Paul Walker is not revving engines in SXSW feature “Hours”: He’s revving the hospital generator to keep his prematurely born daughter alive on a ventilator—but the charge only lasts for three minutes at a time. And Hurricane Katrina just hit.
The small, tense movie is a perfect showcase for Walker’s no-nonsense, steely-jawed performance style, which reveals a depth that has only been hinted at in his previous work. We chatted with the drop-dead gorgeous actor and director-screenwriter Eric Heisserer about getting off the Hollywood hamster wheel and making it to SXSW.
How did “Hours” come your way?
Paul Walker: My reps had mentioned it to me so I read it and I liked it, because it’s such a departure from the smoke and mirrors and the big stuff. It was pure and truthful, and I think that’s just where I am in my life. After that it was pending a meeting, and typically, if you want to do this small movie, you just go ahead and do it. But I liked it, you know? They told me Eric had had opportunities to direct stuff in the past and this is the one he decided to step out with and he’s very particular, so we met and had a couple of beers and talked about it.
Eric, what convinced you to go with Paul?
Eric Heisserer: There’s something to the analogy that casting is a lot like dating and you know it when you find it. And there was a genuineness about Paul that I got right up front that was exactly the kind of feel and tone I wanted for the character. And the way he talked about the way he identified with the character and how it resonated with him let me realize that he was the guy for it.
Is that how you prefer to cast, rather than in an audition room?
Heisserer: I much prefer the conversation. If I can get to know them and I see in them what I’m looking for in that conversation, then it will be easier for me to direct them day to day. The casting session has its uses, but for the main two roles I had a conversation with Paul and with Genesis [Rodriguez].
Paul, to go back to something you just said, is looking for a project that resonates with where you are in your life something new for you?
Walker: I think it’s something I’ve always known. I think that’s why there’s been so much ambivalence and why I’ve been so uncomfortable, to be honest with you, for this whole ride. It wasn’t something I ever chose and it wasn’t until recently that I realized, “Hey, look, you can make this work for you.” It’s just a matter of just taking the reins. And it’s not a matter of taking control, but you can get off the fucking hamster wheel, right? I’m really grateful for the opportunity, but I think not knowing how to manage it, how to make it work for you… It’s all a balance. And once you find it, you lose it. And I think now, too, my daughter is 14 years old and I want to take God-given opportunities and I want to maximize. I want her to see it. She was there for the premiere and she’s proud. She’s excited. And she’s proudest, I think, for the same reason why I wanted to be a part of it. It’s truthful, it’s pure. Of course, I think there’s a part of her that also thinks it’s cool when dad’s in a big studio movie. [Laughs]. I think if it wasn’t for the fact that I’d had the blockbusters, that’s probably what I’d be pursuing. But I’ve had those for a period and now I want to plug in to whatever fills the soul.
Heisserer: My mantra shortly after we started shooting this was let Paul be Paul because the more honest he felt a connection with a moment or a scene, the more we all felt it there. There are different approaches to acting and the one I get most excited about is when I feel like I’m seeing a really genuine, honest performance that comes out of the actor’s heart, and I saw that with him.
And Paul, any terrible audition stories you want to share?
Walker: I read for Ang Lee years ago. I wanted it so bad. It was the one he did with Skeet Ulrich and Jewel and Tobey Maguire [“Ride With the Devil”]. And there was this guy who took a bullet in the face. And my dad’s buddy is a dentist, so I had him numb out my face so I could see what it was like to talk. If you get shot though the face, you figure nerve damage and stuff. So I went in and did that, and he thought it was ridiculous. It was probably a little too gross for him, because I had drool coming out of my mouth. Ang Lee couldn’t look at me. He laughed at me during the audition. It was horrible. He tried not to, but he laughed.