The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus Says Daryl Was in Danger of Becoming “Mini Merle”

The Walking Dead star Norman Reedus says Daryl Dixon, the fan-favorite bowman promoted to the zombie drama’s lead role following the exit of Rick Grimes star Andrew Lincoln, would have “been an a—hole” if brother Merle (Michael Rooker) had lived beyond the third season. Loud-mouthed and racist, the controlling Merle once forced Daryl’s separation from Rick’s tight-knit group when their prison community refused to accept the elder Dixon brother after his heinous actions towards Glenn (Steven Yeun), Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) under orders from the Governor (David Morrissey). Daryl’s growing independence led to him picking the prison over Merle, telling his brother, “I may be the one that’s walking away, but you’re the one that’s leavin’.”

“He would have just been an a—hole, I think. I mean, the whole deal was Merle and I, we were at that campsite to rob them. That’s why we were playing along,” Reedus said at ACE Comic Con Midwest. “They originally gave me scripts where I was like taking drugs and I was saying all this racist stuff, and I was like Mini Merle.”

Created exclusively for the show, Daryl emerged after Reedus, who auditioned reading Merle’s lines, impressed then-showrunner Frank Darabont. When creating his own backstory for Daryl, Reedus wanted the character to reject Merle’s racist druggy lifestyle.

“I brought all the writers together and I was like, ‘I don’t want to be that guy. I want to be the guy that grew up with that and is ashamed of it,’” Reedus said. “And what it did was, when Merle left the show, it allowed me to sort of step up and be the man that I wouldn’t have been if that wouldn’t have happened. So in a weird way, the zombie apocalypse kind of blossomed Daryl out to be a real guy.”

Daryl stepping out of Merle’s shadow, helped along by Merle’s sacrifice against the Governor in “This Sorrowful Life,” gave both Reedus and Daryl room to grow.

“That show, it’s your two feet on the ground. You have to be the person that you want to be, you have to fight for what you believe in, and you have to walk away from certain things. It allows you to step into your own shoes,” he said. “If you’re gonna be a hero, be a hero, if you’re gonna be honest, you’re gonna be honest. But changing that storyline, it really gave me something to grow in.”

Long before winning top-billing as TWD’s new lead, Daryl was a fan-favorite, inspiring the catchphrase “If Daryl Dies, We Riot.” Reedus has admitted he expected the character to only last an episode or two — so what is it about Daryl that made him the show’s breakout character?

“He wears his heart on his sleeve, he’ll fight to the end,” Reedus said. “He’s not trying to impress you. He’s there to do a job, he’s there to protect you. If you’re his friend, you’re always his friend. If you’re somebody he cares about, you can rely on him to be there.”

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Reedus and Rooker will reunite in Ride with Norman Reedus when the unscripted series returns to AMC for its fourth season.

New episodes of The Walking Dead Season 10 premiere Sundays at 9/8c on AMC. For more TWD intel, follow the author @CameronBonomolo on Twitter.