Now that Breaking Bad’s epic fourth season is over, AMC has a daunting amount of slack to pick up on Sunday nights. Luckily for the cable network’s brass, last year’s biggest surprise hit is finally returning this Sunday for a full 13-episode season. The Walking Dead, based on Robert Kirkman’s adored Image Comics title, premiered last October to massive ratings, maintaining solid numbers throughout its six episodes and opening the door for other networks to give scary genres a fair shake; it’s logical to think that FX might not have been so quick to green-light American Horror Story before AMC’s zombie apocalypse performed so well.

Folks who’ve grown up on the gory living dead films of George A. Romero and Lucio Fulci will no doubt fess up to initially giving The Walking Dead a look for one simple, still unbelievable truth: There’s actually a show about flesh-eating zombies on television. Not to mention, a worthy addition into the catalog of legitimately scary TV shows.

The reason why viewers have stuck with the series, though, is its eclectic cast of human survivors, including the crossbow-wielding southern tough guy Daryl Dixon, played by Norman Reedus (The Boondock Saints). Unlike most of the show’s other characters, Daryl isn’t in Kirkman’s books—he’s the creation of Walking Dead creator, and last season’s showrunner, Frank Darabont. The lack of fan awareness hasn’t hurt Reedus, though, since Daryl and his weapon of choice have become viewer favorites.

With The Walking Dead’s long-awaited second season premiering this Sunday (at 10 p.m. EST), Complex caught up with Reedus to find out what’s in store for Daryl and his cohorts, how the show has changed in Darabont’s absence, Daryl’s evolution into a trustworthy hero, and the strangeness of having your own action figure.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

Complex: Has the vibe on set been any different this season, now that the show is a proven hit and the stakes are much higher?
Norman Reedus: Yeah, I think AMC put out the first six just to see what a zombie show would be like; they had good material, but they wanted to test the waters. And since it was a big hit, they’re really going for it with this second season. All the characters are doing major things, the zombie stuff is turned up to the fifth gear. Everything is more adrenaline-based now, and more emotionally driven, as well. The second season is heavy—really heavy.

Being that it was this risky zombie show at first, were you nervous at all about its potential for success?
No, actually. It had all the right elements. It had Gale Anne-Hurd, who’s produced some of the best movies out there; it had Frank Darabont; it had the best pilot that I’ve ever read in my life. And it had a huge fan-base from the comics books. So I thought it was going to be a big deal, and once I saw Greg Nicotero’s work on it, with all the makeup and zombie work, I knew it was gonna be a big deal.

With this second season, what’s driving the show, and specifically the characters, now?
Well, we move locations. We left Atlanta at the end of the last episode, with the CDC blowing up, and we end up on a farm. We come across a family that’s doing just fine without us; they have a set-up there at the farm where there’s natural barriers to this farm—there’s swampland on this side, and there are hill ranges that zombies can’t get through, so they’re surviving well enough on their own. But something happens and it brings us to this farm, and we sort of destroy their lives by accident.

There are all of these alliances that form, there are certain conflicts that happen, there’s a certain love triangle that plays out. It’s basically just people trying to decide whether to leave or to stay—what kind of life is there anymore, and is it even worth living at this point? People want to kill themselves. It's just really dark and really heavy.

In a recent interview, Glen Mazzara, the new showrunner (and former producer of The Shield), said that the characters are the real villains this season in a way. Meaning, if you took the zombies out of the equation, Rick and the whole crew would be the antagonists and the family on the farm would be the victims.
Absolutely. You see good people become really bad, and you see bad people become good sometimes. If you took the zombies out of the show completely, this season would still roll totally smoothly, so the zombies are just an added thing. It’s also about the disease; it’s not just monsters, it’s the infection. How do you live in a world that’s infected? Your clock is always ticking. Sooner or later, you’ll be infected, or you will have no one left, so where is your hope in the world? Is it worth even hanging around? It definitely takes you to those places.

If you were put into a similar situation, how do you think you’d handle it in real life?
Man, you could always go to an island. You could always try that out; you could hop on a boat and stay out at sea, but, then, where do you go? What’s it worth? Your food supply would run out, and there would be nobody left. So I don’t know.

It’s a hopeless world. You can always hope that someone would come up with a vaccine or something, but who’s doing that? Are there other pockets of people still surviving? Who knows where the show will take us. Maybe it will end up in other countries. So in real life, I don’t know how you could prepare for something like that. Maybe just keep your loved ones close and arm yourself to the teeth.

Wherever the show takes us now, it will come from a different perspective now that Frank Darabont is out and Glen Mazzara is in as the new showrunner. Did Frank Darabont’s exit have any negative effects on the cast or the production?
Well, I’ll never really know what that was all about, to be honest with you. That happened in offices where they have air conditioners. [Laughs.] We’re out there sweating our faces off, killing zombies, and trying to get along. I don’t even know how all of that works, but the show hasn’t slowed down one bit. If anything, we’re killing it even more right now. It’s not going to slow us down at all.

What has Glen Mazzara brought to the show so far?
Glen’s been kicking ass on the show. He came in and was sort of put in this difficult situation, so he made the best of it. He came to the cast and was like, “Look, this is where I stand.” This season, we had an opportunity to go to the writing room, which is sort of unheard of on television shows. So we got to develop our characters a bit. They’d ask me, “How does Daryl feel about Andy? How does Daryl feel about Rick Grimes today? How does Daryl feel about Dale?” So, we got to have input; Glen gave us the freedom to do that.

I have no complaints with Glen, and everyone really likes him. He’s doing an amazing job. The show never skipped a step—it just picked up speed. And it’s been maintaining that with amazing scripts and really good storylines. The acting is superb, and we have the best crew and special effects team out there. So we’re kind of killing it right now.

 

Do you wish you could’ve had more personal input into your character last season?
Well, it wasn’t written very descriptively for me. Daryl wasn’t in the comic books, and I didn’t really have any base to follow. They kind of gave me these lines that were hot-head lines, and I tried to personalize the character. Having a big brother like Merle, what would Daryl be like as a kid? Where are his parents? He’s lived a very quiet, unsocial life, so now he’s out of the stranglehold of his big brother and he’s starting to form relationships with people he would have never even spoken to before.

He’s being forced to grow up emotionally with these people who don’t necessarily trust him or like him, so it’s very interesting to watch this grown man with, like, little kid feelings try to fit in and earn respect not only in their eyes but also his own eyes. He’s growing up. He’s a lot like Chandler [Riggs, who plays young Carl Grimes] in a lot of ways. When I first got the script, it didn’t have any of those layers for Daryl; Daryl was a brand new character that Frank just created for the show on the spot, so I tried to tear up during arguments and make him a very complex character.

I think that’s one of the reasons why he’s become such a fan favorite, because he has so many layers.

There was a really effective moment near the end of last season when the group is leaving Jim to die alone, alongside the tree, and Daryl gives him this subtle nod of respect. It’s the first time we see Daryl’s humanity really come out in such a way.

 
Daryl doesn’t take kindly to people moping and whining. To survive, you can’t really put your hands together, look to the sky, and say, 'Please help me.'
 

Yeah, and you know what? I made that up on the spot. That was something I came up with on my own. I went to our camera operator and he was like, “OK, guys, just plan out where you’re gonna say your goodbyes to Jim,” and I had just tried to kill Jim in the episode before that. So I told Mike, the camera operator, “Mike, I’m gonna linger in the background, just give me a second.” I wanted to give Jim sort of a look, like, “You manned up—way to go for stepping up.” Give him that peaceful acknowledgement that I respect his decision to stay behind.

That was something Mike and I just came up with on the fly, and I was hoping it’d make the cut, and, thankfully, it made it. Now I actually get lots of comments on that particular little moment. It’s great when you do something like that and people see those little tiny things. I’m super proud of that.

Now that we’ve seen his softer side, and there are more layers to the character, what’s Daryl’s arc this season?
At the beginning, you see him becoming a group member; he’s becoming an integral part of the group. He can handle himself, he’s very creative with how he can protect them, and they see that. So now they value him as a member, and he’s starting to deal with the feeling of being valued. He never really had that before.

In this season, Daryl is a force to be reckoned with. He takes leadership roles; he’s not really looking around anymore for acceptance or orders. He’s now taking his own orders, and he goes out on missions to do things that other people won't step up to the plate to do. He’s becoming a quiet leader. They’re starting to want to protect him emotionally as he’s protecting them physically. It’s very interesting this season. He does some things that you wouldn’t have expected him to do, and he pulls them off. You see a huge character arc with him this season.

There’s a moment in the season’s trailer where Daryl says that everyone’s hopes and prayers are just a waste of time. He’s all about surviving by any means necessary, but only the means that he can control himself—he doesn’t have time for all of that existential stuff.
Yeah, definitely. He’s not a bullshit guy. He’s not a talker—he’s a doer. On this mission, the mission means more to him than meets the eye, and that’s something that you’ll learn later on. When everyone’s like, “Please help me,” he’s like, “Get up off your ass and let’s do this!” He doesn’t take kindly to people moping and whining; to survive, you can’t really put your hands together, look to the sky, and say, “Please help me.” He thinks it’s a harsh, severe, godless world. To make friends with a guy like that in this world is very beneficial to the group, which they realize this season.

Last season, Daryl's brother, Merle (Michael Rooker), disappeared after sawing his hand off to escape the roof, and most of Daryl’s arc was about him trying to find Merle by any means necessary. But now that he’s part of the group, you get the sense that he’d leave the group immediately if Merle showed up again. Do you see it that way?
I think he would fight for his brother, and I think he would actually fight against his brother—I think he would do both. Daryl has become so close to these people that, if Merle tried to hurt these people, Daryl would fight Merle. He does not want that to happen, and if anyone tried to hurt Merle, he’d fight them, too. Merle is still his brother—that’s the life that he’s leaving behind, but if Merle tried to kill somebody in the group, Daryl would stand up to him.

And that speaks volumes about how far Daryl has come as a character.
That’s where we’re headed, yeah. You’re not going to see that happen yet, but you never know.

Merle’s presence was strong throughout last season even though he hardly ever appeared. There was this sense that he’d show up at any moment and wreak havoc on Rick and the group. Why do you think the character had such an impact on viewers in such a short period of screen-time?
Michael [Rooker] gave a really good performance, first of all. And there’s nobody like Merle on the show, until Daryl shows up. He was the element of danger in the group, so people want to see when the danger is coming back. If Merle was just a normal, nice guy, nobody would be saying anything about him. As a viewer, it’s exciting to have a dangerous element like that around.

The most dangerous element about Daryl is, of course, his crossbow. With the increased zombie action in Season Two, I’d imagine he’s going to putting that thing to good use.
Dude, I have so many weapons in Season Two. [Laughs.] The crossbow is definitely one of them. I’m waiting for a flamethrower, actually—I’d really like to use a flamethrower at some point.

The crossbow is a very effective weapon, though. The whole thing about killing walkers and zombies is that you can’t make noise, so it’s a hunting tool that he…. He’s already a survivalist, so if the zombie outbreak didn’t happen he’d still be out hunting for his food with that crossbow. It fits really well into this dog-eat-dog, the-world-has-gone-to-shit place. He’s in his element; I don’t think Daryl would do well in a big city. He’s a nature guy.

The crossbow has even helped give you your very own Daryl action figure, which looks pretty badass, I might add.
Yeah, it’s pretty cool, right? And the crazy thing is that it looks just like me. It’s kind of creepy, actually. I actually first saw it early on into the season, and the action figure looks so buff that I started lifting more weights immediately just to catch up with it. [Laughs.] I’d hate to have a really buff action figure when I have no muscles at all—that’d be really lame.

They did such a good job, though. I have a Boondocks Saints action figure and it doesn’t do anything; you can take the sunglasses off and put them back on, but that’s it. The Daryl one looks just like me, though.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)