Wednesday, 11 July 2012
It's time to play up his serious side
Superhero roles have made Chris Hemsworth hot property in Hollywood. Now he’d like to start acting
Action hero: Chris Hemsworth on his latest role in a mega blockbuster (Sunday Times, May 20, 2012)
Pacific breakers crash. Wetsuited surfers glide. When Chris Hemsworth bounds along the bluffs of Malibu — flaxen mane, tan, ripped torso and enthusiastic back slap — all that’s missing is a bottle of Old Spice. As it turns out, the chipper Australian is no slouch in the surfboard department (the California curls are not up to much, he asides, compared with the stuff back home). With his slashed-open linen shirt, eyelashes so dark they look like he’s been snaffling the testers in Boots, he seems the epitome of leonine hunk. But in the film business, all is not always what it seems. Take our venue, a faux chateau rented out by some billionaire for such occasions, upon whose terrace assistants fawn. “When I first got to LA, I had a gung-ho attitude. I got a couple of films, I thought, ‘Great, I’m off’ — then I didn’t work for a year,” Hemsworth says. “I’d run out of money and was becoming bitter. I was about to give up.” Hollywood only loves you when you’re hot.
At this moment, there is no screen actor more microwave-pinging than the genial 28-year-old. At 6ft 3in, and possessing the deepest lady-shaking boom of a voice since Teddy Pendergrass, he rocks back on his chair at the huge oak dining table and looks out of the picture window commanding spectacular views out to Catalina Island.
Hemsworth’s mischievous horror film The Cabin in the Woods has earned him new fans around the world recently. More impressively, he’s reprising his role as the tooled-up Norse deity Thor in the superhero romp Avengers Assemble, which has been busting box-office records, passing the $1 billion mark in worldwide returns during its third week on release. Now here comes Snow White and the Huntsman, a swashbuckling interpretation of the fairy tale, tipped to be one of the biggest movies of the summer.
“My initial reaction was, ‘I don’t want to do another fantastical film with a weapon that’s not too far from a hammer,’ ” Hemsworth quips (it’s an axe this time). “I then had a meeting with [the director] Rupert Sanders — and just kind of fell in love with what he had in mind. The idea was to make it different, much dirtier, rougher.” Sanders has steered the tale, long since whitewashed by the hi-hoing of Disney, towards its origins. It was first published in 1812, Grimm by name and nature. And what better statement of darkness than to cast Kristen Stewart from Twilight, high priestess of glum, as the film’s titular dwarf-fraterniser? Charlize Theron as the evil queen and the up-and-coming British actor Sam Claflin as Prince William (a different one) round out the leads, with digitally shrunk versions of Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane and Ray Winstone in the heptarchy of mini-miners. And to avoid the movie sounding like something from the adult section, the “woodsman” — as it is sometimes translated from the German — has become a “huntsman” (Eric, to you and me).
Should you require further proof of Hemsworth’s status, bear in mind the actors he beat to this role: Viggo Mortensen, Hugh Jackman and Michael Fassbender, with Johnny Depp also mentioned. He laughs when I raise this. “I don’t know whether they were asked to do it and didn’t want to, and I was the only one,” he shrugs, a tad embarrassed. You might call it the passing of the flame. The film follows another version of the same fairy story, the Julia Roberts film Mirror, Mirror. “When it first came up that there was another Snow White movie, my initial reaction was ‘Oh shit’. Pretty soon I realised theirs is in the realm of a comedy, this is on a much more epic scale. It’s The Lord of the Rings, the feel.” It certainly looks the part, having been shot at Pinewood, in the misty forests of the Lake District and on the windswept sands of Pembrokeshire. Eric comes across as a sort of gunslinger, “a western reluctant hero”, whom we first meet in a drunken street brawl. (The film is co-written by the Clint Eastwood collaborator John Lee Hancock.)
It can’t escape notice that Hemsworth plays him with a Scottish accent. Antipodean gentlemen doing dialects in medieval romps can go either way — Mel Gibson or, you know, Russell Crowe (whose Maximus you can hear in Hemsworth’s Thor voice). “The idea was to separate Eric from the queen, Snow White and the prince, who were all doing RP,” Hemsworth explains. “We wanted to feel like he was a man of the forest and the earth.” In the Brothers Grimm version, the Huntsman has to bring back Snow White’s heart and lungs as evidence of her execution. And when it comes to chopping out offal, you imagine Hemsworth would be your man. He and his two brothers grew up on a remote cattle station at Bulman, an aboriginal community in the outback of Australia’s Northern Territory. “My dad and my uncle were mustering cattle. We, as kids, were just bouncing around with them. It was amazing. They were my earliest memories — what a great introduction to life. There are crocodiles, buffalo walking down the street. You didn’t own a pair of shoes. It’s too hot. Your feet become like leather. We were the only white kids at this little school of 40 kids. It was a beautiful thing and a privilege. It is a special part of the world.”
The family (his mother is a teacher) later relocated to their native Victoria; Hemsworth spent his teen years on the surfing mecca of Phillip Island. Stuck for an idea as to what to do after school, he tore a leaf out of his older brother Luke’s book and tried his hand at acting. “I thought, this could be good: I love movies, I love storytelling. I can pretend to do all those things I wanted to do.” He was soon followed by his little brother, Liam, who has also established a screen career (he appears in the thematically similar The Hunger Games, as another huntsman, Gale) and was last seen squiring Miley Cyrus. Hemsworth got a stroll-on part in Luke’s regular gig, Neighbours. “The local mechanic shop had been robbed. I walked in and said, ‘What’s going on? Did you call the police?’ ” It led to a three-year stint in the other branch of the Australian thespian academy, Home and Away, as the resident ab-cruncher Kim Hyde.
Among a host of film actors who began by sashaying around Summer Bay and made it in America (Hemsworth has been in LA for six years), the name Heath Ledger leaps out. Hemsworth resembles him. “He was probably the biggest inspiration for me,” he concedes. “Just a few years older. It was a similar sort of path.” Hemsworth did return home to demonstrate his populist credentials in the Aussie version of Strictly Come Dancing — to quash any notion of him “becoming pretentious and wanky” — but his American film career kicked off with a pair of low-budget crime flicks, A Perfect Getaway and Ca$h, released over 2009-10. Then, as he says, it all dried up.
Ultimately, that proved to be a blessing. “When you just stop caring, the auditions start to loosen up a lot. It was just go and have fun.” Having failed to land the part of Thor, his brother Liam, who had gone further down the selection process, gave him a heads-up on what its director, Kenneth Branagh, was really looking for with the character. The newly loosened-up Hemsworth took note, and a gamble, by resubmitting a videoed audition in which his visiting mum was reading back Anthony Hopkins’s lines. The tape arrived just as J J Abrams’s Star Trek opened, in which Hemsworth had bagged a small but crucial part as Captain Kirk’s father. Branagh liked what he saw. “Look, luck is probably a bigger piece of the puzzle than anything else,” he says. “It’s ‘right place, right time’.” So Hemsworth became an Immortal, a very tongue-in-cheek one.
He fiddles with his trendy thumb ring and fashionably clunky watch, a gift from his Spanish actress wife, Elsa Pataky, with whom he has just had his first child, a girl. It’s clear that what he really wants to do is act, though first we have to watch him in the popcorn fodder of Red Dawn, a remake of the 1980s commie-scare picture, which, like The Cabin in the Woods, was actually shot more than three years ago. “I’ll be like Benjamin Button this year, getting younger,” he says.
The big test will be the film he’s currently working on, Rush, directed by Ron Howard and written by Peter Morgan, a biopic of the British racing driver James Hunt, a part for which Hemsworth lobbied hard and has had to lose weight: lots of running and “no beer”. The rakish, gangling “Hunt the Shunt” (the polite version of his nickname) remains one of the great enigmas of British sport — dying prematurely after a turbulent playboy existence, the conquests, in and out of the cockpit, conducted in a fug of drink, drugs and depression. “He had a woman’s push-bike, which he’d ride to work for commentating in the last few years,” Hemsworth says. “He’s kind of fascinating, quite contradictory. On the one hand there’s this arrogant, brash, hot-tempered person, but there was a gentle side to him. Barefoot and shirt off, that was kind of how he was the whole time. He considered himself a hippie.” Hunt’s greatest moment, the 1976 Formula One championship, is often regarded as a case of victory by default, given the horrific accident that nobbled his rival, Nikki Lauda, and scarred him for life. “But he still beat everyone else on that course over that year,” Hemsworth says.
The documentary Senna has upped the ante in terms of how motorsport can be portrayed, and Howard and co know it. “I don’t think in previous driving films you ever felt the risk. Or felt you were in that seat going ‘Holy shit’. Ron’s focus is to make it that way.” And the best part? “I’m not swinging any hammers or axes or weapons.”