'My most immobile job'
In Vertical Limit, Nicholas Lea plays a dying climber

Wednesday 13 December 2000

Glen Schaefer The Province

In Vertical Limit, Robin Tunney as Annie Garrett tends wounded climber and guide Tom McLaren, played by Vancouver's Nicholas Lea.

He's in the middle of some of the biggest on-screen action of the year but Vancouver's Nicholas Lea spends most of the movie on his back.

In Vertical Limit, Lea plays the leader of an expedition to climb K2, the world's second-highest mountain. An avalanche leaves his character with broken ribs and a broken back, trapped in a crevasse with his fellow climbers (Bill Paxton and Robin Tunney).

"It was probably the most immobile job I've had," says Lea from his Los Angeles home. "Dying every day for a month, looking death in the face -- that was a huge challenge."

This is the guy who was named the most likely new action star in a USA Today poll earlier this year after he first caught the public eye as nasty, charismatic agent Krycek on The X-Files.

Lea gets some climbing action during the first third of Vertical Limit but after that it's lying down on the job. The movie has the trapped climbers slowly succumbing to the high-altitude lack of oxygen, with the injured Lea suffering the most. He says he watched film of a man who lost limbs after being trapped on Everest, to figure out what would be going through his character's mind.

"He said you think about the people you hold close to your heart and that really affected me. I thought about the person that was most important to me. I took a picture of her in my wardrobe wherever I went. The idea of not being able to see that person again was motivating enough."

And who might that be? He won't answer but does admit that he's single now, mending a broken heart for the past six months.

Lea spent six months last year in New Zealand making the movie on high mountain locations and in a specially built studio. Faking the cold and high-altitude of a mountain crevasse in the studio was its own challenge, he says.

"It was a a tiny little set full of fake snow, lights and dust, and crew walking around in shorts, while I'm under two sleeping bags," he says. "Underneath my sleeping bag it was 105 degrees, I'd sweat off pounds of liquid every day."

Lea has worked in four X-Files episodes this year but his eye is on the film work.

"I'm living in L.A. but my heart's in Vancouver. I need to be here so I can meet the people that I hope to work with," he says. "My goal is to be living back in Canada as soon as I can, hopefully somewhere in the Gulf Islands."

That's part of why he took two roles filming in Vancouver earlier this year, alongside singer Bif Naked in the low-budget comedy Life With Charles last spring, and then co-starring with Bill Pullman and Lena Olin in the political thriller Ignition last summer.

Both films are due in theatres early in the new year and meanwhile Lea is waiting to see what his Vertical Limit profile will do for him.

"You want to get to a place where people are looking for you," he says. "Then you go and find where you want to really live."

When that day comes, they can come looking for Lea in B.C.