Norman Reedus

[Interview by Shawn Dogimont / Photography by Shawn Dogimont]

My buddy Norman Reedus makes his show The Walking Dead in the woods of Georgia, away from Hollywood. He’s had a unique career path and life in general. With his son Mingus, he makes me think of Ogami Itto in the manga The Lone Wolf and Cub. If you look, there’s even a theme of apocalyptic justice running through his work. He’s a longtime cult favourite, a really nice guy, and you just root for him in life and on screen. He’s poised for a massive breakout now but still lives in Chinatown. As he says here: if it’s ever slow acting I’ll just do more art shows. At the moment he’s doing less.

Shawn Dogimont — I’ve got some questions prepared, should I just start?
Norman Reedus — Throw it at me, let’s see what you’ve got.

I don’t remember anything, I was just a baby when I left there. I lived in a few different places, Texas , Florida, California, Colorado, Tokyo for a little while, Motookubo in Chiba. London, at the end of the Northern line. I was in Spain in Sitges, for a little bit and moved to Los Angeles. I followed a girl basically, I went with a girl there.— You were born in Florida but you didn’t grow up there, you moved away quite young.

— Yeah, I moved from there very young. I don’t remember anything, I was just a baby when I left there. I lived in a few different places, Texas , Florida, California, Colorado, Tokyo for a little while, Motookubo in Chiba. London, at the end of the Northern line. I was in Spain in Sitges, for a little bit and moved to Los Angeles. I followed a girl basically, I went with a girl there.

— How come you lived in all these different places, throughout your teens and twenties?
— I just bounced around a lot

[Interview & photos by Shawn Dogimont]

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— So, at one point you ended up in LA. How did acting come into your life, how did that thing happen to you?
— I got a job fixing motorcycles at a motorcycle place, they call it Dr Carl’s Hog Hospital. I went to work one day and something happened with my boss, we got into a little argument over one of his animals and I went to a party up in the hills that night. I met people there and they asked me to be in a play and I did the play. A lady who’s a casting agent from William Morris started side pocketing me, which means they don’t sign you but they send you out on stuff and that play, I was an understudy in that play, the first day, the dude that was supposed to play the part didn’t show up so I did it and she started sending me out and I started booking films.

— Was that something you wanted to do, that you were curious about or did it just land in your lap and you went with it?
— I think at the time I didn’t take it very seriously and I just thought: Oh I’m going to get paid to do this. I was still kinda figuring it out, but I didn’t really think much of it to be honest. I did that and the first film that I got was by Guillermo del Toro who cast me in Mimic and gave me my SAG card.

— And that was the mid to late 90s?
— Yeah.

— Have things changed since then? It’s funny, I got onto this YouTube thread last night watching Jim Carrey doing stand up. I was watching him present the Awards shows and realized that this was already quite a while ago. Have you noticed changes in independent cinema and even from your memories of LA fifteen years ago?
— Oh God, everything has changed so much, I mean Los Angeles has changed so much just from when I lived there to now. I go back to Los Angeles and it’s completely different. That was the time when Jane’s Addiction was coming out you know, they had Alice in Chains and Nirvana, and I remember going to a party Downtown LA to some friends of mine, this guy Tarsem [Singh] who’s a director – he directed The Cell and a bunch of amazing music videos. Tarsem and his girfriend Fatima at the time, they had a loft downtown and I lived downtown. Back then nobody lived downtown, I mean there were like eight of us who lived downtown. There were trash cans on fire under bridges, homeless people walking around and it was completely different. Now it’s like condos, the hip place to live. I remember they had a party for Halloween and there were all these crazy people there and downtown, which is already the end of the world back then, I remember hearing this old lady on a microphone and she’s going: I see you, you mother fuckers! I was dressed as a blue horse, or something really weird like that, so I wandered over to where the noise was and all of a sudden Jane’s Addiction comes out singing and people were like: Who the hell is this band? They were amazing, the energy from that band was what LA felt like back then. It was just so raw and dangerous, and on edge, such a cool vibe. Now all the artist from NY have moved to LA, it’s a completely different vibe. It kind of seems like Westwood just got bigger and engulfed Los Angeles.

— I remember it was about twelve years ago when we met up in NY and it was probably my first or second time there. Walking around the Lower East Side at night, Max Fish and the Pink Pony on Ludlow… And then coming back and moving there a couple years ago and walking around those neighbourhoods, even in that short span this city’s also changed so much.
— I’ve been in Chinatown for twelve or thirteen years now, because Chinatown sort of stays the same. Everything changes all around Chinatown but Chinatown seems like the same place it was back then. The stores change but the energy in Chinatown always stays the same. Same with that little strip of little Italy. Soho seems to be squeezing more towards us, and NoHo and all this other stuff. It didn’t feel like that before, everything’s changing, it’s crazy. Talking about Jim Carey, I was with a friend who knows him and he was saying that Jim grew up on movies with actors like Humphrey Bogart, when you didn’t know anything about the actors and now it seems like everybody knows everything about everybody. Everyone’s doing interviews and asking about your lives, who you’re dating and what your favourite colour is. Back then, when he was a kid watching these movies, he didn’t know anything about them. I think that thing is kind of lost and I wish it was more like it was then, to be honest with you.

— I agree. Let’s backtrack a little bit. You’ve always taken photos and continue to. That’s how we first met actually. I did this story with Asia [Argento] and she had these ideas for self-portraits channeling Anita Berber. I remember you showed up, grabbed a camera for a few rolls and got the most beautiful shots of her. I should send you the negs because really, they’re yours.
— Oh my God! Would you please send me those negatives, I would love that.

— I also have high res scans of them here somewhere, I feel like you should have them, put them in your next book or something.
— Please send them to me. I’ve always tried to use those photos and put them in places and played with them. But I don’t have them in high res. Yeah, please. That shoot, using the flash of the camera and turning off all the lights and just not knowing what she was going to do and snapping the pictures and getting all personal with her. That was a great day!

— I always kept such a good memory of that afternoon, it felt like there was a spontaneous energy with things coming together in an unplanned way. I’ve really trusted your tastes and ideas from that day on when it came to creating images and situations.
— Thank you. You know Asia and I did a lot of little weird things like that, we made these little films from the beach. She put on this crazy American flag bathing suit and did her hair up all blond, put on this wig and went on Venice Beach, jumping in the middle of people’s volley ball games, flirting with cholos on bicycles. I would hide behind people and follow twenty paces back and video tape people’s reactions to her. She did a boxing routine back at the house. We did a lot of fun stuff. She’s such a cool girl

— She is yeah. I don’t even know if it could happen again like that today. It was all pretty new to us, it was a lot of fun and the photos are rad.
— We co-directed a Trash Palace video together. I was supposed to be in her film The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things. I remember the whole JT Leroy thing, when that first happened. [laughs] Asia was the first person to figure out that JT wasn’t a boy and that JT wasn’t the person doing it. She was like “Come here! I gotta tell you something”. So we found out about JT before everyone else did and to watch that onslaught of all those celebrities come out of nowhere to promote JT. And JT wasn’t really JT… It was like a whole thing and Speedy, that girl Laura that goes by Speedy, she was the writer of all that and all these get togethers and stuff and more celebrities and more celebrities coming out of the woodwork, supporters. It was kinda of insane to watch that whole thing go down. And Asia was the first person to get in there and figure it out, she’s a smart girl.

— Have you ever met her dad?
— I’ve never met her dad. I’m a huge fan of Dario but I’ve never met him.

— I wanted to ask you, how similar do you think acting is to being an artist. Take photography for example. Is one more personal for you?
— Yeah well, there are things about them that might be the same but it’s different because it’s your face and it’s your voice, how you move which is completely different than being an observer. Let’s put it this way, if you did an art show, you could take a bunch of pictures and put them on a wall and have an opening and you could go stand in a corner and nobody has to know that you took those pictures, you can sit back and you’re removed from the thing hanging on the wall. But when you’re acting, you’re not really removed from the thing hanging on the wall, you are the thing hanging on the wall, which also goes back to the Jim Carey comment I was making which is that now you’re that thing on the wall. I guess if there wasn’t social media and there wasn’t such an interest in celebrities, and it was more of an artist thing, Jim would probably be happier with the way things are nowadays. The celebrity thing sometimes overshadows the artist thing, and you try to hold onto the artist thing and it’s weird. People have known me for a long time but not like they know me now, so it’s a whole other animal. I think sometimes it gets confusing holding on to one or the other, one instead of the other if that makes sense.

— At the same time, everyone knows acting is a collaborative effort. As an actor you must let go and trust the director, or the editors… but if you’re a photographer, when you show your work, that’s it, you’re completely responsible.
— Fashion photography, a lot of the time, with Terry [Richardson] or somebody, there’s a crew, it’s a collaborative thing too. Unless you walk around like you’re in high school and you just take photographs of graveyards and clouds, then it’s just you. People judge you rather than judge the character. I was watching True Detective the other night and I was talking to somebody about Woody Harrelson’s performance: I think he’s so good in that, and I know that Matthew [McConaughey] is just killing it right now but Woody is very good.

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— He is very good.
— Woody is awesome. I was watching the show with somebody who was saying: Man, he’s such a bad husband and how can he do that? And I’m thinking: You’re confusing Woody with the character on the show. The reason why he’s so good is because he has all these flaws. I mean flaws are interesting to watch. If he didn’t have any flaws he would be just modeling.

— Maybe even more interesting to watch than Matthew’s performance in a sense because the character Matthew plays goes the other way and to me becomes a fantasy object for the viewers.
— Yeah and it’s interesting to think that Matthew did Mud and he did that and then he did The Wolf of Wall Street and then he did Dallas Buyers Club. He knows that he has to lose a lot of weight for Dallas Buyers Club so he starts losing it while he’s doing True Detective and you can see like when the clothes are tighter here and baggier there. They’re selling a before and after on that TV show but watch his body change down to Dallas Buyers Club: he’s on a mission for those three project ahead of time. At least physically, it’s on the back of his mind.

— Do you admire that?
— Well you know, it’s cool when you can do that, when you have the time to lose weight for a project or get buffed, or get fat or whatever you’re going to do. A lot of times it doesn’t work like that. You can’t lose that much weight in four weeks or build that much muscle. That’s what I like about television. It would look ridiculous if I took off my shirt on The Walking Dead and had a six pack. I would look like a vain actor trying to look good on a TV show. But if you have four years to do a character you get to sort of drop little seeds behind you and they turn into trees and turn into story lines over the course of four years. That’s really interesting.

— The character you’ve grown into on your show – was he created for you by the writers or did you invent him as you went along?
— It was a collaboration as well. I have really good writers on this show, really good cinematographers, really good directors, producers with really good ideas. It’s interesting too because we are so close and we’re all such good friends. You know I can call Gale [Anne Hurd] and ask for advice on something totally unrelated, I feel like she’s protecting me, she’s my friend you know. The directors on this show I go out with and we’ll go out on the town. I was with Ernest Dickerson in New Orleans, he’s one of our big directors. Greg Nicotero is one of my best friends now. It’s like that for all of us. We’re really tight on the show so I go to them for help, and they come to me and we bounce ideas back and forth, so it’s always a collaborative thing. I would never want to have all the pressure of doing everything by myself. I don’t even know how actors direct episodes they’re in and direct their friends while they’re acting, I don’t even know how they do that. That would be so difficult for me.

— At what point do you abandon your own sense of self and entertain someone else’s. I mean, is it a mix?
— Yeah well you definitely put yourself into it, you relate things to your own life you know, you have to make it real for yourself. If I was going to do a movie about John Denver and I was going to play John Denver, I would be doing John Denver things thinking of Norman things. All the moments and all the personal pieces of those moments would be things that happen to Norman. I don’t know what goes on in John Denver’s head, I can try to figure him out but it’s still my interpretation of what John Denver would be thinking.

— That makes sense. Has it taught you anything, being on this ride, anything about life? I’m thinking about your show because everyone is fighting for their lives. Has it taught you anything about why we swim upstream and fight for things?
— Well, this job has definitely been a blessing and I’m super pleased that I got this opportunity. I’m really enjoying it. It makes me excited to go back to work. I can’t wait to go back to Georgia right now. It’s all I think about all day, I’m ready to go back!

— Wow!
— The life there, making this with my friends… it’s fun. And we don’t do it like in Hollywood. We don’t make this show around Starbucks and agents, and people and an abundance of fans and other actors in the business. We go out into the woods in Georgia and we shoot and it’s our thing that we make out there. Then we throw it out to the world and hope people like it. It’s like any other job, if you like your job and are excited to go to work. That’s something that I’ve learned on this more than anything.

— Was there a point in your life, in your career, where you thought you wanted to do something else, when you were thinking of quitting or just going in another direction, maybe shooting more?
— Well I’ve always done multiple things: If it was ever slow acting I did more art shows, and if it was ever busy acting, I did less art shows. I’ve said no to jobs, I’ve said yes to jobs maybe I should have said no to, but I’m never like: Ah man, what am I going to do with my life? I’m always doing stuff.

— That’s good, I like that.
— I’ve gone through years and years of doing lots and lots of stuff and making like, a dollar. It wasn’t really about a certain lifestyle, I must have this, I must have that. I’ve never been a shopper, I just like doing stuff so it wasn’t really the driving force. I didn’t get a real estate license on the side. I just lived a cheaper lifestyle when I needed to.

— What do you think it is about the premise of the show, maybe even the treatment, that has captured the interest and the imagination of so many people?
— The title The Walking Dead isn’t referring to zombies. It’s referring to us, we’re the walking dead. So if you think about it like that, everyone’s infected and everyone’s clock is ticking and everyone has to man up, it’s your two feet on the ground, your words are important, what you do is important, you have to decide who you want to be and what you’re willing to do and what you’re not willing to do, and hold on to some shred of humanity that you had before this all happened. As you can see from the show, it usually seems like it’s the bad people out there that are surviving and they are doing bad things to survive and we end up doing a lot of things that we would never do or ever thought that we would do to survive. So it’s kind of a play on words, The Walking Dead. It’s your two feet on the ground and what you’re willing to fight for and that means fight against and also fight to hold on to. It’s a really clever play on words what Robert [Kirkman] did.

— Do you know what will happen in the story, your or the other characters’ arcs, or is it just one episode at a time? How does it work?
— Well, I know how the rest of the season plays out obviously. Next season, I have no idea. I have a little idea how it’s going to start, like maybe the first couple of episodes but Scott Gimple and his team are really clever at throwing us, they throw all the time, we think it’s going in a direction and then we read and go: Wow! We’re all super excited to find out, that’s the show!

— That’s so exciting. You know, I was just reading that you used to play tennis?
—I did yeah.

— Why don’t I know this? You were like a junior?
— I was really good for a minute!

— [laughs] We have to go out and hit some balls together.
— When we were shooting The Boondock Saints II, I tore my right shoulder because they had these giant desert eagles made, with these giant oversized silencers on them, these guns were like thirty pounds each crazy so to hold those two guns side by side straight arm and shoot while swinging all the time, I tore my rotator cuff in my shoulder. I still need surgery and it takes six weeks to recover. I haven’t had six weeks to do that yet. It really fucks with my serve to be honest.

— Ok last question. I ordered the book The Sun is Coming up like a Big Bald Head.
— Oh Cool.

— I don’t have it yet and I was hoping you could comment on a couple of your favorite photos from the book and tell me how they came about but I don’t have it in front of me.
— Oh no it’s fine actually. Some of my favorite photos that I shot were during a film in Moscow with Andreï Kontchalovski who’s a director out there and this guy Chris Solimine. We were down in the sub basement of a maximum security prison and the walls were these crazy colours of green which was rotting and the smell down there was insane. We were shooting in one of the jail cells there, in one of the corridors, and right around the corner were these prisoners that were in their prisoner’s outfits. They were working in the kitchen and every once in a while they would peek their heads around and the guards would hit the bars with the stick and yell and rush in and make them like hide themselves. At one point that guard walked by me and when he got out of sight I went [whistles] and these two guys leaned their heads out perfectly and right when they leaned their heads out a little kitten came running out towards me and there’s all these cigarette buts on the ground and the kitten running around the cigarette buts and these two guys looking like super models, perfectly posed.

— I know the photo! That’s a good one. Well man, thank you so much for doing this thing, and for meeting up in NY and taking those photos with me.
— Oh dude, it was a pleasure. How did the photos turn out?

— They’re good I think. I hope. I’ll email them to you.
— Send me some, I want to see what they look like, I’m excited!

— And yeah, that’s it I guess. I hope to run into you again soon and congratulations on all your success.
— Aw thanks man, I would love that, hit me up when you come to NY.

— I will.
— Bye buddy.