Golden-haired and handsome, Paul Walker skyrocketed to fame in the “Fast and Furious” films. The first film in the series capitalized on his ability to look cool and keep cool as an amoral undercover cop. “Fast and Furious” spawned six sequels, and Walker appeared in five of them. He was working on the sixth sequel when news of his death was announced.
I interviewed Walker two weeks ago for his film “Hours” (Opening Dec. 13 and on VOD) and we discussed his career moving in a new direction. In 2013, he executive-produced and starred in three independent films, “Pawn Shop Chronicles,” “Vehicle 19” and “Hours,” in addition to making “Fast & Furious 6.”
“Pawn Shop Chronicles” came together when Walker signed on to play a white supremacist named Raw Dog. His participation helped secure funding, and he insisted that Wayne Kramer was hired to direct. Walker said in our Nov. 14 Skype session, “I liked Raw Dog. That was what I liked. I wanted to play that guy. They would lose financing if I didn’t do it. I called Wayne and said ‘Check this out. We can bring in the people we love.’ It’s what I wanted and it was the thing to do.”
He cited a notorious interrogation scene in the film, involving fishing wire and a hammer. “None of that’s in the screenplay. That’s Wayne’s crazy mind. He’s so uncensored. If he can elicit some kind of response [...], he wins.”
Walker destroyed his pretty boy image playing trailer trash in “Pawn Shop Chronicles.” His Raw Dog is hopped up on meth and paranoid. Foul-mouthed and spittle-spewing, he frequently scratches his beard with his dirty fingernails. His questionable hygiene may be why Raw Dog is itchy, but Walker’s canny performance makes that itchiness a metaphor for the character wanting something better out of life. His yokel is a slacker as striver. It is what prompts him and his buddy Randy (Kevin Rankin) to rob their meth dealer.
Walker's fans (myself among them) hoped that "Pawn Shop," along with “Vehicle 19,” a nifty thriller made in South Africa, and the forthcoming “Hours” would garner Walker the attention he deserved as an actor. Walker gives an expressive, affecting performance in “Hours.” It may be his most accomplished screen performance.
In the film, he plays Nolan, a man grieving over the loss of his wife (Genesis Rodriguez), who dies during childbirth during Hurricane Katrina. When the hospital loses power and is evacuated, Nolan remains to keep his newborn daughter alive. She is on a ventilator that must be powered by a hand-cranked generator every few minutes.
The drama may sound contrived, but writer/director Eric Heisserer’s film addresses a father’s determination to care for his child. The story resonated with the actor, who is the father of a teenage daughter.
In a separate Skype session, “Hours” writer/director Eric Heisserer explained what prompted him to cast Walker.
“It’s harder to judge Paul in a ‘Fast & Furious’ film, but in ‘Pawn Shop Chronicles,’ his performance is just as colorful and memorable as any other character actor I’ve seen. He’s good at losing himself in the role.”
Heisserer continued, and compared Walker to Nolan. He said, “Paul is a father. He expressed a lot of doubts and fears about fatherhood. So he could give me a transparent performance. So much of his acting comes from this place of honesty. The more I made Nolan like Paul, the better performance I got.”
The writer/director mentioned a scene Walker crafted in which Nolan talks to his baby girl about his own father. He places artifacts from his life, such as a cavalry card with the phrase “There is no quit” on her incubator. “All of those things were ideas Paul generated,” Heisserer recalled. “A great part of this movie was him delivering a performance that he felt would make his father proud of him. There’s something very endearing about that.”
Walker’s investment in the role is evident on-screen; it's what makes “Hours” so compelling. In one of his last interviews, Walker spoke to Salon about his films, fatherhood and listening to his heart.
What is the appeal of acting in and producing an indie like “Hours,” or “Pawn Shop Chronicles”?
It’s more about assembling a team of people who come together and are in it for the right reasons. It’s about the journey. I’ve had good and bad experiences. If I can control it, or steer it in a more positive direction, that’s what I want to do.
Do you feel pressure to carry smaller films like “Hours” or even “Vehicle 19,” where you’re on-screen the entire time?
No. I learned a long time ago that if you subscribe and believe the good, you have to believe the bad. My measure is my heart and what I know. With “Hours,” I told the truth the whole time, and lived every moment. It was an 18-day shoot. If people don’t like my performance in the film, then they don’t like me. I don’t want to read the response. It would bum me out if [folks] don’t like it.
How do you think this film helped you grow as an actor?
It’s intense, and that’s what I appreciate about it. I learned a lot about myself making it in contrast to the big movies I’ve done. There’s a time and place for everything, but as I get older, I like finding those human moments and really connecting. Maybe I’m not as cool as I once was. I’m 40 now and I have a 15-year-old daughter. I used to think, “Why are they giving me work? Because I was a pretty kid?” I like to think I’m handsome now. I was pretty. I was a pretty little girl, a pretty little shit. I hated it! I was in my early 20s and they were putting me in teen magazines. I almost sabotaged my career. “The Fast and the Furious” didn’t let me, and I’m grateful now. That franchise gave me the opportunity.
Opportunities like one for “them” and one for “me”?
That sounds good, but it never works out that way. You compromise your integrity for this or that reason … I don’t care what it is in life: listen to your heart. If you do, no matter what, you win. Stay true to yourself. Don’t listen to noise. Stay in the game and listen to your heart. I’m fortunate in that sense. I don’t live in regret, but I would have realized a lot more of real substance if I heard the meter not the noise.
You really get to flex your acting muscles in “Hours.” How did you work on developing the character and his mind-set, emotions and expressions — especially in the monologues?
I realized about two-thirds of the way in reading it that it touched me emotionally. Being where I am in life, and having a daughter, there are certain connections. It spoke to me. I wanted it to be pure. Eric [Heisserer] wanted me to embody Nolan and bring myself to it. He said don’t expect this to be a layup. I was just living it. I don’t act as much as I try to feel. If I don’t feel it in my heart, I’m fucked. I’m playing it for what it is. I’m trying to live the moment. And two-thirds in, I realized it runs deeper. The ventilator was my life — who I am, what I mean in the world, and my significance. This is my purpose. This is representative. Nolan was a lost soul in the beginning. I brought that to it. That’s what I read in it. Maybe I’m just fucked up? When he falls in love [with his wife], that’s what I want. There weren’t hard substitutes. It was so therapeutic. I realized personal breakthroughs.
Do you think this soul searching is why you gave such an accomplished performance here?
I was a working-class blue-collar guy. Not a lot of artists, or soft-spoken sweet guys in my family. We’re grrrr military. So when I heard people speak of art in acting, I thought: just shut up! Grow some balls! So I’m willingly going on this journey and assuming this life, and here’s my wife and daughter. And I’m missing the point. The disconnect I had is when I’m talking to my father after I finished making “Hours” — and we don’t have a lot of heart-to-hearts — and I said the most amazing thing happened to me: My character’s victory was my victory.
Well you should be proud of the film, and your work in it …
When you are faced with hardship, and tackle something — if you go through all the work to become a doctor — they are super critical before they say, “You are one of us,” and then you pop your collar and walk taller. I didn’t know I could experience that. It’s make-believe, but it was real for me. At the end of the day, there is something to show for your work. If you’re blue-collar, it can be a roof, or something. With movies it’s different. People whisk the film away in a canister, or on a memory card. You think, “Fuck, I was cool today!” But what does cool look like? Shooting a guy? But with “Hours,” there’s emotion, and we had real moments. Regardless of what’s on the chip, I felt we did something incredible every day.
Given that you really threw yourself into the film, did you do your own stunts here?
Running and trudging through water, I had rashes in places you don’t want.
I took my boots off and was looking at my toes and saw stuff that’s not supposed to be there. But that adds to it. What was amazing was that there were moments of fatigue. I’m in decent shape, but running up and down stairs, you really feel it after doing it repeatedly.
So what’s next?
Right now I’m torn. I’m excited for the work. My daughter is 15. I go home every weekend. She’s the best thing I have right now. It’s a real healing time for both of us, so it’s finding the right balance. You can reinvent yourself, but inside, there’s truth to the noise. I may miss out on the best moments of my life, so it’s maintaining the balance. I don’t have to work if I don’t want to, but I love the work.