Can Hollywood Handle Decent, Modest, Good-Humored Chris Hemsworth?

In March, Hemsworth, 32, hosted Saturday Night Live. The best bit was a send-up of those American Express commercials that feature famous people presenting themselves in modest, no-frills, this-is-the-real-me ways that are actually self-congratulatory and carefully contrived.

Hemsworth is the most movie-starrish of his movie-star peers, by which I mean he’s the best-looking. Channing Tatum’s a hot young hunk, he however, has a beefcake quality. (He knows it, too, and uses it; it’s part of what makes him such a sly—and amusing—presence on-screen.) Bradley Cooper is the guy who was out of your league in college. Not that out of your league, though. And, granted, Ryan Gosling and Jake Gyllenhaal are, heartthrobs, except they’re less physically imposing. And then there’s Tom Hardy, of the spooky-skeezy machismo.

The restaurant is Geoffrey’s, pronounced the way the snooty English butler from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air pronounced it, and perched on a bluff above the Malibu stretch of the Pacific. It has a driveway that’s a little like Lombard Street in San Francisco—twisty and on a treacherous incline. Best traversed by motorcycle.

“My older brother, Luke, and I were talking about this the other day. He was laughing, said it was a classic example of how I prep for things. See, the test is its own thing. People told me that even if you’re a great rider, you can screw it up. What you have to do is drive around in a circle twice in a space that’s quite tight and narrow, zigzagging through cones without touching the ground. I drew the test out in chalk and tried to do it, and I was like, ‘This is pretty hard, I’m going to fail.’ And my friends who were watching said, ‘Well, no, you kind of get it.’ But I said, ‘I have to 100 percent get it because there are no second chances.’ So I spent the next two days just going in circles and zigzagging.”

Hemsworth was raised in Melbourne, with the occasional foray into the Outback, popping wheelies on motorbikes—being a cross between a daredevil and a cowboy. He’s the middle of three boys, all of whom are actors. “Luke started acting. I followed his path, and then Liam followed mine. We’re lucky. We’re all there to help each other, give each other perspective, give each other the right amount of slapping as well.”

At 18, with little formal training, Hemsworth landed a role on Home and Away, the long-running Australian soap and Hollywood farm team. (Among the alumni: Heath Ledger, Guy Pearce, Isla Fisher, and Naomi Watts.) The show was his acting school. And at this acting school he took Fame 101. (“It was a great place to get caught up in that sort of thing [i.e., teen-idol-dom] because no one really gave a s**, because it was just a soap opera and cell-phone cameras weren’t as popular.”)

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In 2007, Hemsworth headed for L.A. and a chance at the big time. Almost immediately he was cast as George Kirk in J. J. Abrams’s reboot of Star Trek (2009). It was a promising start, only it proved to be a false one. “There were eight months where just everything stopped. I got more and more anxious. I was about to pack it in. I had an audition before Christmas, and as I got on the plane, I thought, I don’t give a s* anymore. I’m sick of caring.”

But eight months isn’t no time either, especially when you’re a fretter by nature. Relief came in the form of Joss Whedon, who would discover Hemsworth—already kind of sort of discovered twice—once and for all. Whedon, along with Drew Goddard, cast Hemsworth in the movie he had auditioned for pre-boarding, The Cabin in the Woods. Says Whedon, “In Chris’s first close-up, Drew and I turned to each other and said, ‘Oh, he’s a movie star.’ ”

“I had an audition with Ken [Branagh, for Thor] that didn’t go very well. I remember walking out thinking, Oh well, there goes that opportunity. Then one day Joss and Drew were reading the trades, and on the front was the final four for Thor. And they pointed to Liam and said, ‘Hey, is that your brother?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And they said, ‘Why the hell aren’t you in the mix?’ And I said, ‘I didn’t get a callback.’ And they were like, ‘This is crazy.’ And I was like, ‘If one of us gets it, that’s cool.’ And they were like, ‘No way. That should be you.’ And when casting opened back up, Joss called Ken and said, ‘Give Chris another shot.’ ”

Branagh did, and the rest is Hollywood history. (Three fun facts. One: The Cabin in the Woods was released in 2012 but filmed in 2009, and it wasn’t until 2010 that Whedon was hired to write and direct The Avengers. “A year after Cabin I’m on the set of Thor and Joss comes walking in, and I’m like, What are you doing here? And he was like, Oh, I’m interviewing with the Marvel guys.” So the former writer-producer was auditioning to direct the very star he helped make. Two: when Whedon first clapped eyes on Hemsworth, he immediately thought, Captain America. “So, yeah,” says Whedon, “I did think superhero, just, ah, slightly physically smaller superhero.” Three: a short time after losing out to his big brother, Liam would win a role The Hunger Games. Says Hemsworth with a laugh, “Yeah, Liam’s doing all right.”)

He did have to bulk up considerably, protein-scarfing and gym-bunnying until he’d packed on 20 pounds of lean muscle. He’s poetic in the fighting scenes. And he never seems to take himself too seriously.

Hemsworth appears relaxed in the role, only he wasn’t—the opposite. He felt the pressure. The Marvel movies offer massive exposure and an even more massive paycheck. But for Hemsworth, the only one of “earth’s mightiest heroes” who is—or, rather, was—a comparative nobody, the experience was far more fraught. “When something costs $150 million and it doesn’t work, it’s your face, it’s your fault. And the character has fans. Are they still a fan or did you just make them never want to read the comic again?”

Hemsworth gains and loses tremendous amounts of weight for a role in frighteningly brief periods of time. Ron Howard on Hemsworth’s audition tape for Rush (2013): “He’d made it himself in his hotel room when he was shooting one of the Avengers movies. He was huge. There’s no way he could even fit in the car [the part was real-life racecar driver James Hunt]. But at the end, in his Aussie voice, he said, ‘And don’t worry. I’ll be whatever size Hunt needs to be.’ At that moment, I knew we had our guy.”

Hemsworth appears to work from the outside in. His body is always in character: as Thor, he moves like a heavyweight who’s light on his feet; as the Huntsman, in Snow White and the Huntsman, he moves with a swashbuckler’s authoritative grace; and as the hacker in Michael Mann’s Blackhat, he practically doesn’t move at all, except for his fingers, agile and precise and flying across the keyboard.

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It’s no surprise then that Ron Howard cast him as the lead in this month’s In the Heart of the Sea, based on the whaleship Essex, the sinking of which would inspire Moby-Dick. “When we were making it, I told everybody, This isn’t Jaws, think more King Kong” Howard says—but mostly it’s an old-fashioned adventure picture, Hemsworth’s role as first mate Owen Chase requiring a frank un-ironic heroism.

In person, Hemsworth is sunny, laid-back, polite, without pretense. He’s part of an industry that’s, in his words, “set up to turn you into a complete narcissist.” Not that he’s going to let it. He has three children with wife Elsa Pataky: daughter India Rose, three, and twin sons Tristan and Sasha, one. Hemsworth recently moved his family from Malibu to Australia’s Byron Bay to shake the L.A. paparazzi, but also to shake L.A. generally. “You just kind of lose touch with reality a bit here. You drive down the street and you’re constantly reminded of everything you’re either involved in or not involved in. It’s exhausting.”

Rush, the movie Hemsworth was auditioning for in that hotel room may be his best. Certainly James Hunt, the 1970s Formula One driver with all the right moves, is his best role. Lauda, who’s ugly and knows it, who’s unlikable and knows it, is the character who captures the director’s imagination. And the actor who played him, Daniel Brühl, captured the awards. Yet Hemsworth makes an unsympathetic guy sympathetic. Hemsworth lets you see the sweetness beneath Hunt’s macho posturing, and the melancholy. And, yes, Hunt’s a stud, bedding miniskirted cuties, but he’s every bit as much a gentleman. You just know he wants the girls to have a good time too!

“Ron and Peter [Morgan, the screenwriter] and I tried to thread throughout the idea that Hunt’s behavior is fueled by adrenaline and fear and insecurity. And then the one scene that I think really was a tipping point in our favor to making him redeemable—and it wasn’t in the original script—was when he punched the reporter.” The punch—multiple punches, actually—came after said reporter asked a nearly-burned-alive Lauda how his wife could stand looking at him. Here’s what that tells me: that he isn’t yet fully in control of his persona, and that he doesn’t yet trust his rapport with the audience. (You play a villain or an asshole and the audience loves you anyway? You’re a star.)

If he were more shrewd of a calculator of his own power, he’d know how far the viewer was willing to go with him. (Answer: far.) Besides, for a movie star to truly earn the title, he or she has to impose his or her personality on a film, become a phenomenon: Tom Cruise as the fighter pilot with the bulletproof grin in Top Gun; Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman; Brad Pitt as the drifter who drifted off with not only sweet, love-struck Geena Davis’s cash (a villain and an asshole) but the movie in Thelma & Louise. Hemsworth, though, hasn’t yet had his.

The one moment in our three-hour conversation that Hemsworth’s voice took on a wistful note was when Jennifer Lawrence’s name came up. He was talking about how nutzoid the paparazzi can get, quickly adding, “But I’m not complaining!” Then he laughed. “What was it that Jennifer Lawrence said? ‘I know everyone says you’re not supposed to complain about the paparazzi. Well, I don’t give a s*. I’m f**ing complaining!’” He cut off his laugh to sigh. “But she can get away with that.”

He’s right. She can. Why? She’s famous for, above all else, being herself. She doesn’t play the game. Isn’t forever trying to prove herself deserving of her success. She gets pissy, has moods, loses her temper. Acts naturally, in other words.

Hell yeah, Hemsworth’s a movie star! If he hasn’t fully imposed himself yet, it’s because he’s been too busy establishing himself. “Being part of a franchise like The Avengers is the dream scenario. I’ve got this thing that’s going to keep me relevant, and I can still explore other things in between, do a few films no one cares about.” The “other things” include the new Ghostbusters. Says co-star Kristen Wiig, “Chris is so naturally funny. He was a joy to look at—I mean, work with, work with!”

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November 1, 2015 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links