Let’s rewind a minute to the late 80s. I was a teenage kid in a small, West Virginia town with nothing much to do. My brother and I were die-hard horror fans. Our standard go-to pastime was to score some beers, head down to The Video Barn and rent low-budget slasher films to fill our weekends. I distinctly remember my ritualistic process for movie “appreciation” at that stage of my life. If I ended up liking a flick, I would go back to the video store and steal the VHS box to display in my Fangoria-themed room. I had dozens of “winners” displayed on my dresser — “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” “The Toxic Avenger,” “Street Trash” and even Oscar-winner Peter Jackson’s “Bad Taste.” Yeah, he didn’t win an Academy Award for that one, but I would argue it was way better than that “Lord of the Rings” bullshit.
I also remember there was one movie that ranked highly as a target for my petty shoplifting habit — one movie that really disturbed me and that I knew for sure I had to have displayed in my 10-by-10 room. It was called “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.” As with many of my favorite movies, it didn’t feature any real stars. I actually preferred it that way. In my opinion, up-and-coming actors and horror go hand in hand.
The lead of this movie was a nobody at the time. I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a director in Hollywood who knew his name. He was a grinder, a workhorse who would live in his car for days at a time during auditions just to see if he could get a chance at a role. This guy didn’t know the meaning of the word “no.” It was in his blood to be on screen and there wasn’t a person in this world that was going to stop him. These days, he is now known by many names: Hal Tucker, Sherman McMasters, Rowdy Burns, Merle Dixon and, of course (how could we forget?) — Yondu. Some of these you might be familiar with, some of them you might not … but the second you see his face, you undoubtedly recognize him. He is Michael Rooker.
As the the issues fly by, our access to famous personalities gets easier. Eighteen months ago, I had the feeling we would be in this position, but I promised our crew one thing: I told them that we would never settle for a big name just to sell magazines. The person on our cover must be one of us. By “Us” I mean someone who knows the value of hard work. A person who took an opportunity and ran with it. A person who is humble and understands that our freedoms provide these opportunities. Michael Rooker has checked all these boxes — many times over.
Let’s return to the present day. When I found out that we had locked Michael down to come to our Phoenix studio, I was a little taken aback. As I’ve said before, I rarely get star struck, but this guy has played so many roles throughout the years that I have truly enjoyed, I knew this was going to be a good time.
I could bore you to death with a cookie-cutter interview about Michael Rooker and his film career, but that’s been done countless times. Seriously, start typing “Michael Ro …” in a Google search bar and pages upon pages of Q-and-A’s appear. What you don’t see is a firsthand account of the experience of hanging out with Mr. Rooker and how he really is behind closed doors. I was fortunate enough to do this, and I feel it is my duty to give the fans a glimpse of what it was like.
It was 9:30 p.m. on a typical Wednesday night. I’m getting old; there is no denying this, and usually about this time in the evening on a weekday, I am half asleep on the couch. Today was no different, except that while I happened to be watching re-runs of “The Walking Dead,” I got a phone call. “Hello, this is Jason,” I said as I wiped the sleep out of my eyes. “Jason! It’s Michael Rooker.” I immediately sat up and cleared my head. At that particular moment, as I had Mr. Rooker on the phone, a scene featuring Merle Dixon played out on my TV screen. It was surreal.
“I just rolled into town, want to get a drink?” Michael said with some enthusiasm. “Say when and where!” I said as I jumped up and started to get dressed. “Umm, it’s your town, man …” (Yeah, no shit, Jason. I’m such a dumbass sometimes.) I gave him the name of a local watering hole, and then I hauled the mail downtown. We met up and spent the next couple hours introducing ourselves and by the night’s end, we were really hitting it off.
Besides a scheduled photoshoot for the magazine and plans to conduct a Skillset Live podcast with him later in the afternoon, I needed a good icebreaker to kick off the next day. I asked, “Do you like shooting guns?” I am hesitant bringing this up among the Hollywood type; the industry has repeatedly made its stance clear about firearms, but I thought perhaps Michael had a different take on the subject. “Guns?” he said as he adjusted his signature round shades, “I fucking love shooting guns!” I never wanted to high-five a dude more in my life than at that moment, but instead I raised my gin and tonic and gave him the old silent “Then you just wait, my friend!” head nod. Our Thursday was now on lock.
The next morning, we all went to one of the most advanced firearms simulators in the country. Travis Haley has set himself apart from the crowd with his scientific approach to gunfighting. His new Haley Strategic facility in Scottsdale, Arizona, is state of the art, and I thought it would be a cool alternative to just hitting the range and shooting paper targets. His VirTra simulators really show you how you perform under stress and make for a fun shooting experience.
After an outstanding tour of the Haley Strategic showroom, we headed up into the D7 training room and started getting Michael dialed in. Now I’m not going to lie, I really thought that we were going to have to hold Rooker’s hand for this. Shooting in the movies and shooting in real life are two different animals. However, 30 seconds into his first run, I was opening my mouth in genuine surprise. This guy can shoot! It turns out that after his role in “Tombstone,” Michael wanted to take his skillset to the next level and started training with legendary shooter Thell Reed. It was obvious that the training paid off. He looked like an old pro running that pistola.
We spent the next couple hours walking through active shooter simulations in several different environments. The laughter was continuous as Michael gave us running commentary while he laid waste to dozens of bad guys and the occasional hostage. But hey, in his own words, “They probably shouldn’t have been in that dark alley in the first place.”
As we wrapped up the gun training, we all piled back into the vehicles and started to head toward the Skillset studios. The ice had been broken, and everyone’s conversation was punctuated with adrenaline-filled laughter. It was about time to knock out the photoshoot and podcast interview. But first, however, we needed to feed the machine. Next up was some chow.
Normally, in an interview feature such as this, I might include a story about lunch, but I saw something in Michael that day that I absolutely must highlight. There is no doubt he has a recognizable face. It’s hard to walk down the street with him without people stopping in their tracks to say, “Wait … is that?” Today was no different.
We walked up to the hostess in our chosen restaurant and told her we needed seats for four. She kept her head buried in the dining area table schematic until she found the right location. Grabbing some menus, she glanced up and looked Michael straight in the eyes. She was frozen in her tracks. “You’re … you’re Michael Rooker!” she exclaimed nervously. Michael looked around and then back at the young lady. “I am? Wait, you are right! I am Michael Rooker!” We all laughed as the girl spouted off about how he is her favorite in “The Walking Dead,” then something about Yondu and how her dad loves him too. You get the picture.
This was where Michael really won us over or, rather, let’s just say this was part one. We were all starving and just wanted to sit down and eat. But Michael recognized something we did not. He could tell this was the first celeb she had ever met. She was nervous and fumbling for words. He stopped her mid-sentence and asked for her phone. She didn’t know what to expect, but immediately pulled it out of her pocket. He took it, went around the hostess’ stand and started shooting multiple selfies with the awestruck fan. I thought she was going to faint.
As we eventually made our way to our table, I noticed that the girl was crying. “Are you OK?” I asked. She looked at me as she wiped away her tears, “I’ve had a really rough couple of weeks and today is my birthday. Things were going so shitty until now. I couldn’t have asked for a better present.” You could tell this was one of the best moments of her life. How Rooker knew to do this for her was beyond me, but ladies and gentlemen, that was how you treat a fan.
Once back at the studio (and in partial food coma), I felt it was the right time for the podcast. Normally, when we interview a celeb, it’s a pretty standard run of questions — typical press junket or acting history-type stuff. But sitting down with Rooker was anything but normal. The engagement was real. He wasn’t forced to be there, he didn’t worry about saying the “right thing” and he had come to have fun and give us an entertaining conversation. I’m not going to ruin it for you now. I want you to go check out SKILLSET LIVE #43 after you’re done reading this. Just consider it a badass extension of this article.
After wrapping up the interview, it was time for the photoshoot. Now, I’ve done dozens of these, but as I mentioned in my opening paragraphs, I was photographing someone that I had idolized as a kid. My blood was electric that day. I really had no specific idea of what to shoot, but I knew it was going to be fun.
We started with the standard headshot-type bullshit just to have a few safety shots in the books. Before long, though, we started warming up and introducing some props into the mix. For some reason, Michael spotted a Russian bearskin jacket we had (what studio doesn’t have one?). He ripped off his shirt, put on the jacket and donned a three-dollar hat we had found at Goodwill. Holy shit, did it work! Michael immediately went into a “Lord of War/Gangster Kingpin” character that was on fire. I snapped away as fast as I could while he worked the camera like a seasoned pro. I couldn’t imagine how this could get any better but in the immortal words of Billy Mays, “But wait, there’s more!”
As we were shooting, I explained how we are going with our retro, men’s pulp-style covers for the entire year of 2018. You could see the wheels turning as he glanced over at our wardrobe wall. “I want to kill Nazis,” he said as he found a World War II GI uniform. “Yeah, wouldn’t that make a badass cover? Let’s shoot that!” he exclaimed as he was already half in costume.
My eyes grew big as I mentally planned out the shot. How cool was this? Michael said he would love to play a soldier’s role one day in a World War II film, and I was able to shoot something that he had never done before. I want you to close the mag and check out that cover again … this is what can happen when people brainstorm an idea and then let loose. To say the least, I think we nailed it.
Wrapping up the shoot, Michael said we should bring everyone in and have some fun. I thought to myself, “Don’t threaten me with a good time! Let’s do this!” He motioned for everyone to come in and get some group shots. As each person entered the cyclorama, he was putting funny hats on everyone. “Wait!” he screamed, “Everyone grab weapons!” Laughter filled the studio as the frantic search began. From 1920s wooden circus mallets to bloody sledge hammers, anything we laid hands on worked its way into the shots. What was the purpose? There wasn’t one. We just wanted to be kids again and have fun — something many of us adults forget how to do. The more ridiculous the costume, the better it was. This was by far one of the most fun shoots we have ever done.
The day was coming to a close, and Michael had to get back on the road. Everything could have ended right there and we would have been 100 percent satisfied. But I selfishly had one more request. You see, my 13-year-old kid is a die-hard fan. She wanted nothing more than to meet “Yondu” in person. Not being one to put our guests on the spot, I figured I would give it a shot.
So I asked Michael if he minded if our kids and their friends (Ben has a 10-year-old son as well) came to the studio just to say hi and shake his hand. I don’t even think I finished my sentence before he yelled, “Where in the hell are they? I love kids!” So I grabbed my phone and texted my wife as fast as I could. When she was en route, I called and told her that Michael needed to go and that we could only take up five minutes of his time. You could hear my daughter in the background screaming with excitement.
The kids showed up and something awesome transpired. Immediately, Michael forgot all about the adults in the room and went straight into “Uncle Rooker” mode. For the next hour and a half, he signed anything the kids brought and then insisted that every child (and accompanying parent) got a studio-quality shot with him. He was telling stories and even let loose with his famous “I’m Mary Poppins, y’all!” line to the young fans. You should have seen their eyes light up.
As all this was going on, I sat back and thought to myself that this was a true example that all celebrities should follow. Michael knows that without his fans, he wouldn’t be successful as an actor. He understands the value of every hard-earned dollar these kids and their parents spend on his movies and memorabilia. What he did for us that day is what he has done throughout his acting career to solidify legions of loyal admirers — admirers who will continue to exist even long after he is gone. This is how a true professional conducts himself, andwhy he is part of the Skillset family. This is … Michael Rooker, y’all!