Taylor Kitsch: the next action hero

Hollywood bets $500 million on the raw star power of the Kelowna, B.C.-born actor
"JOHN CARTER" John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) Ph: Frank Connor ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.
The next action hero
Frank Connor

Soon there will be no escaping Taylor Kitsch. Over the coming months, a trifecta of Hollywood blockbusters will christen this 30-year-old Canadian actor as America’s new action hero. As a Herculean gladiator in John Carter, a massive sci-fi opus opening next week, Kitsch battles great white apes in the Martian desert, while playing Lawrence of Arabia to a horde of tusked, green, four-armed barbarians that look like mutant exiles from Avatar. With an estimated budget of $250 million, it’s the kind of behemoth that could launch a franchise or shred a studio. Almost as ambitious is Battleship, a $200-million epic based on a board game. It hits theatres in May, with Kitsch in command as a U.S. Navy officer saving the world from an alien invasion. And in July he stars in Oliver Stone’s Savages, as an ex-Navy SEAL turned pot grower who goes to war against a Mexican drug cartel. Altogether, Hollywood is betting about a half-billion dollars on Taylor Kitsch.

None of this would have happened were it not for the blessed misfortune of a torn knee ligament. Growing up in Kelowna, B.C., he set out to be an action hero who would carve his exploits on the ice, not onscreen. As a Junior A star with the Langley Hornets, Kitsch was set to make the leap to a pro hockey career when a knee injury dashed his dreams. So he made another kind of leap, moving to New York at 20 to pursue a modelling offer and study acting. Now, a decade later—after proving his talent as a troubled football star in the acclaimed NBC series Friday Night Lights—this mild-mannered Canadian dreamboat has stepped into the ring as Hollywood’s new Great White Hope.

Not an easy role. The athletic action hero is a dying breed. No one seems willing or able to succeed dinosaurs like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone (who reflects on his career in a Maclean’s interview, page 16). In an era where digital effects do the heavy lifting, pretty-boy contenders like Channing Tatum and Ryan Reynolds lack grit. Kitsch may be crazy handsome, but there’s a dark intrigue in his gaze, the menace of a serious actor determined to break out of his own beauty. Being a gladiator was never part of his plan. “I didn’t really follow action heroes,” he says. “It was more of a Sean Penn and a Daniel Day-[Lewis] and a [Philip] Seymour Hoffman that I admired.”

The voice on the phone from Austin, Texas, the place Kitsch now calls home, has the earnest drawl of a surfer dude. But there’s nothing lazy about his lifestyle. “Man, I’m exhausted,” he says. “It’s quite full-on when you’ve got three movies coming in five months. With all this press touring, I’ve had one day in the last six weeks at home. You’re flying to Japan. Then Indonesia, Russia, London. So when you get back to Austin, you try and re-engage. First thing I did when I got off the plane, I texted my men’s league buddy saying I’m in town for two nights. If you got a game, let me get in there.” Kitsch says his athletic training has proved invaluable to his acting career. “I wouldn’t be here without the work ethic and leadership that hockey has given me. Those years are the formative ones.”

Kitsch describes his Kelowna childhood as “a stereotypical small-town upbringing—I wouldn’t change it for anything.” He learned to skate at the age of three, and has idyllic memories of playing hockey on a backyard pond beside an apple orchard. The son of a construction worker who split when he was a year old, Kitsch was raised by his mother, who worked for the B.C. liquor board. He says she’s been “a huge supporter” of his showbiz career.

It was grim at first, as Kitsch struggled to survive off sparse modelling jobs in New York while taking acting classes. For a while he was homeless, sleeping on subway cars, and spent months in an unfurnished apartment with no electricity in Spanish Harlem. “I had nothing but candles and my best friend’s girlfriend’s blow-up mattress,” he recalls. “My mom didn’t know how bad it was. For my birthday, she sent me $150 and I bought a futon. It was one of the best gifts I ever had.”

Then he met a Hollywood saviour who became his manager. A string of small parts led to a starring role in The Convenant (2006), a supernatural thriller, followed by a five-year run as Tim Riggins in Friday Night Lights. The show “was the best acting school you could have,” he says. Its co-creator and executive producer, Peter Berg, who would go on to direct Battleship, pushed the FNL cast to take risks. “Pete set that precedent—challenge the writing, challenge the character, no marks, no rehearsals. I improvised or paraphrased 80 per cent of the time. Some TV veterans from the old school hated the process. For me it was incredibly empowering.”

Kitsch got a taste of A-list action as Gambit, the kinetic card shark in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). Then, before tackling John Carter, he played a very different Carter in The Bang Bang Club—Pulitizer Prize-winning photographer Kevin Carter, who covered the death throes of South African apartheid, then slid from drug addiction to suicide. Shedding 20 lb. for this Canadian co-production, Kitsch unleashed a cool, haunting performance that earned a Genie nomination.

Filming John Carter was a physical marathon. “You can name any part on my body,” says the actor, “and at one point I’m sure it was swollen or hurt or pulled or yanked or something.” Before cameras rolled, Kitsch did four months of intense training, which he continued with 4:30 a.m. workouts during the eight-month shoot. “You’re just in insane shape that you gotta keep up,” he says. “It’s excessively tough, man. To stay in that shape for a year is an unreal thing. I definitely don’t want to walk around looking like that.”

Carter’s retro space fantasy is based on a century-old series of novels by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs—a big influence on both George Lucas and James Cameron, which explains why the movie may seem crudely derivative of Star Wars and Avatar. A 19th-century Virginian, Carter is an embittered Civil War veteran who gets mysteriously transported to Mars, and finds himself in the thick of a three-way civil war, endowed with superpowers in the planet’s reduced gravity. The film marks the live-action directing debut of Pixar wiz Andrew Stanton (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, WALL-E). In the face of media speculation that the film may bomb, Kitsch is a tad defensive: “I don’t hop onto any role because I’m going to fight great white apes and s–t. It’s to work with a two-time Oscar winner in Andrew Stanton, to work with a Mark Strong, a Willem Dafoe, a Dominic West.”

But when talk turns to Oliver Stone’s Savages, Kitsch sounds genuinely pumped: “These films don’t get made any more, these $40-million, $50-million movies that are character-driven and unapologetic.” To play Chon, a jaded, weed-smoking war veteran, Kitsch trained with Navy SEALs. “I truly felt like one of them,” he says. “Some of their little notes were the best ones I got. We’d just run five miles around this lake in Austin, and after doing 30 pull-ups, [one of the SEAL commandos] looks at me and says, ‘Promise me you’re never going to play tough. People that are tough, they have nothing to prove.’ That was a beautiful thing I took into Stone’s movie.”

Stone is an infamous taskmaster on the set. But Kitsch’s athletic training seems to have instilled an iron work ethic. “I love that part of it,” he says. “Actors become so f–king sensitive. I’ve worked with actors who are f–king lazy and expect s–t to happen without putting in time. Look man, if you’re not prepped and ready to go to work, don’t sign up for an Oliver Stone film.”

Even as his career accelerates at warp speed, Kitsch has developed a healthy distance from the Hollywood circus. After shooting FNL in Austin, he bought a lake property there and has plans to build his “dream home.” The people in Austin, he says, “are very Canadian-esque, very down-to-earth. They don’t care about you being an actor.” Asked if he has a love life, he says, “I’m married to my work. I’m in no hurry. I’m excited to keep engaging with great directors.”

But Kitsch’s career is tethered to a pair of potential blockbuster franchises. If John Carter and Battleship score at the box office, he’s contracted to star in at least two sequels each, locking him into popcorn fodder that might invite some cruel puns on his surname. Like that knee injury, box office failure could have a silver lining. If the sequels don’t happen, he says, “Worst case scenario, I’ll just keep it simple as to why I got into this. I have no problem doing indies for the rest of my life.” Spoken like a player with his eye on the game, not the scoreboard.