Michael Rooker is one of those character actors who seem to be right in just about everything he does. Viewers currently know him as Merle Dixon on The Walking Dead, but his career stretches back over 25 years to his first searing performance as the lead in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Other prominent parts include Cliffhanger, Tombstone, Jumper, The 6th Day and Slither, the last of which put him in contact with director James Gunn. Gunn subsequently cast him as Yondu, the outlaw surrogate stepfather of Peter Quill in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. In an exclusive interview with Mania, he talked about the part and the secrets to career longevity.
Question: You’re very blue in this movie.
Michael Rooker: I am VERY blue in this movie dude! He’s always part blue in the comics. Yondu. Sometimes, he’s a little blue or red depending on who’s drawing him. But he’s been at least partially blue throughout the comics, and they let me know what was required to make me blue.
Q: How does getting into the make-up compare with the prosthetics in Slither?
MR: Slither was worse. That took about seven hours to get into. This only took about five. Being camera ready at five hours. That included the base make-up, touching up, air brushing, a little snack and wardrobe.
Q: How much of a challenge is it to perform through all of that, to make the make-up work for you instead of being an impediment to pure performance?
MR: It could be a challenge. The eyes, the contacts could really bother you. I’d have to use drops, it would stress out the eyes. But it was great for playing a cranky guy like Yondu.
Q: There’s a set of teeth too.
MR: The teeth were easy. I could just slip the teeth in and out. They took a little adjustment, but by the end, it was great. I could whistle, which if you’ve seen the movie is really important for the character.
Q: It really was! How helpful were the comic books in establishing this character’s history before we run into him?
MR: Too many details sometimes! I dove right into it, and you know with comics, different writers and artists have different takes on the character. It’s nice to get all that perspective, but the movie character sort of used components of all of them without being just a copy of any of them. I had to stay focused on that character, the character we were making for the movie, and at some point I had to put the comics down. It was tough. I loved researching this role!
Q: What was it about the character that you enjoyed so much?
MR: Gunn wrote it for me! When someone writes a character just for you, you don’t say no! Yondu had some Michael Rooker in there. He had a lot of Merle too, melded up, rolled into one and shaken up a bit. We put a little Southern drawl in there, a little country vernacular, and Gunn wanted that there too. He thought it would get people into the character’s mindset really quickly. It’s like something that he’s heard when he visits Earth. He sits up there and he listens to the language on the radio waves, and maybe that language is a Hank Williams song. So he develops a little twang and it stays with him. Little phrases from this foreign tongue.
Q: What does he do on all those visits?
MR: He abducts people. Kidnaps them and sells them off. All those alien abduction stories, they’re probably all Yondu. It’s what he does. And that’s the whole deal with Peter Quill. He’s gotta deliver Peter Quill somewhere else, but he decides he likes this one and hangs onto him.
Q: Where would you like to see him go in the future, in future movies?
MR: Some of the more comic elements I think. Make him a little less intimidating. Maybe go back to some of the more mystical elements at the character’s roots in the comics. I’d love to go there if this film does well and future scripts can support it.
Q: You’ve been making movies for a long time. Is there a secret to longevity in the movie business?
MR: Stubbornness. Pure, simple stubbornness. I do not give up, I do not stop working, I do not get to a place where I need to tell myself “stop.” I don’t go looking for the perfect role, though I know a lot of actors who do that and I don’t fault them for it. That’s the choice that’s right for them. But for me, I want to make the role perfect. That’s my job. If the role isn’t there, I’ll get it there.
Q: Do you look for different roles now than you did fifteen years ago? Besides the obvious differences in the age of your characters?
MR: No differences. I look for roles that are right for me, that I can do well and enjoy doing well. If that’s there, it doesn’t matter if it’s a big role, a small role, a comedy, a horror movie. If it fits, then I’ll do it and I’ll do it the best I possibly can. You can’t have a set fee, or turn down something that you just think you’re right for. I try to fluctuate my fee based on the budget of the movie and the size of the part. That opens up a lot of possibilities to do good work in a lot of different things. You look for films where the budgets are right. Not necessarily large, but right for what the movie wants to do. If you look at those numbers, that can tell you a lot about whether the film is going to come together. Big films, small films and in-between films.