ON hit post-apocalyptic drama The Walking Dead Norman Reedus plays crossbow-toting anti-hero Daryl Dixon. The exposure has won the 48-year-old former male model a cult fanbase and made him a target for paparazzi. He does his best to ignore the attention.
“From the beginning, we were just working to keep it real,” he says, his conversational voice several octaves higher than Daryl’s trademark gruff whisper.
“It could have gone south so easily — but we all believed in what we were doing. We shoot out deep in the woods [the series is filmed in the US state of Georgia], in our own little bubble. When we leave the tent [the success of the series] becomes real. But you can’t wait to go back into the tent.”
The Walking Dead is more than a television show. It is an ongoing phenomenon. In the United States, it is broadcast by AMC, the network behind Breaking Bad. For a cable series, its ratings are extraordinary. More than 15 million tuned into last year’s season finale, five times the average audience of Game of Thrones. A case can be made that this tale of zombies and scrappy survivors is the world’s most popular small-screen drama.
“Nobody has a big head,” says Reedus, whose face lights up as an assistant hands him a bottled beer. “If we were in Burbank it would be insane. We’d have paparazzi everywhere. We want to keep it real.”
Daryl is one of a group of survivors negotiating a world ripped asunder by the undead apocalypse. About 99% of mankind has transformed into brain-munching ghouls. Yet for those who remain the biggest danger is posed not by the undead but fellow humans.
This has been especially true in the latest season, which began with two beloved characters clubbed to death by villainous warlord Negan.
The brutal scenes, in which an eye-ball is shown popping out of its socket, provoked a backlash. Some fans respected The Walking Dead for going where other television series would not dare; others swore off the series for good. In the UK, there were a flood of complaints to broadcasting regulator Ofcom.
In the aftermath, The Walking Dead attempted damage repair. Executive producer Gale Ann Hurd said the outcry over Glenn and Abraham had led the show-runners to reassess their attitude towards violence.
“We were able to look at the feedback on the level of violence,” Hurd said. “We did tone it down for episodes we were still filming for later on in the season. This is not a show that is torture porn.”
She reiterated they wanted to make sure “we don’t cross that line”. Nine months later, however, those involved insist the gore was justified. When telling serious stories sometimes, the violence has to be serious too. The two characters killed by Negan — Glenn and Abraham — were long-standing members of the ensemble. To shuffle them meekly into oblivion would have been disrespectful. They had earned their big, controversial send off.
“I don’t think we would have done it any differently,” says Greg Nicotero, the special effects guru who created the distinctive zombie design on The Walking Dead and has directed many key episodes, including the one in which Negan went loco with his baseball bat.
“It serves the purpose of the story.“ “If you look at any other show — whether that be Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, it’s the same. We don’t do it to be gratuitous even though people might look at it that way. To me that’s not what is shocking. What is shocking is the next morning and these people are sitting in a circle completely broken.”
The Walking Dead is about to wrap up its seventh season. A great deal hangs in the balance. Pummelled into submission by Negan and his followers, the Saviours, Daryl and his friends are now fighting back. They’ve put together a network of allies and acquired a stash of guns. In Monday night’s series finale, we will see them finally take the fight to the Saviours. Fans cannot wait.
“It is everything and the kitchen sink,” show runner Scott Gimple recently told Entertainment Weekly. “It is exciting and it’s very emotional and I believe it’s funny in a couple parts, and it builds and builds and builds and it explodes. And though it promises more — because there is a whole lot to get to — there is an ending. It really is just a huge episode inasmuch as it has all of the flavours of this season. It is taking your cup and going down each soda jet and taking a little from each one and then throwing in some hot sauce, a little bit of lime, and then maybe a tiny bit of tequila, as well.”
Daryl was witness to the brutal slaying of Glenn and Abraham and, having attacked Negan in turn, was rewarded with a spell in solitary confinement.
Playing a tortured outsider comes naturally to the Florida native, whose pre-Walking Dead CV includes turns in movies such as sci-fi flick Mimic as well as a career in modelling and music videos (the eagle-eyed may recall him from Bjork’s Violently Happy).
“He was the type of kid who was always pushed up against the wall,” he says of Daryl. “People fight for different reasons. You fight for revenge, you fight to protect somebody. He was the guy who had his back against the wall.
“He was always fighting — he wanted to fight all the time. When push comes to shove he’s the guy who comes out swinging. He protects the people he loves — it’s what he needs to do. He doesn’t shy away from it.”
“We’re gonna write the show we’re gonna write,” adds Nicotero. “If people react to it one way or another … that’s never going to change what these actors do. We are absolutely dedicated to telling the story we want to tell. For someone to say ‘oh, you used the wrong colour in that painting’ — no, THAT’s the colour.
“With the addition of Negan after seven years, we are demonstrating that the show can continue to grow. If we did the same thing over and over, it might suffer from fatigue.”
- The Walking Dead season finale is on Fox UK on Monday, April 3, at 9pm