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A Chat with Michael Rooker

To my knowledge, the adjective “Rooker-esque” has yet to take off in any significant fashion, but when Michael Rooker calls you and says that he’s in the midst of driving across the country to get to his next job…I don’t know, it just sounds like exactly the sort of thing you’d expect him to be doing. Although he’s played many a crazy mofo in his career as an actor, Rooker still manages to possess the sort of everyman quality that makes it very easy to accept that he’d take a pass on a plane ride in favor of spending a couple of days taking in the scenery on a cross-country drive. Premium Hollywood had the chance to chat with Rooker in conjunction with the release of his latest film, “Atlantis Down,” directed by Max Bartoli, but we also got a bit of insight into his character on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” learned about his experiences working on “Mallrats,” “Sea of Love,” and “Slither,” and heard him sing the praises of “JFK.”

Bullz-Eye: So how’s the drive going?

Michael Rooker: Actually, quite good. I’m in a little thunderstorm right now, but I’m just fine. I’m about to get back on the road and have a little chat with you.

BE: Where are you right now?

MR: I’m in Texas, near Odessa. I’m on the 20. I was on the 10, but then 10 and 20 split, and I’m heading basically up toward Dallas. Through Odessa and Midland, and then I’ll get into Fort Worth and Dallas.

BE: I told my wife there was something very Rooker-esque about that fact that you were on the road, driving to your next assignment.

MR: (Bursts out laughing) I do this all the time, and it’s kind of crazy, but I just do. My better half is sort of always wondering, “Why don’t you just fly?” But, you know, it’s nice and relaxing. It helps me get ready and prepare for the job, and then afterwards it helps me defrag on the way home.

BE: Sounds like the perfect combo.

MR: So far, so good. It’s worked thus far…and I’ve got about 280 thousand miles on my vehicle to prove it! (Laughs) I think by the end of this trip I’ll have another 10 thousand on it, so it ought to hit 290 thousand.

BE: I’ve got over 150 thousand on my Hyundai Elantra, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen half the things you have.

MR: (Laughs) Still, you guys must do some traveling, huh?

BE: Well, we did a lot more of it before our daughter got here.

MR: For sure, man!

BE: So how did you first get hooked up with “Atlantis Down”? Because I know it’s certainly a labor of love for these guys.

MR: Dude, this was, like, a last-minute phone call…for me, anyway. It was really quick. I was working on a movie, I think it was down in the Wilmington area, and I got the phone call. Then I got the script, and it was kind of cool. But it was really fast. But I just said, “Yeah, you know what, I’m here, I’m on the east coast, and I think I can do it.” I snagged a couple of friends, who read lines with me, and I drove up, did my role all in one day, and came back.

BE: Wow.

MR: (Laughs) It was really quick…and painless, really. It was just a very quick little job that was kind of crazy. I’ve never accomplished my entire role in one day before. It was nuts! I don’t want to do that too often, but it was a crazy experience, and I’m still friends with everyone involved, like Max. Like you said, the whole thing was a labor of love, and I was honored to be a part of it.

BE: Can you speak a little bit about your character in the film without giving too much away?

MR: Well, you know, my guy is… (Hesitates) I’m an alien. I’m an alien being that is having a joyous time playing around with these human creatures, basically. (Laughs) I don’t want to say too much more, so that’s kind of about it, really. I just give ‘em hell. I goof around with their brains and mess around with their thought patterns, what they think they see and what they don’t see. So it’s kind of freaky and weird for them. And, of course, for my character, I obviously didn’t have a lot of time to prepare, so I just went and did it. I learned all the lines real quickly, and then I got there, and Max said, “Ah, forget about the lines. Just say what you would normally say.” And I’m, like, “What?” (Laughs) “Uh, okay, Max, okay…” So, basically, the entire role is improv. We improvised the whole piece. Having the lines as my base, I riffed on them and changed them, thought of new ways to say stuff, used new patterns of putting things together, and…we did it all in one night. It was crazy, dude. Crazy! I still don’t know how the hell we got it…

BE: You’ve certainly got some sci-fi in your background besides this film, but are you a sci-fi guy by nature? Do you enjoy the genre?

MR: I do. I do enjoy sci-fi. I like horror and sci-fi. But I like comedy, too. I think that’s why I enjoy working with James Gunn so much: he combines sci-fi, horror, and all the above. I enjoy that. I have to say, though, that I grew up watching comedy: Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges, those kinds of guys. Those were my staples, and I still love that kind of stuff. I love doing it, too. I love slapstick and farce and broad comedy. But you wouldn’t know it, given most of my roles. (Laughs) You just do what you got to do, baby! If it’s in front of you, if it’s on your plate, you say yes or no. I’m not seen as a comedian or anything like that, so I just do my thing, and that’s how I make my living…and I love and enjoy doing what I do, too.

BE: That being the case, you must’ve enjoyed the opportunity to be in “Mallrats.”

MR: “Mallrats” was a…a completely lovely fiasco. (Laughs) I enjoyed it so much. I have a huge number of fans that love that movie and that style of filmmaking…and I do as well! I had a great time doing “Mallrats.”

BE: What was it like working with Kevin Smith? He must’ve been pretty nervous, given that it was his first big film post-“Clerks.”

MR: You know what? He certainly didn’t show it. He was very laid-back, very relaxed, and he was always…well, you know, I think all of that, that’s part of his nature. That’s just who he is. But he definitely didn’t show any sort of nervousness that I could detect.

BE: When we were originally setting up this interview, you made the comment about how part of your trip was going to take you through Georgia. Is that for “Walking Dead” stuff?

MR: No, I’m going down to a little town called Bainbridge, Georgia, and I’m doing a couple of days on a little movie down there. Then I’m going to go and do our “Atlantis Down” premiere in Virginia, but I’ll go back down to finish that little movie before heading back. I’ll be just south of Atlanta, over the border from Tallahassee, Florida. That’s about where that area is. But I will go through Atlanta, I think. I might go through Atlanta, or I might cut a little further south before that. I’ll tell you, though, I love Atlanta, but during the shooting of “The Walking Dead,” it was crazy hot and humid. Going by the temperature, you would consider it miserable, probably, but I had a good time doing that, too. That was a crazy piece. That’s gonna be hot, man. That’s a killer piece. I had a lot of fun doing that, and working with Frank Darabont and everybody, all the cast and crew, were just kick-ass. We had a great time doing that, man.

BE: I’m very psyched.

MR: I really hope middle America and everybody tunes in and really digs that, because the amount of work that goes into those shows that we did down there…it’s just amazing what we accomplished. It blew my mind being involved with that one.

BE: Well, the buzz is ridiculous on it, so I think you can guarantee a huge audience for the premiere. I just hope they embrace it beyond that.

MR: Yeah, let’s definitely hope they embrace it beyond the first episode…because I’m not in the first episode! (Laughs) So, yeah, let’s hope they like it enough to watch another day, because if they don’t, they won’t see me!

BE: Can you tell me a little bit about Merle?

MR: Well, Merle is a survivor, you know? Pure and simple, he’s a survivor. Him and his brother are survivors of the zombie apocalypse, and what is so amazing is that… (Hesitates) I’m getting off road for just a brief second, but when you’re doing these things and you’re reading these scripts…I don’t know if you’ve read the works that this show is based on, but you kind of start believing, “My God, this stuff can happen!” (Laughs) I’m, like, reading the comics, going, “Wow, what if this really occurred?” I mean, this is scary shit! But, anyway, I really enjoyed it, and I enjoyed doing Merle. Merle Dixon and Daryl Dixon. No matter how it’s spelled, ladies and gentlemen, it’s not “Daryl.” It’s “Derle.” (Laughs) So get it through your thick skulls: it’s not Daryl, it’s Derle. And I’m Merle. And that’s about the long and the short of it. I’m the more dangerous of the two, but we’re both absolutely crazy. Crazy, crazy, crazy.

BE: There’s a great promo shot of you as Merle, brandishing a gun as T-Dog (IronE Singleton) lies on the ground.

MR: Oh, my God. You know, it’s, like, okay, guys, I love the shot, and we were having a good time that day doing that scene, but how many times can Rooker… (Sighs) I mean, please, couldn’t you have shown something of me being a bit more benevolent? I mean, I don’t know if there is anything in the shows that I did where I’m being benevolent, so that could be the problem. But I’m sure there were handsomer shots.

BE: Well, in fairness, if they showed you handing T-Dog a bouquet of flowers or something, nobody would recognize you.

MR: That’s right! Or maybe a shot of me combing what little hair I have left after the barber got a hold of me. (Laughs) Oh, my God. That was a crazy, crazy day. Oh, my goodness. I tell ya, we had a great time doing that scene.

BE: Well, when I put on Facebook that I was going to be talking to you today, the first person who responded said, “Yes! ‘Sea of Love’!”

MR: (Laughs) Yes!

BE: So I figured I should ask you about the experience of working on that movie.

MR: Well, you know, you’re working with some great people. I have remained friends with everyone involved all through the years…the producers, Marty Bregman and his son Michael, and Al. I mean, everybody was great. But, you know, they’re professionals and they work hard. I come from a long line of really tough, hard-ass, working-class people, and that’s what I like to do when I get on the set. When I get on a movie, I like to work, and I don’t mind working long, hard hours. It’s kind of fun, and it’s challenging. I enjoy that, and “Sea of Love” was like that. It was a great movie, and I worked so hard. Lemme tell you how hard I worked. (Laughs) I flew in, they cast me, and the only reason they cast me was because I scared the shit out of Marty Bregman and Al Pacino during the reading. I slammed my fist down on the table during the reading, and both of them jumped. Marty almost fell off his chair! And they said, “Well, thank you, thank you, Mr. Rooker!” And before I got out the door, Marty was behind me, saying, “Excuse me, but where are you going now?” He didn’t want me to leave! He was, like, “Don’t leave the city, we want you to do this role!” (Laughs) So it wasn’t that hard to get the role. I was already doing “Mississippi Burning,” and they had heard about me, and they wanted to see me, so they flew me to New York. Now, I’ve got the job, all right? So I go there, and…I filmed for, I think, maybe three days, and then I was put on hold. And once I was on hold, they flew me back home to Chicago. I was on hold…get this…for probably about seven weeks.

BE: Wow.

MR: Yeah, I was on hold so long that I called production…I called Michael Bregman, and I said, “Dude, is the movie still going on?” He says, “Of course! Of course it is! Don’t worry, we’ll call you!” Literally, I worked three days, I was on hold for over seven weeks, and they finally called me back…and then I worked for another day, and I was done with the movie! (Laughs) And that was how hard I worked on that movie! I just basically said to myself, “What’s with this? This script is not hard!” And not only was I on hold, but I was getting paid! I was at home, wondering when I was going to work again, and yet I was still getting a check every week! It was crazy, dude. That was my beautiful experience on “Sea of Love.” Everybody, we’ve all remained friends ever since. As a matter of fact, I did “The Bone Collector” as well with the Bregmans.

BE: You mentioned James Gunn a minute ago. I’m a huge fan of “Slither.”

MR: Oh, good for you! That’s a good movie.

BE: My wife and I actually paid good money to see that. And I’m a critic, so that says something.

MR: It’s good that you paid good money. They put you in jail for paying with bad money, so you’d better watch yourself there. (Laughs)

BE: True enough. But, yeah, that movie had such a unique tone.

MR: Yeah, that movie was so well-written, and, yeah, well-toned would be a good description, too. It was amazing. I was thrilled to work on a script where I really didn’t have to rewrite. I thought the script was really tight. There was nothing to rewrite. It was all good. I enjoyed every single word of it.

BE: I’ll tell you, that movie made me a fan of Gregg Henry for life.

MR: (Laughs) Yeah, man! You know, it took me two or three viewings to stop laughing in the audience. Gunn was, like, “Rooker! Stop laughing!” “What do you mean? I can’t help it! It’s funny!” “Yeah, but you’re laughing only at your stuff!” I said, “Yeah, ‘cause I look so stupid! It’s great! It’s goofy! It’s funny!” I mean, c’mon, please, that’s funny shit! (Laughs) And Gregg Henry just cracks me up every time. I have never stopped laughing at him whenever I see the film. I’m bored with me already, but Gregg I love.

BE: So what would you say is your favorite project that you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

MR: (Laughs long and hard) That didn’t get the love that it deserved…? Are you talking about the movie or me?

BE: I suppose it could be either.

MR: Well, almost every actor I know, they go into these movies, no matter what size the role, thinking, “You know what? This is my movie.” (Laughs) No matter how big or little your role is, you should always go into the movie thinking, “This is my movie, this is my scene, this is my word,” okay? But there’s been…let’s see… (Long pause) You know, a lot of the small ones get a lot of love and attention. They just don’t have the money. And if you’re going to equate love with money, then a lot of the small independent ones that I’ve done don’t really have enough money, but they’ve got an awesome amount of love and creativity. Sometimes, that’s what makes the small ones what they are. You’ve got ample love and ample attention, but not enough money. A lot of my little independent ones deserve more money, and I wish they had had more in many of them. And big ones, too, for that matter. Like, even “Days of Thunder,” and that had all the money in the world. The ending of that one was a little odd for me. My character got sort of cut out of the ending, so that was a little downer for me. But the movie has come back after 20 years, and Paramount has come back after 20 years, and they’ve done a “Days of Thunder” game, an arcade-style racing game. And guess who they called? (Laughs)

Oh, my God, they called me, and I did all the voiceover for the game. It’s going to be released very, very soon into the market. That movie has been so great. I have so many fans because of that movie. And you know what? Almost all of these movies deserve a little more love and attention. Even though there are big ones and little ones…I don’t know, I don’t think I’ve ever done a movie that couldn’t use a little more love and attention. But, then again, maybe love and attention isn’t enough to make a movie do well. (Laughs) But people are really trying their best to get these things on their feet and working properly…and, man oh man, if that’s the love you’re talking about, then they’ve got it. It’s really great to be involved in projects where they give it their all. I like that in a project.

BE: I’d say “Atlantis Down” qualifies, then.

MR: “Atlantis Down” was no time and no money, but there was lots and lots of love and attention, so you know what…? This is not Shakespeare or anything. I don’t even know if Shakespeare is really a guide to what’s great, anyway. But, you know, we try hard on these films, and “Atlantis Down” is a fine example of going in having nothing but coming up with something. I mean, Max has spent every waking moment making this the best movie he can make with the money and the time that he has to do it with.

BE: On Facebook, last Tuesday, he put, “Today, I almost understood what the women feel when they give birth. Mine was not a physical pain but a psychological one. For a few hours, I felt closer to you all. ‘Atlantis Down’ was officially finished today.”

MR: (Laughs) Yeah…? I think he lied! He’s still working on the damned thing! I just called him today, and he’s still doing some timing things! But I think almost every movie that’s ever been made, if the producers and directors had their druthers, they’d go back and tweak something. It’s never done. Except “The Walking Dead,” though, man. Everything I did and everyone else did on that show, we gave it our all. Some of those scenes, I don’t want to go back to. (Laughs) I have no desire to go back and do what I did during my time on that show. I’ll go on and move on and do other things in the project. Hopefully you’ve got your fingers crossed…I do mine…that people like it, that it’s a success, and that we get the chance and the opportunity to do more of them.

BE: Well, I’ll go ahead and start wrapping up, but just to tie into “Days of Thunder,” I hear there’s going to be some serious go-kart action the day before the premiere.

MR: (Laughs) You know what…? That’s fast becoming the premiere race of the year!

BE: (Laughs) That’s what I hear.

MR: Bar none! NASCAR cannot even hold a candle to that go-kart race that’s going to happen there in Portsmouth, Virginia! (Laughs) I think it’s going to be on the 30th…? Whenever it is, I’m going to be there, we’re all going to get into go-karts, and we’re going to race. That has been the goal for everyone…and I can’t wait for the race! I can’t wait to get down there, get in the go-kart, and race!

BE: I’ll be there. I wouldn’t miss it.

MR: Well, you know, I’m trying to hook up with people, and I’ll see if maybe I can bribe you and make sure that I can use you as a spotter. I want to be able to bump people and get by them safely, because I have a feeling that there are a lot of people who are out for my head. (Laughs) Oh, man, it’s gonna be a great time…

BE: I’ll close with this last observation, and that’s that whenever I think of you, my first thought is of you in “JFK,” going, “This is nuts. This is crazy.”

MR: (Bursts out laughing) Hey, that’s not bad!

BE: Seriously, that’s the line that goes through my head whenever I hear your name.

MR: I’ve gotta tell you this about “JFK.” I have been just so blessed and lucky to be involved in a few really amazing movies in my career thus far, and “JFK” is one of them. It will live forever. And whether you agree or disagree with the philosophy or the ideas that are being expressed in that movie, people, when they see it, they remember it. And I enjoyed the hell out of doing that. That was so much fun.

BE: I think that was the first 3-hour movie that I’d ever seen that just kept me enthralled from start to finish.

MR: There you have it! Well, that’s the whole idea, isn’t it? You could have an hour movie that seems like three hours, or a three-hour movie that seems like an hour, and you’re begging for more. And that’s “JFK.” It just wows you, and you’re, like, “Man, I want to do that again!” So you go see it again. I’d love to be involved in another project that was as amazing as that. It was crazy. And I’m glad you enjoyed the movie. Bill Broussard, man… (Cackles)

BE: Well, I’ll let you get back to concentrating on your drive…

MR: 34 miles to Odessa!

BE: (Laughs) …but I appreciate you talking to me. And, as I say, I’m here in Virginia, so you’ll see me come next week.

MR: All right! Looking forward to it, man!

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