Actor Paul Walker is looking at the bigger picture and he likes what he sees.
Besides the critically-acclaimed film “Pleasantville” in 1998, in which Walker plays a 1950’s teenager exposed to a colorful world outside of his black and white existence, the self-proclaimed “über-Californian” has taken on scripts generally geared to teenage audiences.
Although films like “She’s All That,” “Varsity Blues,” “The Fast and the Furious” and “The Skulls,” might have put a check in his back pocket and given him the stardom he has today, Walker, who starred in his first film at the age of 12 (1987’s “Monster in the Closet”), knows there is more for him in the industry than the usual teenie-bopper fare.
“As you get older, your mind opens up a little bit more,” Walker, told me during an interview this week. “I just do what feels right.”
What feel right as of now, Walker says, is moving forward in his career and finding roles that resonate with him on a more mature level. With two film releases in February, family adventure “Eight Below” and action thriller “Running Scared,” Walker has found roles, albeit at different ends of the spectrum, that are launching him down a new career path.
In “Eight Below,” Walker plays Gerry Shepherd, an science researcher and guide, who must leave a group of Siberian Huskies behind when an accident occurs during an expedition in Antarctica. Although he plans to return to retrieve his dogs the following day, a severe snowstorm and orders from military personnel keep Gerry from reaching them for many months. During this time alone, the dogs break away from base and attempt to survive the harsh winter conditions by searching for food and staying together to fend off would-be predators.
With a young daughter and a number of nieces and nephews, Walker said it was his mother, who told him he needed to find a role in a film that children could enjoy.
“I have a mom that’s laying on me saying, ‘You gotta make something the kids can see,'” he said. “She’s the Jiminy Cricket that is on my shoulder and Jiminy Cricket gets heavy after a while.”
At first thinking “Eight Below” was not something he would like to work on because of the similarity to 2002’s ill-received “Snow Dogs,” which starred Cuba Gooding Jr., Walker said he decided to read the script anyway and make up his mind from there.
“I read it and it reminded me of ‘Old Yeller’ and I loved that movie when I was a kid,” he said. “So, I thought this was a good family movie to make. A few years ago I wouldn’t have cared to do this movie. But you grow up, you mature and you start seeing the bigger picture. You really start seeing life for what it really is. I wouldn’t have made this film if it didn’t resonate with me.”
Growing up in California, Walker said he did get a chance to experience the snowier parts of the state as a kid and did not go into the film never having felt a bit of frostbite. Despite his preference for a warmer climate and his Nissan Skyline R34 over a sled, he did not mind adapting to the drop in temperature while filming in British Columbia. All it took was a little patience.
“Getting into the snow is not bad,” he said. “It takes some time to adjust. It was hard for the crew. They were knee-deep in snow humping around with all the gear. As an actor it’s not a big deal. If we’re working on one scene and the storm blows in, we move to another scene. We had it easy compared to the crew.”
Patience was also needed, Walker said, to learn the basics of dog sledding by professionals for his role, a skill he says he is “pretty proficient” in now.
“[The professional sledders] broke down the doggie-politics and wanted me to learn this and that,” he said. “But the truth is, it’s all progressive. It’s one day at a time. In one day you know very little, but at the end of three months you’re pretty kick-ass.”
With his dog-sledding days behind him and “Running Scared” opening wide Feb. 24, Walker’s world has catapulted onto a whole new level. Along with his first stint as a producer on a new film called “The Death and Life of Bobby Z,” in which he also stars, Walker is also wrapping up “Flags of Our Fathers,” the 20th film of his young career alongside Academy Award winners, director Clint Eastwood (“Million Dollar Baby”) and screenwriter Paul Haggis (“Crash”). In “Flags,” Walker portrays one of the six men, who raised the American Flag at the Battle of Iwo Jima, a turning point of WWII and now an iconic wartime symbol.
“You want to live and grow as much as you can,” Walker said. “As time goes on, I hope more opportunities present themselves and I hope to continue to grow as a person and an actor.”