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Big Picture: Victoria-raised Chad Willett plays hippie dad in offbeat memoir

The last time we talked to Chad Willett, he was over the moon after meeting his hero, astronaut Buzz Aldrin. It was 17 years ago, and he had just been cast as an aspiring astronaut in the TV series The Cape with Corbin Bernsen.
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From left, Chad Willett as the hippie dad, Ryan Grantham as the son and Joely Collins on the set of Becoming Redwood, which was filmed in B.C.

The last time we talked to Chad Willett, he was over the moon after meeting his hero, astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

It was 17 years ago, and he had just been cast as an aspiring astronaut in the TV series The Cape with Corbin Bernsen.

As well as doing a commercial for Twix candy bars that put him on nationwide billboards, the Victoria-raised actor was riding high from the success of his feature debut in Alive, Frank Marshall’s survival drama.

It set the stage for a respectable Hollywood career that saw the Reynolds secondary school graduate relocate to Los Angeles, landing roles in shows such as the CBS miniseries Joan of Arc with Peter O’Toole, Leelee Sobieski and Shirley MacLaine, and The Chronicle, and guest spots in TV series including Charmed, House, Bones, NCIS and Haven.

Ironically, Willett, 41, now finds himself back where it all began, this time as a producer. He’ll do a Q&A at Star Cinema Saturday after the 7:15 showing of Becoming Redwood, Jesse James Miller’s offbeat childhood memoir, filmed in B.C. Willett produced the film with Joely Collins, whom he met in the 1990s, when they acted in the teen series Madison.

“It’s an independent film with a great story that’s very unique and stylistic, almost Wes Anderson-like,” says Willett, who looks very Jeff Bridges-like as the loving hippie father of Redwood, a golf-mad American boy (Ryan Grantham) who imagines himself playing against Jack Nicklaus. He’s convinced if he wins the imaginary tournament, it will reunite his dad, jailed for dealing drugs, and his mother (Jennifer Copping), who abandoned them at the Canadian border in the 1960s.

She’s raising a family in the U.S. that Redwood lives with reluctantly until his eccentric grandfather (Scott Hyland) provides solace.

The 10-year-old’s dreams prompted memories of Willett’s childhood in Victoria, where the New Westminster-born actor attended Lakehill elementary before he “caught the acting bug” at Reynolds and took workshops at Kaleidoscope Theatre.

“As an actor, you have a big dream and it can seem ridiculous. My folks inspired me to chase my dreams,” said Willett, whose parents live in St. Lucia, where his English mother was raised.

The imagination and drive of the Redwood character inspired Willett to option Miller’s script with Collins (Love Crimes of Gillian Guess), his partner in StoryLab Productions, the company the former roommates launched three years ago.

“Joely’s a beautiful person, doing great things,” says Willett. “We’re so lucky we haven’t lost our friendship. We said from the beginning, ‘If this encroaches on that, it’s not worth it.’ ”

Willett, who became a first-time dad when his partner Gretel gave birth to their son, Rhodes, last fall, said his decision to return to Vancouver was driven by life choices.

“When I left back in the day, I felt Vancouver didn’t have the kind of work that supported my drive and passion as a young actor looking to move up,” he said. “With The Cape and my lead in Chronicle I learned a lot and had deals with NBC and different places. In L.A., I found it hard to believe I could have real quality of life. My distraction was my career.”

The shift in his trajectory included doing theatre in playhouses from New York to Pasadena.

His infant son “fills my heart so much it’s ridiculous,” laughs Willett, noting Rhodes was considerate enough to arrive eight days late, allowing mom and dad to attend the film’s Vancouver Film Festival première. “He held on for us.”

The family man isn’t giving up acting. He was cast as Toni Colette’s husband in the Simon Pegg comedy Hector and His Search for Happiness in Vancouver — an opportunity, he notes ironically, he might not have had in L.A.

And he had a blast playing Redwood’s long-haired dad in the film set mostly in the 1970s. After he sported a mullet to play Rebecca Jenkins’ selfish small-town boyfriend in Carl Bessai’s Cole, his “hair career” has taken off, he said.

“Cole was set in Lytton and I can tell you when you head out to small towns in B.C. .mullets are still living strong,” says Willett, who also lived in Prince George, Campbell River and Kamloops. “In the smaller towns, there are still rocking parties in back, business in front.”

His Redwood supporters included Joely’s famous father, British singer Phil Collins, who let them use his 1980s hit We Said Hello Good-bye; and friend Tom Cochrane, whose redo of Rare Earth’s I Just Want to Celebrate opens the film.

Willett’s next projects include a “big, big movie” — Cradle of Storms, about the beginnings of Greenpeace, inspired by the experiences of the late Jim Bohlen, the Courtenay-based American draft dodger and Greenpeace co-founder. It will document the group’s inaugural journey, when activists tried to thwart U.S. president Richard Nixon’s attempts to test an atom bomb in an Alaskan nature reserve in 1971.