Better start polishing your Stormtrooper armor, binding those autograph books and optimizing camera memory on that smartphone because Wizard World Comic-Con, the yearly pop culture mecca typically associated with San Diego and New York, is coming to Madison this weekend. From Feb. 6 to Feb. 8, the Alliant Energy Center will house ecstatic enthusiasts reigning from all fandoms, palms sweaty and eyes bright with wonder, as celebrities, artists and even the famed Delorean from “Back to the Future” will make an appearance at the massive convention.
One of the most prominent guests will be actor Michael Rooker, known for playing Merle Dixon, the brother to talented bowman and resident bad boy Daryl, on “The Walking Dead.” More recently, he starred as the blue alien bounty hunter Yondu in the international mega-hit, “Guardians of the Galaxy.” In addition to these recent credits, Rooker is also one of only two actors to have starred alongside all members of the 80s action golden trio: Sylvester Stallone in “Cliffhanger,”Jean-Claude Van Damme in “Replicant” and Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The 6th Day.”
Though originally from Alabama, Rooker studied acting in Chicago and has many close ties to the Dairy State, including a cabin in Princeton, Wisconsin.
“You know what, I haven’t had a chance to do [a Comic-Con] in Madison or in Wisconsin at all. So this is going to be a good, new experience,” Rooker said in an interview with The Badger Herald. “I hope it’s not too cold. I hope we don’t get snowed in or snowed out.”
The Wizard World Comic-Con is the perfect arena for Rooker as fans from far and wide will be eager to witness the notorious Merle, featured in the apocalyptic zombie show “The Walking Dead” from 2010 to 2013. Rooker described the character as the perfect mixture of “aggressive, sardonic humor,” the Georgian older brother heavily influenced by loyalty to Daryl and the drive to survive.
“[Merle] had a great way of putting you down and also making the audience smile. It just came out that way. It wasn’t written that way for sure,” Rooker said. “You get these kind of roles and you’re kinda like, ‘how do I make this a little different?’ … It ended up great.”
“Walking Dead” is known for being particularly tough to shoot between make-up, sets and all the other production necessary to simulate “walker” mayhem. Rooker described it as shooting a tiny movie every 10 days; everyone was exhausted by the end of shooting.
“When we fall down to our knees and start crying, they cut out. We gotta look tough and like real survivors,” Rooker joked.
After leaving the show in its third season, Rooker had little time to recover from his zombie-fighting days before his next big enterprise arrived: “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Adapted from a comic book of the same name, the critically-acclaimed film grossed more than $774 million worldwide, becoming the most successful movie of 2014.
As the debaucherous adopted father figure to Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill, Rooker captivated audiences and quickly became a fan favorite. While “Walking Dead” was filled with grime and guts, he described the most difficult part of being Pratt’s patriarch was deciding which of the two actors were more handsome.
Many have drawn similarities between Merle and Yandu, both family-oriented and villainous characters, but Rooker is keen to point out the latter had much more humor associated with him.
“At times the laughter and the audiences’ response was too loud to hear the line. People came to see it two, three, four times just to make sure they could hear everything,” Rooker said. “I try not to compare [the two characters] too much. I got off on whatever particular way this role is leading me … I put my twist on it and make it mine.”
Despite being known for these entertaining, often uproarious characters, Rooker does not apply labels like “character actor” to his nearly 30-year career.
“I just consider myself an actor,” Rooker said. “I do the little ones, big ones, in between. Whatever turns me on. I try to do my work well and let the chips fall where they may.”
With the “Guardians” sequel in the works and a rich repertoire of roles any nerd would salivate over, Rooker is looking forward to enjoying Madison and the throngs of excitable fans for all three days of the Comic-Con, including a special Q&A panel from 3 to 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
“[Madison] is a great town. I have some memories but they’re fading and I’ll have to make some new ones when I get there,” Rooker said.