker talks about the demise of Merle Dixon and life as a zombie