SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have watched Sunday’s episode of The Walking Dead, “The Cell.”
“Daryl.” If anyone ever doubted the strength of The Walking Dead’s Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), that doubt was erased with that very word. All Daryl had to do was pledge his loyalty by saying “I’m Negan” in exchange for avoiding further torture and instead becoming a top lieutenant in Negan’s army while getting all the perks and benefits that come with it. But when the time came to choose his fate, Daryl refused, citing his own name instead before being taken back to his cell.
It was big statement in a big episode for Daryl. We spoke to Reedus to get his take on everything from that critical choice to that surprising nude scene. We also asked the actor about his character’s emotional breakdown after viewing that gruesome Polaroid and Daryl’s unique relationship with his tormentor, Dwight. (Also make sure to check out our interview with the man who plays Dwight, Austin Amelio.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The first time we see Daryl he’s naked in this cell. I gotta know: How cold were you in there, my man?
NORMAN REEDUS: Yeah, it was cold. I won’t lie. But it was really dirty more than anything. It was weird to sit on that floor butt naked. I mean, I was totally naked, so it was rough.
You mentioned it was dirty, and they love to make you guys dirty on this show, but I’m not sure we’ve ever seen you as dirty as we did here. Were they just adding filth and grime to you constantly?
Addison, our makeup dude, he was just constantly pouring makeup on me. Yeah, that was I think one of the filthiest I’ve ever been on this show, if not the filthiest. I mean, I’m very happy to be out of those sweatpants and that sweatshirt — that jail suit that they gave me. It was just itchy and horrible. It was gross.
We see Daryl being tortured via this terribly peppy music he has to listen to. Did they play that for you at all on set? Did you know what song would be playing?
No, I haven’t seen the episode. I don’t know what song they used. I know it was originally written as a children’s song, a little children’s song, but they couldn’t get it. I think it’s very difficult to get music rights in a torture scene.
This whole episode is a big battle of wills and really the juxtaposition between Daryl and Dwight. And there’s that exchange early on where Daryl says, “I ain’t never gonna kneel.” Dwight goes, “Yeah, I said that too.” And you reply, “Yeah, I know.” Dwight wants to break Daryl to justify his own decision to bow down, but does Daryl look at Dwight here as the exact example of what he never wants to become?
I think you’re exactly right. There is sort of this Bizarro World thing going on between the two of us in this episode. Remember, he met him before, and he seemed like he could’ve been a good guy, and he’s turned out to be a slave to Negan and does whatever he says. And I think Dwight, looking back at that, he wishes he could rewind and start over, and I think that there’s something good in Dwight that Daryl sees, but it’s a tiny sliver now. Now I think he just wants to kill him.
But he has that scene at the end where Daryl tells Dwight, “I get why you did it. Why you took it. You were thinking about someone else. That’s why I can’t.” So he understands why Dwight went down that road, right?
Of course, and that’s a noble thing to do, but it’s the same reason why Daryl can’t do what Dwight does.
I love the two big scenes we have between Daryl and Negan, because the first time after he is caught trying to escape, Daryl is very defiant and doesn’t even flinch when Negan winds up to hit him with Lucille right in the face. The second scene is a bit different in that we see you flinching a bit whenever Negan starts waving the bat around, and we think maybe Daryl’s gonna break, before he says he’s Daryl, and not Negan. Is there ever a moment where he’s tempted or thinking of taking the deal? What’s going through his head there?
First off, in that first scene, even being in that jail cell, Daryl’s thinking he deserves it. Like, whatever happens to him, he deserves it, but he can’t say he’s Negan because it would give up all of the hope that Glenn had. Glenn was this optimistic guy. He was his friend. He’s done so much and that’s the last thread of humanity that he has left, is saving face for his friend. It’s as much for Glenn as it is for Daryl, you know? That’s the last thing he has left.
Is there a part of Daryl that just wants Negan to end it? Especially that first time when he just comes at him with that bat and Daryl doesn’t flinch at all. Is there just part of him that’s just ready for it to be over?
No, Daryl’s a fighter. He fights to the end, but in saying out loud his name instead of Negan’s name — it’s the last shred of himself that he has and for his friends. I assume he thinks he’s going to get killed right there when he says he’s not Negan. He’s signing up for more torture, but he’s doing it for the love of his friend.
He can’t say that he’s Negan. He’ll never do that. He’ll fight, but matters of the heart to Daryl are hard. They mean more. Hit him in the face with the bat. String him up. Feed him dog food. Whatever. He can handle that, but when it comes to matters of the heart, they’re hard for him, and he’s learning, and those are the things that give him faith and hope, and he can’t let go of that, because that’s the last thing he has left.
What about that scene where Dwight puts the Polaroid in Daryl’s cell, and we really see you lose it? How did you get yourself into that place to just let it all go there?
I think part of me’s always teetering on that edge every single day, to be honest, but you just go back. You just feel it. You get in the fetal position, and you just go there. I think early on in this show, I would play a song, and I would get it in my head. I think being on the show this long, there’s just a switch. You just hit a switch, and you go there. It’s always stored in the back of your head, and it’s not hard to go there. It’s harder to stop. It’s harder to come back than it is to go there sometimes. It’s not a trick or anything like that. You go there at 1 p.m., and you just kind of snap out of it at about 6. Just stay like that, pretty much.
That sounds like a pretty terrible day.
It sucks. I’m not kidding; it’s no fun, but I’m not that kind of an actor that can get up and have a Coke and talk to people and just go back. I mean, I’m not Meryl Streep. You know what I mean? I just have to go suffer until it’s over and then leave. I’m not that good turning it on and off. I do have to give a shout-out to the crew, because it’s such a comfortable set, and everybody trusts each other there, that they allow you to do stuff like that. They don’t talk and crack jokes in the jail cell. It’s a very serious set, and everybody wants the best thing to end up on the TV show. So they allow you to go there, and it’s almost like this sort of support group. They’re very respectful of all the actors on the set, and so I don’t think it would be as easy with a different crew.
I know you guys are sort of getting close to winding down this season filming. Obviously, we don’t want to know anything in terms of what you’re filming, but what’s that like seeing the light at what’s been, at least so far, a very dark tunnel?
It’s been a very emotional season for everybody. It’s a different season. I mean, we saw last week there’s some fun things, but it’s also very serious, and then it’s a very dark, dark season, and hopefully there is light at the end of that tunnel. You have to be broken way down to be able to go way up, and I think that’s kind of what this season is about.