Fans of “The Walking Dead” are already familiar with the sight of Norman Reedus astride a motorcycle — his character’s vehicle of choice when it comes to traversing the zombie-infested world depicted in AMC’s horror hit — but we don’t often get the chance to hear him discuss his love of the machines, or see him explore the varied landscapes outside Atlanta, where the show films. That’s where AMC’s new travel show, “Ride with Norman Reedus,” comes in, as the actor invites viewers to join him on the open road, exploring biker culture and celebrating some of the best and brightest collectors, mechanics and motorcycle craftsmen around the country.
Each episode starts in a new city with Reedus and his riding companion for the week – a roster that includes Peter Fonda, Robert Rodriguez and Balthazar Getty — as they explore the local sights and share their passion for bikes of all types, from dirtbikes to vintage choppers.
Variety spoke to Reedus about his new series, which was filmed during the break between “The Walking Dead” season 6 and season 7.
How did the series come about?
It originally came from Joel Stillerman, who’s the head of original programming at AMC and president of that department. He called me up, and he said, hey, I got an idea. Call me back, and then I called him back, and he told me, and I said, “yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Before you change your mind, yes,” and that’s where it started. [Laughs.]
How did you pick the locations for the rides?
A lot of it’s word of mouth, and there’s maps that are made just for motorcyclists to have motorcycle routes, which are all word of mouth as well. So that and the fact that we shot it in between seasons in the winter. So you need to go places warm. [Laughs.] So there’s both of those things, and also where there’s warm weather all year round, there’s a lot of good motorcycle riding.
What about choosing your riding companions? I’d imagine there were a lot of people itching to go out on the road.
There was a long list of people that wanted to do it and a long list of people that I wanted to be on it, but it had to do with schedules. It also has to do with their history and those locations. Like Peter Fonda, he used to live in the Keys — so doing a ride through Florida with Peter Fonda is kind of a no-brainer.
Was there anything you discovered out on the road that surprised you?
Yeah. As far as bringing a guest rider, like taking a road trip with anyone or a vacation, you learn a whole bunch more stuff about each other by the end of it, and I learned a bunch about everybody. Peter, for example, that episode ends basically with me being in awe of Peter Fonda. I’ve heard all these stories; crazy stories, and fun stories, and sincere stories, and by the end of it, I loved him more than I did before I started, and I loved him a lot before we started. So you do learn things about each other, and people are right there with us.
This isn’t scripted television. I mean, it’s really not scripted television. I know there’s “unscripted” television, which is really scripted, but ours is really unscripted. So they learn things about me, and I learn things about them, and we go into a town, and you meet people. You’ll meet an old couple that have been traveling for months on a motorcycle who are in their late 60s, early 70s, and you hear their stories, and you’re like, “wow, I want to be you one day.” There’s a whole bunch of eye-opening little things that happen here and there.
Do you have people scouting ahead for some of the pitstops, or do you find random places along the way?
Both. We have a certain route that we’re going to try to follow or a certain town, or I’ll recommend a town, and someone will go there and check it out. Then it’s also that we have to move the company from this location, to that location, to that location, and that’s a factor, and then sometimes on the way from point A to point B, we’ll meet somebody, and they’ll go, “you should try…” and so we’ll try that as well. It’s a combination of all those things.
Your passion for motorcycles really shines through; how do you strike the balance between the travel aspect of the show and geeking out over the bikes — is it just a question of following your natural instincts and reactions?
It’s really me geeking out. I’m not an expert in any manner. I just like them, and I like riding them, and I like hearing about them, but I’m not a gearhead. I don’t know things that other people know, so I’m learning them for the first time, and we didn’t want to make a gearhead show ever. That was never our intention. There’s people that do that really well already. So we wanted people to feel like they’re on this trip with us, and me discovering things for the first time — if they’re with us, they feel like they are too. And also the lifestyle behind it. We have one episode where we meet a couple that lives way up in the woods, and all they do is restore old vintage BMW motorcycles, and they’re so happy out there living that life, and it’s such a cool way to live. They’re like, “let’s go get a fried pie,” and I’m like, “okay!”
I also noticed some of your photography dotted throughout the episodes, which gives it more of a curated, travelogue vibe. How did you come up with the aesthetic for the show?
It’s a combination. By the end of filming one episode, we have enough content to make it a four-hour episode. You know what I mean? I do photography shows and photography books, and I’ve been doing that as long as I’ve been riding motorcycles. So it’s a natural thing for me to pull out a camera, and I always have a camera in my pocket, like, always, and not an iPhone. Like a camera camera. I’m seeing things I didn’t see before, so I’m constantly taking pictures of them.
Did you encounter many technical difficulties on the road?
Yeah, there are certain things that you learn along the way, for sure. Helmet mics work better with your face shield down. Helmet mics work better when your bike isn’t the loudest thing on the road. You know, there’s little things that you learn. If you have a stunt guy with a camera guy on the back and he’s backwards hanging off the bike, filming the ground and you’re going down the freeway and they’re calling you to get closer to the camera, sometimes that stunt guy’s bike will shoot rocks into your shins really, really hard, and you’ll start bleeding. Little things like that. [Laughs.]
There’s a lot of fun things like that, too, and there’s a lot of things we learned along the way. We were on these Triumph bikes in New Orleans, and Brent Hinds — he’s a singer for a band called Mastodon — and I discovered that these bikes had seat heaters, right, and grip heaters, and it was really hot. So, every once in a while, I’d sneak over and hit Brent’s seat heater, which turned into part of the episode where he was like, “this is you. I know you’re doing it,” and I was like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” But I was doing it the whole time. Little things.
“The Walking Dead” is such a popular show, it’s inevitable that you’ll meet fans out on the road, and we do see a couple of encounters in the show. How was that experience for you?
That happened everywhere we went, and we couldn’t make every episode have tons of that because it would’ve just been that, but that’s part of a road trip — you meet new people for whatever reason, whether it’s an interest in the show, or an interest in motorcycles, or they like your helmet, or you’re eating at the same restaurant. You meet them, so we incorporate it in the show, and you go to a biking event, it’s full of people, and they all have cameras, and everyone’s geeking on things, and then the camera crew shows up, and they go, “oh my God, you’re the dude on the thing,” and then you end up with a crowd. So we incorporated some of the crowd.
Is it still overwhelming when you encounter that — or is it possible to get used to it?
I don’t know if you ever get used to it, to be honest. I don’t know if you ever do. Sometimes it’s overwhelming, and sometimes you know it’s going to happen before you get there. You go to a grocery store, and there’s a mob, and then you’re like, “oh, God, I just want the milk.” So, yeah, you expect it sometimes. Sometimes you forget, and sometimes you’re like, “oh, yeah, s–t, I’m famous.”
And you filmed it between season 6 and season 7, and the season 6 finale ended on that huge cliffhanger — I’m guessing that must’ve made everyone even crazier when they saw you?
You’re exactly right, yeah. But everyone’s excited for 7 to reveal the answers to 6. So I will say it’s well worth the wait. You know what I mean? I know what happens, and we shot it, and it’s well worth the wait. Trust me.
Fans have had a slogan for several years: “If Daryl dies, we riot.” How do you feel about that, knowing fans are so protective of your character?
I will be passing out matches if that happens — I will be starting the riot. You know what, I’m very appreciative. I put a lot of work into this character for a long time, and I really like my job, and I like all the people I work with an awful lot, and I like all those fans that have my back, and I have their back, and I’m trying to do a good job for them as well. So it’s one big family that I’m proud to be part of.
“Ride with Norman Reedus” premieres Sunday, June 12 at 10 p.m. on AMC.