When you’re the star of a show like The Walking Dead, in which the body count is so high no one bothers to keep it, there’s always a chance that the next week’s episode will be your last; any character is just a zombie bite away from unemployment. Even now that Reedus is unquestionably the show’s biggest star—a guy so beloved that fans wear T-shirts reading: “If Daryl Dies We Riot”—he frets. Every time a script is delivered, he cracks it with a twinge of fear. “I worry every week,” he says. “Every fucking week. I will not lie.”
Not that it’s so much easier to see a friend eliminated. The hardest, Reedus says, was Michael Rooker, who played Merle, Daryl’s older brother. “I read that and thought, ‘This day is going to suck.’ He was such an interesting character. I thought he’d be around a bit longer.” Reedus looks at the ceiling and characters begin to pass before his eyes. “But shooting Dale in the face was bad. Sophia was bad, Shane…They’re all bad. Mostly because it’s like your family member just moved away.”
Too often, stars of hit shows begin to feel aimless by Season 4, after their popularity is ensured. They talk about the struggles of staying motivated, of new challenges and bigger stages. Reedus, though, claims to be more excited about the fourth season than the first. “This is our best season, the best writing,” he says. The new show runner, Scott Gimple, “is killing it.”
So what might we expect from Daryl? The cast is sworn to secrecy, so Reedus can say almost nothing beyond the fact that the episode he’s currently shooting is “lots and lots of Daryl.” Executive producer Gale Anne Hurd offers a bit more: “We always have the potential to delve even deeper into Daryl’s character and to push him to the limits. I think this season maybe people will get some insight into both: how far he can be pushed and who he really is.”
Hurd has been as surprised as anyone about how Reedus, as Daryl—who wasn’t in the comics the show is based on—has basically taken over the show. “I think it’s a combination of the character of Daryl and how he’s brought to life by Norman that resonates with fans not only in the U.S. but all over the world. When you think about it in the context of the show, who’s the one most suited to survive in this world, and who has a heart of gold? That’s Daryl, as Norman plays him...In the post-zombie-apocalypse world, his skill set is what you want.”
Reedus is well aware of how the fans feel about him, and the feeling is mutual. He’s unequivocal about his intention to stay with the show as long as the producers let Daryl live.
“This is the role of a lifetime. I’ve done about 40 films—a lot of different parts,” he says as a producer beckons him back to rehearsal. “I’m having the best time I’ve ever had on a job in my life. I’ll be Daryl until I’m 85 years old if they’ll have me.”