Pop Culture

Paul Walker gets back behind the wheel

It’s been quite a while since Paul Walker last strapped himself into a customized high-octane vehicle and sped toward a huge opening weekend. The first time was in 2001’s “The Fast and the Furious” and the last time was six years ago in “2 Fast 2 Furious.” But now the guy who opted out of the third installment, saying that he’d had enough, has happily reunited with his original castmates in “Fast & Furious,” which hits theaters on April 3.

Tall and tan with the sunlight bouncing off of his impossibly white teeth, Walker seemed genuinely happy to be back in the mix after such a long hiatus from the franchise that made him a legitimate star. The Southern California native who spends his spare time surfing, taking photographs and spending time with his 10-year-old daughter, talked candidly about fast cars, his chemistry with co-star Vin Diesel and all of the considerations that went into his decision to revive special agent Brian O’Connor.

“Timing,” Walker said with a slight grin. “No, truthfully right? The writers strike. I wanted to work. Everyone was available to come back and make really the first true sequel. There’s never a guarantee about what you’re going to go make and especially when you’re hoping to make a commercial movie, but there’s really an audience for it. I thought, ‘Why not?’ I’ll come back, hang out with some friends. And like I said, I just wanted to get back and work and have some fun again.”

This time the fun begins with the return of ex-con Dominic Toretto (Diesel), who hasn’t been seen since driving across the Mexican border in the initial effort. Dom’s now on the lam in the Dominican Republic with his girl Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) but makes his way back home to avenge a tragedy. And, per usual, Dom settles his beefs on the streets with cars as opposed to guns.

Yet, even though Walker, who helps support several members of his family, wanted the work he still had reservations about revisiting O’Connor.

“Yeah, I think everybody did,” said Walker, who was sorry that his buddy and co-star Tyrese Gibson from “2 Fast 2 Furious” wasn’t invited to ride along this time. “My biggest question was, ‘Do people really still want to see this?’”

‘There was still a degree of hesitation’And even after finding out that director Justin Lin (“The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift”) had assembled the original cast (Walker, Diesel, Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster), Walker still wasn’t sure.

“There was still a degree of hesitation,” he said. “Been there, done that. A couple of years ago I would’ve probably been like, ‘Ahh, I don’t know if I want to do it.’ But I’m a little older and I like to think a little wiser. I realized that everyone should be so lucky to have a franchise that spans eight years.”

Re-establishing chemistry with Diesel (who did a cameo in the third film) after that length of time was the least of Walker’s worries. “Our chemistry is that we don’t have any chemistry,” Walker said with a laugh. “That’s the funny thing. He’s East Coast and I’m West Coast. We respect each other as human beings and that’s about all it takes.”

Added Diesel: “I would not have wanted to do this without Paul. He was there at the beginning and remains an integral part of this franchise.”

And for Walker, that first time out with Diesel was the best of the lot. “I loved the second one, it was a lot of fun but I don’t think the second one had the heart the first one had,” he said.

Thanks in part to explosive, computer-generated action scenes the “Fast and Furious” plots are not easily remembered. The one thing that all four flicks have in common, however, is protagonists who aren’t at all hard on the eyes. Walker, with his steely blue eyes reminds you of a young Paul Newman with a pinch of James Dean. But while the former child model seems oblivious to his good looks, one of his co-stars has certainly taken notice.

“I haven’t seen a handsome boy like that in Hollywood in a long time!” Rodriguez said. “That is one handsome boy. Paul’s got something else going on that I can’t quite describe because it’s so majestic. I definitely see this guy going many places.”

And quickly.

Like his alter ego in the film, Walker has a need for speed. He loves to race and usually hits the track at least once a week. He has an R35, the new Skyline and a Porsche GT3.

“I have to drive a truck around the street,” he said. “I can’t drive a car. That’s trouble.”

Ironically, neither Walker nor Diesel did a lot of their own driving in “F&F.” Aside from the insurance issues getting in the way Diesel actually doesn’t know how to drive a stick. “He’s got two left feet,” Walker said with a grin. But if the rumors about a fifth film pan out perhaps they’ll both get an opportunity to do more — particularly if Diesel learns how to pump the clutch in a clutch situation.

Would Walker be game for that?

“I don’t know,” he said slowly. “I’d really want everyone to do their due diligence and put time into it. I don’t think it’d be too hard to make the very best one yet. I don’t think the best one has been made yet. If you were going to go make a fifth one that one has to be the best one in my mind. Otherwise let’s not do it.”

Miki Turner can be reached at mikiturner.msnbc@gmail.com.