During the summer Norman Reedus screams through the back roads of Georgia, dressed all in black atop a motorcyle, looking like a man willing and eager to take on the zombie apocalypse.
He’s riding to the set of The Walking Dead, the hit show in which he stars as crossbow-wielding Daryl Dixon, from his home away from home in Senoia, Georgia, where he stays when filming. The speed and freedom of riding produce a familiar blur, the constant motion of Reedus’ life.
Reedus is currently as close as he’s ever been to settled. The myriad projects, the nascent art career, have taken a backseat to the regular paycheck and filming schedule that come with being the best-loved character on a global hit show. But the pace of life is still hectic, with every gap in TWD filming filled. This month he stars alongside Djimon Hounsou in the post-apocalyptic thriller Air before TWD returns for a sixth season at the beginning of October.
Fame has come late to the 46-year-old, and that’s a good thing. It’s made him a rare star—successful, famous, but still a Hollywood outsider with his feet on the ground. “I’ve never been spoiled before,” 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 in it. I’m still that guy.
“This is the first job where I’m making money and I know I’m going back. I’ve always lived hand-to- hand, and job-to-job. It’s nice to have a 9-5 instead of trying to find a job to pay the rent this month and doing an art show to pay the rent the next. I’m still that guy. But I made it.”
The same guy who stops every few steps for selfies in the Loews Hotel or on the streets of New Orleans is the same guy who will hop on his bike for a spontaneous solo road trip, or spend his evening shooting compound bows in his backyard. He’ll interact as seamlessly with an increasingly starstruck barista as he will with Slash, eager to engage.
“He’s genuinely curious,” Melissa McBride, who plays TWD’s Carol, says. “He is always seeking input. He loves stimuli. He’s always very observant about what’s going on around him, about people, about the way things work, what people are into.”
That curiosity is an instinct that’s fed and shaped him throughout the years. And it goes a long way to explaining the success Reedus has had in resisting the changes fame so often brings with it: He was an established man before he was an established star.
Reedus is the product of a lifetime of international adventures. As a child, he bounced from city to city with his mom as she chased work after splitting with his father. Before he graduated from high school, he joined her in Japan, where she was living after marrying a geochemist. (Later she taught kindergarten in Harlem, high school in the Bronx and ran an American school in Kurdistan. As badass as Reedus is, his mom might be more so. He compares her favorably to Mothra, the 20-foot force of nature who spars with Godzilla.)
In Tokyo, he fell in with a French guy, then a band moved into the apartment the two were sharing. Soon, the lot of them took off for London, where they squatted near Clapham Common at the end of the Northern line, trading shifts at a postcard shop in Piccadilly, making just enough to stay in beer and potatoes.
From there, Reedus moved to Sitges, a city 30 miles west of Barcelona. Today, it’s fancy, the West Hollywood of Spain, according to the actor, but back then it wasn’t much. Neither was his apartment, where saltwater flowed from the showerhead. “It was as big as this table,” he says, referring to the two-person dinner table in front of him. “And it was paradise. It was a cool little escaped life for a while.”
Local women would buy his paintings of stray cats. So there are dozens of Norman Reedus paintings hanging in Sitges? “They are 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.”
A girl he met in Tokyo called to say she was in Los Angeles and that he should come join her. He did, but she started dating an ex-boyfriend, leaving Reedus on his own. He got fired from a job fixing motorcycles. Then, as has been the case throughout Reedus’ resolutely open-minded life, the next adventure presented itself. When he was drunk at a party somewhere in the Hollywood Hills and mouthing off, someone asked him to be in a play. An agent spotted him the first night and the rest is history. There was no audition, just the next ride.
For eight months of the year, during TWD filming, Reedus’ life couldn’t be further from a Hollywood stereotype. While the rest of the cast members choose to stay in Atlanta, Reedus stays in Senoia, which he describes as a hippie commune for rich old white people. It’s the middle of nowhere, an isolated small town where he knows all the neighbors, who will occasionally tell the fans that show up to get off his lawn.
“I live in Manhattan, so the woods are paradise to me,” he says. “I ride motorcycles, blow off fireworks and shoot compound bows off my back patio. It’s magical.”
He’s still living the escaped life. “There’s that part of him that loves that solitude and absorbing what’s around him and taking it in,” McBride says. For Reedus, the choice is simpler: “I’m one of those people who when I’m done with work I don’t want to talk to anyone. It’s not, ‘let’s go out for drinks.’ It’s ‘f*ck you guys, I’ll see you in the morning.’ ” He smiles as he says this, equal parts genuine and mischievous.
Reedus’ low-key, tree-loving life belies the fact that he is hugely famous. He has 2.4 million followers on Instagram, another 1.8 million on Twitter, and reams of digital fanfic. “I’ve seen me kissing Sean, Steven, Andrew, Carol, Beth,” he says when asked if he’s read any of it. But, far from becoming insular, he’s more keen 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 former owner of the restaurant. After the meal, 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 that describes holding up a Kiss show in Atlanta because the band wanted to take a pre-concert selfie (always with the selfies) with him before their makeup wore off during the show, and his TWD shooting schedule was going to make him 15 or 20 minutes late. So he and Slash— yes, he’s buddies with the former Guns N’ Roses guitarist—raced up the highway to the gig as one of the biggest bands in the world, and their unwitting legion of fans, waited for their arrival.
Reedus exists in his own world, like any celebrity, but that world crosses into the world of regular people frequently and intentionally. 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.
Part of it is his status as a latecomer to the showbiz party. He wasn’t massively known until he was in his mid-40s. “It’s weird that the show is successful,” he says of his life and fame post-Walking Dead. “I really like that idea of flying and making art. I’d still probably be doing that, to be honest. I really liked that time. That 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 seen better days in the 1990s. He’s accompanied by a photo crew and a group of animal wranglers, one of whom is a beautiful young blonde woman who broke through an ancient plank and plunged her leg into the water below while carrying the gator. 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, he 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 America pageant contestant, goofing off, hamming it up for the amusement of those who are temporarily left behind, but also for himself. After a powerful blast from the large open fan, he’s gone from view, on to the next adventure.