[Warning: This story contains major spoilers from Sunday's penultimate episode of The Walking Dead. Read at your own risk.]
Who knew we could feel bad for The Walking Dead's Merle Dixon? In one of the AMC zombie drama's most surprisingly emotional scenes, Daryl (Norman Reedus) was forced to put down his once-villainous-turned-hero brother Merle (Michael Rooker) after discovering him as a walker — a fate The Governor (David Morrisey) bestowed upon his former right hand man after Merle attempted to kill him and the fighters from Woodbury. Though Rooker is relieved that Merle met his maker, he thought it was too soon in the story line to say goodbye. TVGuide.com caught up with Rooker to find out why:
When did you find out Merle was going to die?
Michael Rooker: About two weeks before the episode. I was actually quite relieved because I wouldn't have to wear the arm again. Honest to God, that was my first thought. Thank you, thank you! I don't have to put the god---- thing on ever again. But then I thought, "Oh sh--, I'm out of a job."
How much more difficult was it acting with the arm contraption this season? And what, if anything, did you have to change in your acting style to accommodate that?
Rooker: I got used to it so quickly, it was crazy. I didn't necessarily like wearing it. It didn't cause me to act any differently. It ended up being an extension of my own hand. I used that "hand" all the time. That "hand" ended up being a nice tool. I could eat a single [grain of] rice with that "hand."
Were you sad to say goodbye to the character after fans had waited so long to see him return?
Rooker: That's kind of a shame. I thought it was unfortunate, and I did not necessarily agree with the choice to do this. It was a big build up and you really didn't get the true payoff. We had a great through line for this season, but the fans want more. They're not very happy. I don't think a lot of the true Walking Dead fans are happy with this. But, as you know, as actors, we don't have a choice in the matter. It's cliché, I know, but it's so true: When one door closes, another door opens.
What was it like putting on the zombie makeup and going through this transformation?
I did Slither, so I've done seven hours in the makeup chair. So two hours for zombie makeup is like nothing. That's a walk in the park for me. When you do seven-hour makeup and then eight hours of work, you're thinking, "Oh God, what did this do to me?" You're under that rubber forever. It's crazy.
Do you think Merle ultimately got redemption in his quest to kill The Governor?
Rooker: It was unfortunate that he didn't shoot The Governor in the head.The way it was edited, it looked like Merle would've missed The Governor anyway, which is not how we did the scene. The scene was shot in a way that Merle missed The Governor because the walker attacked him and pushed the rifle away from The Governor and shot the kid in the face. But the way it was edited, it looked like Merle actually missed The Governor, which is kind of dumb. But that's my own opinion. There's no reason why he would've missed except for the zombie hitting him and causing him to miss.
Were you happy that Merle actually did something selfless in trying to kill The Governor?
Indeed. Merle was on that mission knowing good and well that he may not return. He was doing it for his brother so he could take out as many of The Governor's men — and The Governor, if possible — so that Daryl would have a better chance of surviving. That was the thought in my mind behind what he was doing.
What was it like shooting that scene when Daryl is confronted by Walker Merle?
Daryl's job was to grow a pair of balls and put his brother down. If he had turned walker, Merle would've done the same thing for him. That was my final scene. This role of Merle will still be lingering for a while. The sad part is that the potential of this character was not truly fulfilled. We could've done a lot of things with this character. The creators, the writers and all these folks are thinking way farther in advance. I just had to play it earnest and as true as I possibly could play it. You can't be thinking, "Oh, I'm so sad. I'm out of the show now." That's bulls---. You play the scene. You play the moment.
Considering he's a character who wasn't even in the comic books, what did you think of Merle's evolution from racist redneck to now?
I never played Merle as a despicable racist guy. I've always played Merle as a straight forward guy living in a zombie f---ing apocalypse. There's no more political correct bulls--- out there. It's survival of the fittest, and you better know how to survive in this world. If you don't, you're going to perish, plain and simple. Fans are judging this character on how you'd live in your everyday world, but you've got to remember that these people are living in a world that has changed. Everyone in this show is still grieving over losing every family member that they've ever had. That makes people react and act differently.
If someone gets in his face, he's going to put them down. That's who Merle was in the beginning, but you see him change over the time of the show. He learned that he needs other people. Although, it galls him to think he can't do everything on his own, he still needs his brother. That's his main concern in life. Hunting down his brother was Merle's entire existence on this show, and to protect him if possible. So, this final giving of himself is for his brother and no one else. He's not really caring about the group. He's caring about his brother and whether or not he will survive.
What's next for you?
I honestly don't know. I'm out of a job. If you have any ideas, give me a call! I have to say, it was such a pleasure to be blessed with bringing to life a character like Merle. It's been somewhat of a dream come true. It would be a dream come true for any actor to play this kind of role and to play it honestly and straightforward in a way that people hate you and people love you. People cry for you in the end? How great is that? I'm flabbergasted by all the love and appreciation.
Were you surprised by Merle's death? Who else do you think will go in Sunday's season finale?
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.