Michael Rooker could be the answer to a difficult trivia quiz question — who is that actor whose work you know well, even if you can’t quite match the face to the movie?
Yet from “Days of Thunder,” to “JFK,” “Mississippi Burning” and “Mallrats,” his movies are cultural touchstones that have amassed the thick end of $1 billion at the box office.
Now 61, the veteran character actor finds himself stopped in the street, with his tough guy roles in “The Walking Dead” and as blue-faced mercenary Yondu in Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” finally cementing his celebrity status.
“It’s an opportunity to look at me, enjoy my newest stuff, and then go ‘Wow — that was that guy?’ People do that all the time. I think it’s great,” he says, noting approvingly that a whole new generation of fans are discovering his 30-year body of work.
Rooker was in Beverly Hills to promote his 63rd movie, “The Belko Experiment,” in which he plays against type as the kindly janitor in an office block that becomes the grim venue for a deadly “kill or be killed” social experiment.
Before he was cast as Daryl Dixon’s dastardly brother Merle in AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” the most successful basic cable show in history, Rooker was known in horror circles for his various thugs and villains in films like “The Dark Half” (1993) and “The Bone Collector” (1999).
His big screen debut, which remains his most disturbing role, came when he was cast fresh out of theater school in John McNaughton’s bloody and hugely controversial “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.”
– ‘Cool dude’ –
Rooker had been making his name on stage when he won the part of real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, who was convicted of slaughtering 10 people, although he actually confessed to hundreds of murders.
Shot over 28 days in Chicago in 1985 for just $110,000, “Henry” depicts in graphic detail Lucas’s killing spree, and the production spent years in battles with censors and struggling to get distribution deals.
Rooker went deep into the role, refusing to mix with the cast and crew and disappearing into a darkened room between takes.
“I tried my best to stay in character all day and, at the end of the day, I’d come out of character and live my regular life, and try not to have so much spillover — but the spillover still happened,” he says.
Pressed to explain “spillover,” Rooker says he became introspective and shy, like his character.
“I didn’t go around with a knife, but I did have this quietness about me,” he recalls.
The film has gained cult status over the years as a low budget tour-de-force, while Rooker’s acclaimed depiction of clinical psychopathy opened the door to mainstream roles opposite the likes of Gene Hackman, Kevin Costner and Tom Cruise, whom he describes as “a cool dude.”
Rooker was raised among eight brothers and sisters in Jasper, Alabama before moving with his mother and siblings to Chicago at 13 when his parents divorced.
– Local hero –
He gained local celebrity as a lifeguard at Lake Michigan after saving a group of bathers from drowning when they were suddenly caught out by a strong undertow.
“They were being pulled out, and they weren’t swimmers. I was the first guard to spot it and went in, blowing my whistle,” the father of two recalls.
“Altogether we pulled out about 14 to 18 people that day, from that one incident only, and because of that, I ended up receiving rookie of the year.”
“The Belko Experiment,” which hits theaters on Friday, is one of several movies Rooker has made with cult filmmaker James Gunn, bookended by horror comedy “SLiTHER” (2006) and “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014).
Rooker doesn’t go big on self-analysis, but he clearly still can’t quite believe he is getting paid handsomely to do something he loves and seems to enjoy talking about it.
He plays to the gallery during a roundtable press event before his interview with AFP, his infectious shriek echoing around the 15th floor of the plush W Hotel in West Hollywood as he reels off a series of engaging anecdotes and observations.
Pressed for details on his return as Yondu in the hotly-anticipated “Guardians” sequel, due out in May, and in “Avengers: Infinity War” in 2018, a conspiratorial grin spreads across his face as he leans in, seemingly about to divulge the studio’s secrets.
“To hell with Marvel. What do you want to know? I trust you’ll never print it,” he jokes, roaring with laughter, before revealing precisely nothing.