Finding Thor (and others): Baylor grad working his way to the top

Finding Thor (and others): Baylor grad working his way to the top

March 20th, 2014 by Barry Courter in Life Entertainment

Actor Chris Hemsworth stars in "Thor: The Dark World."

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Baylor grad Will Ward, second from left, with client Zac Brown, right. Above right is Ward's client Chris Hemsworth in "Thor."

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

WILL WARD CLIENTS

• Zac Brown Band (Three-time Grammy winners, 8 No. 1 singles, 6.5 million albums sold)

• Chris Hemsworth ("Thor," "The Avengers," "Rush," "Red Dawn")

• Liam Hemsworth ("The Hunger Games')

• Cobie Smulders ("How I Met Your Mother," "The Avengers")

• Aisha Tyler ("The Talk," "Archer")

• Ken Watanabe ("Inception," "Letters From Iwo Jima")

• Elsa Pataky ("Fast and Furious")

• Clare Bowen ("Nashville")

Will Ward can rightfully claim that he discovered Thor.

Around 2005, Ward, who graduated from Baylor School in 1989, was an agent at Creative Artists Agency in California and was working with some illustrious clients, including Dustin Hoffman, Adam Sandler, Edward Norton, Mark Wahlberg and David Spade. Still, despite such a highbrow list, Ward wanted to find some new stars and develop them himself.

So he looked first to the north in Canada - landing such clients as Cobie Smulders from "How I Met Your Mother" - then turned to the other side of the world. It occurred to him that while Australia had produced stars like Mel Gibson, Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman, they'd come over to America already attached to big projects.

"No one was going over there and grabbing them before they signed," says Ward, 42, who also represents musician Zac Brown, who is playing tonight at McKenzie Arena.

That first year Down Under, Ward met about 125 would-be stars; by the third year, it was pared down to about 20, but one of them was a "23- or 24-year-old kid who was on a bad soap opera," he says.

The actor's name was Chris Hemsworth.

"After about 20 minutes, I told him I could make him a $20 million-a-film star. He said, 'You haven't seen my work yet.' I said, 'I don't have to. It's a bad soap. I don't need to see it. I don't want to see it.'"

One of the first things Ward had Hemsworth do was go to a stationary store and buy some really nice cards.

"Why?" Hemsworth asked.

"Because I'm going to put you in some rooms you have no business being in, and after you leave, you are going to write thank-you notes to the people you meet."

One of those people was Bob Iger, chief executive officer of the Walt Disney Co.

"I saw [Iger] a little while ago," Ward says, "and he said, 'I will never forget that guy. I've never gotten a thank-you note before.'"

These days, Ward has not only Hemsworth in his stable, but his younger brother Liam, Ken Watanabe and Smulders. Although Zac Brown is a client, the musician was rolling along pretty good when he agreed to be represented by Ward almost seven years ago, so it would be stretching things to claim Ward discovered him.

In each case, however, Ward had put himself into the right place at the right time, which seems to be the best way to explain how he went from a career plan to be an investment broker right out of the College of Charleston to being a major player in Hollywood.

"Everyone thinks it's about being lucky in Hollywood, but it is about working hard," Ward says.

As co-founder of ROAR, and Girlilla, a digital marketing company in Nashville, he has become a Hollywood success story in a relatively short amount of time.

"Will Ward is a great story," says Paul Bloch, co-chairman of Rogers & Cowan, the international marketing and public relations agency. "He's done some great things in the industry."

Grey Watson, a Chattanooga native and co-director of the upcoming Chattanooga Film Festival, also is a fan.

"He is a gem," says Watson, currently living in Los Angeles where he works in worldwide marketing for Warner Bros. "That guy is uber-successful, and he's earned every bit of it."

Ward is back in Chattanooga today to visit with Brown, but also to reconnect with friends he made at Baylor.

"There are a lot easier places to get to than Chattanooga to see Zac," Ward says. "I'm coming to see old friends. I come back every five years for the reunions."

Ward is originally from Nashville and boarded at Baylor.

With two weeks until college graduation, he was going through the final round of interviews in New York for his assumed career in banking. A friend gave him a copy of Business Weekly magazine with a feature article on Michael Ovitz, founder of Creative Artists Agency.

"I read it and thought, 'Gosh, this is for me. This is what I was meant to do.'"

While he was making plans to move to LA, he met a CAA employee from the Nashville office. Unaware that CAA even had a Music City branch, he looked into it further and was offered a job in Nashville, taking it rather than risk passing on it and striking out in LA. He worked as a trainee at first and, after three years, was offered a position as a booking agent for bands. He wanted to be in the movie business, though, so he transferred to the Los Angeles office.

Within a year he was an agent with Hoffman, Sandler and others, but the itch to own his own company and to get back into music, which he had pretty much ignored, grew, and he made the decision to strike out on his own. He was also seriously thinking of marriage and family (he and wife, Louise, now have three children).

Leaving, however, would mean starting with zero clients.

"So I go from one day I'm watching 'Monday Night Football' at Hoffman's house to getting to work at 6 in the morning in a borrowed office with no clients," he recalls.

Poaching clients is part of the job description for an agent. It's just not done as a manager, though, so he had to get creative. He knew they were making movies and television shows in Vancouver, so he headed up there.

During one of dozens of interviews, "this girl walks into the room and said something funny. She was confident and dare I say a smart a-. She was just this young girl and I took a liking to her right away."

The young actress was Smulders, who now stars as Robin on "How I Met Your Mother," "The Avengers" and the upcoming "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and "Avengers: Age of Ultron."

About the same time, the music component of his business was struggling, so Ward and Co. went after an up-and-comer named Zac Brown. They met with him in Atlanta, but he already had a manager.

"We became friendly and helped him out a bit, locating a producer and stuff like that," Ward says.

When Brown split with his manager, lots of people came a courting, but Ward says his group had an inside and were able to sign the future megastar in 2007.

"We pulled off a bit of a miracle there," he said.

Brown has had eight singles reach No. 1 on the country charts.

Ward says the days are long and he must work hard to stay ahead of the game, but he has a trick for those days when he begins grumbling about having to leave his family to attend the Oscars or the Grammy or some other red-carpet event.

"I call my friends and start complaining and they jump on me pretty good and tell me to get over it."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.