"I don't mind being the underdog." That's an interesting statement coming from Taylor Kitsch, the star of two films in the next four months --"John Carter" and "Battleship" -- with budgets reportedly over $200 million. Kitsch becomes ornery the second the word "budget" is even mentioned, claiming -- after a sarcastic interlude -- that it's not something he thinks about. But the reality is, by circumstance, the up and coming (but not yet a household name) actor is in the position of playing the lead in two tent-pole films this year -- two expensive tent-pole films that two separate studios are nervous about. Yeah, maybe I'd be ornery, too.
The first of those films is "John Carter." Kitsch plays the title character, a Confederate solider in the Civil War who finds himself mysteriously transported to Mars. On Mars, because of the gravity, Carter has superhuman powers, which makes him a valuable asset to the warring tribes on the red planet. It's obvious that Kitsch as put a lot of effort into this film, so much, in fact, that he was ordered to six days of bed rest as a result of exhaustion during production. (Again, when you've given enough to a movie that it affects your health, probably the last thing that you care about is the budget.) As far as "Battleship" is concerned, yeah, he agrees with Peter Berg: It's an "art house film."
When you first heard about this movie, were you more familiar with "John Carter of Mars" or Dr. John Carter of "ER"?
[Laughs] Oh, right! No, I didn't know anything. My team just called me and they were like, "Hey, will you take this general meeting with [director] Andrew Stanton?" And, obviously, that's a no-brainer. I went in there and that was my first meeting with him. That's the first time I was exposed to it.
This was a lot more complicated movie then I thought it was going to be. There's a lot going on.
Without a doubt. There's twists and turns that no one will see.
When you were filming, did you always know what was going on? Or were you ever like, "Who's that guy again?"
I think it's more of a Stanton-esque job to be tracking everyone. But, for me, I'm so myopic with where John is that I definitely knew where he was.
Or it was a "I know what I'm doing and that's all I really need to know"-type situation.
Yeah. And where he is emotionally, which is what you're tracking most importantly. And what you need and what we need to get out of this scene to drive everyone forward. That's, more or less, where I was at.
In a way, you kind of get to play Superman in this movie.
Ha, I never once thought about it that way. I just truly saw him as this everyday guy who was put into these extraordinary circumstances. I don't think there's one moment that you play the hero. Do you know what I mean? I don't see it as a "hero movie." You know?
That's interesting. Why do you say that?
Because it's the relatability. It's the circumstance that gives him the ability to jump. It's not like he got bit by something or he has super powers. You know what I mean? It's through that that his character is drove out of him.
Yeah, but technically Superman is the same way. He's normal on his planet but winds up on a different planet and then had superhuman abilities.
Right, yeah. That's a good point. I think Superman -- I don't know what they're doing with the new movie, but I just love that John Carter is more of a beaten man. And that relatability, of the loss of his family and that kind of stuff -- you know, human in that way, too. He's very much the anti-hero. Do you know what I mean?
I do. I mean, when we first meet him, he's a Confederate solider. That's not the most appealing trait.
Yeah, totally! Which was so fun to play, man. The Civil War stuff was some of my favorite, by far, of the whole film.
I agree with that. Why was that your favorite?
I love playing "grit." So I can just dive into it. And there's just so much substance there: with the family and where he's at and he just didn't give a fuck. And that's fun to play.
You should do a Western.
Yeah, soon, man. And if you talk to Stanton, tell him I want him to write me one.
Before filming, when you're told that you won't be wearing a shirt for 80 percent of the movie, does that add any anxiety?
Well, yeah, it would take you out of the film if I was 300 pounds on wires flying around. It wouldn't be a pretty sight.
Yeah, I think to do the character justice, you do want to raise the bar. And that's my personality. If I'm going to do it, I'm going to knock it the fuck out. Or try to. So I think that's something, too, that I have control over. And especially on the set of a film, there's so many variables that you don't have control over. So I may as well take complete control over at least the aesthetic of John.
Was was the most difficult scene to shoot? I mean, obviously there are a lot of effects that you're not seeing while filming.
Oh, believe it. It was just that. You know, from Great White Ape stuff -- I knew what they were doing in post, but giving speeches to nothing and reacting emotionally to certain things that aren't there, fighting air, talking to a dog that's not there -- you know, a lot of those things. I think the biggest thing I fought was exhaustion. For so much of it, I'm arguably in every scene of this thing, for the most part. And six day weeks is what really knocked me out.
Did anything ever become dire?
Yeah, I was on doctor's-ordered bed rest on this thing, man.
Oh, really? I didn't know that.
Yeah, no one knows that.
For how long?
A few days.
What were you filming that caused this?
Yeah, there was a scene in the Tharkan camp and we're shooting on an 80-foot hill to get from from base camp to the set. And I couldn't walk up the hill.
Did you actually collapse?
I did, yeah. I just took a knee.
Has that ever happened to you before?
Not to me. I had a lot of health problems on "Bang Bang Club," but that was just from losing all of that weight so fast.
You played professional hockey. Right now, would you rather be an actor or in the NHL?
Doing what I'm doing now. Without a doubt.
I ask because there's a strong emotional tie between that sport and the people who play it.
It is. It is. It's my escape, it's my therapy and I love it. But I think longevity, where I am as a person, I wouldn't have grown a quarter to where I am now. And let's be serious, I'm no Sidney Crosby. So I would have been up and down in the minors, I'm guessing. And that's a tough go. And then what at 30 or 34? So I got the best of both worlds: I've got my body still, my knee is OK, I can still do stuff. And I'm living a dream in a crazy, crazy ordeal right now going on.
You mention Sidney Crosby, which is a whole different level. But you have the body type of maybe a young Al Macinnis.
[Laughs] Yeah, look, if I could play in the show and have that career -- I don't know, you know? I still think I would have... I've grown so much as a person through this gig and through these challenges, that I don't think I would be where I'm at if I was correlated to hockey right now.
Next you have "Battleship," reuniting with Peter Berg from "Friday Night Lights." Both that and "John Carter" have pretty high budgets. As an actor headlining both, does that add any pressure?
Yeah, that's how I pick my movies. It has to be $300 million or $250 million. Yeah, totally. Bring it on. That's how I pick my films. Don't tell me about the characters, the other actors, the script, the director or anything. Just the budget.
That's not what I'm asking. But, people do look at the budget...
They do. But if anybody had a clue of who I am or knew what I'm about, they'll understand that it's just not what it's about.
That's not the way the question was intended. Unfortunately, people and studios do pay attention to that stuff, fair or not fair.
No, I know. It's all part of it. And, believe me, when I was a struggling in New York, it wasn't like this is what's getting me through the day. Like, "One day I'm going to be the lead of a $200 million movie and rub it in people's faces." You know, that's not what drove me. It's just the work. I think even when you see "Battleship"... have you seen any of the clips?
I've seen them all.
Oh, great. But, yeah, there's such a great character there as well. The end of the day comes down to just powering yourself through work and being better from it. So that's how I pick my roles. And with "Savages," too. I don't think Oliver Stone would cast the lead of this fucking thriller if that was the case.
When I spoke to Peter Berg at Toyfair, he called "Battleship" an "art house film" -- in reference to the characters, I believe.
Oh, without a doubt. And that's Pete and I collaborating immensely for Hopper [Berg's "Battleship" character], too. I mean, you'll see it, and Hopper is the heartbeat of the film. So, yeah, that's a huge thing that Pete and I set out to do.
But people see the clips and hear "Battleship" and they don't think it's going to be like that.
No, I mean it is an uphill battle, but that makes Pete and I go even harder. I don't mind being the underdog, or whatever you want to call it. It's fine with me.
Mike Ryan is the senior writer for Moviefone. He has written for Wired Magazine, VanityFair.com, GQ.com, New York Magazine and Movieline. He likes Star Wars a lot. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter