The word most people call Taylor Kitsch is "brooding." The former Friday Night Lights star has got the shaggy hair and stubble of a artist and the muscles and intensity of an athlete, all of which are key to his career. And despite the fact that he's poised to own 2012 with the lead roles in John Carter, Battleship and Oliver Stone's latest, Savages, Kitsch comes across as a guy who knows he's got to prove himself—and who relishes the fight ahead. Kitsch explains how he went from being homeless in New York to being Hollywood's next big thing. Step one: prepare like you're going off to war.
John Carter is an ex-Civil War soldier who goes to outer space and has to fight in another Civil War—it's like war is something he can't escape.
The first war, he feels like he's doing the right thing by going to protect his family. But serving in the Civil War, he pays the ultimate price, ironically, for leaving the family. He becomes this recluse, and once he's put in the situation where he has to fight again, there's no real reason to because everything has been taken from him to begin with. Why would you engage in something that was your own demise? His reaction is, "No," to be very simple about it—there's no point in it because everything bad has come from him fighting in the first war, so what's the point of another? There's a famous line in the book and in the movie where he says, "No good will come from me fighting your war."
Do you feel that at some level, John Carter is anti-war?
Yeah—and hopefully it will raise a lot of questions. Besides the escapism, that's what movies do. And I think people are going to take whatever they're going to take from it. But for John Carter, it's way more of a personal thing than the grandeur of it all. For him, it's about the family that he lost, and with that, there's a purpose within itself. It's personal for John Carter.
He's a Confederate soldier, which is now considered a bit anti-PC. Do you wish he fought for the Union?
No, because believe me I studied with historians, sat down with these guys, studied with one of the professors at UT, and I enveloped myself in the Civil War. Everyone was fighting for their own reasons. To say that it was just for one thing is too much of a broad stroke, and I played it—and I still feel strongly—that Carter was there to protect his family and what was, in his opinion, worth fighting for.
Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote this story in 1912 when we knew a lot less about Mars—
And now they're going in deeper and there's all these new galaxies and that planet, the "Second Earth," they're calling it. Isn't that insane? But needless to say, Burroughs was so far ahead of his time—it's so relevant now. A cool little story: we were filming in Utah and 100 meters away from where we were filming in this part of the desert, NASA was retouching their Mars Lunar. You know you're doing your shoot at the right location when you have NASA also trying to recreate Mars.
And yet, unless we figure out how to travel faster in time, humans won't make it to the Second Earth in our lifetime. The science fiction books of today will seem as outdated in 100 years as Burroughs does today.
What Andrew Stanton [the director] and I would always talk about is how what's cool in the books is that John would always be staring through his office window or his bedroom window at Mars. We're all here doing our thing on earth, but how cool would it be if you could really look at a telescope into the sky and see all of this happening somewhere else in another world? It could be actually going on somewhere else. It just goes full circle—we're just discovering more about space now. And as filmmakers, we have the opportunity to recreate all that.
With Stanton coming from his Pixar background, were there moments were you could really see the imagination he brought to the set that came from his animation work?
I don't know if his imagination came from animation. I think it comes from Stanton. He's where he's at because he's never lost that, and he will fight for it. And I love it. That's what drives him: storytelling. It's not live action, it's not animation, it's storytelling. It's getting people in the grips of a character and their arc and emotion. And I guarantee people will be affected emotionally by what he's created. This guy, I walked into his office in London when we first started and there's literally floor-to-ceiling cue cards of John Carter's emotional journey. It had nothing to do with action—it was really just the emotional toll taken on Carter, where he is emotionally in each scene. That's when you know as an actor you're in good hands.
One of the simplest, best things John Carter gets to do on Mars is jump around with less gravity—how much fun was that to shoot?
What I love, too, is that there's a growing scene where he does learn to master the lack of gravity. It's really comical and it's really about waking up on Mars. I mean, it was beyond exhausting for me to do this, but yeah, there's definitely moments when you're filming on a dry lake bed in this tiny town living on a base camp literally in trailers, and you see these 200-foot cranes get pulled out and you're between them jumping 40, 60, 80, 120 feet filming this sequence—it's pretty darn special.
When the project first came to you, did you look at the old art on the covers of the original books and think, "Oh god—I have to wear a loincloth?"
I don't know if it was, "Oh my god—I've got to wear this!" It was more of, "I gotta get this gig." I've been through enough personally and through the business that you've gotta know when an opportunity presents itself—and may only present itself once. Dressing in barely nothing is kinda part of the deal-you've seen it, I'm out there. And obviously, you're a lot more vulnerable when you're half-naked. And it is very in-tune and parallel with where John Carter is himself, which is cool. But it's all part of it, man. If I make a big deal about it, everyone else will. I'm not really worried about that.
This summer, Chris Evans said he was reluctant to take on the Captain America job because when you're a young actor, signing on to a film with franchise potential can take over your life. Were you wary of that yourself?
This was more of a character-driven story, and to me, it was like an independent character that I could drive in to. It's really an origin story of how John Carter became John Carter of Mars, and I think we've truly created such a base to draw from that it would be a crime not to do a couple more just on the simple character basis of where he's going now. If there was no emotion in it, if it was just a standard action flick than, yeah—I'd be very hesitant to do it.
2012 is poised to be a big year for you with John Carter, Battleship and Oliver Stone's Savages. In all of them, you play a soldier or ex-soldier. What is it about you that makes casting agents see you as the perfect military guy?
I don't know? But I tell you what: you watch John Carter, and if you see any John Carter in Chon [from Savages], then I haven't done my job. Chon is a motherf--ker—he's more jaded and for such different reasons. He's such a different character. They look nothing alike, half his body is covered in tattoos, he's got scars up and down his face and back. And that's the beauty of it: I hope I can never be pegged into a role.
Having started as a model, was it initially hard for you to get your foot in the door with acting?
I moved to New York to study acting and the struggle was quite blatant. Being Canadian, I couldn't work there and I ended up homeless in New York for quite a while. And then I lived in my car in LA for months. I feel like if anyone has paid their dues and sacrificed, I'd definitely throw my hat in there.
I didn't realize you were homeless—that seems like something that would really stick with you.
Absolutely. Among learning from other guys in the business who are where they're at now—like Hugh Jackman, I'm very close with Hugh—I really do feel like that work ethic has come from that struggle and where I've been. I just feel that I'm more of an all-or-nothing guy and I'm very specific in my choices because I will go all-out in it. And that's the thing with John Carter and Savages and everything I've done—I just won't take it for granted.
Seems like something you should have tattooed on your body: no matter how successful I get, I won't forget my path.
I work a lot in Africa and I got, literally, a tattoo of Swahili on my ribs that says, "Without regret."
What does that mean to you?
It's like, I can look back at John Carter and I can look back at Savages and Bang-Bang Club and be like, "I literally gave it everything I have." So I have no regrets. Whatever the film is going to do, it's going to do. The worst feeling on the f--king planet is looking back at something you've taken upon yourself and not put everything you have into it, to look back and say, "If I would have sacrificed a bit more, I should have done this, or I could have done this or gone harder at this point." I look back at John Carter and can guarantee the people who've worked closely with me will say the same: there's nothing I could have done more to get where I needed to be. So I have no regrets.
You once said in the New Yorker that you fought with all of your directors.
Yeah, and that pissed me off. I'd love to clear that up. It just sounds so f--king negative and I guarantee I'm one of the easiest people to get along with on a set. Pete Berg [the director of Friday Night Nights] would always tell us on Friday Night Lights—any actor who's gone through FNL will tell you this—"Fight for what you believe in." So I was telling that journalist that I will fight for what I believe in. I've done my homework. Trust is everything, but there is a time in every set when you need to stand up and ask questions, you need to f--king talk about where this guy is. And with Stanton, because there was so much trust and his vision was so visceral to me, I really never had to be like that. Stanton will tell you: "Kitsch will make you tell him where and why." I just keep asking questions. A funny story is that on Battleship, Pete [again Berg, also the director of Battleship] and I were jabbing back and forth because I had a lot of questions and I will fight for the dignity of the character—not that he didn't have the best interest in that, but you gotta understand, no one's gonna know understand where your character is more than you. If you've done your f--king prep and you've done your work, you should know them better than anyone because the director has a million other things to do as well. And so Pete kept saying, "Holy f--k, Kitsch-who taught you to fight so much?" And I'm like, "Who do you think taught me to fight for this, Pete?" And he just had this epiphany and we both just started dying laughing because it was a full-circle moment of be careful what you wish for. He truly had helped me from the start of my acting career with, "Do your homework, come f--king ready to play." It was just like, I'll always be that guy that is going to trust the director, but on the same coin I'm going to ask questions-and I think as an actor, you need to be both.
With Battleship, you've said the hardest part was keeping track of your character in the middle of all of these explosions.
The reason why I signed on with Berg—I mean, I was so close with him and I love going to work with this cat—is that when he flies to London and says, "Let's go to battle together, let's do a fun movie that everyone can enjoy," then yeah man, absolutely. He gave me that opportunity with Friday Night Lights. And so with that came a collaborative overhaul of the script and who my character Hopper was. There was a bunch of guys who were vying for this part, and when he came to me, I was just like, "Yeah, let's do it." To create a fun, endearing guy who would be the last person—literally—on the planet who you want to save the planet, that was such a great little arc that people are going to see in Battleship. In the first 30 minutes, there's moments of, "Holy s--t, this is the guy that's in control?" And I love that. It's very real. Instead of: all of a sudden I'm the captain of this Navy ship and I have the world in my hands and I don't even fret about it for one minute and I just start giving orders and then we save the planet. It's like, how much fun is that? I like that this guy's way more human. Let him be insecure, you know?
Why not? Saving the planet is a stressful situation.
To say the least!