Hidden in Plain Sight: Paul Walker and the Working Actor
“The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.”
— Philip Roth, American Pastoral
Paul Walker’s death at age 40 in a gruesome car accident is the kind of sad, random thing that’s hard to talk about for a number of reasons. The news broke in the chaotic way it does now: on Twitter, thanks to a report from the sleazy and bottom-feeding gossip site TMZ that for a long while Saturday night was the only source anyone had about the crash. At first it was hard not to know if the whole thing was a sick hoax, the kind of massive trolling/experiment that a certain kind of person will perform just to see how widely they can spread misinformation. Eventually, though, a narrative began to gel, and official social media accounts for legitimate organizations — news outlets, studios, public relations agencies, actual actors — began to confirm that, yes, Paul Walker was dead.
What followed was just as important, though: tributes and evaluations from critics who had not exactly announced themselves as fans of Walker’s work while he was alive. Bilge Ebiri’s piece at Vulture is probably the best example of this retconning write-around: he talks openly about the fact that he gave several of Walker’s films negative reviews, but he does go to bat for Walker’s individual performances and reiterate what he’d said when those reviews were originally published, which is that Walker makes an entertaining and relatable everyman despite (or maybe because of) his charisma and good looks.
This isn’t wholly ignoble, but it is a bit of a disservice, both to the critic and to the man being appraised. Critically, it’s somewhat disingenuous to seek to recast a certain analysis in the light of tragedy. Writing too soon, too close to the event at hand, can be dangerous. It’s easy to trade conviction or insight out of a desire to craft your own version of the eulogy that pop culture is in the process of creating. It does no harm to say that Walker was, by almost all accounts, a hard-working and decent and charitable and giving man who made movies of varying quality. Some are strong. Some have good performances weighed down by other elements. Some of them just plain aren’t good.
Talking about him in terms of a legacy is tricky, too. Part of it has to do with the nature of his filmography. He was such a young man, and he played even younger for years, so his rise to fame came in teen-targeted movies like Varsity Blues and She’s All That. He’s fun and even winning in these; the final products are most charitably described as nostalgia trips for people who remember The WB. He’ll forever be tied to The Fast and the Furious, even though that series long ago abandoned its buddy-movie, Point Break origins for generic heist stories, beachside B-roll, and the latest club tracks. But the real trouble with an actor’s cinematic legacy is how little control he might have over it, even while he’s alive. Case in point: the alternate endings and deleted scenes of Joy Ride, the 2001 thriller starring Walker, Steve Zahn, and Leelee Sobieski, lay out a number of different plots that were tried and scrapped before the final cut was made. Walker’s job was to do his best work in every possible version, but he had no control over the finished product. He didn’t get final cut. It’s worth remembering that actors, even great ones, are so often at the mercy of directors and editors and writers. He just did his job the best he could.
That happens with actors. A lot. Movies are a business about art, but they’re also very much a business about entertainment, and many, many people in the industry are working at their jobs the way you and I do every day. They might not like the particular project they’re on — they might think it’s terrible — but they do it anyway. Maybe they do it because they hope it’ll lead to more interesting work in the future. Maybe they do it to show they can play ball. Maybe they do it because it’s a job and they need to work. Actors need to act, and that often means taking what’s available. It does them no dishonor to remember that their job is just that: a job. Some jobs are better than others. He wasn’t completely knowable through his film work, and it’s a mistake to memorialize Walker, the actor, when he so clearly wanted to be Walker, the man.
That’s what Walker was: a working man. Some people make houses or cars or buildings; he made pictures. He made a lot of them, too. His filmography barely has any gaps in it after he entered the industry. This is just what he did. And like everybody else, he had his true passions that had almost nothing to do with his day job, and that he was only able to pursue because of the opportunities afforded him by that job. Some people paint, some people travel; Walker really liked the ocean. He was on the board of directors of the Billfish Foundation, a nonprofit that works to conserve billfish and other species in the sea, and a few years ago he worked as a deckhand for the National Geographic Channel’s Expedition Great White, which worked to tag and track sharks for research and conservation purposes. He went to Haiti in 2010 to help out after major earthquakes rocked the region, and his experience inspired him to found Reach Out Worldwide, a nonprofit designed to help first responders meet disaster relief needs. His death feels so sad and random not in spite of, but because of his ordinariness and decency. He came across as a hard worker, an average person, and somebody who wanted to find ways to do what they love whenever possible. In other words, just like you and me.