Spoilers for The Walking Dead past this point.
Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) is bent, but never broken. On the latest episode of The Walking Dead, "The Cell," we found out just what happened to the biker hero after he was captured by Negan's (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) villainous crew, The Saviors, at the end of the Season 7 premiere.
It wasn't good. Stripped naked and thrown in the titular cell, Daryl was run through various cult recruitment techniques, including sleep deprivation (we may never get that "Easy Street" song out of our heads), being fed dog food sandwiches, and forced to look at pictures of his dead friend, Glenn (Steven Yeun). The kicker there is that Daryl blames himself for Glenn's death, as his actions — punching Negan — led directly to Glenn dying.
But ultimately? Daryl didn't break. He stood strong against Negan, Dwight (Austin Amelio) and the Saviors; and though he's still in a cell without any weapons, he's also in prime position to turn the tide on Negan's crew. TVGuide.com talked to Reedus over the phone about the episode, filming his nude scene, eating dog food sandwiches — and what's next for Merle's little bro.
Where is Daryl emotionally, heading into this episode? Clearly he's not in a very good place.
Norman Reedus: No, you see shots of him being shoved down a hallway, and pushed by the head... And he's not fighting back, at all. He thinks he deserves to be there, and whatever is going to him, he's just going to let it happen. He feels incredible guilt over what just happened. He feels like he deserves it, and he's just going to let it happen. He's lost the will to fight back.
Do you think he was thinking at all about what the end result would be with Glenn, when he punched Negan?
Reedus: Not at all. He's kneeling right next to Rosita... And after what happened with Abraham, he's shoving this bloody bat, waving it front of her face, making a big joke out of it, and he's having fun with it... And he's just taunting her. With the blood of Abraham all over his bat. It's happening right in his face, he's literally the closest one to Rosita, and he's lashing out... But if there's any residual effect from him hitting him in the face... He's assuming it's going to be on him.
If someone gets hit again, it's going to be Daryl. He can't take it. He's looking at Rosita's face, and she's broken, and she's crying, and he's waving the bloody bat in her face like an inch from her nose... Taunting her. Daryl is sticking up for her, in that moment. [Glenn dying] came out of left field, nobody knew that was going to happen.
Given what you just said, going into this week's episode who is the bigger enemy for Daryl: Negan, or Daryl himself?
Reedus: It's Negan. Negan is the prime objective right now. Going into that episode... You can beat the crap out of Daryl, you can do all these things to him, and humiliate him, you can torture him... You can't take his spirit away from him, which was Glenn. He says to Dwight, "I know why you're doing what you're doing, and that's the same reason I can't say, I'm Negan." [Dwight] is saying, "Why don't you just say you're Negan? This will happen, and this will happen," he's constantly saying, "Just say it," but he can't.
"For the same reason you did what you did, you were protecting someone." Glenn... He was the heart of our group. He was the optimistic one. He had faith in people. For Daryl to turn that over, and give Negan what he wants, it would be a slap in the face to my memory of Glenn, and what he stood for. That's why he can't do it.
Daryl definitely has his own battles, but his objective now is to kill that motherf---er.
Twice, Daryl refuses Negan in the episode... Is he ready to die?
Reedus: If that's what it takes, yeah. In the end, when he says he's Daryl, they're probably going to kill him - but you're not going to take that from him.
There's only been two real "f--- yeah" moments this season, though they've both had not so great results, and both from Daryl. The first when he punches Negan, and the second when he says, "I'm Daryl." In both those cases, is that just Daryl reacting, or is it more calculated, with Daryl trying to needle Negan and get a reaction from him?
Reedus: The first one, the punch, that was written directly as him sticking up for Rosita, and sticking up for his friend and lashing out. The death of Glenn is in the comic book, exactly frame for frame for how we shot it. Even Steven [Yeun], he fought to keep that his death, because the fans of the comic would have lost their minds. It's such an iconic death. So much of the story is a turning point for us.
It was going to happen, but you had to have a clever way of introducing that, rather than just doing it for the TV show. And that's what they did, it being the end result of Daryl lashing out. That happened.
The other one... I read it, and I know it was a "f--- yeah" moment, but I didn't want to play it like a "f--- you" moment, I wanted to play it like, it's the last thing I have left. It wasn't gonna be a middle finger in the air type of a moment. I wanted it to be heartbreaking, and not stand out like you can see it coming. I wanted it to be the last thing he has. You can't have it.
The cell scenes are so hard to watch... Sitting naked in a room, I assume for days, music blaring... What was it like to actually film those scenes?
Reedus: Well, we didn't play music on set, at all. I just imagined. I didn't know what the music was going to be. I walked in, and wardrobe was like, "do you want to wear a sock over your junk?" and I was like, "nope." I just went in, naked. It's funny though, it's kind of like watching a tennis match. I sat down naked in front of the whole camera crew, and everyone's head just moved to the right. It was like they were watching Wimbledon.
It was cold, and it was dark... It was physically, and spiritually draining. I have to give it up to our crew, and have to give them a shout out, because over seven years you get to know all these people really well. Our crew gives us space, and respects us enough to let us do that. They're not cracking jokes in the room, everyone's quiet, everyone's feeling it, everyone's trying to get what they're feeling on film...
I don't know that it would be as easy to get there emotionally, and run with that for so long. I was in the cell for like two or three days. I don't know that you could do that with a crew that you didn't have as strong of a bond with, and you feel safe with. You couldn't do that with just strangers, cracking jokes all day.
I've been playing this character for a while. In the beginning, I was listening to a song, or thinking about this, or thinking about that. But the character has become so embedded in me, it's just a switch. It's not hard to go there anymore, with him.
One of the things I took from the episode is how much Daryl has grown. Back over the course of the past few seasons, whenever he's gotten to a low point he's made bad decisions, or let someone else make the decisions for him... Joining the Claimers, or running off with Merle. But here, which is arguably as bad as it's ever been for him, he stays strong the entire time.
Reedus: It gives me a little bit of chills, I have to say, to hear you say that. He has his own spirit, and the only thing that's good in his world is what he's learned from these strangers. They gave him a sense of self-worth from the beginning and it's grown strong in him... That he would have never gotten without them. You can beat the crap out of him, you can torture him, humiliate him. But he still has that small little plume of fire burning in his chest. And he's not letting it go. You can't take that from him.
I know that about him, because I've lived him for this long. It's very honorable to me, to have that. Even as an actor, these guys I'm working with in real life. I hold it really close to my heart, this character. It's not hard to find the things in him. I don't need to talk about it. But that's what that is.
The impression that I get from Dwight is that he wants to be Daryl, down to taking his vest, taking his bike, taking his crossbow... But what's Daryl's impression of Dwight?
Reedus: When he first met him, he thought he was a good guy, trying to protect two women. Then he f---s Daryl over. That seems forgivable, in this world. You want to get him back, and you want to lash out him, but you want to forgive him. People do things in this world out of fear that they wouldn't normally do, things they would regret. And I think there was a bit of forgiveness there. I don't think he wanted to hang out with him, or know him, or be friends with him, or do it again. But he got it.
Now, it's a different story. Now he's fully wimped out. He's become a coward. And that, Daryl understands too, he sees people become cowards around him all the time. He gets that too. But I think it's changed to the point where now, he's got to go. Daryl wants to rip the rest of his face off. He wants to kill him. He wants to kill Negan.
Shooting this season, it's different for me. I'm walking around set and someone is wearing my clothes. It's hard for me — Norman — to accept that. It's been a hard season. It's been dark, it's been emotional, it's different. Andy [Lincoln] and I joke, "remember when we were badass and stuff?" We joke about it, but both of us are exhausted. It's tiring, and emotionally draining.
But they told me, hero type characters... People... When they fall their lowest, they will rise the highest. That's the theme of this whole season, and hopefully there's a light at the end of the tunnel.
Before we go, what was in the dog food sandwich?
Reedus: [Laughs] I think it was like, SPAM, with other things in it? And it was ground up. Those rolls were rock hard. It's what dog food would taste like, I imagine. It was gross. Super disgusting.
At least they didn't make you eat real dog food.
It was pretty close.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC