When the Going Gets Weird, the Weird Turn.
“There’s hair woven into this bracelet,” Norman Reedus says, pointing to a thin band resting in a glass case. “This human hair will last for centuries.” He stands still and mm-hmms, the silence between us revealing that we’re both processing the density of this fact.
Reedus and I are looking at shadowboxes of hair art—elaborate keepsakes, jewelry, and wreaths constructed by craftsmen in the Victorian era by weaving hair from deceased loved ones that were prominently displayed in homes—hanging neatly on a wall. We are the only two people walking through the Morbid Anatomy Museum on a Wednesday afternoon in Brooklyn and Reedus is quietly, closely observing the hair wreaths, picking up on each detail.
He walks toward the adjacent wall, where family portraits from a similar time period hang sweetly, as if you’d expect to find a fireplace and warm rug beneath them. On closer inspection, the photographs are all post-mortem—funereal portraits of babies, propped up in bassinets, grandfathers in coffins surrounded by frozen-faced family members. All of the images are sepia-tinged.
“Look at all these women crying,” he says, and after a pause: “This is depressing as fuck.” It had been the actor’s idea for us to check out the Morbid Anatomy Museum for our interview—a suggestion he later tells me was inspired by his potentially having an art opening there—and despite the museum’s grim collection, there wouldn’t be a more fitting place to get to know an actor and artist whose life is inextricably linked to death.
Reedus has played Daryl Dixon, the crossbow-slinging zombie-fighting man of few words, on AMC’s The Walking Dead for five seasons, and he’ll star in the forthcoming post-apocalyptic survival thriller Air this spring, but witnessing the constant annihilation of human life—as he knows it—doesn’t bring him down. In fact, with his new book of photography, The Sun’s Coming Up… Like A Big Bald Head, it’s clear to see that all that gloom and doom inspires him.
“I didn’t even realize I was doing it until people told me, but I like trying to make dark things pretty,” he explains as we look at macabre images of the deceased. “I didn’t really realize that was a style.” The actor’s photographs are often black-and-white and slightly sinister; images of scenes in all the cities he’s traveled to, but mostly St. Petersburg and Moscow. Reedus tells me his artistic talents span from sculpture to painting to photography, but the book (and its accompanying Thanks For All the Niceness, a collection of Daryl Dixon fan art) seems to represent a big part of who he is.
“The title is from a Laurie Anderson song, ‘Sharkey’s Day.’ When I was little, my mom brought me to one of [Laurie Anderson’s] concerts, and she came out with this glow-in-the-dark violin—wrah wrah wrah wrah—and her head popped up on a screen behind her and she sang, ‘The sun’s coming up like a big bald head’ and it always stayed with me.”
We move into the museum’s adjoining library, where he pages through a coffee table book about levitation and exorcism. “Debbie Harry introduced me to Lou Reed and to Laurie.” He goes on to describe what it was like to attend Lou Reed’s Harlem memorial service in 2013, noting that, “It wasn’t just about his life but his attitude and all the people who he influenced.” I make note that Reedus is able to see even the most tragic of events through an excitable, empathetic lens. His mind appears to be working double-time but he’s citing people’s names and old stories with obvious ease.
“There’s this guy who said he had ectoplasm coming out of his mouth, but they found out that it was goose fat and cotton blended together and someone would hand it to him when no one was looking,” Reedus says as he points out the hoax in the levitation book’s glossy pages.
We’re sitting at a table with an emerald green banker’s lamp and a stack of books on strange deaths as we begin chatting with the museum’s volunteer librarian Steve, a man in his 70s. Steve has lived in New York for 50 years, and he’s lamenting about how the city has changed. Reedus—a former resident of Florida, Colorado, and California—has made his home comfortably in Chinatown, N.Y.C., where he has lived for the last 16 years.
Steve shares stories about the slam poetry clubs of the Lower East Side in the ’60s. Reedus looks like he’s made a fast friend. We converse about art and the city and it doesn’t feel strange that all around us are jars filled with dead pigs and ostrich feet and books on how to taxidermy an owl. It’s par for the course when Reedus tells me about his enviable ability to skin snakes. Blithely, he points out the difficulty of pulling the skin off a boa constrictor.
We page through a few more books and discover a petrified stingray on a shelf. Norman says, “I got my son a stingray and it kept dying so I kept replacing it. Nothing smells worse than a dead stingray.”
Reedus and I decide it’s time for coffee.
Norman Reedus has a very familiar face. From the cult classic Boondock Saints to The Walking Dead’s beloved Daryl. And then there’s his lengthy reel of music videos—both in front of and behind the lens. He’s in a position where he can stop and say hi to everyone, and he does—taking photos when asked.
We walk a block or two to Four & Twenty Blackbirds, a pie shop in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn, its dark wood tables and low-key vibe making room for relaxed conversation. Reedus orders a slice of salted honey pie and he tells me about what it’s like to spend eight months of the year filming in Georgia.
“I have to say that as far as my working life, I became really at ease and comfortable and proud of my work when I got to Georgia. It all kind of fell into place there. Acting in New York and acting in L.A. is such a grind and it’s such a hustle.” Reedus opted for a residence in the woods outside of Atlanta, a break from city life, he commutes to work each day. “Southern Georgia is a character on our show. You couldn’t make that show in Burbank or anywhere else. I guess it’s like any other job. If you like your job, it’s not a drag to go to work.”
“Would you ever consider moving down there full-time?” I ask.
“When I’m riding my bike through the country and leaves are falling and the sun’s going down and I have a T-shirt on, yes.” He nods. To contrast, the film shoot for Air—which also stars Djimon Hounsou, a Beninese model and actor known for his role in Blood Diamond—forced him into a “dusty, moody, you-don’t-see-sunlight-the-entire-day sort of vibe.” The film was shot in “something that looked like a missile silo” in Vancouver.
“I suffocate during a portion of the movie,” he says, pie plate wiped clean. “I have capillaries popping out of my face and I’m kind of purple. I’d be in the makeup trailer early in the morning and I’d look over at Djimon and he’d just be sitting there beautiful, and they’re making him even better looking, and they’d be making me get purple veins, and I’d be like ‘this is bullshit.’” I think back to what he told me about his Walking Dead injuries—stitches, scars, five black eyes—“They beat the shit out of me on a daily basis.”
Mulling over our discussions of death, art, music, short film, work, parenting, the disco days of N.Y.C., and that double-time mind, I ask Reedus if he sleeps well. “No, not really,” he replies. “I think my idea of a big vacation would to just be in bed for four days, not moving.”
Later that night, he explains, he has a FaceTime call with a young punk band called The Bots. They’ve asked him to film their music video. He lights up while unraveling ideas for the shoot, and I wonder: If Reedus were actually given four full days to not move, how long would it take him to get up and start going again, ready to battle his next big idea? I bet on the rising of a big, baldhead sun.