EXCLUSIVE: When they help build a Hollywood star career, agents and managers know it can all end in a moment. That usually comes in the form of a phone call, informing them that client has dropped them for another rep. While that is hard to bear, I have been imagining how much worse it has been for Luber Rocklin Entertainment’s Matt Luber. His 18-year run with Paul Walker ended with a Saturday phone call as Luber and his daughter were leaving a sports bar to attend a college football game in Phoenix. That is when Luber learned that Walker had died instantly at age 40 in a tragic car crash.
Understandably, much of the press coverage since has focused on the fast car that spun out of control with Walker riding shotgun, and the repercussions for Fast & Furious 7, which was halfway done and on a Thanksgiving holiday when Walker attended a charity event in Southern California and climbed into a Porsche driven by his friend, Roger Rodas. Less plentiful have been the details on who Walker really was. And how a guy that handsome, and one of the drivers of Universal’s most lucrative billion-dollar Fast & Furious franchise, managed to keep his private life largely private. Mindful that Luber is mourning his friend and signature client of nearly two decades, I asked him to help fill out that part of the picture. While he often found it hard to find the words during our conversation, Luber felt it was worth talking about who this guy really was.
What became clear is that a major reason Walker had something of a stealth career was, he just had no interest in playing the movie star game, and relished operating under the radar. He liked acting in movies, sure, but he did not want to be defined by that. If there was one indelible example of this for Luber, it came early in their run together, when Walker was close to landing the lead role of Superman for Warner Bros. This was a job that would bring an oversized payday for a young actor, with sequel options that potentially would set him up forever.
“This was a mega-payday we were looking at, and I get a call from him in my office,” Luber recalled. “He tells me, ‘Get me the F out of here. I am standing here in these boots, I’m wearing a cape, tights and I’ve got an S on my chest. I’m leaving. I’m not doing it. I’m not wearing the boots, I’m not wearing the S. I’m not doing any of it, so get me the F out of here.’ And that was the end of the Superman screen test.”
Losing the chance to commission a big salary like that is certainly enough to tax any manager’s patience. But Luber by then had become one of Walker’s closest friends. And he couldn’t help but admire his buddy’s instincts for knowing what was right for him, and making hard choices on what was not. Becoming defined globally as a superhero was not at all what Walker wanted.
“Paul had his priorities clear, always,” Luber told me. “So if there was a sick relative in Oregon, which there was, he was going to bypass a big meeting with a director that would have gotten him a certain great role. If someone close to him was in need, that was more important. It wasn’t always easy for me, but I was proud of him that his heart was in the right place. If something involving close friends and family was going to get in the way of a picture, sure we’d always have the conversation, but the way he balanced friendship with business, you always knew Paul was going to choose the former over the latter. The reason you didn’t see him in the cameo in Fast & Furious 3? Paul was dealing with an ailing grandfather. There was no changing his mind on these things. It caused us some stressful moments, but these were definitely things we could joke about later.”
As often happens with longtime client-rep relationships, Luber grew up in the business with Walker. They met while the former was an assistant at Sandy Gallin’s company, and Walker was outgrowing a run as a child actor and trying to figure out whether to keep acting or go to college for marine biology. Luber repped him while he was a Gallin assistant, and they remained friendly when Luber spent a couple years working at Fox 2000. When Luber decided to make a go as manager, Walker was his biggest supporter, and not only by signing on as one his first clients. “Initially, I worked out of his travel agent’s office in Pasadena, which Paul set up as my first office,” Luber said.
Related: Photos: Paul Walker, 1973-2013
The fact that Walker chose acting over academia grated on him for years, and he long talked of returning to get a degree in marine biology, Luber said. It was really only recently that Walker became comfortable with the choice he made. He could feel himself growing into the role of leading man as he matured, and the generous salary allowed him to indulge his passions for marine biology and the environment.
“He knew full well that he carried himself with one foot in, and one foot out, because he had so many other priorities in his life, most importantly his daughter,” Luber said. “He also knew that it would have been faster to do this with both feet in. But Paul did not want to be a movie star, and he did not like playing the entertainment game at all. There are a lot of people in the business he loved and respected, but I just don’t think he liked the game and he was wary of the industry.”
So Walker left the business part to his reps, but not always.
“I remember arriving for a set visit in Prague at the beginning of Running Scared before taking my wife on vacation to Poland,” he said. “And then I got a call that Paul had given up his entire salary to help with the budget. I turn around and go back to Prague to meet with the producers. Although he didn’t end up giving all his money back, Paul did in fact give some of his salary to help them secure a certain actor they couldn’t afford. That was the type of guy he was; he was prepared to just give his entire salary back.”
What did Walker say when confronted by a manager whose client would probably be the first in movie history to be the lead star in a movie for zero salary or back-end?
“He told me, I want what’s best for the movie,” Luber recalled. “Ultimately, we worked it all out where he wasn’t going to star in the movie for absolutely free, but that was Paul.”
What Walker never became comfortable with was the adulation and the lack of privacy that came with the job. “He never cared about being at the right party or the restaurant where the ‘right’ people were showing up, he just hated that stuff,” Luber said. “Paul was never a huge fan of doing press, he did not like the limelight at all. In those early days when we first started the domestic and international press tours, we’d see a dozen girls line up outside their local radio stations, fainting when they saw him, and we just thought it was surreal. The most fun we had was the off time, where we’d explore museums and see the history of countries and then go dancing at night. This is a guy who only recently got into social media, and only because he was advised to, to keep current with the marketplace. Paul didn’t think he was that important. He was truly jealous of his younger brother when he became a firefighter and EMT. That’s probably something Paul would rather have done, in all honesty. He talked many times about becoming a park ranger and even as successful as he became as an actor, he was always evolving in other areas. He bought acres and acres of land in Carpinteria, near Santa Barbara, and he spent a lot of time there farming and planting trees. He was so passionate about horticulture, and would talk your ear off about tree grafting and different ways to make things grow. And if you’ve ever watched Shark Week, you’ve probably seen him tagging sharks.”
“A scientist named Michael Domeier got him involved in catching and tagging sharks to keep track of their migration patterns,” Luber said. “It became a huge passion of his, often to the exclusion of money-making opportunities. He’d just say, can’t do it, I’m going to tag sharks.”
An avid surfer, Walker also became involved in the Billfish Foundation, trying to stop the overfishing of these deep sea monsters. “The Billfish are apparently the center of the ecosystem in the ocean, and I can remember years ago going to the MTV Movie Awards where he won some award for Fast & Furious, and we were out till 3 AM and he goes right to a 6 AM flight to Monterey to support the foundation at an aquarium, to promote overfishing awareness,” Luber said.
Despite Shark Week and other charitable endeavors where his star power helped, Walker kept his volunteerism under the radar. “He had his own charity, Reach Out World Wide, where he quietly chartered private planes for first responders to places like Haiti and Chile and the Philippines and Alabama, any place there was a tragedy. He would transport fully experienced doctors and supplies, and always threatened me not to have press about it. He just wanted to make a difference and what’s tragic is this was all starting to take shape in a bigger way. And truthfully, he was just now coming into the power of his craft as an actor.”
With all that Walker had going on, I realized I hadn’t pressed Luber on the actor’s day job. Luber said that, despite freezing his tail off, Walker most loved working on movies like the Antarctica dog sled saga Eight Below because it mirrored his interest in animals and conservation. Though Walker decided early he didn’t want a career-defining role like Superman, he got one anyway following a conversation with director Rob Cohen and Universal exec Scott Stuber, when Walker mentioned he’d like to play an undercover cop in a movie with fast cars. Walker never expected this to become the franchise it is, but Luber said the actor loved making those movies but made it a point to diversify. Both felt squarely that the actor’s best work was in front of him, as happens when a handsome actor settles into his forties and keeps his hair and six-pack.
“People saw him spread his wings in movies like Noel with Alan Arkin and Penelope Cruz, and in Wayne Kramer’s Running Scared and Eight Below, but he really felt he’d found his rhythm professionally with his performance in Hours,” Luber said. “He was really proud of that film, and sadly missed the release date by a couple of weeks. Then he had two other movies he was excited to get to do. One was Agent 47, the re-imagining of Hitman, and the other was a total departure from what people expected from Paul Walker. He was going to do a Nicholas Sparks love story, The Best Of Me. We had wanted to do a love story for most of his career, and the stars finally aligned and we found the perfect one. He was in the final stages of negotiating to do that after Agent 47. After that, he was committed to taking a significant break to be with his daughter.”
There was no tougher conflict in Walker’s life than going away for movie shoots that kept him away from from his daughter, Meadow Rain. She grew up in Hawaii, but more recently the teen relocated to California to spend more time with her father.
“It was the biggest struggle in his life, from when she lived in Hawaii with her mom in her younger years, to when she came to California and he was working a lot,” Luber said. “He had become more discerning in his choices, and movies became less the priority. The last couple of years with her had an amazing effect on him. They connected and developed a nice relationship which he was determined to have before she graduated high school.”
Losing one’s signature client creates economic issues, but as Luber and Walker’s friends, family and co-workers prepare for his funeral, Luber said he hasn’t thought much yet about the business impact of the tragedy.
“The heartbreak is the void he leaves in my heart and in the other people he loved,” Luber said. “Our relationship was as much about friendship and brotherhood as the dynamic between an artist and his confidant. We’ve experienced so much together, from birthdays, weddings, charity events, Super Bowls, paintball adventures, trips to Vegas and all over the world. We developed an appreciation for wine together, we laughed at ourselves and even when we had those manager/client moments when I had to challenge him, we had the ability to say how much we loved each other. The tragedy for me is not only losing a client and one of my best friends, but that our journey is over. I take enormous pride in having taken that journey with him, and I know that would have doubled in watching the way he was about to soar.”
There were a few other things about Walker that Luber wanted to say.
“The words that come to mind when I think of Paul are, genuine, loyal, kind and empathy,” Luber said. “The world was a better place for having him in it even for just 40 years. Paul was a total pro on a movie set, a unifier and everybody loved him. He respected the director, but treated him no different than the PAs and the crew. He was always on time and worked as many hours as needed without complaint, but he got his takes done quickly and wasn’t the type to ask for multiple takes.”
The focus on Walker’s tragic end was the high-speed crash and the Porsche in which he was a passenger has created the impression that Walker was some reckless street racer, a wannabe version of his signature role. Luber finds that most regrettable.
“It is ironic that Paul was not driving, that he was a passenger, because he was almost never a passenger in someone’s car,” Luber said. “He rarely let me drive him around. In his life, Paul did what he wanted to on his own terms, and he was always the driver. He an excellent driver and a responsible one, and this was a rare occasion when a friend wanted to take a spin and show him his new car.
“If ever he was going to pass away before his time, I thought it would be from maybe pulling someone from a burning building, or from having an encounter with a great white shark. Certainly not as a passenger in someone’s car.”
After burying his friend, Luber will eventually have to face a future without his top client. The heartbreak has caused some of his peers to lose their taste for the rep business, even temporarily. Luber said he is determined to struggle through with a heavy heart.
“I’ve never been this sad my entire life, but I will persevere,” Luber said. “Paul would have wanted it that way. My company will go on and be successful.”