In high school, my bedroom wall served mainly as a canvas for displaying '90s teen heartthrobs. And somewhere between Devon Sawa and Ryan Phillippe, Paul Walker had his place.
He was certainly more than deserving of a spot with those periwinkle eyes, that chiseled jaw and just the vaguest suggestion of facial hair. He was the epitome of a California surfer bro -- a specimen not easily found in the Massachusetts suburb where I grew up.
But I still had his poster -- a 1999 Teen magazine cover, to be precise, boasting “He’s All That (AND MORE!)" -- and his movies. In his early roles in “She’s All That” and “Varsity Blues,” Walker played an unfeeling jock -- the kind of unattainable cool guy the nerdy girl pines after despite knowing better. My friends and I often spent sleepovers daydreaming about someone like Walker, thinking, “If only a guy like that really existed.”
When our paths ended up crossing over a decade later, I realized Walker was indeed a rare breed -- just not the type I’d envisioned.
It was summer 2011, and “Fast Five” had just scored the biggest box office opening of the year. I started work on a story examining how the “Fast and Furious” franchise had become such a phenomenon and put in an interview request with Walker’s publicist. He agreed, and his representative passed along his cellphone number -- a rarity in a town where most actors demand their handlers make and monitor important calls.
Still, I wasn’t expecting much from the phoner. It’s typically difficult to glean anything significant from a conversation with an actor when you’re not face-to-face with them. They’re calling from a seemingly endless press day, they’re in the car, they’re making dinner. They have little interest in sharing meaningful insight with a stranger over the telephone.
When Walker answered his cell, I feared I was right: He wasn't in the mood to chat. It was 8:45 a.m., and it sounded as if my call had served as his alarm clock.
"I'm really groggy, so I may not make sense for a bit," he cautioned, his voice raspy.
We started to talk about his career -- one, he readily acknowledged, he probably wouldn’t have were it not for the success of the “Fast” franchise. Born in Glendale, he started acting when he was young but was never intensely passionate about it. He recalled signing on to a movie filming in Utah because he’d be able to snowboard in Park City. He liked the outdoors and studied marine biology at college, thinking he’d end up as a naturalist or a park ranger.
But when the producers of “The Fast and the Furious” approached him about playing undercover cop Brian O’Conner, he was excited. Growing up, he’d admired “cool guys” like Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood and Bruce Willis -- real action heroes -- and O’Conner seemed to have a similar edge.
Plus, Walker was badly in need of a paycheck.
“I was 24 years old and had just recently had a child out of wedlock,” he recalled. “I wanted to have fun and needed to put a roof over my baby’s head.”
The filmmakers behind the movie knew he was “apprehensive about being ‘the guy’” -- meaning a leading man -- so they told him “to just show up and have fun, and that alleviated some of the pressure.”
He had no idea, of course, that the franchise would spawn seven films. (Walker would star in five of them and had been in the middle of shooting his sixth when he died.) And so he didn't do a fantastic job negotiating his salary early on, unlike costar Vin Diesel.
“I’m not the businessman that Vin is,” he said, explaining that Diesel went on to make twice as much from the “Fast” movies as he did.
“But without him,” he countered quickly, “the material wouldn’t be elevated. And without me, there’s not as much harmony.”
Despite his comparatively low paycheck, Walker genuinely seemed to love working on the “Fast” films. When he wasn’t acting, he sought out adventure, spending time racing cars with his buddies. So why not do that in movies too?
“One day, I’m going to be an old man, but in the meantime -- I love this [stuff],” he said, using more colorful language. “That’s what I’m built for.”
He was, I found, the rare actor who actually recognized his strengths and wasn’t bitter about being recognized for them.
Which isn’t to say he didn’t have bigger ambitions. After years of taking paycheck gigs, he said he was ready to explore new acting dimensions.
"I never even bothered to apply myself in Hollywood before, but I have the good fortune that this thing has hit again and the franchise has managed to keep me viable all these years," he said. "As opposed to completely disappearing, I'm still here. And now the verdict is out on me. It's like, 'What are you going to do with it, guy?'"
I was supposed to meet with Walker this month to talk about one of his first passion projects -- an independent drama called “Hours” in which he is the sole actor on-screen for the majority of the movie. Since news of his death on Saturday, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how that interview would’ve gone. Where would he have chosen to meet? What would he have lighted up talking about?
Walker's face has long since gone down from my childhood bedroom wall, along with all the other youthful heartthrobs. But even after all these years, I still feel myself part of the clique that has a deep admiration for him. Judging by the reaction to his death, it's a pretty large group.