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Johanna Schneller: The Fame Game

Taylor Kitsch's battle to be more than just another hunky superhero Add to ...

Taylor Kitsch is a cog in some very big wheels right now. His new science-fiction adventure movie, John Carter, opened on Friday. He plays the title character, an emotionally scarred Civil War veteran who enters the wrong cave and is mysteriously transported to Mars, where the beings – some human-ish, plus hordes of CGI creatures – are in a civil war of their own. Based on stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the film was seven months in the shooting, with a grillion-dollar budget. (Well, $250-million, but that’s a lot.) Long-lead press started in November, and after round-the-world premieres in Los Angeles, London and Russia, Kitsch flew into his native Canada this week for a few final interviews.

A scant 10 days from now, he’ll be on the wheel again, promoting Battleship, due May 18, a film that started with the plastic Hasbro game and somehow ended up with a plot about an invading alien armada (tagline: “The battle for Earth begins at sea”), a head-rattling $200-million budget, and a hard-bodied cast including Liam Neeson, Alexander Skarsgard, swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker and the singer Rihanna. Two things make me hopeful that it’s at least a little tongue-in-cheek: Peter Berg ( Very Bad Things) is the director, and Peter MacNicol ( Ally McBeal) plays the U.S. Secretary of Defense. But you never know.

“It’s insane,” Kitsch said Wednesday, plopped mellowly on a leather sofa in the screening room of a Toronto hotel. “I’m just going to succumb to being a cog. Try and keep it light. It helps when you’re proud of the work.”

Kitsch, 30, is a Kelowna, B.C., native with the face of a cover boy, the scruffy beard of a hipster, the body of an action figure (amped up by killer workouts and a “brutal” year-long diet of fish, sweet potatoes, brown rice and protein shakes), the slow-motion cadences of a surfer, and the soul of a sweetheart. When he agrees with you, he doesn’t say yes, he says, “Right?” or “No kidding, believe it,” or (my favourite) “Truly!” He refers to his characters as if they’re pals, with nicknames: “Riggs” for Tim Riggins, the troubled football player from Friday Night Lights, the TV show, also directed by Berg, that made Kitsch famous; “Kev” for Kevin Carter, the troubled photojournalist he played in the 2011 Canadian film The Bang Bang Club; “J.C.” for John Carter, the troubled war widower who finds a new lease on life.

Are you sensing a pattern here?

“Me, personally, I want to go dark as possible,” Kitsch says. Later this year, he’ll play a troubled U.S. Navy SEAL Iraq war vet, in Oliver Stone’s Savages. “The cast is insane – John Travolta, Benicio Del Toro – and the character was so fun to prep.” (Kitsch shadowed real SEALs near Austin, Tex., where he lives.) “Any time you give an actor a platform and lot to dive into, the more fulfilling it’s going to be. I love to get very myopic in prepping. The most fulfilling thing for me is becoming.”

A lot has been invested in making Kitsch the next great action hero, but he’s fighting to keep things in perspective. “People definitely want to peg me that way, and I get it,” he says. “ John Carter is such a grand movie. A lot of people all over the world won’t see a Bang Bang Club or a Friday Night Lights, but they’ll see this. So you’ve got to be superconscious of that. But I love to make it about nothing but the work, and screw anything else that can take that energy away from you.”

A sense of humour helps. During the shoot, “there were a lot of moments where I was like, ‘Look what we’re doing right now!’ ” Kitsch says, grinning. “When I shot with Willem [Dafoe, who voices one of the Martian leaders] he was on three-foot stilts, wearing pyjamas and a head cam. For a big battle scene, I was fighting air, alone, in the middle of the desert. When Lynn [Collins, who plays Carter’s love interest, Dejah]and I were supposed to be riding these creatures, we were actually on these big saddles with little buggies underneath that were rocking and moving us. She’s all tanned, tattooed, in this princess garb, and I’m in leather, a skirt and boots, and we’re talking to a dog that’s not there.” He guffaws. “Lynn went to Juilliard. She’s no joke. But you have to laugh at it all.”

Still, Kitsch never would have done John Carter if it were “just an action film,” he continues. “To me, and to Stants” – that would be the director, Oscar-winning Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton, who’s making his live-action directorial debut – “it’s character-driven. It’s the arc of a guy who’s broken, but who finds his cause again, and love. Not to get too heavy, but if he hadn’t, I think he would have committed suicide within the next six months. He was living in a cave, by himself. That’s how dark he was. He had given up. And I love that, you know? So hopefully people will take that emotional ride as well.”

In Kitsch’s favourite scene, Carter single-handedly takes on an army of creatures, fuelled by his anguish at the memory of burying his wife and child back on Earth. “It goes anti-action-hero, because there’s so much heart,” he says. “You don’t get that kind of scene in a lot of these movies. I think it will be incredibly timeless. In the premiere, you could have heard a pin drop. Musicians get that feeling from an audience. That scene is my song, when I can affect people that way.”

Kitsch pauses, and his eyes go puppyish. “ ‘Just an action guy’ – that stings,” he says. “It does. But I’ll keep throwing everyone curve balls, and keep doing the most fulfilling stuff for me, which is the dramatic stuff. Keep it different. Keep scared and working with great people. The beauty of this year is, we start with John Carter and end with a mercenary Navy SEAL for Oliver Stone. That’s a great little arc to have going.”

He’ll take a break after promoting Battleship, though; he needs it. “There’s a lot of exhaustion,” he says. “I want to get back into my groove in Austin – wake up when I want to wake up, play golf, get out on the lake, work out.” And work with his architect on the lakeside “dream house” he’s building. “I want a Zen feeling,” he says. “High ceilings, open spaces, sliding doors. But intimate. I want people to come in and feel like they don’t want to leave.

“I wish I had it ready right now,” Kitsch concludes. “I need to decompress, just really pull myself away from all this. Because, God, you can truly get caught up in it.”

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