With Michael Rooker playing the Centuarian hunter Yondu on screen for Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” you’d better bet you’re going to end up wondering if you love or hate the blue-skinned bounty hunter.
Rooker’s Yondu is a very different take on a character fans might remember from the comic book Guardians’ original futuristic incarnation. Adjusted for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this Yondu remains an incomparable tracker with a sonically powered arrow as his preferred weapon, but his heroic altruism is definitely in question — which is fine, because nobody likes playing shades of gray better than Rooker.
The much-admired Alabama-born character actor’s career spans three decades, beginning with his blistering 1986 debut in “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” through films including “Mississippi Burning,” “Days of Thunder,” “JFK” and “Tombstone,” and stints in “Guardians” director James Gunn’s “Slither” and “Super.” And while he worked constantly and built a cult of fans, it wasn’t until his stint as the volatile, bullying Merle Dixon on AMC’s “The Walking Dead” that Rooker got his truest star turn, thank in large part to what he sees as a talent for playing a-holes audiences love to hate.
CBR News: You work with a guy like James Gunn for a couple projects, then he gives you the role of a lifetime in Yondu. You had to have a blast doing this!
Michael Rooker: I totally had a blast. I had a blast just thinking that I was going to be in the movie! [Laughs] [I was] jumping up and down! And the blast just kept coming. Because after I saw it, I was like, “Wow — they actually kept me in the movie! He edited me in the movie!” And look at all the other stuff he had to do. This is a big movie with a lot of characters, let me tell you, and I came out smelling like a rose, man. As far as time on screen, it ended up only just a minute, a few little moments were edited down — not even cut out completely, edited out a little bit. It’s great!
I think the audience is going to really respond to your character. We see just enough of you that you’re really intriguing, and there’s going to be desire for more. How did you find your way into Yondu, because the Marvel Cinematic Universe version is not exactly the comic book character.
No. I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but it seems like I can be a real — dick! And people still like me. It seems like I have this little knack, so he sort of wrote that with Yondu in mind and myself in mind, this ability to sort of be abusive verbally, or whatever. [Laughs] Even physically, and still have the audience forgive and enjoy what’s going on on-screen, and like it enough that they don’t really care if you’re really not a nice person. Yondu’s not a nice guy, but he’s got this paternal instinct, and it came like the first moment he saw Star-Lord. Got him up in his ship, and all of a sudden, the kid is, in my mind, this kind of little guy who’s not all sheepish — he’s just lost his mom, and he’s still being tough, he’s standing up for himself. That and maybe something else was involved that convinced Yondu to basically keep the kid. I kept him. Raised him as my own, as opposed to sending him off to where we’re supposed to take him. And so there’s that heart in there. I think people, they see through all the makeup and all the wardrobe, and they see the real person somewhere.
The beauty of your performance is you never know which way he’s going to go in a given scene.
That’s what I like to do. I like keeping people on the edge and keeping them surprised. It’s always walking that tightrope, and just not knowing if the guy — is he good? Is he bad? Is he going to smack me? Is he going to kiss me? What’s going on here? And that’s great. I say all the time, if the audience leaves the theater not knowing, I’ve done my job. I don’t want them to know everything. I don’t want to make it so clear-cut that they know exactly where I’m coming from, they know exactly my motivations. Keep it obscure and kind of hidden, and they look. That gives you, the audience, an opportunity to be a part of the movie, not just sitting back and watching. You’re a part of the movie trying to figure out where the hell is this guy coming from, right? “I don’t get him, but I get him. There’s something about him I like.” And that’s kind of Yondu. That’s where he’s at.
Is this the largest amount of makeup and costume you’ve had to work through to get a performance?
No, no — I don’t even bother with that. I forget I even have it on. “Slither,” Gunn’s other movie, I had a seven-hour makeup. It was a big makeup. My call time was like 3 a.m. at times, and I’m still in the makeup chair when people are coming in at 8. It’s crazy! So yeah, yeah — I’ve been involved with a couple projects, and you know what? They’ve all been his. He’s a sicko!
Does it help your performance, or do you just go forward like it’s not even on you?
It doesn’t matter to me. I think what’s going on in the character’s going to shine through no matter what you have on. No matter what wardrobe you have on, no matter how much latex you have on, if you’re really doing it right, it’s going to work.
Tell me about the special actor/director alchemy that the two of you have that’s kept you working together — and having fun working together.
I think we still have fun when we’re hanging together, just in normal life, and that just spills right over into work, so we still have fun. It’s not that he doesn’t yell at me and say, “Rooker! God! I’m busy today, man!” Sometimes I’m just maybe a little too much for the poor guy, but I do have these questions sometimes. But we really work well together. It’s turned out to be a real joy and a kick in the butt to work with this man. I like him. And I don’t know what it is. We can analyze it, but I don’t know. You meet these people where it’s like you’ve been friends forever, in another life, you know. You’re a like spirit. You just — boom! — connected in some way.
Better not to question it.
Yeah, sometimes you don’t question. [If] you got a connection, you’ve got a connection. It’s awesome. Use it. Work with it, and especially in this business, use it. Because God knows, in this business, it’s an every-man-for-himself kind of crazy, crazy profession. So when you hook up with someone who is loyal and true and honest and a friend, yeah, and you’re both semi-talented, you might as well combine the two and actually become talented. [Laughs]
You’ve had such a great career over the years — it seems like you were always working. People in Hollywood knew your reputation, and now you have actual fans out in the world who know you on sight. What’s it been to go from that journeyman/working actor to being an actor that people recognize and are excited to hear you’re attached to a project?
Overnight! Can you believe it? Thirty-year overnight success. That’s what it’s been, and I think it’s been sort of gradual, except for when I started doing “The Walking Dead.” I mean, “The Walking Dead” is TV. You’re in their face, in their living room, every week, and they love you, they hate you. For me, it’s the same thing. If there’s anything that’s similar to Yondu and Merle Dixon, it’s that character that people say, “I don’t know if I like this guy. But whoa, what did he just do? That’s weird — I like that.” So they like you and they don’t like you at the same time. It’s just a strange thing.
I love all the fans. It’s amazing. It’s like, I’ve been waiting 30 years to be able to have someone say, “Hey, Rooker, what’s up, man?” And I don’t know him from Adam, right? And I’m like, “Yeah, everything’s cool, bro. What’s up with you? How’s the wife?” [Laughs] I have no idea who they are, of course.
Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” arrives in theaters August 1.