Yondu Udonta may be blue all over, but Michael Rooker’s anything but.
Hot off the phenomenal success of Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the veteran character actor’s been enjoying a bit of a victory lap: he’d already recently been heaped with praise for his recurring can’t-look-away stint on AMC’s mega-hit “The Walking Dead” as the volatile Merle Dixon, when his frequent collaborator James Gunn (who’s directed Rooker in most of his projects, including notable roles in cult favorites “Slither” and “Super”) tapped him to play the equally dangerous but more likeably roguish, azure-skinned leader of the Ravagers.
Taking a moment to reflect on his newfound moment in the sun in conjunction with “Guardians'” home video release, Rooker — who first grabbed Hollywood’s attention in the late ’80s in films like “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” and “Mississippi Burning” — spoke with CBR News and made one thing perfectly clear: he’s ready to head forward, especially when it comes to reprising the role of Yondu.
CBR News: Michael, tell me what life has been like for you in the wake of “Guardians” becoming such a sensation.
Michael Rooker: Oh, dude, it’s been a joy. Of course, you know, I’ve been riding this wave of popularity, because of “The Walking Dead” and Merle Dixon, but now all of a sudden, that wave curls, and there’s an even bigger wave. That’s what it feels like. “Guardian’s of the Galaxy” is one of these mega-waves that pop up, and every surfer wants to hop on top of that thing and ride it. Right now, Yondu is riding along with the entire cast of “Guardians of the Galaxy.” It’s amazing. It’s just a thrill of a lifetime, so I’m having a great time.
I know it’s going to be a little bit before you guys get back into action, but how eager are you to return to that character? It seemed like a role that you really had a lot of fun bringing to life.
I’m ready, man! I was thrilled to do it the first time, and to get a chance to expand on that role as Yondu is going to be a dream come true — a second coming, because the first one was my dream come true, doing Yondu from “Guardians of the Galaxy.” So now, we get a chance to expand on the role; it’s going to be another amazing, amazing experience.
We spoke with James Gunn, and he mentioned that he had really elaborate thought out notions about Yondu and his band of Ravagers. Has he shared much of that with you, or is everything still a kind of discovery? Has he given you a bit of the big picture?
[You mean] the big picture of Yondu and where Yondu was from and going and all this stuff? Every now and then he tosses me a little bone. He’s teasing me: “Come here, Rooker — you wanna know something? Come here, here. Let’s see how high you can jump. Come on, jump for it, boy!” [Laughs]
Every now and then we chat a little bit and we talk a little bit about stuff, but no I haven’t gotten [any hints] — you guys probably got way more than I know!
You and James have been friends and colleagues for a while. What was it like to share the journey of this film, and especially the huge success of this film, with your good buddy.
Dude, every time I see him, I see how exhausted he is, and then I say, “Is it worth it?” And of course, it’s worth it. And so it’s just something that it’s just a lifetime experience that you just don’t want it to end and we get to go at it again in “[Guardians of the Galaxy] 2.” I’m ready and very excited and very pleased that [Chris] Pratt is riding that wave as well, and it’s beautiful. I mean, come on, working with Marvel and Disney — the resources that they can put to bear on a project is just phenomenal. It’s just amazing to be involved and to get to do it again.
It seems like you might get a lot of interesting offers and opportunities — both because of “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “The Walking Dead.” Have there been a lot of cool projects coming your way?
Well, I’m in the middle of a project right now, so if there are some cool projects out there that I haven’t heard about, bring them on, because I’ll be done in about three weeks. Okay guys?
What are you in the midst of right now?
I’m working on a project called “King Bolden.” It’s the Buddy Bolden story, who is one of the very first kings of jazz. Back in 1906, he played a cornet and was just the most happening cat in the world when it came to jazz, ragtime and all this stuff. He’s considered like the grandfather of jazz, first king of jazz, and we’re doing his story. It’s a very interesting, mystical story of this musician and very, very intriguing indeed.
You’ve always had fans, but as you mentioned, things were starting to really build after playing Merle and then with “Guardians.” What’s it been like to see these fans who’ve been following you and been rooting for you to get these great parts also revel in your success as you’ve interacted with them?
Oh my gosh, the fans have been with me for ages, and new fans are popping up all the time. They love seeing their hero and their anti-hero from previous movies, and they’ve followed my career all these years and all the things that I’ve done. And you know, I’ve done big things, I’ve done little things, and whatever I do my fans are probably the most loyal fans. A lot of actors will say this, but dude they are! They are just amazing. They amaze me every time I meet someone on the street or at a comic convention and they come up and they bring a poster from, for example, “Henry: [Portrait of a Serial Killer],” or “The Bone Collector,” or “Sea of Love” or any of these — “Brown’s Requiem” — some of these more obscure, independent projects that I’ve done. They follow me. They know all my work, and it amazes me.
Is there a not-super-fun part of getting ready to play Yondu that you hope they figure out an easier or smoother way to get you in character for the next one?
Well, I get in character quite smoothly. I mean, as far as the makeup and all that stuff is concerned, I use that as a relaxing moment. I go inward and just sort of chill and allow them to do their job. I use it in preparation for my day. There’s nothing about “Guardians of the Galaxy” that concerns me, as far as getting ready or prepping for it or anything like that. I’m ready to do it tomorrow if we wanted to.
The scenes that you share particularly with Chris Pratt are really special. You can see there’s a really cool chemistry going on. Tell me about how quickly you guys found that, settled into it and learned how to make it really work for the movie.
Instantly. We found it instantly. We had dinner at James Gunn’s house in England — that’s the first time I met Chris. It was an instantaneous connection, right away. And working together with him, you can see it. You can see the connection and the charisma. You can just see it. There’s like an electrical juice going in between, you know — it’s fun! And that happened also in the “Walking Dead” with Norman Reedus and I. Sometimes you meet actors and actresses that you work with and all of a sudden there’s that invisible connection there, and when that flows, it is unstoppable. Good stuff, huh?
If the team over at “The Walking Dead” figured out a way to do something with Merle — in a flashback or something creative and inventive — would you be there in a heartbeat? Is that a role that you would love to return to one more time?
Well, I don’t know what they’re going to do. I think they’re kicking themselves in the ass so many times, now that they did away with this character. But you know, that is what it is. And if it had not happened at the time it happened, I wouldn’t have been able to be Yondu. Things happen sometimes for a reason. You don’t know what they are, when they happen, but all of a sudden it turns out that, wow, my gosh, I literally stepped right into getting a chance to work with my good buddy James Gunn again — and my goodness, getting an opportunity to work with Marvel and Disney, together as this whole big one-two punch. Man, such resources. It made everyone’s job so much easier, when you don’t have to worry about — I come from very independent filmmaking, so you really don’t have to worry about, “Do we have enough money for catering today?” That kind of stuff.
You’ve had a career full of rich performances. Is there a type of film or a project that you’re still kind of eager to get a crack at? Is there some challenge to you as an actor that you know you want and you’re just waiting for the right offer?
Well, you know what? I don’t wait around. I’m one of these guys that I just don’t like doing that. I mean, I’ll do big roles and small roles. I don’t do as many small ones and little favor jobs as I used to. I just don’t have the time anymore, but I’m open. I’m an open book. So when I get it and I read it, I’ll know right away if it’s for me, and if it’s real, and they’ve got the money and they can do it the right way, I’m ready, I’m into it.
Have you done more research into the character of Yondu, to say, “Hey James, can you write a scene where I get to do this, like he does in the comics?” Is there some aspect of him that you’re hoping to get to do as you keep playing the character?
I’m open for that whole exploration of this character. [James] knows the comic; I know the comic, as well, so it makes for a good conversation as to where we want to go with this, or what aspects we want to bring out. Or if we even do want to bring out any more of the mystical aspects of Yondu and the whole thing about his planet being destroyed and all this kind of stuff and all his people are gone — all of his kind are no longer in existence. It’s sort of like “The Last of the Mohicans.” There’s not any of his kind left, in this universe, in this galaxy, and so he must be a very lonely — in some way — knowing that, and having that, if Yondu even thinks of that from time to time, who knows? But it’s going to be fun to explore and really add to this character. I’m looking forward to that very much.
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