“I came on Walking Dead on the third episode of the first season, and that cast was already super tight-knit,” Reedus told The Off Camera Show.
“They’d already done publicity tours and they were like the core group. And they were all best friends. Everyone’s kind of looking at me like, ‘Who’s this new guy? This is our show.’”
Reedus’ crossbow-wielding hunter first appears when Lincoln’s Rick Grimes, freshly reunited with wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son Carl (Chandler Riggs) outside Atlanta, encounters the hot-headed redneck as he emerges from the woods loudly complaining about a catch tainted by a walker’s bite.
Daryl quickly clashes with Rick when he learns the former sheriff’s deputy left brother Merle (Michael Rooker) handcuffed to a roof in the overrun metropolis, causing an outburst that ends with Daryl being swiftly handled by Rick and partner Shane (Jon Bernthal).
“They’d been together for a year, rehearsing and doing a press junket around the world. It was being amped up as a thing. It was [original showrunner] Frank Darabont, it was AMC, [executive producer] Gale Anne Hurd, heavy hitters. And so we’re doing this scene and I gotta come in and get in the main guy’s face and it’s a whole thing and everyone’s protective of the main guy, they’re all his buddy,” Reedus said.
“I assumed I’d be there a couple episodes, maybe an episode or two,” Reedus admitted, explaining he molded his performance around his feelings as an outsider.
“Came in and I say these lines, and feeling a little bit nervous about it, and I turn around, and the whole cast — there’s 15 people looking at me like, ‘What are you gonna do?’ Judging me. And I immediately got a little chip on my shoulder and felt like, ‘Oh my God, they hate me,’” Reedus said.
“And I started talking out of the side of my eyes. I didn’t really connect, like, ‘You hate me? I hate you too.’ And that’s how I found that character, I started doing that. And the character slowly went from this sort of side-eyed thing to slowly, when he means something now, talks to you in your face, you can believe what he’s saying to you. He wears his heart on his sleeve, he’s not a bullsh-tter.”
Reedus took Daryl from “a straight-up liar, thief,” to a trusted protector of the group and Rick’s eventual right-hand man after getting out from under Merle’s abusive influence.
“I mean, the whole thing about the two brothers on that show, they were there to rob that group. Not to join the group, they were there, ‘When they go to sleep, we’re gonna rob this place,’” Reedus continued of the backstory he helped create.
“And it slowly became sort of naturally the progression of this guy standing on his own two feet, and he wouldn’t have been that guy if this apocalypse didn’t happen. He’d have been his brother.”
Merle shaped Daryl in more ways than one: Daryl was tailor-made for Reedus, who boarded the series late after its roles — including Merle — had already been cast.
“I was like, ‘Just get me in the room. I’ll go in and do a guest spot,’” Reedus recounted to GQ in 2014.
Reedus went in twice, reading Merle’s lines both times, and was spun off into his own role after impressing then-showrunner Darabont. The younger Dixon brother swiftly proved a hit with audiences and Reedus went on to become the series’ top-billed actor.
Now in its ninth season, The Walking Dead premieres new episodes Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.
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