Chris O’Donnell for “Vertical Limit”

Not only did actor Chris O’Donnell have to learn to cope with mountains, heights and freezing weather, but also while shooting his latest film Vertical Limit on location in New Zealand, the Chicago native’s first child was born. She is now a Kiwi and Chris couldn’t be happier, as Paul Fischer reports from Los Angeles.

Chris O’Donnell had much to think about while filming the hairy mountain-set thriller Vertical Limit, in New Zealand’s glorious Mt Cook. Climbing rock faces seemed like a piece of cake in comparison to waiting for the birth of his first child. “It was pretty stressful”, the contemplative actor told me while he was promoting the movie in Los Angeles. “I was so nervous before Lily was born, because of the unexpected and being in a foreign country, so having this baby was just nerve-wracking. So once we had Lily, I felt that I was definitely on easy street; life’s a piece of cake, what’s next?” Next was preparing to play a mountaineer in Vertical Limit.

The film pairs O’Donnell and fellow Chicago native Robin Tunney as estranged siblings thrown together by fate-and an untimely climbing disaster-on the world’s second-highest peak, K2, in Pakistan. O’Donnell, admits to being somewhat afraid of heights, which didn’t help much for THIS movie. “We had a good family friend who had a bad accident just going rock-climbing and got paralysed from the waist down. So whenever I thought of rock climbing I thought of her and not something I want to go through. At the back of my head, I thought of that once in a while.” Yet despite such major misgivings, O’Donnell was drawn to this film “because it was a great role and great opportunity. Besides it’s just a movie. They’re not going to put us in any position that’s that dangerous.”

O’Donnell had four weeks to prepare “which was obviously a tall order”, the actor says. “We basically had enough time to get familiar with the equipment, learn all the terminology and learn some of the basic techniques. More than anything we needed to learn how to trust our equipment and our instructors. The first day they stuck me on an ice wall to go ice climbing. I was fine getting up on top of the wall of ice, but as for getting down, I had to rely on a rope and harness.” Clearly, O’Donnell had to be incredibly fit to do this” but it wasn’t as if the trainers were going to turn us into real climbers in 30 days. What they were able to do, though, was teach us how to look and feel comfortable on the mountain. When I first went up and was put in some of those positions, I literally was shaking,” he recalls.

Taking the pressure off any hairy moments ended falling to the movie’s Australian contingent. New Zealand doubles for Pakistan’s deadly K2, and so a handful of Aussies came on board, including award winner Ben Mendelssohn who comes close to stealing the film as a larrikin climber. Working with the Aussie cast and crew, O’Donnell, recalls, reminded him of being at a university dormitory. “They sure added a lot of fun to this, that’s for sure”, he says laughingly. “Of course there were a lot of arguments about Australian Rules football versus American football. They were great; complete characters. When we were living in Mt Cook, we were living in this one hotel and all those guys were in the same hallway. I’d have to leave my room and go down their hallway to get to the cafeteria, and you’d walk out and it was just like being back in college. I mean there was more shit going on in that hallway that you can imagine. You Aussies sure know how to party.”

For O’Donnell, his own ‘party’ as a Hollywood player has been up and down since his lead debut opposite Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. Critics have been divided over the actor’s work, and has been critically maligned in films such as Batman and Robin, In Love and War, The Chamber and last year’s The Bachelor. Though the actor remains negative over critical reactions to his work, he remains philosophical.

“It’s definitely tough to deal with the negative after you’ve had a bunch of success and suddenly your movies don’t do so well. It’s frustrating, you know? You also learn that you can’t get too excited over good reviews, and you can’t get too bummed over bad reviews. You’ve got to maintain a certain kind of level headedness. What’s frustrating, though, is all of that affects the quality of roles you get to choose from, and after all, this is my livelihood.” Yet the actor remains consistently positive, maintaining that his “is a cyclical business with a lot of ups and downs, and what you’ve got to do is stay in it for a long time and just hope you get to work for a long time, and with that will come successes and failures.”

O’Donnell is hoping that Vertical Limit will fall into the latter category. “I’m proud of the movie and it’s just a matter of getting people to see it. Once they’re in the theatre, they’ll have a good time.”

Now a father of two, Chris is taking a break before returning to his adoptive New Zealand for the film’s local premiere before deciding to “do something different from the action genre.”