Norman Reedus has never been your typical Hollywood actor. Earlier in his life he identified more with art, which, before photography, tended toward avant-garde sculpture. An early career piece, he recalls, was a giant vagina with horns that he carved from stone; another was a cast of “a skinny little girl” that he exaggerated and then deconstructed into a massive sculpture installation that hung in the back of a fancy restaurant in Beverly Hills. Though Reedus was too nervous to be there, artist friends reported back that guests would emerge “catatonic” from the room with his art. “That’s exactly what I was looking for,” he says.
Reedus fell into acting by accident. He was born in Florida and raised in Los Angeles, then left for a period of wandering that eventually led him back to L.A. Being an impulsive and romantic twentysomething, he’d followed a girl and taken a job fixing motorcycles at a Venice shop called Dr. Carl’s Hog Hospital to make ends meet. Almost immediately, the girl reunited with her ex, moved to Hawaii, and got married, and Reedus was left in L.A. wondering what the hell he was going to do next.
One day he showed up at work and found his boss pissed off at one of the shop’s pit bulls for chewing the sideboard of a hot rod that he was building in the backyard. The two men got in a fight, and Reedus quit. That night a friend took him to a party in the Hollywood Hills where, he recalls, “I drank too much and started yelling at people.” He was wearing large, broken sunglasses and looked ridiculous—not on purpose. People noticed. “Somebody in that crowd of people approached me about being an actor,” he says.
A week later, Reedus was in a play and had an agent. He’d been discovered, more or less, by being belligerently drunk.
Moral of story: Hollywood is weird.
Reedus’ first film was in 1997, but the breakout role came two years later when he played the vigilante Murphy MacManus in The Boondock Saints, a violent gangster flick that was a cult smash. That same year, he had a son, Mingus, with his then-girlfriend, Danish supermodel Helena Christensen, and did some very high-profile modeling for Prada. Miuccia Prada is said to have chosen him herself. The gig came as such a surprise, Reedus says, that his first reaction was, “What’s Prada?” He was hardly a fashion guy.
“I had one suit in my closet that me and all my friends shared,” he says. But the campaign was huge. “More people probably saw that than all of my early films combined.”
Even now, Reedus i s much more comfortable in front of a motion picture camera. “I’m not the best model,” he says. “I’m not that tall, and I drink beer.”
For the seven months that The Walking Dead is in production, Reedus makes his home in a small community of utopians about 45 minutes from the set. He enjoys having that distance to ride those winding country roads on his Triumph Scrambler, and had zero desire to set up camp in Atlanta, where most of the cast lives. “I live in Manhattan,” he explains during a break from rehearsal. “There’s nothing for me in Atlanta except a bunch of malls and some Chick-fil-A.” But he also chose this particular town because it was settled by a group of big-city exiles who wanted to create, from scratch, a kind of perfect community that would raise its own livestock, grow its own produce, compost like maniacs, and generate as much electricity as possible using solar power and other renewable sources.
So he rented what he describes as a “James Bond house” out in the woods and has made it his home, swimming every morning in the pool out back, hiking on trails in the Georgia woods, and eating the fruits of the land as much as possible by shopping at the town market. “It’s kind of like a little hippie utopia,” he says. “But mostly it’s a bunch of older ladies sitting on porches drinking Chardonnay.”
To be Daryl, Reedus must stay lean and wiry, which requires careful eating and some general maintenance. He eats clean, fresh foods, and avoids sugar, pasta, and bread; but the honest truth is, when he’s working on the show, it really doesn’t matter. “Running around the woods of Georgia in 120° heat and humidity really cuts pounds off you automatically,” he says, and his arms, which are solid and sinewy, reveal that. “If anything, they tell me to eat because I’m looking too thin.”
Reedus is hardly a method actor like Daniel Day-Lewis, who would probably live in a lean-to and hunt possum for breakfast if he had to play Daryl. But he does try to avoid obvious incongruities. “I did a movie once where I was supposed to be roaming through the woods eating berries and sort of scavenging,” he recalls. “But I was staying in a Four Seasons.” He told the producers he might want to downgrade. “It’s hard to order eggs Benedict every morning and then go play somebody who’s doing crack. It doesn’t really work.”
During last season’s hiatus, Reedus filmed three movies, including Sunlight Jr., also starring Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon, due out in November. Reedus describes it as a “weird love triangle” filmed in Florida, in which he plays “a gold-chain, white-tank-top, flip-flops redneck” whose ex has moved on to a new boyfriend, played by Dillon. “He wants to kill me and I hate him,” Reedus says. The role called for him to be so ugly and unpleasant that every day he felt the need to apologize to Watts for his character’s behavior. “I was a real dick in that movie.”
Now that he’s the most beloved character on the highest-rated drama in cable TV history, Reedus gets plenty of offers to do film. But he has a short off-season, no shortage of hobbies, and a 14-year-old son he wants to see as much as possible. So he chooses wisely. When the production schedule allows it, he flies back to New York on weekends to see his son, who lives the rest of the time with his mother and attends the same private school as Suri Cruise—meaning that Reedus has competition for Coolest Dad in the School.
When it’s suggested that a crossbow-wielding zombie killer has to be cooler than Tom Cruise, at least to teenage boys, Reedus balks. “I don’t know. Tom Cruise hangs off buildings in Dubai.” And then he says: “Let me tell you how cool Tom Cruise is,” and launches into a story about visiting the Empire State Building and getting the VIP tour, which involves going to the “very tip-top” of the tower, above the normal observation deck. “You go outside and the wind is howling.” There, he says, there’s a little ledge, so tiny that “if you tripped, you’d die. You’d fall right off the edge.”
The tradition is for the VIP to pose for a photo alone on the ledge, hair blowing in the gale-force winds. Reedus did so, with much trepidation, literally hugging the wall. “I wouldn’t go anywhere near the ledge because I was terrified,” he says. “In the picture, I look like I’m about to cry.” Afterward, he went inside and looked at the gallery of celebrity photos. “And there’s Tom Cruise, sitting on the edge with his legs hanging over. He’s just sitting there with a smile on his face and thumbs up—in 100-mile-an-hour winds. I almost wet my pants, and he’s sitting on the edge.”
Point being, if you ask Norman Reedus: “Tom Cruise is way cooler than me.”