When director James Gunn first met actor Michael Rooker, it was when Rooker was auditioning for Gunn’s directorial debut, the glorious 2006 horror comedy Slither. Rooker had long since established himself as one of Hollywood’s go-to character actors — including in 1988’s Mississippi Burning, 1990’s Days of Thunder, and 1993’s Cliffhanger — and Gunn was a little bit in awe.
“I had been, actually, a big fan of his work, before I met him,” Gunn told BuzzFeed.
Rooker remembered Gunn’s reaction a bit differently. “He gave me a big standing ovation,” said Rooker in a separate interview. “I’m like, ‘Maybe you should wait until after the audition’s over?’”
Not only did the actor land the role, and not only did the two become fast friends — “we see each other a couple times a week,” said Gunn — but Rooker has starred in all of Gunn’s subsequent films, including as the cosmic rapscallion Yondu in Guardians of the Galaxy.
The reasons behind this lasting creative and personal camaraderie are, at first, not too surprising. “I like surrounding myself with people I really care about,” said Gunn. “To have some amount of affection around you when you’re making a movie is a great thing, and so a lot of it’s simply that.”
Rooker agreed. “I think he likes me,” he said. “I like him.”
But there is another, perhaps more unstable element to what brings Gunn and Rooker together: “He’s a madman,” said Gunn.
When asked whether he concurs with this assessment, Rooker chuckled. “Nah, not at all,” he said. “People do [think that]. But I have odd ideas. A lot of people don’t see things the way I see things. I see things differently. And when I’m working on a project, I definitely see things in a different way. My ideas are not the average ideas you’re going to get from an actor. “
One example from Guardians: At one point in the film, as Yondu interrogates an alien about a mystical sphere, he was supposed to say “blah blah blah” in the script.
“He was saying something to me and I didn’t want to listen,” said Rooker. “So I changed it to, ‘Blah bluh lee gloo lee blelah bah. Ba bla ba ba be de do. Ba be do. Bala bole be buh bah bah bah.’” He kept going like this for a while. “It was really quite good,” Rooker continued. “People were laughing their asses off [on set]. And then [James] started telling me stuff to do! He started going, ‘Garl golee bowlee bo!’ Oh my god, it was crazy.”
For Gunn, it was a great opportunity to show a side of Rooker that doesn’t often make it into his performances. “Rooker’s always playing the stoic character, but if you knew him in real life … he’s crazy,” said Gunn, with a big smile. “He’s got this maniacal laugh. … He’s just a much bigger personality than he usually plays on screen.”
It could be awkward for some friends to shift from being on equal footing in their personal lives to being in a quasi employer-employee relationship as professionals, but neither Gunn nor Rooker really sees it that way. “Very honestly, I’m a bossy personality anyway,” said Gunn. “I always act like a director, so it doesn’t seem to change that much, especially with Rooker, who is like this stray dog who’s always running off and about to get away and you have to be like, ‘Rooker, come back here, come back here, come back here.’ That’s sort of the nature of our relationship anyway.”
And how does Rooker see it? “I don’t listen to him,” said Rooker, with a puckish grin, before he backtracks just a bit. “I listen to him, but then it changes inside my head and it comes out a different way. I think he likes that.”
By way of explanation of how his mind can drastically reconstitute Gunn’s ideas, Rooker launched into a story about working on Slither — about an extra-terrestrial parasite that infects a small town, including (and especially) Rooker’s character — that is best related by the actor directly. It all started with a late night phone call Rooker made to Gunn’s home, which Rooker recounted to BuzzFeed at length:
I called him up and said, ‘Hey! Hey! Oh, you’re sleeping? Ah, nevermind, I’ll call you back tomorrow.’ He said, ‘What?! You fucking woke me up, what?!’
I said, ‘I’ve got this great idea!’
And he’s like, ‘Oh my god. What?!’
‘You know, during the manger scene, in Slither…?’
And he’s like, ‘What manger scene? What are you talking about?’
I said, ‘Dude, you know, the manger scene! The birthing! The second coming! The manger scene!’
And he was like, ‘What manger scene?! Dude!’
I said, ‘You know, in the barn, man! In the barn. We’ve got the womb there, and the girl’s in the middle of the womb. And she asks, Can you give me that piece of meat over there? Remember? And you show the lamb and the donkey and all the little farm animals?’
‘Yeah, they’re all dead!’
‘Yeah, but they’re still farm animals. It’s a manger scene, isn’t it?’
He said, ‘Oh my god, Rooker! Call me back tomorrow!’
At this point, Rooker exploded with what could only be described as a maniacal laugh.
“In my mind, in my opinion, that’s a really sick manger scene,” he said. (Here’s a link to the scene in question — and be warned, it’s pretty gross.) “It’s a second coming. I’m an alien creature coming down from the stars and I’ve brought a new life form, and it’s about to give birth. And there’s this goat and the lamb and the sheep and the donkey and the cows, and they’re all, of course, dead. But they represented to me the second coming of a godlike being on Earth.”
And, obviously, Gunn did not see it that way.
“Of course he didn’t!” said Rooker. “But, you know, a lot of times, writers don’t get their own work.”