by Mark Burger

Michael Rooker rolls with Guardians of the Galaxy

Michael Rooker cuts a striking figure in Marvel’s latest blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy (see review, Page 34). As the formidable alien Yondu Udonta, the actor boasts a spaceage Mohawk, a mouthful of sharpened teeth, a tough-guy attitude, and a very blue hue.

The character was introduced in the initial 1969 Marvel Comics series – Yondu is one of the “original” Guardians – and in subsequent comic-book incarnations, he is something of a mentor/rival of Peter Quill (AKA “Star-Lord,” played by Chris Pratt in the film), whom he abducted from Earth years before. The film retains those aspects of their relationship. Yondu “is not necessarily evil,” Rooker notes, but certainly a rogue and scoundrel. His relentless pursuit of Quill is tempered with grudging affection.

Rooker first burst into prominence in the title role of John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), giving an unforgettable performance as the title character, inspired by real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. The film, largely unseen until 1990, was a harrowing but undeniably powerful showcase for the actor, in his first screen lead.

Per Hollywood, Rooker was offered numerous roles as heavies. He played some (Mississippi Burning, Days of Thunder) but also played heroes (The Dark Half, Cliffhanger, The Replacement Killers). His work encompasses drama (JFK, Music Box, Rosewood), comedy (Mallrats), Western (Tombstone), and a fair share of genre work (Replicant, Jumper, The 6 th Day and now Guardians), which he enjoys because they engage the imagination. He’s also lent his distinctive voice to such animated fare as DC Showcase: Jonah Hex (2010) and the popular FX animated series “Archer.”

Having previously collaborated with Guardians director and co-screenwriter James Gunn on Slither (2006) and Super (2010), the two men became friends. “We’re pals here in LA,” Rooker says. “We’d see each other at Sunday gatherings, although not so much recently because James had been prepping Guardians.

“It’s awesome to work with him again. Certain directors, not only do they appreciate your work, but they’re a fan – a fan’s fan. It’s a little odd and kind of cool.”

Gunn had him in mind to play Yondu early on. “I was gonna do (the film) no matter what,” Rooker reveals, but the film’s schedule clashed with his stint on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” in which he played volatile Merle Dixon.

He would have settled for a smaller role, but then came the bombshell: Merle Dixon would be killed off – after becoming one of the walking dead himself. Problem solved.

Rooker admits he’d miss Merle, but Yondu was now his. “Very, very, very cool.”

On to London and daily makeup sessions lasting approximately three and a half hours. He’d occasionally “chill out and let them (the makeup artists) do their work,” but also kept an eye on the applications so they matched the continuity of earlier scenes. It’s that attention to detail that Rooker revels in. “I always just feel it out at first.”

A comic-book fan growing up, Rooker was familiar with Guardians of the Galaxy, and when he landed the role, “a pal of mine who collected them sent me six of the first Guardians comic books, which was very cool of him and very thoughtful.”

Then, “the first thing James Gunn said to me was ‘Don’t read the comic – we’ve got a little bit different take on it!'” Rooker laughs.

Although the film is set in a distant galaxy and the characters mostly aliens, “the emotions and feelings, friendships and conflicts are something I think all people can relate to and identify with.”

In recent years, the actor has become something of a semi-regular on the convention circuit, which has taken him all over the country to meet and great fans.

“I do like it,” he says, “and I have taken thousands of pictures and signed thousands of autographs in the last few years!

“The conventions have started blending together,” he observes. “Horror and sci-fi and action have all kind of blended together. The most popular ones are the pop-culture conventions.”

It is at these events that he is happily reminded of the variety of roles he’s played.

“It’s totally so true,” he says. “I’ll meet three generations – grandparents, parents and children – and they all know my work and they all have their favorites. It’s amazing! People will ask about Henry “¦ Days of Thunder “¦ JFK “¦ Mallrats “¦ Sea of Love “¦ Eight Men Out “¦ it’s mindblowing.”

Indeed, he’s discussed assassination theories with JFK admirers, laughed with Mallrats mavens, and talked baseball with fans of Eight Men Out, John Sayles’ acclaimed 1988 dramatization of the 1919 Chicago White Sox, who threw the World Series and were thereafter tarred as “the Black Sox.”

“I have probably signed more baseballs than some actual players, and I even threw out the first pitch at Cellular Field before a White Sox game.”

But wasn’t his character (infielder Chick Gandil) banned from baseball for life?

“They didn’t feel threatened by that, and they certainly weren’t by my 40-milean-hour fastball!”

Since Sayles shot some scenes in slowmotion, might his throw have been an homage?

“Yeah, yeah – that’s it,” Rooker quips. “I wish I had told them that at the time.”

Although he doesn’t wasn’t to spoil Guardians of the Galaxy, Rooker is coy – somewhat – regarding Yondu’s fate. “This is Marvel, man – anybody can do anything!” !