Paul Walker was a refreshing enigma in Hollywood. Though he starred in one of the most successful movie franchises of all time, he never seemed to revel in fame. He wouldn’t go out of his way to drum up press. Walker, the man, remained somewhat of a mystery throughout his career.
Perhaps that’s why people wrote him off as a dumb lug. With messy blond hair, a surfer’s accent, and chiseled features, Walker was easy to stereotype as a lucky, pretty face that didn’t have much going on upstairs.
But I never understood that characterization of the star. Walker was always candid and articulate in interviews and, in fact, he lived a remarkably interesting life — one more deserving of attention than the brazen celebrity exploits that so often steal our focus. He was a globe-trekking adventurer, and he made his mark as an athlete, an outdoorsman, a public servant, and most recently, as a devoted father.
The tragedy of Walker’s shocking death is that he was beginning to achieve greatness in each of those fields. He was hitting his stride — and it all got cut short. I hope we don’t remember Walker as merely a handsome action star. He was a human being defined by a multitude of passions, not a smolder. Below, I’ve listed a few of Walker’s less-talked-about facets that made him, to me, a singularly fascinating man.
Racecar Driver (and not just in the Fast films)
Even before his name became synonymous with fast cars and rumbling engines, Walker’s mind was set on burning rubber. He often implied that he participated in amateur street racing while growing up in San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles and once memorably told George Lopez, “I didn’t race,” with a wink and a coy grin. His passion for cars brought him to the Fast and Furious franchise. Walker told Automobile magazine that while filming The Skulls in 1999, he said to director Rob Cohen, “I want to do a movie where I’m racing cars or I’m an undercover cop.” That wish was granted in Cohen’s very next film, The Fast and the Furious, which arrived in 2001.
His passion for racing only grew as the high-octane franchise hit its box office stride. In 2010, he began competing semi-professionally in the Redline Time Attack series, driving a BMW M3 E92. He was also a part-owner of the performance shop Always Evolving (whose CEO Roger Rodas was driving the car that killed both him and Walker). To get a sense of Walker’s auto-knowledge, watch the video below from about 1:30 until 2:45, during which time he disarmingly geeks out about driving cars at Mine’s Motor Sports in Japan.
Walker often cited French oceanographer and conservationist Jacques Cousteau as his idol, and he admired the scholar’s dedication to understanding the sea. Walker majored in marine biology at community college, and he intended on pursuing it as a career. But his role in 1998’s Pleasantville quickly gave him a full slate of work on screen. “I thought I’d make one movie, pay off my loans, and go back and finish school,” Walker explained at an event in 2011. “[But] it never stopped.” The actor didn’t toss off his dreams. “The passion for marine biology is still there,” he said. “That was my first passion, so I still find other ways to fulfill that.”
How so? In 2005, Walker starred alongside Jessica Alba in the treasure-hunting thriller Into The Blue, in part, he said, because it allowed him ample time under the water. In 2006, he became a board member of the Billfish Foundation, which monitors fish populations and ocean health around the world. And in 2010, Walker spent 11 days off the coast of Mexico catching great white sharks with a crew for National Geographic’s series Expedition Great White. (See him in action below at the 38:00 mark.)
The ocean fascinated Walker. In much the same way that car conversations brought out a giddy passion in the star’s voice, so did talk of the deep blue sea. This was his response when asked by a German outlet why he was so fascinated by it:
“The sea is just a big mystery, really. There are things that are more alien in the ocean than I think are probably alien up in space. It seems like every other day there’s a new discovery. You look at it and you’re like, ‘Really, that’s from this planet?’ Things that are so bizarre. You know, we’re finding creatures living at depths that we thought were completely impossible. They’re living by sea vents where the temperature is so hot that we thought it would basically sterilize the water, so to find anything living in those environments is mind-blowing. And if it’s not the depths, it’s something in the sand, it’s a crazy octopus that was never before realized or identified. I like that. As much as we like to think we know, it’s just a reminder of how little we actually do.”
As might be expected of an athletically built marine biologist-in-the-making, Walker quickly took to surfing as a high schooler. “Surfing soothes me,” he told Dark Horizons in 2001. “It’s always been a kind of Zen experience for me. The ocean is so magnificent, peaceful and awesome. The rest of the world disappears for me when I’m on a wave.”
He later became an ardent fan of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a form of martial arts that emphasizes grappling — and one that he said helped him become a better surfer. Walker had earned a brown belt (the second-highest level of achievement) in the sport and was working toward earning his black belt. Paragon, the gym where Walker trained with acclaimed coach Ricardo “Franjinha” Miller, released this video of one of their training sessions in 2010:
Though he loved everything from parkour to archery, Walker had suggested he was slowing down as he neared 40. “I used to be a really big hunter,” he said. “What I’ve found as I’ve gotten older is I enjoy taking photos of the wildlife more.” He was exploring a burgeoning interest in birding in recent years, and he’d begun to pursue botany as a hobby.
In January 2010, Walker flew to Port Au Prince, Haiti, to contribute to relief efforts in the city, which had been utterly devastated by a massive earthquake earlier in the month. Recognizing the need for fast-acting first responders who could provide help and cut through red tape, Walker soon founded Reach Out Worldwide, a disaster relief organization that, according to the ROWW website, specializes in “arriving quickly, clearing access, providing basic necessities and medical assistance to ease the survivors’ pain and bringing hope in the bleakest of circumstances.” (The picture at the top of this post, from Reach Out’s Facebook page, shows Walker at a quiet moment on a trip to Haiti.)
In ROWW’s three years of existence, it has dispatched medical teams to Indonesia following the 2010 tsunami and provided an entire crew of workers to lead the clean-up effort in Alabama after it was ravaged by tornadoes (for this job, Walker helped purchase $15,000 worth of power tools and then had friends drive his own pickup truck, filled with even more gear, from Burbank to Tuscaloosa). Most recently, ROWW sent medical professionals into the Philippines to provide care to those suffering the effects of Typhoon Haiyan, the largest storm ever recorded.
“We put something out there that we believed in, and others have jumped on,” Walker said in 2011. “We have some really talented people. Doctors that have 25, 30 years of experience that have volunteered their time readily. Weeks of their life every year to the cause.” The actor had earned his EMT certification and said that he was considering going to school to become a paramedic. Tragically, the last function Walker would ever attend was a ROWW event, which he was leaving just moments before his fatal crash.
Walker became a father by accident when he was 25 years old, just before his career was about to take off, when he found out that then-girlfriend Rebecca McBrain was pregnant. “It was tough. I went to Christian high school, and I was told Mom and Dad were supposed to be together,” he told WENN recently. “I knew where I was at with chicks and having fun. I mean, I was sleeping with her friends, for crying out loud. You know what I mean? I was an animal.”
With Walker focused on his career, his daughter, Meadow, spent her first 12 years living in Hawaii with her mother. “I felt guilt,” Walker confessed. “What left me off the hook emotionally was at least I was providing financially, but emotionally I wasn’t there yet.” That changed in 2011, when Meadow relocated from Hawaii to California to start living with her dad and build their relationship. Walker said his personal growth was immediate.
“My heart was desperate for so many years with the situation with my daughter,” he told EW earlier this year. “My daughter lives with me full time now and she’s the best partner I’ve ever had. It’s so nuts. I’ve never had anything like this in my life. I’ve been so transient. I’ve been on my own since I was 16. I didn’t even have my own place until I was 32 years old. I literally lived out of bags for 16-plus years.” At 40, Walker felt he was finally growing into his role as a father — possibly his most rewarding adventure of all.
We’ll miss you, Paul.