For a sweet guy, Taylor Kitsch plays some pretty wounded dudes. On the surface, they're cool, with easy smiles. But they feel things deeply, and a lot goes on in their eyes.
"Whoa, I should lie down on the couch," Kitsch said on a recent visit to Toronto. "Who knows why I'm drawn to those roles, man? Some deep-seated emotion I haven't hit yet. Those are just the things I'm intrigued by and love to explore."
Rangy and fit, Kitsch is less shaggy than Tim Riggins, the broody football anti-hero he plays on the acclaimed series Friday Night Lights, whose final season is currently airing. He speaks in a low, dark molasses voice, punctuated by stonerish enthusiasm - long vowels, lots of "mans," and sentence fragments that turn up at the end? Like, conversationally? Born in Kelowna, B.C., he turned 30 on April 8, and though he lives in Austin, Tex., "I'll always be Canadian, let's make no ifs, ands or buts about that," he said. "I'll always be rooting for the red and white." (First Matthew McConaughey, now this - whatever they're putting in the water in Austin, I want some.)
Kitsch's latest role, as the real-life, late South African photographer Kevin Carter in The Bang Bang Club, is an archetypal wounded dude. One of the titular foursome of combat photojournalists who risked their lives to chronicle the final days of apartheid in 1993 Johannesburg, Carter charged into melees, and also won a Pulitzer for his photo of a vulture stalking a starving child in Sudan. (A bang-bang, Kitsch said, is a scene where stuff's going down. "Where you're going to find and get a good shot that's gonna make the news, that's gonna tell a story.") But in his off-hours, Carter suffered from depression, and self-medicated with booze, drugs and women. Eventually he wrote a note, drove to his favourite spot and threaded a hose from his tailpipe into his car window.
"The empathy Kev showed, how it all hit him - that was the place that I wanted to discover," Kitsch said. "He's very dear to me. He had such a big heart. The stuff that went down, and what the photographers sacrificed to get the shots …" he broke off, shaking his head. "There's a line in the film, 'He wasn't meant for this gig.' I truly believe that. It tore him apart. I want people who knew Kev to know that I gave everything I had to live up to what he did. That's what drives me."
As part of his preparation for the role - "I prep an insane amount," Kitsch said - he dropped 35 pounds from his already lean frame, and shadowed a professional photographer. "He gave me a base, then sent me back to Austin with my Leica, same camera Kev had," Kitsch said. He shot 10 rolls a day, and practised loading film on the run. He also listened to a 27-second clip of Carter's voice - the only recording he had - "50, 100 times a day" to get his accent, and "immersed myself in that whole era."
The two surviving bang-bangers, Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva, served as advisers on the Canadian co-production. (The fourth, Ken Oosterbroek, was killed on the job, and Silva recently lost both his legs in a land-mine accident in Afghanistan. "He was on the gurney with his legs ripped apart, still taking photos," Kitsch said. "That's the kind of mindset you've got to have, you know?") They gave the cast technical advice and shared stories, like the time Carter, who'd been out for days on a "drug sleep," rushed to a bang-bang wearing only one shoe, and dodged bullets half-barefoot.
"It raises the stakes," Kitsch said. "I'm playing a South African, drug-addicted photojournalist, it's a true story - and his two best friends are going to be on set watching me do it? That makes you get to where you need to be to be truly honest."
So honest that Kitsch took Carter's pain home for a while. "Oh believe me, I wish I didn't," he said. "When you're playing a guy who's suicidal, you don't want to take that home. I had nightmares? Very, very little sleep." He shrugged. "Everyone wants me to throw a comedy into the mix, because I take these roles so hard, but I haven't found the right one. I think you've gotta take big risks, calculated ones, but big ones. If you're going with your gut, your instinct - if you own that part of it - you'll get it done."
Growing up, Kitsch admired actors "who really got me into it, could tell a story without saying a ton of words. The Daniel Day-Lewises, the Sean Penns. Dead Man Walking kind of hit me over the head. I mean, the guy raped and murdered, and I was sympathetic to him. If I could even come close to achieving that? I think it takes a lot more to play something without playing anything. That's the way I approach things."
Kitsch's next few movies are big-budget spectacles that may test his approach. In John Carter of Mars, he plays a Civil War vet transplanted to the red planet. It took seven months to shoot (as opposed to three weeks for The Bang Bang Club). Then he and Liam Neeson will fight an armada of unknown origin in Battleship for Friday Night Lights director Peter Berg. And he's starting to prep "another really tortured mother" for Savages, a "superviolent, superintense" drama directed by Oliver Stone. He plays a former Iraq war Navy Seal turned pot grower, whose girlfriend is kidnapped by a Mexican drug cartel. He plans to spend a month shadowing an ex-Seal in San Diego.
Recently, Kitsch purchased some land on a lake in Austin, and has been working with an architect. "It's just a great town," he said. "It lets me digress, lets me prep the right way, keeps me creative." He supports the African Children's Choir - which houses and schools orphans, who then perform around the world - and plans to travel across that continent making a documentary about them. He's also "training like a madman" for Savages, "and really just taking a beat," he said. "You become so myopic with your work, it's like, man, I haven't read a book in a year. So I've been reading a ton." He called his most recent - Unbroken, the true story of Second World vet Louis Zamperini, who survived a brutal Japanese POW camp - "phenomenal."
"I'm excited for my 30s," Kitsch continued. "I think my best work is ahead of me. I feel like I'm coming into my own self." He grinned. "It's going to be a fun ride, I think."