When Chad Willett learned he would be honoured Thursday night as part of Reynolds Secondary School’s 50th anniversary celebrations, it was another validation of a career choice he made as a teenager.
“I’m 45 and I’m still acting. I must be doing something right,” said Willett, one of 18 distinguished Reynolds grads, a group that also includes NDP leader John Horgan, Snowbird Ave Pyne and Olympic rower Mike Lewis, who were invited to receive a Silver Scarf award.
The New Westminster-born actor has enjoyed a successful career since he appeared in Madison, the Canadian teen drama series, and made his feature film debut in the harrowing 1993 survival drama Alive.
“The reason I’m still successful is because [Reynolds] gave me some options. It pushed me into a certain area. I had a very clear vision of what I wanted,” said Willett, who currently appears as the enigmatic Pastor Ian — or “the creepy pastor” as Willett likes to call him — in Beyond. The second season of Disney-owned Freeform channel’s sci-fi series will start airing this year on ABC Spark in Canada.
Although he admits “I still battle with the idea that I’m an actor,” Willett said he never had a backup plan when he was, by his own admission, a cocky and ambitious teenager.
His former teacher Dean Norris Jones concurs, remembering Willett as “a pretty precocious kid who was hard not to notice, very self-confident” — a student he felt would go places.
“I’d like to think it was my English 12 class that could have been his springboard to success,” Jones quipped.
Willett, who got his start doing commercials, notably a slick Twix candy bar campaign, said he “never had a Plan B, which I think is what scared my parents the most.”
It was Alive that kickstarted his career. Soon after, he was cast in The Cape, the syndicated TV series about aspiring astronauts in training at Cape Canaveral, where he got to see eight shuttle launches.
“It was so rare. I was only 20, and you have to fight so hard just to get those opportunities,” he said. “It was groundbreaking for me, even though I had no idea how big it would be or what it would catapult me into.”
He went on to play dozens of roles, including a nursing-home attendant who befriends an embittered resident played by Vanessa Redgrave in the Hallmark movie The Locket.
He also played French nobleman Jean de Metz opposite Leelee Sobieski in the CBS miniseries Joan of Arc and hung out with co-stars Peter O’Toole and Shirley MacLaine.
“Great actors elevate all the other actors around them,” Willett said. “Sometimes celebrity can really manipulate the way you see things, but when you’re in that situation, they’re just actors doing their job.”
He had a similar experience working with Simon Pegg and Toni Collette when he played a bearded mathematician in Hector and the Search for Happiness.
He was particularly excited to be working with Pegg, being a huge fan of his zombie satire Shaun of the Dead.
“He was just a good old English guy having fun,” said Willett, who made Pegg laugh after commenting on a red pen mark he spotted on the star’s shirt.
“You’ve got red on you,” Willett said, quoting a line that Ed, the slacker friend, deadpans to Pegg’s blood-splattered character in Shaun of the Dead.
Much has changed for Willett since the days he was routinely cast as all-American characters because of his pretty-boy looks and landed a lucrative “artist holding deal” at NBC in Los Angeles.
The NBC deal led to his role as journalist Tucker Burns in The Chronicle, a Sci Fi Channel comedy-drama series that originated as a Vancouver-filmed NBC pilot.
The Vancouver-based actor has also since married Australia-born actor Gretal Montgomery. The couple has two children — a four-year-old boy and 18-month-old girl.
Willett has sought more juicy character roles, as when he played a selfish small-town redneck in Carl Bessai’s 2009 drama Cole, set in Lytton.
“I had mostly been doing leading-man roles,” he said. “That is the box they put me in. It’s a good box to be in, but it’s still a box.”
The actor stopped shaving and showering, cut his hair into a 1980s-style mullet and went camping for a week in the wilderness before shooting began without telling production.
“I went fishing and got dirty and smelly, and I arrived on set wearing my camouflage hat and they all looked at me,” he said with a laugh. “They went: ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ They freaked out.”
He also played a young golf enthusiast’s aging hippie dad in Becoming Redwood, Jesse James Miller’s 2013 childhood memoir. Willett produced it with longtime pal Joely Collins through his StoryLab Productions.
The irony, he said, is that while he was bombarded with offers when he was young and inexperienced, acting gigs aren’t as bountiful when you’re older and “feeling more comfortable in your skin and abilities.”
These days, Willett pursues his passion for storytelling in other ways, too, working as a motion-capture actor and helping produce Microsoft’s video-game franchise Gears of War through his production company.