The most shocking thing about Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead was not that Merle Dixon died, but that we actually felt kinda sorry for him when he did. Not only was Merle killed by the Governor in a last heroic act of redemption, but he then came back as a zombie and had to be killed again by his on-screen brother Daryl in a truly heartbreaking scene. However, the man who plays Merle, Michael Rooker, insists that was not the most powerful scene of his final episode. I spoke with Rooker, who talks about the scene with Norman Reedus that he is most proud of, his unique (and very Rooker-esque) reaction upon learning his character was going to die, and his thoughts on playing zombie Merle.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me how you first learned the news of Merle’s demise. Did showrunner Glen Mazzara call you up and break it to you?
MICHAEL ROOKER: Yeah, it was a phone call. But we were in the middle of switching episodes so I ended up having about two weeks notice as opposed to a week notice. I’ve heard some people get less than that, so I considered myself quite fortunate.
EW: What was your reaction when you got the news?
ROOKER: You really want to know my real reaction?
EW: Give it to me.
ROOKER: My honest to God true reaction was THANK F—ING GOD I DON’T HAVE TO WEAR THAT STUPID F—ING ARM ANY MORE! THERE! PRINT THAT S—! Oh my God, I was so tired of wearing that thing. I was like, oh, God, not another season of wearing this thing. I’m going to go crazy!
EW: Did you like the way Merle got his own brand of twisted redemption before his untimely demise?
ROOKER: Indeed, I did. I was very happy. I had a lot to say about it and we had a big meeting with Glen and the writer of the episode [new showrunner Scott Gimple] and we sort of worked it out. And then, of course, whenever you think you’ve worked something out, you really haven’t, so there’s always these things that happen on set where you’re like, “Well, no, we talked about it being this way!” So it was fun, exciting, exhilarating, and I had a great time. It was a lot of physical action. I did my own stunt. I rolled out of the car myself. I just wanted to make sure everything was done right. Like Merle, Michael Rooker is about if it’s done right, it’s me doing it. That’s just the way it is. If you got a stuntman that can do it better than me, go do it. But if they can’t do it better than me, I’m doing it myself — plain and simple.
EW: To be clear, Merle did not see this as a suicide mission, right? He wanted to take out the Governor and as many of his men as possible, but he wasn’t hoping to die in the process.
ROOKER: My character understood quite clearly that this could all go south pretty quickly, but that did not stop him. This was a mission that was thought out and concocted in his head. He was going to use Michonne as the bait to go in and do damage to the Governor. Like the Governor was basically going to use Michonne as bait to take out whoever brought her in — very similar thinking in that regard. But everything else is completely different. The reason behind making that choice to do it was Merle’s payback and Merle’s spark of redemption, and also a way of trying to keep his brother alive and safe. The idea was to go in and take out as many of the Governor’s men, and the Governor if possible, and make an exit. Of course, I made an exit, but it was not the exit that Merle had hoped. But that’s just the way it is. Merle was willing to make that ultimate sacrifice for his brother.
EW: You just could not cut a break on this show when it came to your hands. First you had to chop one off, and now the Governor makes a meal of your other one. Tell me about that scene and the prosthetic fingers you had to wear for that.
ROOKER: The poor guy, David Morrissey, was so concerned with germs and dirt and cleaning everything and the fingers and all this kind of stuff, and within a take or two, he was like “Aw, s— just put it on. Let’s do it.” He didn’t care anymore. Although the room where we did this was really, really, really dirty and filthy and I had them clean that three or four times. But we got through it and it ended up a great sequence.
EW: How’d you enjoy getting to see how the other side lives by playing zombie Merle?
ROOKER: Dude, all I can say is, I’m glad a dead zombie now, because I wouldn’t want to do that everyday. Trust me. No, not a fun time.
EW: I played a zombie on the show so I know a little something about that transformation process. Did the zombie contact lenses suck as much for you as they did for me?
ROOKER: You know what? That didn’t bother me at all, I thought the contact lenses would really bother me, but once they got ‘em in I was okay. I really thought that would be the thing that broke the camel’s back, but it ended up being okay for me.
EW: So then what didn’t you like about being zombie Merle?
ROOKER: I just didn’t like being zombie Merle! But they did a good job. It was an interesting process, took about two-and-a-half hours or so.
EW: Tell me about that last scene with Norman Reedus, which was one of the most emotional scenes ever on this show.
ROOKER: Well, that is a scene that is quite emotional, but I’ll tell you about another scene that is even more emotional that everybody is missing because that last scene has all the candy and all the hoopla. But that first moment where Daryl is going through the prison and finds me — you go back and you watch that scene! That scene is a f—ing killer scene. That scene is better than the demise of Merle scene. Go and look at Norman’s face, look at my face, and I dare you to say that is not a better scene. It is a much better scene, much better dialogue — well, there’s no dialogue in the other one. Don’t get me wrong: The end sequence is phenomenal and it is awesome. But it does not compare to the other one where they choose not to weep. Weeping and that kind of emotional stuff is okay, you know, but I’d rather see them fight not to do that. Go back and you will see both actors — myself and Norman — are kicking f—ing ass in that scene!
EW: What was it like saying goodbye to everyone in the cast after it was all done?
ROOKER: Actors are actors. They’re all buddies. I’ve done so many movies and TV that you get to be friends with everyone. And the ones you don’t get to be friends with, you simply don’t work together with them again. But the ones on The Walking Dead where you become friends like that and the show lasts quite a long time — you get to know everybody’s little nuances: what bugs them, what doesn’t bug them. I think everyone is very respectful of everybody’s space and they get along pretty well so far. I’ll give them another season before they’re ripping each other’s heads off.
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