Norman Reedus screams through the back roads of Georgia atop a motorcycle. It’s summer, but he’s dressed all in black, looking like a man willing and eager to take on the zombie apocalypse. The actor is riding to the set of The Walking Dead – the hit TV show in which he stars as crossbow-wielding Daryl Dixon – from Senoia, Georgia, his home-from-home during filming. The speed and freedom of the ride produce a familiar blur, the constant motion of Reedus’ life.
Right now, the 46-year-old star is as close to settled as he’s ever been. His myriad other projects, including a nascent art career, have taken a backseat to the regular paycheck and filming schedule that come with being the best-loved character in a global hit show. But the pace of life is still hectic, with every gap in TWD filming filled. Reedus stars alongside Kate Winslet and Woody Harrelson in crime movie Triple 9, to be released early next year, after TWD returns for a sixth season at the beginning of October.
Fame has come late to Reedus, which is a good thing. It has made him a rarity in the acting world – successful and famous, yet still very much the Hollywood outsider with his feet on the ground. “I’ve never been spoilt,” he says in a hotel on the edge of New Orleans’ French Quarter, looking more skate rat than screen star in the ubiquitous trucker hat and black clothes. “It wasn’t in my game plan to ever think like that, and it still isn’t. I still put potato chips and bread in the refrigerator because I’m used to my apartment having bugs.
“This is the first job where I’m making money and I know I’m going back. I’ve always lived hand-to-mouth and job-to-job. It’s nice to have a nine-to-five instead of trying to find a job to pay the rent this month and doing an art show to cover the next. I’m still that guy… but I made it.” This is a guy who’ll stop every few steps for selfies in the Loews Hotel or on the streets of New Orleans. A guy who’ll hop on his bike for a spontaneous solo road trip, or spend an evening shooting a compound bow [the modern, levered type] in his backyard. A guy who is as keen to interact with an increasingly star-struck barista as he is with his rock-star buddy Slash, the former Guns N’ Roses guitarist.
“Norman’s genuinely curious,” says TWD co-star Melissa McBride, who plays Carol. “He’s always seeking input, and he loves stimuli. He’s so observant of what’s going on around him, of people, of the way things work and what people are into.” This curiosity is an instinct that has fed and shaped Reedus throughout his life. It could also explain how he’s resisted the changes that so often come with fame: he was an established man before he was an established star.
Reedus is the product of a lifetime of international adventures. During his childhood, he bounced from city to city with his mother as she chased work after her marriage split. When she moved to Japan and married a geochemist, Reedus left high school to join her. (She later taught kindergarten in Harlem, high school in the Bronx, and ran an orphanage in Kurdistan. As badass as Reedus is, his mum might be even more so. He compares her favourably to Mothra, the giant, winged force of nature in the Japanese Godzilla movies.) In Tokyo, he fell in with a French guy, then a band moved into the apartment the two were sharing. Soon, they all took off for London and moved into a squat near Clapham Common, doing shifts at a postcard shop in Piccadilly and making just enough to keep themselves in beer and potatoes.
From there, Reedus moved to Sitges, a city 35km south-west of Barcelona. Today, it’s the West Hollywood of Spain, says the actor, but back then Sitges wasn’t up to much. Neither was his apartment, where saltwater flowed from the shower head. “The place was as big as this,” he says, referring to the two-person dinner table in front of him. “But it was paradise. It was a cool little escape for a while.”
Local women would buy his paintings of stray cats. So are there dozens of Norman Reedus paintings hanging in Sitges? “They’re probably in the garbage,” he says. “They weren’t that good. Everything was unfinished. I think the women felt sorry for me. They’d just throw me some coins.”
Next, a girl he’d met in Tokyo called to say she was in Los Angeles and that he should join her. He did, but when she began dating an ex-boyfriend, Reedus was on his own. Then he got fired from a job fixing motorcycles. It was at this point that, as has been the case throughout Reedus’ resolutely open-minded life, the next adventure presented itself. While drunk and mouthing off at a party somewhere in the Hollywood Hills, he was asked to appear in a play. On the first night, he was spotted by an agent, and the rest is history.
For eight months of the year, during filming for TWD, Reedus’ day-to-day existence couldn’t be further from the Hollywood stereotype. While the rest of the cast choose to stay in the centre of Atlanta, Reedus retreats south to Senoia, a place he describes as a hippy commune for rich, old white people. Senoia is a small, isolated town where he knows the neighbours, who have been known to tell any visiting fans to get off his lawn.
“I live in Manhattan, so the woods are paradise to me,” says Reedus. “I ride motorcycles, set off fireworks and shoot my bow from the back patio. It’s magical.” He’s still living a private life. “There’s that part of him that loves that solitude and absorbing what’s around him and taking it in,” says McBride. For Reedus, the choice is simpler: “I’m one of those people who doesn’t want to talk to anyone when work is over. It’s not, ‘Let’s go out for drinks.’ It’s, ‘F–k you, guys, I’ll see you in the morning.’” He smiles as he says this, genuine and mischievous in equal parts.
Reedus’ low-key, tree-loving lifestyle belies the fact that he’s hugely famous. At the last count, he had 5.4 million fans on Facebook, 2.6 million followers on Instagram, 1.8 million on Twitter, and was the subject of reams of digital fan-fiction.
“I’ve seen myself kissing Shawn [Travis Charpentier], Glenn [Steven Yeun], Rick [Andrew Lincoln], Carol, Beth [Emily Kinney]…” he says. And yet, far from becoming insular, Reedus is keener than ever to interact. At dinner in New Orleans, the star engages the maître d’ and the server in separate conversations about the Warhol-esque paintings on the wall. He wonders if the woman pictured is Jerry Hall; it’s actually the restaurant’s former owner. Later, he compares notes about Dubai with a serviceman who politely interrupts an interview. Reedus opens the conversation with a sweet and disarming, “Thank you for your service.”
This is the same Reedus who describes holding up a Kiss concert in Atlanta because the rock band wanted to take a pre-show selfie with him before their make-up wore off, but his TWD shooting schedule had made him 15 or 20 minutes late. So there he was, racing up the highway to the gig with Slash, as one of the biggest bands in the world – and, as a consequence, their legion of fans – waited for the duo’s arrival.
Like any celebrity, Reedus exists in his own world, but frequently – and intentionally – it crosses into the world of regular people. Part of the reason is that he’s always been his own man, making art, running around Manhattan’s Lower East Side with his cool art-world friends, dating supermodel Helena Christensen with whom he has a son, Mingus.
Another factor is his status as a latecomer to the showbiz party. Reedus was a relative unknown until he was in his early 40s. “It’s weird that the show is successful,” he says, considering how his life would be if TWD hadn’t happened. “I really like that idea of flying and making art. I’d probably still be doing that, to be honest. I really liked that time – it was great. And that was up to five years ago.”
And then came the alligator. Reedus stands in the middle of a Louisiana swamp, on a tenuous platform that holds two ramshackle trapping huts that have clearly seen better days. He’s accompanied by a photo crew and a group of animal wranglers, one of whom is a beautiful young blonde woman who was carrying the gator when an ancient plank gave way, plunging her leg into the water below. Reedus is hardcore, but not that hardcore. “I’m a city kid,” he says. Now he’s holding the animal, arms shaking from the exertion of keeping it aloft and maybe something more. Photos taken, Reedus puts it down. “I feel like he could feel my fear,” he says.
It’s time to depart. As Reedus rides away on the airboat, he turns and waves, cupping his hand like a Miss World contestant, hamming it up for the amusement of not only those who have temporarily been left behind, but also himself. After a powerful blast from the large open fan, he disappears from view, heading for the next adventure.