CHRIS HEMSWORTH SEEMS amazingly calm for someone who’s about to hit the world like a tidal wave. During a four-month period early next year, he’s got three major action movies hitting cinemas around the globe one after the other. And not long after, he co-stars in a remake of one of the most beloved comedy films of all time. Yet speaking from his home on the shore of New South Wales, babies crying in the background, the actor – who was just named Sexiest Man Alive 2014 by People magazine – comes across more like a laid-back surf dad than one of the hottest properties in Hollywood. And like a tsunami, it all came along so fast. Just four years ago he was a relatively unknown Aussie actor working towards his “big break” in Los Angeles.
Even with his charm and chiselled good looks, Hemsworth might have hovered forever just below the silver-screen elite. But then came along the opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to play Thor in the Marvel comic-book movie franchise of the same name. It was almost as if he were born for the part: long blond locks, muscular build, commanding voice and a roguish glint in his eyes; the Norse god come to life.
But could he act? Thor certainly had its moments, but it was his turn as grand prix-racing legend James Hunt in Rush that made movie critics sit up and take notice. The chemistry between Hemsworth and co-star Daniel Brühl (who played Niki Lauda) was described by one movie reviewer as “convincing, funny, cool and often emotional”.
To a large extent Hemsworth’s childhood was also larger than life. Born into a middle-class Australian family, he spent much of his youth growing up in the varied landscapes where his parents found work. Melbourne was home more often than not. But the Hemsworth clan – mum, dad and three rambunctious boys – did two stints in Arnhem Land in the far north and another on Phillip Island, where there are more penguins than people.
He didn’t catch the acting bug until after school and by 19 was landing bit parts in television shows. He eventually snagged a recurring role on Home and Away, the long-running Aussie soap that also spawned Heath Ledger, Guy Pearce, Naomi Watts and many other good actors.
But Hemsworth always had his eye on a bigger prize. While films like Thor and Rush may have given him a very large foot in the door, it’s the four movies rolling out in 2015 that will launch him into the Hollywood stratosphere. First out the door is Blackhat, a Michael Mann-directed action thriller about computer hacking in the global financial market. Next up is a whale of a tale called In the Heart of the Sea, director Ron Howard’s take on the real-life incident that inspired Moby Dick. Come spring, moviegoers will see the fourth incarnation of Hemsworth’s Thor in Avengers: Age of Ultron. By the end of the year, Chris will have tested his comedy cred in Vacation, the latest chapter in a National Lampoon’s Vacation franchise that kicked off in 1983.
In between shoots all around the world, Hemsworth has managed to forge a relatively normal domestic life with Spanish actor Elsa Pataky (best known for her work in the Fast & Furious series) and their three young children. And every so often he rubs shoulders with those other rambunctious boys from the family vacations – brothers Liam and Luke – who are also successful actors.
FOR THOSE WHO DON'T KNOW, WHAT EXACTLY IS A “BLACKHAT”? AND HOW DOES THAT TERM REFLECT THE PLOT OF THE FILM?
In computer hacking there are white hats and black hats, and the black hats tend to do the not-so-legal side of things. More sort of in the criminal world, the shadier side of hacking, which is where a lot of our story takes place. My character [Nicholas Hathaway] is a former hacker who’s now in prison for various types of cyber crime and what have you. But he’s pulled out as basically a consultant on how to track another cyber-terrorist situation.
WHY DID DIRECTOR MICHAEL MANN CHOOSE HONG KONG – RATHER THAN NEW YORK OR LONDON – TO SHOOT A MOVIE THAT REVOLVES AROUND AN ATTACK ON FINANCIAL MARKETS?
The film actually starts in Chicago and the Chicago Board of Trade, and then we shot all through Asia – Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta. One of the hacks is that the price of soy is jacked through the roof and then the price of food goes up, etc., and it’s sort of a domino effect of chaos. That was part of the reason Michael decided to shoot so much of the film in Asia. Hong Kong is a very international and aesthetically impressive setting, an unseen canvas to tell the story on – but relevant to technology, and where we are today in the cyber world and the Chinese being right up there with some of the most talented in the world. And visually it’s a pretty stunning city with all sorts of contrasting elements.
HOW WAS SHOOTING IN HONG KONG DIFFERENT FROM OTHER PLACES YOU'VE MADE MOVIES?
The temperature. It was incredibly hot and muggy when we were there. So that was physically draining. And on any Michael Mann film you do long days. There’s no easy schedule and never make the assumption that it’s a straightforward shot and you’ll have the scene in a few hours. It could take days because that’s his style. He won’t stop until every stone is overturned and looked under and explored. I hadn’t spent any time in that part of the world and it was a hugely exotic experience to be immersed in that culture. A great opportunity.
WHEN YOU WEREN'T ON SET, DID YOU ACTUALLY HAVE TIME TO GET OUT AND SEE OR DO THINGS IN HONG KONG?
Not really. We were sort of on six-day weeks and on the Sundays I usually had my head on the pillow trying to regain strength for the next week of shooting. But just working on location we would come across some amazing places, from very low-income areas to very builtup, highly technological settings. That’s what blew my mind – the vast contrasts in social settings and different areas of the city. SoHo is very much Westernised and reminded me of New York in a lot of ways. And then you go 10 minutes away from there and find something completely different again. You have little farming, fishing villages that haven’t been built up.
HOW MUCH DID YOU LEARN ABOUT HACKING COMPUTERS PLAYING NICHOLAS HATHAWAY?
Quite a lot. I spent two months with Michael and a math and computer genius at UCLA, Chris McKinlay. He’s in another universe as far as my brain can compare. I didn’t have to match his skill set. I just had to immerse myself in it and understand the language [of computer hacking] so that it wasn’t that foreign to me. We went from scratch – learning how to type – to me understanding UNIX commands and the brain of the computer and trying to write code, or at least being aware of what it was.
SO YOU’RE NOT QUITE READY TO HACK JP MORGAN YET?
[Laughs.] No, but I can pretend to, and actually do a convincing job of it. There was a reason I didn’t warm to math and science as a kid. It’s just not the way my brain works. This [movie] is almost my punishment for not paying attention in school when I was a kid – sitting in “computer class” for two and a half months.
RIGHT AFTER THAT, IN THE HEART OF THE SEA HITS CINEMAS AROUND THE WORLD. HOW CLOSE IS THIS REAL-LIFE STORY TO MOBY DICK?
Moby Dick was a fictional version of this true event – the whaling ship Essex being sunk by a whale and these men drifting on the sea for 90 days. There are certain incidents that we take creative licence to package into a film version, but it’s very close to what really happened. Nathaniel Philbrick wrote a book about the incident taken from the journal entries of the men who experienced it. There’s a sort of supernatural element to it, which is what attracted me and [director] Ron Howard. Why was this whale stalking the ship and why did it continue to come back and provoke them and attack them and not behave like a normal whale? The karma among the brutality of what they were doing.
SO IT'S ALMOST LIKE TWO MOVIES – ONE DEALING WITH THE ANGRY WHALE AND THE OTHER DEALING WITH THE MEN TRYING TO SURVIVE?
Yeah ... and trying to find their way home through all of it. The moment they leave shore they’re looking to fill that ship with oil and return as quickly as possible. From the get-go they’re trying to come home but there are mountains of challenges to cross in that process. It’s a whole new crew and the first mate and a captain who don’t get along, which is a recipe to bring down a ship. That’s coupled with the adventure of taking the whales and then encountering one in particular that has it in for all of them and decides to attack them and continues to do so. They then deal with each other, trying to work out who’s going to lead the way and who’s going to fall off and so on.
IS THE WHALE GENERATED COMPLETELY THROUGH COMPUTER GRAPHICS, OR DID RON HOWARD CREATE SOME KID OF MECHANICAL MONSTER SIMILAR TO THE SHARK IN JAWS?
It was all basically CGI [computer-generated imagery]. We had some visual props to keep our eye-line on track, which was as simple as a jet ski with some grey hood on it. As basic as that. And then you have the most advanced CGI team and they make it look fantastic. But it was pretty raw from our side. We had two months on a ship in a tank on a sound stage [in England], which was massive, and then we had two months on a real ship in the Canary Islands. We did all the tight closeups on the stage and the big wide shots on the ocean.
WHICH WAS TOUGHER – GOING ON A STARVATION DIET FOR HEART OF THE SEA OR BULKING UP FOR THE FIRST THOR?
Definitely the starvation. Bulking up is definitely hard work and it’s exhausting, but you’re fit. So the chemical balance in your brain is keeping your emotions in check and you feel like a normal human being. The starvation sends you to all sorts of strange places. You get moodier, far more reactive and sensitive than you normally are. From the beginning of the shoot we began to drop weight, leading to the last few weeks where we were at our skinniest. If you pay attention you can probably see where we’re a little skinnier than we should be at certain moments and maybe a little fuller than we should be in others. But for the most part I think it was really effective, the way it worked out. And for the rawest scenes we were certainly at our worst ... it certainly looked like we were beat to hell.
DID YOU FEEL THAT WAY BY THE END OF THE SHOOT?
Yeah, it was the toughest shoot I’ve ever done. But highly rewarding because the crew, the team and the actors all felt like we’d climbed a mountain, so to speak. It was satisfying to finish it and start eating again.
SPEAKING OF THOR, HE'S BACK AGAIN IN AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON. WILL THIS BE A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT TAKE ON THOR THIS TIME, OR THE SAME ACTION HERO WE'VE COME TO LOVE AND RESPECT IN THE THREE PREVIOUS FILMS?
Look, it’s still full of action. It couldn’t not be. But I try to evolve him in some way each time and this time I think we have a little bit more humour and [are] also a little more relatable. We’d already planted the flag for what we think Thor is – the god, the demigod, etc. – and so now it’s about making him more personable and relatable. It’s nice having the opportunity to keep coming back and alter the character in some way and also just for my sanity to do something different.
WHO DO YOU PAL AROUND WITH ON THE AVENGERS SHOOTS? DO YOU HAVE A BEST MATE OR SOMEONE YOU REALLY LIKE ACTING WITH IN THIS SERIES?
Honestly, all of them. We all tend to go out socially as well together. I probably do most of my scenes with [Robert] Downey and Chris Evans. I have a great thing with them and I catch up with them back in LA. As I do with [Jeremy] Renner, Scarlett [Johansson] and [Mark] Ruffalo as well. [Laughs.] Can’t play favourites mate, can’t play favourites. It’ll cause a rift on my next set.
YOU WORKED WITH A LOT OF GREAT ACTORS AGAIN ON VACATION. PEOPLE LIKE ED HELMS AND CHEVY CHASE.
I just did a cameo in that. I just did a week, week and a half. And that was a lot of fun. Those guys certainly work in the Judd Apatow style of improv, with them throwing suggestions at you through the scene. It was just awesome ... some of the best of the comedy actors working, and a complete different pace to something like the Avengers and a different style. It was great. I loved it. And want to do more of it.
DID YOUR OWN FAMILY GO ON SUMMER VACATION ROAD TRIPS BACK IN AUSTRALIA? AND WERE THEY ANYTHING LIKE VACATION?
Oh yeah. But never quite as chaotic as Chevy Chase and his crew. We used to camp at this place every year. A little coastal town called Mallacoota. Twelve months later you come back for Christmas vacation to the same camping ground, the same camping site and the same people are there and you pick up from where you left off. But I loved it. The trip up there was a good eight-hour drive and plenty of drama with three boys crammed in the back seat for eight hours. There was always plenty of fighting and screaming and yelling going on. But no, never as chaotic as the film.
YOU SPENT A LOT OF YOUR CHILDHOOD IN ARNHEM LAND IN THE FAR NORTH OF AUSTRALIA. HOW DID YOUR PARENTS END UP IN SUCH A REMOTE PLACE?
Yeah, we lived up there two different times, a year or so each time. My parents worked at a cattle station. It was my introduction to life. I still have the most vivid memories of that world ... a different world to anywhere else I’ve ever been. Just stunning. My older brother and I used to just head off into the bush. You go swimming, but not in certain spots because of crocodiles. And you wouldn’t go and play in that long grass area because of snakes. There were all sorts of things to be on the wrong side of. But if you don’t aggressively disturb those creatures they tend to keep their distance. But you keep your distance from crocodiles, that’s for sure.
HOW DID GROWING UP IN PLACES LIKE ARNHEM LAND AND PHILLIP ISLAND SHAPE THE PERSON (AND THE ACTOR) YOU ARE TODAY?
I think it instilled a definite sense of adventure in me – changing environments and seeing new things, exploring places and characters and what have you. But I think that was probably in me anyway. That’s just the way my brain was wired from birth. As I said before, I’m not a numbers guy. I’m more on the other side of it. But it gave me a better respect and understanding of the way different people operate in different communities, with nature versus nurture and different environments to grow up in and different effects on who we are.
WHAT WAS YOUR PATH TO BECOMING AN ACTOR?
When I finished high school I started doing drama courses. It wasn’t up until the end of high school that I had any interest in it. Once I did a couple of courses it really became a bit of an obsession. I did a bunch of TV in Australia and then worked on a soap opera for a few years and then flew to America and started auditioning. I had some busy times and some not-so-busy times and a couple of things aligned and then it took off for me. It was just a lot of the right place, right time kind of thing coupled with working your ass off.
DO YOU CONSIDER HOME & AWAY YOUR APPRENTICESHIP?
Definitely. I had such a good time on that and learned so much on that show. People can sort of write it off as a soap opera, but I think it’s some of the most challenging stuff I’ve done. We’d shoot, oh god, like 20 scenes in a day sometimes. You’re working with material that’s often recycled and there’s certainly nothing subtle about it, so you’ve got to really work hard to make it work and look further into it. So it required all sorts of discipline and getting rid of bad habits you might have learned. A lot of different lessons. I certainly consider it an apprenticeship.
WHAT (OR WHO) CONVINCED YOU TO MAKE THE LEAP FROM A DOWN-UNDER SOAP OPERA TO THE GREAT UNKNOWN OF HOLLYWOOD?
I always wanted to, right when I first started to be an actor. It was like: I’m going to Hollywood. I would have left then if I’d had the money. I’m glad I didn’t because I was nowhere near ready or had any real understanding of any of it. I was like that from a kid. Anything I had my eye on I had tunnel vision for. Often I would change directions and go find a different thing to focus on. At times it can be too much, that obsessive nature. But if pointed in the right direction and kept in check, it’s something that has been a huge benefit for me.
WORK TAKES YOU ALL OVER THE WORLD. BUT WHERE IS HOME THESE DAYS?
We tried living in LA but it just never felt like home. We still spend time there, but Australia is definitely where my heart is. My wife loves it here, too. I love Spain and so we try and spend time there, too. But for the moment we’re kind of in Australia.
WHAT'S YOUR FAVOURITE CHRIS HEMSWORTH MOVIE?
Oh wow ... you know, Rush is something that I just fell in love with. The characters and the true story of it all. It was a real turning point for me and the kind of work I was doing. What I learned also from that character – James Hunt – I took with me outside of that film. His sort of childlike nature in the sense of his making the most of everything and having fun and getting the most out of it was something I definitely took away from that.