Q&A: Michael Rooker

Actor, Guardians Of The Galaxy

Chris Pratt has a ball as the doofus hero Peter Quill in Guardians Of The Galaxy, but I suspect the guy having the most fun is Michael Rooker. Rooker plays Yondu, the turquoise-skinned bounty hunter with whom Quill has a fairly contentious relationship. Yondu abducted the eight-year-old Quill from Earth and raised him among grimy-assed space pirates only to see the kid grow up and become a competitor.

It’s a part tailor-made for Rooker, a veteran character and long-time secret weapon of Guardians director James Gunn. When I got offered a call with Rooker to promote Guardians’December 9 Blu-ray and DVD release, I was all in.

You know, we were originally supposed to talk back in 1993, when Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer opened in Toronto.

Oh my god! [laughs] That’s an old one, that’s my first real movie with any kinda through-line. That’s amazing.

You’ve had a pretty varied career since then, playing all manner of heavies and jerks and authority figures and ending up on The Walking Dead. But James Gunn somehow uncorks the craziest stuff in you – I’m thinking of Grant Grant in Slither, but also your henchman role in Super, and now this.

Shoot, I was happy to be involved with any of his projects. Super, Slither, any of the other little ones that we did, too, even before those.

And Yondu is kind of perfect for you. He’s the colour in the picture – whenever we see him, the movie pops even more. He makes us happy.

Indeed. And it was fun to do – oh my god, dude, it was so much fun to do – and you’re right! You know, I think I represent the colour in his projects, even. You always gotta have that, otherwise the accents don’t work. It’s very cool. I’ve never heard it presented that way, but when you think about it, you’re right.

I stole it from De Niro. There’s this story that Penny Marshall offered him the lead in Awakenings – the role of the doctor, which went to Robin Williams – but he wanted to play the patient instead. “Let someone else do the heavy acting, I want to be the colour.”

I like it. I like it. I’m pretty good at it too, it seems. And Yondu was perfect for the colour.

How did you and Chris Pratt figure out the dynamic between Yondu and Peter Quill? Did you have a lot of rehearsal time?

We didn’t really do that much rehearsing. Me and Pratt hung out at Gunn’s house, and we had dinner a few times. Instantly, the first moment we met, we knew it was the perfect match, the perfect casting. He loves to hunt and shoot guns and do things in the woods and all kinds of stuff like that. He works on cars and I work on cars – there’s so many similarities. Even [our] conflicts were like, “Oh, wow, I like that.” “Oh, you like that? That’s interesting.” We had a great time. Just over dinners, it was nuts. It was a great combination, right from the start.

The other key quality of Yondu’s is his ability to whistle – and not just to entertain, but to control that nifty arrow weapon thing. How much of that was you?

I did the whistling, yeah. They enhanced [it], but I had the notes and the tune for the whistle early on. I practised a couple of solos, and then he wanted a really sharp, screeching kind of whistling, too. [whistles sharply]. I already knew how to do that, so it was a good combination of that melodic whistling in the beginning, when the arrow comes out, and sorta hypnotizes the other aliens. I really enjoyed doing that. You learn all kinds of interesting things when you do movies, dude.

I’m always impressed when actors pull that sort of stuff out of the quiver. You’ve played dozens of lawmen and gun thugs. Is that swagger something else you’ve learned? Can you turn the authority thing off and on?

Oh, yeah. I grew up with six women in my home, my mom and five sisters. So I was kind of the dad. I was always, “Okay, let’s go, inside. Homework time. Okay, girls, bedtime. Lights out.” That kind of big brother. So, yeah, that sort of stuff is natural to me.

I was going through your filmography to make sure I hadn’t missed anything key, and I was reminded you played Chick Gandil, one of the Black Sox, in John Sayles’s Eight Men Out.

That’s an awesome movie. Eight Men Out was the movie that got me my agents in New York, which got me my agent in L.A, which ended up getting me rolling in this business. I did Eight Men Out, then I did Mississippi Burning, then I did Sea Of Love, and just kept rolling and rolling and rolling. And I’ve been working ever since.

And you’ve been in some serious cult projects. When people come up to you now, what percentage recognize you as Merle from The Walking Dead, and how many as Brandi Svenning’s dad from Mallrats?

Oh my god, it’s probably 80/30, 80/20, whatever. [laughing] Sorry about that.

Nah, I like 80/30. It speaks to fans’ enthusiasm.

Yeah, it is 80/30. I’m gonna start with 110 instead of 100. [laughs] But now, of course, it’s mostly Guardians Of The Galaxy. The Walking Dead is still extremely popular, but we have the same fan base, so now when people come up to me they’re like, both. They’re like “Oh my gosh, Yondu” or “Oh, you’re Merle!” They’re both beloved characters and fan favourites. Yondu became a fan favourite really quickly. I was blown away. I was thrilled.

Well, if it wasn’t for Yondu, we wouldn’t have Star-Lord.

I have to say, Yondu taught Pratt everything he knows. He’s a big movie star now because of Yondu.

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