Paul Walker in a scene from the film, "Hours," directed by Eric… (Skip Bolen / Associated…)
It seemed like the right place to meet: the Polo Lounge, home of the power lunch for Hollywood's elite. But when Paul Walker and first-time director Eric Heisserer showed up at the Beverly Hills Hotel haunt in 2011, they quickly felt out of place among the sea of suited studio executives picking at elaborate bread baskets.
"Both of us were a little awkward," recalled Heisserer. "We ordered beer."
Perhaps the setting should have felt more natural to Walker — after all, he'd made millions from starring in the "Fast and the Furious" franchise and had certainly been to his fair share of stuffy meetings after a decade in the business.
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But the actor, who was killed in a November car accident at age 40, was never comfortable with the trappings of movie stardom. He opted to live far from 90210 in Santa Barbara, raising his teenage daughter, Meadow. An adrenaline junkie, he spent his free time racing cars and tagging great white sharks. And he disliked agents, who he "thought could be a real pain," according to Heisserer.
It was, coincidentally, an agent who had suggested the Polo Lounge as an appropriate location for Heisserer and Walker to talk about the filmmaker's dramatic thriller "Hours." Though he had a number of credits to his name as a screenwriter — "A Nightmare on Elm Street" remake, "Final Destination 5," "The Thing" — Heisserer was having trouble finding the ideal leading man for his directorial debut. After his "Hours" script had circulated to agencies, he met with a dozen potential actors before he heard Walker was interested in the project.
"I didn't think of him at all, originally," Heisserer admitted in an interview two days following Walker's death. "I didn't really have much of a picture of who Paul Walker was outside of the 'Fast and Furious' movies."
Like Walker, Heisserer was also looking to reinvent himself with "Hours" — he wanted to be seen as more than "just a horror genre writer."
"The drive for change really bonded us early on," the 43-year-old director said. "He felt he really had something to prove to himself. He wanted to work new muscles and take a step in another direction with his career."
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After starting out as a teen heartthrob in high school-set fare, Walker quickly garnered a reputation as an action star. And the role in Heisserer's $4-million movie — which Pantelion Films will release in 15 theaters and on-demand Friday — would require an actor with serious emotional range.
Set in New Orleans in the midst of Hurricane Katrina, "Hours" centers around a man whose wife passes away during childbirth. Though premature, the couple's baby survives, and the new father is left to keep his daughter's ventilator going as the storm knocks out the hospital's power.
Though he had long been ambivalent about acting, in recent years Walker had begun to take a more serious approach to his career. And because of the massive box office success of the "Fast and the Furious" films — he appeared in five and was shooting a sixth at the time of his death — he was relevant enough to land some interesting parts.
"I never even bothered to apply myself in Hollywood before," Walker told The Times two years ago. "As opposed to completely disappearing, I'm still here. And now the verdict is out on me."
Walker's enthusiasm landed him the role in "Hours." He hired acting coaches to prepare and rehearsed with Heisserer at the filmmaker's house three times a week in the two months leading up to the spring 2012 shoot. The director and the actor talked about how to get Walker into the right head space on set, developing code words that would throw the actor into an emotional state.
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It was during those visits that Heisserer learned just how close Walker had gotten to his own daughter, who until 2011 lived in Hawaii with her mother. Because his character is alone on screen for much of "Hours" performing numerous monologues — what Heisserer calls "proscenium acting" — the filmmaker found any reminder of Meadow helped ground Walker's performance. So they put pictures of her inside of the incubator that was supposed to be holding the protagonist's baby and left a tattoo reading "Meadow" on Walker's wrist uncovered.
The personal touchstones ultimately helped Walker turn in a performance he was proud of. Earlier this year, he brought Meadow to a private screening and though he quickly ran out as the credits rolled — the room was crawling with agents — he called Heisserer from the road, "beaming with pride," the director said.
In the weeks leading up to his death, Walker had begun to promote the movie extensively. He and Heisserer had their last substantive conversation at a November press junket for the film.
"He was so happy, and he sat me down and said he was getting offers for jobs he thought he'd never get — calls coming in from people who had seen 'Hours' and were eager to work with him," the filmmaker said, his voice heavy with sadness. "After we wrapped, I'd told him this was just a warm-up — that I was warming him up for bigger and better things. That's what gets me angry, if I think about it too long."
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