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Small Screen: How Wyatt Russell went from hockey to acting

BEVERLY HILLS, California — Tall and lanky Wyatt Russell displayed amazing athletic prowess when he was just a kid. He was so good at hockey that he moved from California to Vancouver when he was 15 to play.
Wyatt Russell stars as a rootless surfer dude in AMC's series Lodge 49.

BEVERLY HILLS, California — Tall and lanky Wyatt Russell displayed amazing athletic prowess when he was just a kid. He was so good at hockey that he moved from California to Vancouver when he was 15 to play. Two years later, his team won the provincial championship.

But at 24 his career was suddenly over. “My whole right side, from my knee to my hip, is torn so I couldn’t play anymore,” he says.

“That was taken away from me, but I feel like it was fate, a godsend because I wasn’t going anywhere in hockey. I was playing minor professional hockey in Europe, which is like you’re not going anywhere.”

That accident set Russell on a new path — one equally treacherous. He decided to try his hand at acting. His parents, Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, are both actors, and their advice was short and simple: “Learn your lines. Show up on time. And don’t be a jerk.”

But Russell, who shy by nature, had a tough time fitting into the “actor’s” persona. Luckily he’s overcome his timidity for his latest role in AMC’s Lodge 49. Russell plays a shiftless surfer dude who sleeps on his sister’s couch and owes everybody money. But when he joins a genial fraternal club, it might change his path.

“I read the script for Lodge 49 and the tone is so different from anything I’ve seen, and it so reflected the way I feel about storytelling,” he says.

“I like magical storytelling. I don’t necessarily mean a crazy magical world to appear, but I like looking at the world through the lens — like this glass on the table is magic. Someone made it from nothing, some guy, who made it special. And we take things for granted. But I like being able to look at the world through the lens of a character who looks at that and sees that as something magical. And my character, Dud, is that. He made me feel alive; I’d like to feel a little more like Dud.”

A mere five months after he quit hockey, Russell landed his first acting role. “I thought I was going to get fired from the job because they called and said, ‘Don’t get on the airplane.’ I thought, ‘Oh, no. I got fired and haven’t even started the job.’ ”

It turned out the filming took place on Native American ground and one of the elders had died, so the company had to shoot elsewhere. “I did that job, then another job, and I thought this is great! This is awesome! Then a year and a half — nothing. It was a desert,” he shrugs his shoulders.

“That’s when I realized maybe this is not for me. I didn’t feel rejected or anything like that, I just thought maybe I’m not understanding aspects of the auditioning process. I get acting, but don’t quite get the audition.”

Russell was fortunate when he auditioned for director Jim Mickle. “I came to him and said, ‘I’m going to be honest with you, I don’t think I’m good at auditioning, don’t think I’m good at certain aspects of getting a job, but I think I can do the job well.’ It was a different animal. We had a great conversation, I was able to tell the truth to this person because he would listen, like a friend,” he says.

Mickle gave him the role, the main character in We Are What We Are. “He and his partner, Linda Moran, gave me the experience of what it was to make movies the right way,” recalls Russell.

“Thank God, because otherwise I don’t know if I would’ve kept doing it. And I’m thankful to them and love them very much, they’re like my movie family. They’re just great people, too. They made it like a team. It was about having fun, celebrating film, and set a precedent for me to carry with me the rest of my life.”

Four years ago Russell, 32, was filming another movie in Georgia when a tragic train accident killed one crew member and injured seven others. “I don’t usually talk about this,” he says.

“It changed my life. I was there when it happened, and it was a true catastrophic event. … A girl lost her life and everybody’s life changed on that track. It gave me an appreciation for life that I never had. It’s hard to put into words,” he says.

“I didn’t know her well, but the way that her friends and family talked about her, she was obviously a special person and wanted to do what we were doing. And she died because of mistakes, and it did a lot of things for me.”

He says the tragedy reinforced the idea that one should take time and care whatever the endeavour. “Don’t skip over steps for the sake of speed because it doesn’t end up better. On a personal level [I know] life is just fragile,” he says.

“It can be over like that, and you catch yourself every day taking life for granted. And I try to not.”