Don’t be confused by his pro-level smoulder. Norman Reedus may be a former model, but he’s most definitely not a fashion guy. The Walking Dead star could fit his wardrobe in a duffel bag. “Let’s put it this way: Eulyn Womble, our costume designer, just gave me a couple of pairs of jeans because I don’t have any. That’s how much I shop,” he says on the phone from the Georgia set of the popular AMC drama about post-zombie-pocalypse survivor life.
A recent Comic-Con appearance presented a minor crisis for the actor, 45, who plays crossbow-wielding rebel Daryl Dixon on the show, which returns on Sunday, Feb. 8. For starters, he didn’t have any shoes. “I had to wear my stunt double’s shoes, and they were, like, three sizes too big.”
Despite his lack of sartorial skill, the man has undeniable swagger. He’s made a career playing off-kilter brooders and oddball criminals in films such as cult favourite The Boondock Saints and Deuces Wild. His natural magnetism led to a short modelling career with the likes of Prada and H&M, even though, he says, “I’m short and I drink beer. I have beady little eyes. I don’t like people touching me or looking at me, so it makes no sense at all.”
During a photo shoot for the October cover of GQ, he recalls being shoved into skinny jeans, “nine sweaters” and a jacket and then being told to “look comfortable.” “I was like, ‘This is torture! I don’t know how people f-cking do this.’ Between every click of the shutter, you have, like, nine people run over and start tugging at you and they don’t even see you. I could have been anyone. Nobody asked me if I was OK, or if I was having a good day. It was like, ‘The sweater looks uncomfortable,’” he says, laughing.
Reedus made his acting debut with a brief appearance in the 1997 sci-fi horror film Mimic. A series of charismatic/damaged-guy roles in minor films followed, but it wasn’t until 2010, when he debuted as The Walking Dead’s feral, squirrel-hunting moral compass, that he was catapulted to mainstream sensation. As Daryl, Reedus combines surly defiance with raw vulnerability. Like a faithful dog that’s been kicked one too many times, he’s all teeth and untapped tenderness. “He means what he says and he wears his heart on his sleeve and he’s exactly who he says he is,” says Reedus.
For Reedus, the series is about how human beings strive and fail under pressure. “In season one, people thought the show was about zombies. And we’ve slowly pulled out of that. It has so little to do with zombies right now. It’s about these people—the people you meet and the people you become. What you’re willing to fight against and what you’re willing to fight for…”
While some fans clamour to see Daryl paired off romantically, Reedus, a nonconformist leading man if ever there was one, is cautious about the idea of playing Daryl in Love. He wants the moment, should it come, to be honest: “I don’t want to take someone’s hand and whisk them off into the moonlight and make sweet love to them. I would prefer it if it never happened,” he says, quietly.
Off-screen, Reedus is father to 14-year-old Mingus, the son he shares with his ex-partner, supermodel Helena Christensen. “He plays guitar better than me. He’s cooler than me,” he says of his son, who, with his cherubic face, definitely inherited his parents’ good looks. Reedus respects Mingus enough to “get straight to the point”—“I don’t talk around subjects”—but he also enjoys being The Fun Dad: “I’m the type that’s like, ‘Just stay up a couple extra hours, let’s watch this.’ Yeah, I’m that guy. His mom is like: ‘He was so tired today at school, I know that’s your fault.’”
Two decades in the making, stardom has come at the right time for the actor, who believes his 20-something self may have struggled with GQ-level fame. “I’d probably lock myself in the house. I don’t think I was ready for people to give me that kind of attention,” Reedus says. There’s attention, though, and then there’s invasion. He was recently on a plane, about to tuck into a cheeseburger, when he noticed six iPhones pointed in his direction: “I ended up eating my cheeseburger in the bathroom because I just didn’t want to be on video.”
His fan base is one of the most devoted around, and has been slavering for any little tidbit about the upcoming season. After dropping a few tantalizing descriptors (“mind-blowingly good,” “amazing,” “dark”) about season five, Reedus offers a morsel. Sort of.
When I ask about the fate of little Judith, Rick and Lori’s baby, I can just picture that classic Reedus twinkle in his eye. “Judith?” he says. “We ate her.”