Back on November 14th, I went to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel to speak to actor Paul Walker at the press day for his upcoming film Hours, an indie drama about a father who struggles to keep his newborn daughter alive in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. What most struck me about the nearly 45 minutes I spent chatting with him for our interview was that he was a reluctant movie star who placed importance on following his heart and doing things with merit and significance, fully appreciating the opportunities that he clearly felt like he really just fell into. It was one of the best interview experiences I’ve ever had, and he was one of the most gracious and honest people I’ve ever spoken to.
After sharing stories about what it was like to have been born and raised in the San Fernando Valley (he even asked me what hospital I was born in), the conversation got even more personal, with him telling me that being a good father was the most important thing to him, now that his 15-year-old daughter was living full-time with him, and how hard it was to find a good school that she could go to where she could make good friends. And he also told me about all of the physical injuries that he’s gotten, over the years, and all of the physical therapy that he’s had to do, as a result. It’s a really introspective, insightful interview that I think is worth checking out, if you want a glimpse into the kind of guy he was. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, Paul Walker talked about making sure this story set in the aftermath of Katrina was told without being exploitative, what it was like to shoot the film in New Orleans with crew members who had been through the hurricane, and feeling so exposed while telling this story. He also talked about how crazy the success of the Fast & Furious franchise has been, what it was like to shoot with new director James Wan on the seventh installment, how long he expected the franchise to continue, sometimes feeling guilty for his success because he thought people were more deserving, and how he wants to focus on the things that are important to him.
Collider: You must be happy that I’m your last interview today, as I would imagine you’re tired of talking about yourself.
PAUL WALKER: It’s not so much tired, as I don’t know how to regulate it. It’s not that I’m giving a performance, but I’m a people pleaser. I’m not one of those monkeys. If you’re going to put the time in, then I’m going to put the time in. We’ve gotta do it. We’re in it together. And you know how it is. Sometimes you just don’t want to be there. Today, I actually like the movie, so it’s not hard for me. And I genuinely really liked the people that I worked with.
Was it important to you that, if you were going to do a film that addresses the aftermath of Katrina, it be handled in the right way and not exploit what happened?
WALKER: We weren’t there to exploit Katrina. It’s just the backdrop. It made a good setting for what I thought was a touching story. And it started as a short story for [writer/director Eric Heisserer], and then his peers were like, “You should turn this into a screenplay,” so he did. I guess he was getting some offers to go and direct, but he held out. He wanted to do this one, and his reps were like, “Really? This one? You’re sure this is the one?” And he was like, “Yeah, this is the one.” I remember, early on, a buddy of mine was like, “You’ve gotta read this. Check this out.”
WALKER: It was amazing! If you live in New Orleans and you went through it, you have a fleur-de-lis tattoo. You just do. And all those guys had a story, whether they had experienced it, firsthand, or whether it was something that their aunt went through or their sister, and a lot of it was tragic. But the guys that were there, were there for the right reasons. I was intimidated by this script. I read it and was like, “Wow, this is really honest. It’s really truthful. You have to not be human for this to not touch you.” Eric told me, “The people we have on this are really into it for the reasons that we are, and even more so because some of them experienced it.” I felt like I had to go there and walk around naked, in front of those people. The way that I was raised, you don’t go on journeys like this. Inside maybe, but you don’t show that to people. Nolan is not showing this to anybody. It’s something that he goes on, himself. But in order for me to go there, I had to go there in front of all these people. It was like showing up to set with your clothes off. I was like, “Okay, I hope I represent well today.” The thing that worked was seeing the genuine engagement from the guys that were there. They were all into it, and you could see them being moved, after a take. We’d screw around a little bit, every once in awhile, but it was just a different tone.
What was it like to do the scenes with Genesis Rodriguez?
WALKER: I told Eric, early on, “I can’t fake liking a girl. I just can’t. I have to really like her.” She’s incredible. She’s so warm. She’s like who you see on screen. That’s who she is. You can’t fake that kind of energy.
What was it like to be doing practically every scene of this movie essentially by yourself?
WALKER: I didn’t feel alone. I was insulated. It became a big electric blanket for me. It felt warm and it felt good. In some ways, it was easier, too. You could just go there. It complicates it when you have somebody else throwing stuff at you ‘cause it takes you out of your game. They do something and you’re like, “Woah, what was that?” There was nobody there to throw me off my game path. It was like, “I know where this starts, I know where this ends, and this is what I’ve gotta do.” It just affected me a lot more than I thought it was going to.
WALKER: I’ve been pretty fortunate with things, without even trying. I was just kind of anointed. In order to really feel good about it, you’ve gotta earn it. I have friends that are super talented, that are far more talented than I am, in certain areas, but it just doesn’t happen for them. Sometimes you feel guilty for your success because you know people who deserve it way more. This is nice, for a change. It’s cool to have a big movie that opens up #1. I’ve had that a couple of times now.
Are you still amazed at how the Fast & Furious movies do better, with each one that opens?
WALKER: It’s crazy! We’ll see what happens with this next one.
How has it felt, having a different director with James Wan?
WALKER: I was so scared, going in without Justin [Lin]. I ran into J.J. Abrams at South by Southwest, and he was like, “Hey, what’s up man?” I did Joy Ride. He wrote Joy Ride with Clay Tarver, and I did that movie in 1998, before J.J. was J.J. I think Felicity came right after that, or something. He’s a cool guy. It doesn’t seem like he’s changed that much, which I was stoked to see. I said, “They want us to go do another Fast & Furious, but my man, Justin, isn’t coming back. I don’t know if I want to do it.” He said, “Fuck, don’t do it then.” That was coming from a director. I thought that was cool. I really was like, “I don’t know.” And Justin passed on a crazy amount of money. I was like, “Wow, Justin, good for you, man. This takes a lot of your life. You’ve been doing it for a long time. Go do something else.” Directors are married to a project for so much longer than actors are. We’ll go do three in the time it takes for a director to finish one.
I was still deciding, and Peter Safran, a producer on Hours, did The Conjuring with James. So, when James was anointed as the new guy, Peter called me up and said, “Dude, you’re gonna love him. That guy’s amazing!” Coming from Peter, that meant something. I really respect him. I was like, “That’s good.” And then, it turned into a conversation with James over the phone, and I was like, “This guy is so sweet. He’s so nice.” My intuition is on point with people. I can read people. Even through the phone, you can read sincerity. You can’t bullshit me. I’ve been around too many sharks, for too long. I was like, “He’s a really good guy.” I called up Peter and was like, “You weren’t kidding. This guy is awesome!” And then, I was like, “Sweet people get eaten up.” I started thinking like that.
So, I was having these conversations with him, and I think it was the third conversation when I said, “Do you realize what you’re getting into with this thing? This movie means far too much to too many people.” It’s not just that, on the day, but think of how many stars there are, how many producers, how much this represents to the studio, and the fan pressure. So, when I said, “Do you realize what you’re getting into?,” he was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!” And then, about two weeks into it, he was like, “The real answer is no, I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into. I really believed I was gonna have more freedom and get to do more stuff on this than I did on the smaller movies, but it’s just the opposite.”
Maybe this is just horrible bad, but I think I’ve had enough successes to where the journey is more important to me now. There’s no guarantee, no matter what. We get one run in life. I don’t want to work with douchebags. I wanna work with good people. I don’t want to work with screaming, yelling directors who’ve got daddy issues. I just don’t want to deal with those guys. James is really excited on set. He’s just a cool guy. There wasn’t nearly enough time for prep. We got it going way too fast, like we always do. There are times where he was barely able to keep up with it because it was moving so quick, but you’d never know it because he won’t reveal it. He’s a little ninja. He’s a little assassin warrior. Justin was the same way. He has the heart of a lion. I’m really, really impressed with James, as a person. The shots and what he comes up with, there’s a certain fluidity. He definitely has a look. He’s a shooter. He has good movement. I like his angle and composition and the way he looks at things. He’s a talented guy. We’ll see what happens. He deserves a victory, I’ll tell you that.
WALKER: He hasn’t done as much of it. It takes everybody a little bit to find their stride, but he figures it out really quick. I couldn’t do what he’s doing right now. I’ve been around it a long time, and I couldn’t do it. I police personalities and make sure things are harmonies. That’s what I do. I just want there to be good energy, all the time, and I think that works well with a director like James. With this one, I think it’s cool ‘cause everyone was a little fearful with Justin leaving and bringing in a new guy, but the entire cast embraced him and was cool with him. They wouldn’t feel as compelled to do that, if he didn’t exude what he does. It’s not so much being good guys, as much as it is wanting to be a good guy because he’s a good guy. It’s pretty cool. I like seeing that.
Have you had any conversations with Vin Diesel about how many more films you want to do and how long this franchise can realistically go on?
WALKER: Well, the studio supposedly wants 8, 9 and 10. I’ll be 50. Even if 7 were to [tank], there’s at least an 8. That’s a guarantee. The thing that’s pretty crazy is that neither Vin nor I were going back to do the third one. They were going to do a direct-to-video 4. They were going to dispose it and be done with it. But then, Vin was like, “No, I’ll come in for a cameo,” because it wasn’t testing well. He wanted to set up the fourth one and the studio went for it, and we got a second life. It was supposed to be done already.
When you did the first film, did you ever think that Brian O’Connor was a character that you’d still be playing?
WALKER: It was the same studio I had worked with on The Skulls, and Rob Cohen directed it and it had the same producer, Neal Moritz. They asked me what I wanted to do next, when we were getting towards the end of it, and I had seen Days of Thunder and Donnie Brasco, and I said, “I want to do something where I’m either an undercover cop or I’m racing cars.” Three months later, they came to me with a newspaper article about street racing in Los Angeles. They were like, “This is the backdrop. You’re an undercover cop in that world. There’s no screenplay, but it’s called Redline.” They offered me a million bucks. I was 25 years old. I went to my reps and said, “I wanna do it!” They were like, “You’re crazy! There isn’t even a screenplay.” I was like, “Are you kidding me?! These are my friends. I wanna go make a movie with my friends.”
It wouldn’t have gotten past the first movie, if Rob hadn’t treated it as he did. When he read the screenplay, he looked at it like and saw a masterpiece. I was like, “This guy is really making more of this than he should.” But, it was because of the attention and the reverence that he gave it that the first one turned out the way it did. Who would have thought, way back when, that Redline was gonna become what it became.
I got phone calls from Neal and Rob when the movie came out. I was hanging out with a girlfriend, and they went out to the midnight showings on opening night. I saved their messages, for years and years and years, and I should have put them on a recorder, but I never did. I literally had Neal screaming into my phone on my voicemail going, “It’s a cultural phenomenon! It’s 12:30 and they’re lined up around the theater!” And Rob Cohen was right there going, “There’s a girl standing here in line that’s really hot! You wanna say hi to Paul?” Who would have ever thought? We were a B movie that turned into this crazy thing. It’s a funny game. Who would have ever thought?
How do you feel your outlook on acting has changed, since you started?
WALKER: People that I thought were my friends, way back when, aren’t really my friends. I was this impressionable, innocent kid. I thought I was cool. I had smoked a lot of weed, and done acid and shrooms, so I thought I’d been around the world and knew what was up. I didn’t realize that not everybody that postures as being your friend is actually your friend. So, I took some lumps and bumps, early on, and it jaded me. It made me somewhat cynical. I realized that I was actually just a hot piece of young ass. That sucks, but that was the truth. That was a hard lesson for me. It still happens. The industry is still guilty. Now I know, but there’s still a little bit of a chip. I’m still angry at the structure of things. But that’s just the world, in general. It bums me out that it’s like that, but I survived and I came out the other side, and I have more than a handful of legitimate friends now. I think it’s a miracle that I’m still here ‘cause I didn’t even try, and I did everything I could to sabotage this career.
I’m a science guy. I’m a geek. I love geology and botany and marine science. I thought maybe I’d be a professional guide, or maybe even a park ranger, working for the department of fish and game. But, this stupid franchise wouldn’t let me go. They keep coming back. It created some opportunities, though. I was really excited to go do Eight Below. I was really excited to do Running Scared. I was really excited to do Hours. I’ve gotten to travel the world, and I wouldn’t have the friends that I have in that cast. It wasn’t a natural fit or pairing. We come from opposite ends. I respect Ludacris more than just about anybody on the planet. He’s such a great guy. He’s got such a good head on his shoulders. Vin’s a pain in my ass. We come from opposite ends of the spectrum. I wish I had some of him in me, though. He says the same thing to me, too. He says, “I wish I could be more like you, sometimes.” We fuck with each other, all the time, but he’s been a hell of a partner. The guy is a lot smarter than a lot of people realize. Not that he’s a dummy, but a lot of people think he’s a dummy. Vin is really sharp.
Now, I just wanna feel good about what I do. It’s cool to win, but I wanna feel good about it. You can get caught up in the machine of it. We all know not to live above our means. We’re all told to stop and smell the roses. It doesn’t matter the game or the arena, we forget, all the time. You get to a place, and it doesn’t matter what you do, but there’s something to be said about doing it yourself and really being present when you do it. Don’t just show up and mail it in. Nobody can love your dog more than you can love your dog. Nobody can be a better aunt to your niece or your nephew than you can be. It sounds retarded, but that’s where I’m at, in my head.
The things that are important to me, I wanna do it and not mail it in. Don’t have other people pick up slack on the things that have real merit and heart and significance to you. We all compromise ourselves, from time to time, because maybe it will lead to more opportunity, or maybe there’s another buck to be made and I can help my sister out. All of that’s cool, but we forget and we get caught up. If you want that nurturing, caring, empathetic, compassionate heart to keep on ticking and be around, and you want it to be strong, then don’t neglect #1. One way to feed it is just being truthful and listening to your heart.
We forget and get off track and start thinking with our head too much. If it’s not in your heart, you don’t need it. If your heart is always your guide, then you always make the right decision, even if it hurts. Even if it doesn’t turn out well, if you felt the commitment and you felt the devotion, then you’re winning. I don’t know how I got on this, but I just turned 40 and I’ve been looking back.
The Hours opens in theaters on December 13th.