Western Shooting Journal interviews actor Michael Rooker (Walking Dead, various movies)
Reprinted from the May 2014 print edition
Hollywood’s Rugged Rebel Michael Rooker
By Rachel Alexander and Chris Cocoles
Veteran character actor Michael Rooker is long known as a go-to guy in Hollywood for playing it tough and gruff. Most recently, the 59-year-old Rooker has proven to be a reliable TV star, wreaking havoc on the AMC zombie apocalypse hit The Walking Dead, the most watched drama in basic cable history. He is currently working on a couple of big movies that are about to be released. Bolden! is a mythical account of the life of Buddy Bolden, the first Cornet King of New Orleans. He stars as a humanoid game hunter alongside Bradley Cooper, Glenn Close, Vin Diesel, Benicio Del Toro and Zoe Saldana in Guardians of the Galaxy, a futuristic thriller.
When not acting, he’s been seen flipping off cameras everywhere, but there’s an admirable reason for it, and we wanted to get to the bottom of that, plus get Rooker’s take on his passion for the outdoors.
Rooker grew up not far from his New Orleans-based JFK character in Alabama before moving to Chicago and settling in with his family in L.A., where he continues to stay busy. And if he’s somewhat rough around the edges and prickly in front of the camera, we found this avid gun shooter, bowhunter and outdoorsman approachable, friendly and hilarious (see his comedy chops in the cult hit Mallrats).
“It’s pretty amazing. I enjoy shooting and the shooting sports. I got started way back actually during the filming of Mallrats,” Rooker says of the Wyatt Earp film he co-starred in. “I also shot guns before that when I was younger back in Alabama.”
“I was a little ahead of the game since I knew how to shoot already. I kept getting these roles where I had to handle weapons. I really got into TOMBSTONE and the armor. It was Western-style, single-shot shooting, and I ended up really enjoying the old style Colt single-action pistols. We went shooting every day; we trained every day to get ready for our scenes. I walked away from the movie after it was over and wanted to continue shooting.”
WESTERN SHOOTING JOURNAL How did you decide to become an actor?
MICHAEL ROOKER I couldn’t figure out anything else I could do. I got involved with some theater people and enjoyed what they did. I thought, “I could probably do this.” I ended up auditioning for a theater school, got accepted and the rest is history. I enjoyed myself there. It’s still a great school, I go back there every now and then, will do a Q&A with the students.
W.S.J. How do you deal with the backlash in Hollywood for being pro-Second Amendment?
M.R. I haven’t had any backlash at all. This is something that I do and it’s my personal belief and opinion. They do what they want to do and I do what I want to do. I like everybody. There may be people who don’t like my positions; that’s ok. To me it’s not an issue. I debate people in my neighborhood all the time who are very liberal. They tease me and I tease them. They tell me, “I think there’s a little liberal in there somewhere.” Don’t count on it my friend! There are all sorts of people in this business of Hollywood and acting. I think we’ve learned from early on, that if you’re a professional actor, you don’t tell somebody else what to do. You gotta let people do their own thing. We’re in the creative field; we’re a breed apart. I really don’t worry about it.
W.S.J. How did you get to be such a strong Second Amendment proponent?
M.R. The Second Amendment is the one right that can protect all the others. We started out with this very interesting document, the Constitution, and it’s worked all throughout the years. It’s pretty amazing. I shoot a lot, so I’m sort of biased. I enjoy shooting and the shooting sports. I got started way back actually during the filming of Tombstone. I also shot guns before that when I was younger back in Alabama. I sort of got away form it when I moved to Chicago. When I started acting, every gig that I’d do, someone from the props department would come up and put a pistol in my hand, and say, “here’s your gun,” whether I was military or police. They wouldn’t give me any instructions. This was back in the early 1980s. We hadn’t had any of those horrific accidents on the set that took place in more recent years. They treated the weapons like they were a prop. I knew a fake gun from a real gun, and they weren’t handing me a fake gun. They’d stay stuff like, “you’ll get your bullets when you get on set.” So I got my fake bullets when I got on set.
I was a little ahead of the game since I knew how to shoot already. I kept getting these roles where I had to handle weapons. I really got into the film Tombstone and the armor. It was Western-style single-shot shooting, and I ended up really enjoying the old style Colt single-action pistols. We went shooting every day; we trained every day to get ready for our scenes. I walked away from the movie after it was over wanting to continue shooting.
W.S.J. What do you consider to be the best zombie movie?
M.R. Night of the Living Dead has always been one of my favorites. It scared the heck out of me when I was younger. I watch all sort of zombie things; I like the goofy comedy ones. George Romero’s movies are the best. I’ve done one movie with him. Some other actors and I all play ourselves in a George Romero zombie game, Black Ops Call of the Dead. All of a sudden the thespians become real and they capture George. I had the greatest one-liners ever written. Gamers really love that kind of stuff.
W.S.J. What kind of guns do you shoot on The Walking Dead?
M.R. I carry a 1911 and M16 on the show. I have two knives. I shoot whatever is available.
W.S.J. On the Zombie Survival Crew website, you list several guns that you recommend having during a zombie apocalypse. Can you explain what they are and why you chose them?
If I had a choice, it would be something that would be quiet. The H&K 417 chambered 7.62 millimeter is the only rifle in world with the ability to switch from regular fire to silencer on the spot. It’s an automatic weapon. You also gotta have a grenade launcher. The XM320 (Grenade Launcher Module) can be attached to a rifle barrel or used as a stand-alone weapon.
My backup weapon would be a M1911 standard government-issue model, as a sidearm. My second backup would be a Benelli M1, 12-gauge semi-automatic shotgun in my pack with double-aught buck and slugs.
W.S.J. What are your favorite guns?
M.R. Benelli is one of my favorites; I have a shotgun and love it. I like my government Model 1911, although those guns are not usually that accurate. My gun is a single stack and a .45. If I were in a competition, then I’d have to shoot a 9mm. That sport is all about speed. I really want to shoot my old classic guns. But everyone warns me, “don’t shoot them, you’ll lose 50 percent of the value the first time you pull the trigger back.” They’re the most gorgeous guns, especially my single-action Colt .45.
W.S.J. I hear you take cast mates out shooting to help train them for the role. What’s that like?
M.R. Whenever somebody needs help, I’m always game to take him or her out. I have a small number of places that I like to shoot. I usually take people to outdoor shooting ranges like Angeles Shooting Range in Los Angeles County, which is only two minutes from my house.
W.S.J. You are always flipping people off, but I understand it’s part of the F Word campaign to stop bullying. How did you get involved with that?
M.R. They wanted to change a negative to a positive. They wanted to get a lot of celebrities, actors and high-profile folks in the entertainment business to join in and help these kids that get bullied a lot to understand that they can change that around. They don’t have to be the victim anymore. They can use the image of the finger – the bird – as a metaphor, as something positive to change attitudes towards that gesture.
W.S.J. Do you have a favorite movie that you’ve been in, anything you’d recommend to watch the most?
M.R. I just did the greatest character in a long time, Merle Dixon in The Walking Dead. I played him all the way up to the end of the third season which recently ended.
W.S.J. I’ve seen many of your movies, and the one thing that strikes me about your acting, which I’ve also heard others say about you, is that you have a powerful presence that can really take over a scene.
M.R. When I was making JFK, (director) Oliver Stone would put all of us actors in one room and just let us go. He ended up using many of those scenes, editing around them. He wouldn’t tell everyone how to play a scene. When you’re not given specific directions, then you have to figure out how to play the scene. (Actress) Laurie Metcalf was a genius at this kind of stuff; she wouldn’t even have lines and you’d still want to look at her. Many of my most powerful moments are when I’m not saying anything. I’m just looking or watching. I’ve been blessed because the editors keep those scenes in. Those moments could easily end up on the cutting room floor.
W.S.J. What do you like to do for fun? You’ve said you love to go out and shoot rifles, pistols and shotguns; and throw knives, hatchets and axes.
M.R. I’ve always been really good at hitting targets, whether it’s throwing a rock, crab apple or cherry. I have really good hand-eye coordination. I enjoy staying in shape, working out and hiking. I enjoy the outdoors; every now and then I go hunting with friends and relatives. I hunt mostly deer, pig and birds. I like to hunt deer with a bow; I’m an avid bow shooter. I’ve had a bow for years which is great. I just upgraded all the parts so it’s like brand-new.
W.S.J. Do you like to fish?
M.R. Fisherman are probably the geeks of the sporting world, they are so into fishing. There is nothing else like sitting on a boat or a bank for them; nothing else in the world even comes close. When I see my friends like that, I realize I am no way near where they are. They have a need to fish; it’s something the rest of us don’t understand. They have to fish; it’s the most important thing in life. They know every lure and every knot. So here I am, I look like the dorkiest nitwit around them. I love fishing, but I’m not anywhere near these guys. Now I would have a real fisherman with me during the apocalypse so I’d never go hungry.
W.S.J. You did an ice fishing horror flick, Hypothermia, recently. I’m sure it was awfully cold shooting that. Do you have any plans to go ice fishing for real?
M.R. Gosh no. We were really fishing out there and there was nothing; no fish. And we were freezing our butts off. I went ice fishing once in my life and it’s cold, really cold. You’re standing on ice and it’s freezing cold. It was in Wisconsin. I have a friend I grew up with who became an Illinois State Trooper, and if he didn’t have room for his fishing tackle in his vehicle, he would leave his shotgun at home. I would wager you that there are police officers in California who are riding on the highways with fishing equipment in their vehicles. I bet if you took a survey, confidentially, there’s quite a few.
W.S.J. You had a significant role in JFK, and your character, Bill Broussard, was conflicted about whether or not there was truly was a conspiracy. With the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination just passing last year and your knowledge of guns, do you think Lee Harvey Oswald and the Carcano rifle he allegedly used could have done the shooting himself?
M.R. I was there, and it’s a really close shot from that window. Yes, he could have really easily done it. I’m a 50-yard shot with my Matthews bow, I’m talking about a 6-inch circle. With a rifle and a scope, it’s child’s play. I was amazed at how close it was; it was scary close.
W.S.J. You had two memorable parts in iconic sports movies: Rowdy Burns in Days of Thunder and Chick Gandil in Eight Men Out. Do you think you could have been a NASCAR driver or baseball player in real life?
M.R. Indeed, absolutely. In my mind I still think I could. Heck, I could be in the Olympics.
W.S.J. Where can fans catch you; do you make public appearances besides SHOT Show?
M.R. I appear at events like Comic-Con and do photo ops and autographs. It’s like a big party that lasts three days. I get invited to these things and go and enjoy them. It’s the best way to meet and greet your fan base. I do it online as well. But meeting people in the flesh is the best thing in the world to do; that and shooting guns.
W.S.J. What projects are you currently involved with, and any future plans you can share? I know you’ve tried your hand at directing at least once, and worked on Guardians of the Galaxy in England.
M.R. Hopefully I will never direct again. It was stressful and too much work. I’m basically a lazy person. I like to work, then go relax and hang out with buddies and friends. Directors work really hard. You’re worried the producers are on your back about what needs to be done and what you missed. Actors are coming to you with acting problems that you have to deal with. I just love doing my job and leaving my work at work. Guardians of the Galaxy is a Marvel/Disney superhero adventure film, from the Marvel comic series of the same name. I play an alien called Yondu. Yondu is an interplanetary hunter in the future who uses a bow. The arrows are composed of composed of yaka, a special sound-sensitive metal found only on the planet Centauri IV, that change direction in response to whistling.
W.S.J. Spending so much time in L.A. now, do you miss your Alabama and Chicago roots, or are you a California guy now?
M.R. I still miss Chicago and I miss Wisconsin; I lived there for about three years. I grew up in Chicago after I turned 13. I’m very happy with all the things that are happening in Illinois; the laws that have been changed to permit concealed carry. In Chicago you couldn’t even own a gun for the longest time, kind of ridiculous. I could actually move back to Chicago now because I could legally own my guns.