Acting With the Gods
The Age, 16 April 2011
Chris Hemsworth was playing it casual. The Melbourne actor, once well-known as school principal's son Kim Hyde on soapie 'Home and Away', was hanging from a wire, suspended from a crane, taking in the view of the mountains around Santa Fe, New Mexico, one arm crooked around Natalie Portman.
"I'm looking at the mountains and the sunset," he recalls. "I'm wearing a cape and the two of us are swinging in the breeze. I'm trying to be very casual about it all - 'How was 'Black Swan'? What are you doing next?' - while, inside, I'm giggling. That was a surreal moment. My God! What am I doing here?"
What Hemsworth was doing was playing Thor in the latest blockbuster comic-book adaptation from Marvel Studios, in which he ends up kissing Portman.
'Thor' is Marvel maestro Stan Lee's freehand rewrite of the Viking legend in which the god of thunder is cast to Earth by Odin, his father and king of the gods, to learn some humility. Odin is played by Sir Anthony Hopkins. Ken Branagh, a director more usually associated with brilliant interpretations of Shakespeare, is in charge. It's all a long way from Summer Bay.
And yet Hemsworth, 27, knew he would be somewhere like this when he was doing the school play at Heathmont Secondary. "When I first got into acting I was finishing high school," says Hemsworth, whose brothers Luke and Liam are also actors. (Liam appeared in US film 'The Last Song' opposite Miley Cyrus, his former offscreen girlfriend.) "My careers adviser at school was saying 'What's your back-up? You should go to university', but I said: 'Nah, nah, I'm going to Hollywood'. I would have jumped on a plane right then if anyone had said I should. I realised I really needed to do some work at home first and get some experience, but my sights were always set on L.A."
It's one thing to join the queues of hopefuls, quite another to crack the lead in a 3D blockbuster. Branagh has a dozen reasons why he wanted Chris Hemsworth: audiences wouldn't be distracted by the star's off-screen persona; television actors know how to work hard; Hemsworth's body would bulk up in the right way and, as an actor, he could tick a lot of boxes, including an ability to play comedy. It also makes sense to save on star salaries when the film's big selling point - and cost - is its special effects. Hemsworth, says Branagh, also had "an attitude" which he attributes to his nationality. "Australia is a country I love. I've worked there, I worked there as a kid and my dearest friends are there … (they have) a sort of easy charm and a kind of very pleasant, positive energy. He's a darling lad, you know."
From the start, Branagh had told the producers at Marvel, who were hot from considerable success with the 'Iron Man' franchise, that amid all the hurly burly of effects managed by their people, he would concentrate on the performances.
The Thor comic strip was essentially "a classical story of an entitled young man who must fall from grace, lose that which is essentially himself, find it again and perhaps attain some sort of maturity and wisdom".
The remarkable thing is the extent to which he has been able, in the context of a big popcorn film, to give the story Shakespearean gravitas. Thor's most complicated relationship is with his jealous brother Loki, the god of mischief played by Tom Hiddleston. He could just as easily be Iago to Hemsworth's Othello.
So, while Hemsworth gained 10 kilograms and spent five months lifting weights and obsessing over his protein intake to become an appropriate piece of comic-book beefcake, Branagh had him reading pages of Shakespeare in rehearsal. "Ken was all about exploring things and seeing how far we could push them," says Hemsworth. "And it was great, it was very freeing. We'd walk in and do one version of a scene - very stoic, say - and then he'd say, 'That's great, now let's do it as if you find the whole thing very amusing this time', or 'Now give us the berserk version'. And I'm going 'This is great'.
"But I wouldn't have done that with someone I didn't trust the way I did him. I've worked with plenty of directors, be it in TV in Australia or wherever, where you'd never give them that many options because the bad ones would end up on screen. But he's incredibly intelligent and an actor's director. You know he's got the same opinion on what works, so it was sort of relaxing. He had your back."
Branagh was also able to call in support from the heavyweights. "My favourite scene was probably going head-to-head with Odin, you know, with Anthony Hopkins," says Hemsworth. "That was a real dream as an actor." He's used to stars now, he says. "Once upon a time they were all gods." He was prepared to be intimidated by Hopkins. "But I couldn't have felt more supported. He is an absolute pro, obviously, but he also has the same enthusiasm we had on our first day in the business. The number of times you'd turn to him and he'd say 'How much fun is this? Isn't this great?'!"
When he first hit Hollywood he was often constrained by nerves. "But I was really excited about this film and I didn't want to walk into it, as I had other things, and let the fear get to me." In time, he says, he has learned to treat fear as a kind of excitement. "It's the same thing, it's just how you label it. So now if nerves come up I'm like, 'No, this is good, I need this'. You almost become addicted to it, so you stop trying to find a way to stop it. Those tricks, that preparation for walking on set. I feel I've equipped myself for this."
Although playing romance is considerably more awkward than anything Sir Anthony could dish up, he says. "Those scenes are often rather unromantic, in a sense," Hemsworth chuckles. "You have 50 people standing round, and cameras, and you feel like a teenager having your first kiss, it becomes so technical. Where do I put my hands? What do I do with my lips? And all of a sudden you don't know how to kiss! You have to learn to have fun with it and laugh about it, but you probably get more nervous doing that than anything else."
It doesn't stop here. Hemsworth is back at the weights and the tuna chunks in preparation for 'The Avengers', the next big Marvel franchise flick directed by Joss Whedon and featuring several superheroes - 'Captain America', 'Iron Man', the 'Incredible Hulk' and 'Thor' - in alliance against the forces of evil. "But also it's Robert Downey jnr and Mark Ruffalo and Chris Evans and Samuel L. Jackson," adds Hemsworth, in a way that suggests he hasn't become entirely immune to stardom. "They're all big characters, on screen and off. I just can't wait to be on set."
Thor opens on April 21.