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That time Bruce Greenwood faced a grizzly in the new film ‘Wildlike’

Actor Bruce Greenwood survived his grizzly encounter on the set of "Wildlike" and is racking up more roles.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Bruce Greenwood’s close encounter with an Alaskan grizzly bear while filming the new indie drama “Wildlike” did not involve the usual Hollywood trained animal.

The bear, named Joe Boxer, was to appear in an intense scene involving a 14-year-old girl named Mackenzie (Ella Purnell) who journeys across the Alaskan wilderness with a gruff backpacker (Greenwood) after she is sexually abused by her uncle. During one of their treks, they come face to face with a grizzly.

But Joe Boxer wasn’t a trained bear. He was simply used to humans, having lived in a wildlife sanctuary since he was rescued as a cub.

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“In order to draw the bear out, they had a bunch of fish they would chuck into the bushes,” recalled Greenwood, 59.

“They brought us in a front loader,” Greenwood said, referring to Ella, the camera operator, the director of photography and a bear handler equipped with a pitchfork. “A pitchfork! You could have brought a memorial spoon from the Eiffel Tower for all the good it would do.”

A shrub “the size of a Volkswagen” shuddered, Greenwood said, and the bear emerged.

“He walks toward us as they are throwing fish, and maybe when he gets 40 feet away, he charges and goes about 20 feet in an instant,” the actor said. “They move like a deer. Just to give you an idea of just how muscular they are, the shiny fur on his back as he ran rippled like water.”

Greenwood, who appeared in the final episodes of “Mad Men” as Joan’s love interest, is a busy actor. Taking a break in the family room of the Pacific Palisades house he shares with his wife, Susan, he proffered an ice pack for his visitor’s bad back and apologized for not having time the night before to bake bread for his interview about the new film, which opens Friday.

He gazed into a backyard overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

“We have possums here and raccoon and deer,” he said. “Deer come out and eat these flowers.”

Last year a hummingbird nested near the front door and had two babies.

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“We roped off the front so people had to come to the side of the house,” he said. The baby birds “were all eyes. They lived for about three days. We think she probably suffocated them. My wife was completely distraught.”

Rene, Greenwood’s character in “Wildlike,” is completely distraught over the recent death of his wife when he encounters young Mackenzie while backpacking.

“He doesn’t want to be saddled or interrupted in his solitary moment of consideration of what he’s lost,” Greenwood said.

Rene and Mackenzie are both broken, he said. “They need each other, and it comes together in a beautiful way.”

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“Wildlike” writer-director Frank Hall Green described Greenwood as an experienced pro who “really gels with almost any actor.”

“One of the things I really wanted to find was an actor who had worked in the independent film world and understood the challenges and the sizes of crew and what was expected,” the director said.

Greenwood, who first came to fame nearly 30 years ago as the manipulative Dr. Seth Griffin on the TV series “St. Elsewhere,” has more recently appeared in films including “Flight” with Denzel Washington and J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” movies, in which he plays Capt. Christopher Pike. But he has done some of his finest work with Canadian director Atom Egoyan, appearing in five of his intimate indies including “Exotica” and “The Sweet Hereafter.”

“My agent at the time said, ‘I think you should meet this guy,’” Greenwood said of Egoyan. “It was one of those things that we just knew right away we would be friends. We are just simpatico. He is just tremendously inventive, and you appreciate that instantly when you meet him.”

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Greenwood will next be seen in “Truth,” opening Oct. 16, in which he plays CBS News President Andrew Heyward opposite Robert Redford as Dan Rather.

And he’s filming writer-director Stephen Gaghan’s “Gold,” the Matthew McConaughey movie in which Greenwood plays a South African mining magnate, as well as Ryan Murphy’s 10-part series “American Crime Story: The People v O.J. Simpson,” in which he portrays Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti.

“We have two more episodes to go,” Greenwood said. “The writing has been really strong. I think it’s designed to be an eye-opener.”

susan.king@latimes.com

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