In Rob Cohen’s thriller “The Skulls,” Caleb Mandrake is the son of
east-coast privilege and prestige, an initiate into the ultra-secret,
ultra-powerful titular society at an Ivy League university whose father just happens to be the group’s rigorous–and, it turns out, rather maniacal–taskmaster. But Paul Walker, the dynamic young actor who plays him, comes from a very different background.

“I grew up in the Burbank area,” Walker explained during a Dallas
interview. “It was a stereotypical southern California life growing up as a kid–surfing, skateboarding, and all that stuff. I played football and basketball. And I grew up around a bunch of contractors, roofers and painters–my father’s a contractor, and he doesn’t make a whole lot of money.”

Another difference lay in Walker’s friendship with his dad, who has a brief cameo in the picture in his son’s boxing scene. “My father and I are really, really close,” he said. “I think that Caleb more than
anything else just wants to feel unconditional love from his father.
But it’s not like that at all.”

Walker went on: “I think that the character of Caleb wants to be like Luke [the protagonist played by Joshua Jackson, a blue-collar student initiated into the society who eventually challenges the group’s power]. That’s what, basically, I held onto the whole way. You know, everything was handed to Caleb; he never had to work for anything–he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Caleb’s never been allowed to fail, either, because it’s just not acceptable in his family. Luke comes from the poor side of the tracks, and it’s basically through determination, hard work and dedication that he’s made it to this Ivy League school and is being rushed by one of the best secret societies. I think Caleb almost idolizes Luke–everyone likes Luke, he’s a man’s man–but Caleb questions everyone around him and their intentions, whether they like him because of all the money and power that he comes from.”

But if Walker isn’t much like Caleb, he’s not exactly a ringer for the
hard-working, disciplined Luke either. Though he comes from a similar blue-collar background and has a close-knit family, the actor wasn’t exactly ambitious in his early years in the profession. “My parents liked the idea of my someday going to school, so my mother started taking me around to interviews” for commercial spots while he was still very young, Walker explained. He got parts, he said, “but I never really took it seriously,” even after spending over a year in a regular role on the CBS soap opera “The Young and the Restless.” In fact, he went on something of a binge after leaving the soap, using up his savings and going deeply into debt. He didn’t know exactly what he was going to do until an aggressive casting director tracked him down and not only got him a role on “Touched By an Angel,” but persuaded him to work hard on building an acting career.

“Basically it’s been on-the-job training ever since,” Walker said,
smiling. He landed a part in “Pleasantville,” followed by roles in
“Varsity Blues,” “She’s All That” and “Brokedown Palace.”

“I’m definitely into it now,” Walker continued. “Before it was, ‘This
isn’t a real job–I know what a real job is, it’s manual labor, it’s
digging holes all day in the baking sun, it’s calluses and blisters on
your hands.’ But it’s become very real, and I’m enjoying every minute of it.”

Walker’s next picture, due out later this year, is “Squelch,” a thriller directed by John Dahl (“Red Rock West,” “The Last Seduction,” “Rounders”) in which he co-stars with Leelee Sobieski and Steve Zahn. And he’s scheduled soon to begin shooting “Racer X” with “Skulls” director Rob Cohen–in which he’ll play an cop who goes undercover to infiltrate a street-racing gang and break up a hijacking ring. He’s especially looking forward to the film’s race scenes–he hopes to race cars for real in the future–and to doing more of his own stunts, as he did in “The Skulls.”

Meanwhile, he intends to be off again to Fiji, a favorite vacation spot, for a few weeks in the sun before going back to work.