TORONTO - The chance to play a butt-kicking lead in a post-apocalyptic thriller was too good to pass up for Kevin Zegers.
The former "Gossip Girl" regular says he was ready to take "a long break" from acting when the script for "The Colony" changed his mind.
With sci-fi veterans Laurence Fishburne and Bill Paxton already on board, Zegers says he leaped at the chance to join the Canadian genre flick.
"I'd never really seen a movie like this before," Zegers says.
"I knew that Laurence and Bill were doing it and that was obviously a huge draw for me. I had just finished something and I was going to take a break — like a long break. I had worked for seven months on this miniseries and I was kind of ready to take a break, but then they sent me this and it seemed like a great opportunity."
Zegers, who was in Toronto recently for a promotional stop, is front-and-centre as a young mechanic named Sam who is reluctantly thrust into a desperate battle when his community is threatened by brutal invaders.
Sam's colony is already on the brink of collapse — the year is 2045 and the world is a frozen wasteland after massive machines used to control the weather have backfired.
Survivors live in an underground bunker, but food is in short supply and illness is spreading. Fishburne plays their leader, a former army captain named Briggs, who struggles to maintain order while his former army pal Mason, played by Paxton, pushes for harsh measures.
Things turn when they receive a distress signal from another colony, bringing them face-to-face with a threat that could wipe out any remaining hope of human survival.
"It was definitely going to be a challenge, so it was something that just even physically I was wondering whether I was able to pull off," Zegers says of the action-packed part.
"I try to do things I haven't done before. Right after I did this we shot 'The Mortal Instruments' which is a big fighting movie. ... Certainly what we did on this helped me prepare for that movie."
Vancouver-based director Jeff Renfroe says the project was crafted as a low-budget slasher when it was first brought to him six years ago.
He immediately saw the potential to broaden it to a multimillion-dollar tale that would go beyond bloody scares.
"I loved the world, but I really wanted to take it somewhere fresh and really basically elevate the genre," says Renfroe, noting he wanted to highlight issues of climate change, global sustainability and how greed and consumption can distort the human spirit.
"We came out the other side with a much bigger, well-rounded movie."
Because it's an ice-age story, they had to seek a suitably frosty locale to shoot. They settled on North Bay, Ont., where Zegers says frigid temperatures froze camera lenses.
The area also offered a unique set for the characters' underground sanctuary — a decommissioned NORAD army base 60 storeys below ground. "The Colony" is billed as the first film permitted to shoot inside the bunker, built in 1963 to withstand a four-megaton nuclear blast.
"We scouted the slag fields out there which have that kind of beautiful snowy nothingness," Renfroe says of the region.
"And then when we were up there we sort of discovered the NORAD base and we were like, 'Wow, this is like purpose-built for our movie.' And we were like, 'We're going to shoot the whole thing here!' Of course, there's a lot of red tape in getting that location. It was very, very difficult to shoot."
As a result, shooting also took place at an abandoned power station in Toronto while a lot of the exterior shots were done inside an airplane hangar.
The 42-year-old Renfroe says he had hoped to shoot outdoors, but with a limited number of shooting days, they couldn't risk unco-operative weather disrupting the tight schedule.
"So we ended up basically shovelling, pushing snow into an airplane hangar," says the Seattle-born Renfroe, who grew up in Victoria. "And then we lit through the open doors of the airplane hanger so our actors were walking on real snow."
Computer-generated imagery fills out the rest of the snow-covered landscape.
"Anything you're seeing outside, 90 per cent of it is enhanced by visual effects background."
Renfroe says it was a coup to score "The Matrix" star Fishburne and "Aliens" star Paxton for the film, noting they were generous in offering advice gleaned from decades of show business experience.
"Laurence said to me that he's a huge fan of post-apocalyptic movies and that he always wanted to be in one," Renfroe adds.
"He was just super-excited to be a part of it and he really saw the world. Both he and Bill are pretty big comic book fans as well — as am I — so I think they saw that kind of esthetic in the movie. We're all kind of big kids at some level."
Zegers says he grew close to both actors, and remains friends with them well after the shoot has ended.
"Which is not a normal thing for actors. Most of the time you just leave (set) and move on to the next thing. But we've really stayed close and I rely on them quite heavily for all sorts of stuff," he says.
"I hang out with Bill. Bill lives in Los Angeles so we get food once a month or something and just talk about what he's up to and what I'm up to. Just life stuff."
Zegers says he's keen on making sure his career is as diverse as possible.
"I try to not imagine myself being in some sort of box. I know they like to say 'Channing Tatum does this kind of movie' and 'Tom Hardy does this kind of movie,' but to be honest I think every actor kind of hates that. I think it just gets in the way."
"The Colony" opens Friday.