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The director-muse dynamic is a creative accord of reciprocation, one that hearkens back to the days of early cinema. Sometimes it’s plain nepotism (looking at you, Argento), and sometimes it’s simply a great friendship. In many cases, there occurs a convergence of artistic vision that both inspires the director and enables the actor to draw from the creative well, elevating the character into something special. Most of the well-known Hollywood directors have a handful of actors they like to show off repeatedly in their films. Scorsese has DeNiro and DiCaprio. Burton has Johnny and Helena. Wes Anderson can’t get enough of Bill Murray. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 director James Gunn has found his own preferred collaborators in Michael Rooker, Sean Gunn, and Rob Zombie.
Michael Rooker has appeared in all of Gunn’s feature-length films, as a standout, complicated character each time. He’s even shown up this year as nice-guy Bud Melks in The Belko Experiment, a Battle Royale-esque workplace thriller penned and produced by the director. Their rapport began in 2005 when Rooker auditioned for Slither; Gunn was starstruck, being a huge fan of Rooker’s work two decades earlier in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Of course, Rooker got the job (and a standing ovation from Gunn during the audition) and the result was Grant Grant, a doomed car dealer who comes down with a bad bug. His role as the mohawked blue Ravager Yondu Udonta in Guardians of the Galaxy quickly became an audience favorite, with fans eagerly anticipating his return in the sequel. Clearly, Gunn is tuned into Rooker’s wavelength and will likely continue to cast him in every movie he makes.
Originally known for his recurring role on Gilmore Girls, Gunn’s brother, Sean, has had a role in nearly every live-action film he's done. The 8mm zombie films the brothers created together in their youth makes theirs the longest working relationship of the Gunn muses. James and Sean collaborated twice on films that James wrote, Tromeo & Juliet and The Specials, before resuming the director-actor relationship of their childhood in Gunn’s alien-plague splatterfest Slither. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 sees Gunn reprising the role of Kraglin the Ravager, in addition to another turn in the green-screen leotard to capture motion movements for Rocket Raccoon.
The surprise pop-ups continue with writer/director/rocker Rob Zombie. Zombie provided a bit of voice work in Slither (as Dr. Karl whose voice is heard over the phone), and in both Guardians of the Galaxy films where he is credited as “Unseen Ravager”. Why? In a chat with Fast Company, Gunn explains: “Rob’s a friend, and he appeared in my first movie, Slither, so now it’s become my signature. But I love putting a lot of stuff in my movies for fans. In Slither, every street sign referenced a classic horror film. There were hundreds of them. I’m in service to those people who want to watch a movie again and again.”
Gunn’s films certainly hold plenty of replay value, and Easter eggs and cameos are all part of the experience. It all culminates in his apparent ethos: let’s all just have a good time at the movies.
Rooker, Gunn, and Zombie also has the added bonus of sounding like a post-apocalyptic bounty hunter agency. Perhaps that should form the basis of Gunn’s next celluloid adventure.