July 6, 2011 by abbyo
Where you’ve seen him: Super, The Walking Dead, Slither, Mallrats, Tombstone, Cliffhanger, JFK, Days of Thunder, Mississippi Burning, Eight Men Out, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
If this series of posts on “That Guy” actors has proved anything, it’s that character actors play to their strengths, strengths that are usually determined by the way they look. Yes, I mean typecasting. Some people just can’t escape it. Stephen Tobolowsky, for example, often plays sad-sack losers and frustrated, cartoonish characters. James Urbaniak plays smart people. Keith David plays threatening ones. So, what does Michael Rooker play? Well…
The title character of “Henry” is Rooker’s best-known role not only because he’s got top billing, but also because it’s the character that’s defined his career. He’s played killers, henchmen, rednecks, racists and skinheads and done a fine job of it time and again. The reason? He just looks right for the part. Rooker’s got a look about him that’s simultaneously threatening and familiar, with a raspy voice to match. He looks like the guy with the shaved head and worn-out Harley-Davidson shirt buying beef jerky and hunting rifles at Wal-Mart. That’s not meant as a slight—every so often, there’s a need for someone like that in a movie, and when there is, you want someone who’s going to look legitimate.
As much as the word “typecasting” gets a negative connotation, I don’t think it’s a bad term to use here. Rooker is an intense actor, and he really gets a lot of mileage out of these roles. “Slither” is a fantastic example. As Grant Grant, the actor goes from chauvinistic loudmouth to creepy murderous mutant to pathetic monster in 95 minutes, and has loads of fun doing it. He doesn’t always play according to type, and he’s great no matter what role he’s in, but man, he really knows how to make those characters rock.
In fact, Rooker’s ability to play a certain type so well has led him to a kind of cult figure status. He’s now a regular fixture of James Gunn’s movies, appearing both in “Slither” and this year’s “Super.” His casting in AMC’s “The Walking Dead” series probably had just as much to do with his legacy of enduring horror movie characters as it did his acting ability. And, if you’re a regular listener to Doug Benson’s great “Doug Loves Movies” podcast, you’ll know that one of his regular topics in the Leonard Maltin Game is “The Films of Michael Rooker.” Considering that, of the actor’s 103 appearances in film and TV, most of them are B-movies and single-episode TV stints, that’s no small feat.
Links: Filmspotting episode #343 (features a great in-depth interview with the actor by podcast co-host Matty Robinson)