Big Picture: Addict role a point of pride for Nanaimo’s Justin Chatwin

One thing Justin Chatwin says he was most proud of about his work in American Gothic was how he managed to humanize drug addiction.

In the series, Chatwin plays cartoonist and recovering addict Cam Hawthorne, the youngest son in a prominent Boston family with a serial killer in its midst.

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To play the co-dependent family man who conveys a sense of normalcy despite having to deal with a still-addicted wife and his young son’s disturbing behaviour, Chatwin looked to real-life addicts for inspiration.

“Most heroin addicts I know are guys who look and talk and act like me,” says the Nanaimo-born actor who first caught Hollywood’s attention playing Tom Cruise’s son in War of the Worlds. Other notable credits include his roles in the mini-series Traffic, Showtime’s Weeds and Shameless, Orphan Black and as an introspective bookie in Nick Wernham’s quirky comedy No Stranger Than Love.

If heroin addicts were portrayed with more humanity it could help solve an epidemic that has killed more people than AIDS, Chatwin says.

“They’re being outcast because they’re pictured as homeless junkies, these bony-looking figures who look like William S. Burroughs, these dark ghosts,” he said.

Chatwin, 33, said doing the 13-part murder mystery series that airs Wednesdays, 10 p.m., on Global, appealed to him because of his fascination with addiction.

It sparked his friendship with addiction expert Gabor Maté, and Michael Meade, the mythologist who works with First Nations and individuals who have contemplated suicide.

Meade’s answer to his question — “Which group is the hardest to get through to?” — was instructive.

“He said: ‘It’s not the First Nations or the blacks in southside Chicago,’ ” Chatwin recalled. “It’s the wealthy, because when you talk to the others, from no money, they’re broken already and they’re looking for a solution so they’re open-minded. Although their kids are committing suicide, the rich are not considered “broken” because they have cars, houses, a facade they’ve been keeping up for years.”

One thing Chatwin appreciated most about shooting American Gothic was being welcomed into its writing room to pitch his idea of love also being a drug.

“I think the combination of love and drugs is a recipe for death,” said Chatwin, who watched documentaries on Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse for inspiration.

Filming the series brought both challenges, such as having to shoot in the dark — the cast didn’t learn the identity of the elusive Silver Bells killer until the finale was filmed — and pleasures.

One was working with Virginia Madsen, who plays the manipulative matriarch, he says.

“She’s a delight, the most chill actress I’ve ever worked with,” he said. “She’s so talented and patient and just cool to hang with. She is not Madeleine Hawthorne in the flesh. She’s more like a bro.”

When filming wrapped in Toronto last month, the nomadic actor rode back to Vancouver Island via the U.S. on his Harley Davidson Night Train.

“I want to see if I can live up here full-time. L.A. is a fun place and it’s given me a lot of opportunities but it’s a never-never land. You never grow up,” said Chatwin, who lived there for 13 years.

“I walked onto the beach this morning and I can feel this land and water in my blood. I get back onto the Island and some frequency starts to beat in me.”

His road trip home was less eventful than last year’s four-month odyssey “from Vancouver to the bottom of Argentina … 15,000 miles or something ridiculous.”

After riding to La Paz and on to Mazatlan with friends, they had to have their bikes fixed by “a seedy-looking motorcycle gang” who as it turned out were “great guys” and took them out for tacos and beer.

“We heard about some beheadings down south in drug cartel territory,” he said, explaining why their newfound friends said they’d accompany them to Durango, where he filmed Dragonball Evolution in 2008.

They survived the zigzags and hairpins of The Devil’s Backbone, the treacherous mountain highway, but Chatwin had a flat tire and their chaperones had to leave once it was fixed.

An hour after riding back on a dirt road into the mountains in the dark, a big Suburban came barrelling down the road flashing its high beams before suddenly braking with its blinkers on.

“I thought: ‘Omigawd, we are going to die,’ ” recalled Chatwin, who was asked to identify himself by a tough-looking occupant.

“I said: ‘Justin’ and this dude looks me in the eyes and goes: ‘Chatwin?’ ” he recalled. “And he goes” ‘It’s Raul! I worked craft services on Dragonball Z!”

After getting out of the car and giving him a big hug, the tough guy wearing a Knights of Templar vest and his comrades took Chatwin and company to dinner, a rock ’n’ roll show and bought them breakfast.

“In the end, Dragonball Z may have saved my life,” he said, laughing.

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