- The Sunday Times
- Published: 15 April 2012
It must be tough being Taylor Kitsch, I find myself thinking as I enter the posh Santa Monica hotel suite where the Canadian actor is hosting the press. The thought surprises me. After all, Kitsch seems to be about the luckiest man on the planet right now. Impossibly handsome as well as critically acclaimed for his breakout performance as the brooding, beer-drinking, football-playing Tim Riggins in the cult television show Friday Night Lights, Kitsch is currently set to star in no fewer than three major films during the course of 2012. If anyone can be said to be living the dream, it is him.
But as I make my way through a gauntlet of vigilant publicists, I cannot help but wonder if there is a dark side to this meteoric success. Over half a billion dollars has been bet on the relatively unknown thirty year-old. John Carter and Battleship have budgets that could run small nations, while Savages is directed by the volatile Oliver Stone. (I spoke with Kitsch in December, before John Carter was released.) His good fortune could go pear-shaped, fast. And Hollywood is not exactly a forgiving place. If I discover anything during the next hour, it will be this: how does a guy from Kelowna, British Columbia handle that kind of pressure?
My first thought upon meeting Kitsch is that he is handling it pretty well. Engaging but not in the least bit smarmy, laid-back but possessing a sharp sense of humour, he greets me as if I’ve just dropped by with a six pack of Molson to watch a hockey game. Suspecting this laddishness might be a put-on, I hit him with it straight off: does he ever worry that his career might end as quickly as it started should those movies tank?
“Well now that you’ve asked that me I do!” he jokes with mock exasperation, and it truly seems as if he has not given the question serious thought.
I’m in town to speak with Kitsch about Battleship, a $200 million Sci Fi extravaganza based, somewhat sketchily, on the classic board game. The film, which pits the US and Japanese Navies against alien invaders off the coast of Hawaii, is what is known in the business as a ‘tent-pole’ project, designed to prop up an entire studio. Instead of opting for an established star, Universal decided that Kitsch has what it takes to keep their tent aloft, as did Disney when it cast him in the lead in the even more expensive John Carter.
Casting Kitsch is clearly a big roll of the dice. Sure, he has a devoted following for his portrayal of Riggins (including my wife, whose cell phone has his face as its screen saver). He also turned in an excellent, edgy performance as the doomed South African war photographer Kevin Carter in the low-budget The Bang Bang Club. Still, that’s not the sort of c.v that would necessarily instill an actor with the quiet confidence Kitsch displays.
So where does all the self-possession come from? His answer surprises me – getting his knee blown out. A passionate ice hockey player, he suffered a career-ending injury at age twenty. Bouncing back from that setback prepared him for just about anything.
“This was my life, playing hockey,” he explains in an accent that’s mostly Canada with a hint of Texas. “The be all and end all. It was a devastating blow. I would have gone pro.”
Instead of drowning his sorrows in a river of beer like his alter-ego Riggins might have done, Kitsch decided to pursue his second passion – acting. He moved to New York, where he took every drama class he could blag his way into.
“I was all in,” he says. “I found a coach and struggled for a few years. I was homeless for a while – I slept on the subway, in my car. I had an apartment up in Spanish Harlem. No electricity or furniture, just a blow-up mattress. Plus my visa was an issue – I couldn’t work legally. It was really hard to get paid.”
The idea of someone who looks like Kitsch sleeping rough in a city with ten million women struck me as a bit dubious, but I take him at his word. He eventually used his considerable good looks to model for Abercrombie & Fitch. In 2007, he landed the role of Riggins by means of an audition in which he simply drank beer and talked like a down-home Texan. Although part of a large ensemble in the early episodes, by the end of Friday Night Lights‘s five season run he was its undisputed star.
“I miss the process,” he admits when asked if he regrets the show’s end. “Riggs is all-time to me. He was so fun to play. But I also think it was time to move on. It was time to get scared again. I’m grateful it wasn’t a big hit. You got the best of both worlds. You really did get noticed within the industry but you didn’t get pigeonholed.”
He has not moved on completely, however.
“I live in Austin. I fell in love with that city. I bought land there. So did Kyle Chandler (who played his coach). We are still hanging out there, living the dream.”
I ask if he is ever afraid of being too closely identified with Riggins.
“I was more worried about that at the beginning, when Riggs broke out. At times it was like, ‘how many teen movies can you do in one year?’ But I think the choices that I am making will tell people that I won’t do too many things more than once.”
This certainly showed in The Bang Bang Club, in which Kitsch played Kevin Carter, an award-winning South African war photographer who committed suicide in 1994. The part took its toll.
“I lost 35 pounds in two months,” he recalls. ”I got small. It made me very insecure, because I was so used to having an athletic presence.”
John Carter proved to be another baptism by fire, with Kitsch performing a myriad of bone-rattling stunts while also bringing a rare sensitivity to his role. The film has flopped in the States, with the New York Times snarkily calling it “Ishtar landed on Mars,” but Kitsch’s performance remains remarkable for his ability to combine emotional depth with muscles, and spice it all up with self-deprecating humor. If anything emerges intact from that dusty Martian landscape, it is Kitsch’s potential to be a big time actor.
His skills are given a better airing in Battleship, perhaps because the director is his old buddy Peter Berg, the guiding force behind Friday Night Lights.
“He’s a very endearing guy,” Kitsch says. “Even when we battle, there’s always a trust there. You just want to go to war with him.”
Kitsch seems less impressed by the film’s big budget production values than with the opportunities to display more subtle skills.
“You just try to take big and small films the same way,” he explains. “At the end of the day, you hope that any film you are in is a character story. I think in a lot of these big films, character can be lost. As an actor, I always try to find the little things, the motivation, who the guy is. “
This attention to detail is abundantly clear early in the film when he goes in search of a late night chicken burrito to impress his love interest (Brooklyn Decker). In a truly hilarious sequence, he winds up falling through a convenience store ceiling and then getting tasered - twice.
“I think it’s one of the best introductions of a character that I can imagine. That’s Pete and I really bouncing off one another. I was able to call him at any point in the process and ask – what can we do to really push the boundaries here? If we’re going to fail let’s die trying.”
The scene also brings to mind another of Kitsch’s star qualities – his sheer physicality. Whether he is scoring touchdowns or battling aliens, he displays the sort of muscular dexterity useful in shouldering an industry tent-pole. This is hardly surprising, given that he approaches acting in much the same way he once trained for hockey.
“Being an athlete made me understand that when an opportunity is there, you just have to kill it.”
This physicality reached a new intensity as he prepared for his role in Oliver Stone’s Savages, in which he plays a former Navy SEAL who travels to Mexico to rescue a friend from drug lords.
“I shadowed a SEAL for about a month,” he says with boyish awe. “I trained like a SEAL – it was very intense. The best acting note I ever got was from a SEAL. You don’t ever have to play tough, he said. You have nothing to prove. Be calm. Know what’s around you. But never play tough.”
As for working with the notoriously exacting Stone in a movie that also features Benicio Del Toro and John Travolta, Kitsch was unfazed.
“[Stone] was great. He challenges you. Some people handle it better than others.”
As for what the future brings, Kitsch says that everything is up in the air, a state of affairs he claims to relish.
“I don’t know what my next project is. It’s scary and exciting,” he explains. “I’m very picky. I’ll never work for the sake of working. If I have to take time off because the right project doesn’t come along, I’ll think of something else to keep me busy.”
I wonder if the kid from Kelowna ever thought he’d arrive so emphatically in the big time back when he was sleeping on the subway.
“I never had a vision of stardom. I just loved the work. I would be happy just doing independent films my whole life.”
All of which leads to the big issue – does Kitsch have what it takes to stay on the A-list? While John Carter has done him no great favors, Battleship, with its more cutting edge special effects and the presence of Rhianna in military fatigues, seems more likely to appeal to the vital teen demographic. Still, nothing is certain in the film business. So I ask what happens if it sinks.
“We’ll soon find out,” he jokes, somewhat lamely. “I’ll probably look a lot older a year from now.”
But does he honestly expect people to believe that he wouldn’t mind if he’s back doing indy films a year from now, I ask? He grows somber as he finally faces the high stakes of his current situation.
“Seriously, you can get exhausted thinking and worrying about that,” he says after a moment. “It boils down to this: did you do everything you could possibly do?”
Suddenly, I find myself speaking with Riggins; the quiet determination, the refusal to let something as trivial as defeat beat you. This, it occurs to me, is Taylor Kitsch’s finest quality, one he shares with Steve McQueen and Harrison Ford – the ability to display sang froid in any situation. Something tells me that is a quality that Hollywood is going to be betting on for a while to come.