Paul Walker’s knee hurt.
Cold rain was pouring down in sheets on the Canadian set of “Brick Mansions,” and the actor was taking a breather in video village with his manager. A couple of months before the action film began shooting Walker had undergone surgery to repair a torn ligament in his knee. The injury hadn’t fully healed when production began, but he didn’t want the project to be postponed. So there he was last summer, trying to grin and bear it on a movie that required him to learn parkour -- a sport in which participants run, jump and climb around urban obstacles.
“After a break, he was called to set, and I saw him limp over,” recalled Matt Luber, Walker's manager who worked with the actor for 18 years. “He looked back at me and said, ‘Park ranger.’ He’d always said he wanted to be one. He loved what he was doing, but he always ran with one foot in the business and one foot out.”
In the months since Walker’s death in a November car accident, these are the kinds of stories that have circulated in Hollywood about the 40-year-old. He was a thrill-seeker, spending his free time tagging great white sharks, racing fast cars and practicing Brazilian jiu-jitsu. And he often determined which movies he’d do based on their fun-quotient -- in the “Fast and Furious” franchise he was able to tool around in vehicles, and on “Brick Mansions” he learned how to dive roll from eight feet.
This weekend's "Mansions," the penultimate movie Walker appears in before 2015's seventh "Fast" film, stars Walker as a cop who is ordered to infiltrate a walled-off portion of Detroit riddled with crime. As he hunts down an infamous drug lord (played by RZA), his character is put in a number of precarious situations, including high-speed car chases and crashes. At moments, scenes in the film call to mind the way Walker died, though Walker was a passenger in the fatal accident.
“When I first saw the film, I thought it could be a concern -- but the truth is, Paul loved cars,” Luber said. “I’m sure it’ll cross people’s minds in an odd way, but then you let it pass. It’s an action movie. There are car crashes. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
Still, Relativity Media, the studio distributing “Brick Mansions,” was extremely cautious when it came to marketing the film in a sensitive fashion. Executives at the company consulted with Luber and with Walker’s family to make sure everyone felt comfortable with the advertising materials -- none of which allude to the fact that the film features one of Walker’s final performances.
“That sounds very macabre,” said Russell Schwartz, Relativity’s president of marketing. “The last thing we wanted to do was exploit anything. There’s an 'in memoriam' at the end of the movie, but nothing on the campaign selling the movie.”
When Walker died, “Brick Mansions” had been completed, but the studio had not yet set a release date for the film. Schwartz said executives “took a beat” before ultimately deciding to open the picture before the crowded summer blockbuster season.
At special screenings of the film this week, moviegoers were given “I [Heart] PW” buttons -- a last-minute move by the filmmakers to honor the actor. (The pins will also be available at 100 theaters showing the film this weekend.)
At a recent New York screening of the film, Walker’s costar RZA said he was heartened by the crowd’s warm reaction to the late star.
“The audience cheered him on,” the musician turned actor said. “I think everybody knows that we’ll not see Paul in the flesh again, but I think we appreciate seeing him on the screen.”
RZA said he was bombarded after the screening by fans asking him questions about Walker, wanting to know what the actor was like.
“Sometimes I feel overburdened with that,” he said. “I only have one chapter. But it was a beautiful chapter. About 75% into the film, we were calling each other ‘brother.’ I know he’s known as an action star, but people who haven’t seen him work don’t know how serious he took acting.”