Despite key roles in the beloved television show Friday Night Lights and in the movies The Bang Bang Club and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, 2012 looks to finally be the year BC native Taylor Kitsch finally takes over. The actor (who’s just as freakishly handsome in real life as you probably think he is) finds himself in Toronto promoting his first major starring role of the year in the megabudgeted, long gestating adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter. Before the year is out, he will also be starring in the equally mega-budgeted Battleship (directed by Friday Night Lights executive producer Peter Berg and co-starring Liam Neeson) and he’ll head up Oliver Stone’s Savages (alongside John Travolta and Benicio Del Toro).
The actor, however, undoubtedly has the most riding on John Carter, a film that drove him to near total exhaustion over the course of a gruelling, but fruitful seven month shoot. Kitsch is on screen in almost every scene, and given the near quarter of a billion dollar budget for a film revolving around him, the pressure would certainly seem to be on. But Kitsch, who’s been making the press rounds for Carter for the better part of a month now, show very little worry, confident in his work and how audiences will receive the film. He’s almost as laid back as his Friday Night Lights character Tim Riggins; almost unflappable.
Kitsch sat down with Dork Shelf to talk about the sci-fi genre, working with former Pixar director Andrew Stanton on his first live action film, and what it’s like to be half-naked in the middle of a sandstorm.
Recently in an interview, you said you weren’t a huge fan of science fiction when you were growing up…
John Carter is this huge iconic and influential character. Did that create more of a challenge for you?
I don’t think so, because at the end of the day, I don’t think it matters if it’s a buddy comedy or sci-fi or horror. Hopefully it’s all about the character first, but no one other than me is going to apply more pressure to do it justice. Hopefully with anyone – storytellers, writers, artists – you have to make it on your own. I’ve had that with Gambit and this guy. Pretty much everyone I’ve ever played except for Kevin Carter (from The Bang Bang Club). With him you have to do a real life justice. THAT’S pressure. But with this, I was just fortunate enough that my view was close enough to Andrew Stanton’s.
Did the size and scope of this production add more pressure than the source material did?
Oh yeah, I act a lot harder the more budget there is. (laughs) Maybe unconsciously there was. It was truly an exhausting marathon for me, but I just wouldn’t… it sounds very cliche, but I wouldn’t let it beat me or get the best of me. I love the challenge and I rose to it. I’m really proud that I never succumbed to it in any way. I’m very much a leader by example and not a cheerleader on set. I’m not trying to make everyone on set best friends so everything runs smoothly. I’m not that guy. I’d rather inspire through work than through bringing out the pom-poms.
Aside from the sci-fi element, there’s also definitely a Western element to it, as well. Did you take any particular inspiration from those kind of movies?
I don’t think I really did, because that’s when you start to shoot yourself in the foot. “This is my Butch Cassidy moment” or “This is my Han Solo moment.” Even with Tim Riggins, because there was a movie before the show, they were always bringing up how Garrett Hedlund had played a similar character in the movie and that he played him in a certain way because they were both sort of darker guys, and that was the last sort of place I was going to draw any sort of inspiration from. It goes back to making it my own.
But if you ever get the pleasure to talk to Andrew Stanton, I keep pitching for him to write me a western. We had so much fun doing that part of it, just because we were on stages in London for four months and they built this incredible western town in this nook between two mountains. I mean, right there you’re living the boyhood dream; riding a horse and coming into a town. It’s great.
This was also your first real exposure to working on something that so heavily uses special visual effects. What was that transition like?
I think you learn patience incredibly quickly, and even the trust needs to be enhanced because there’s so much there that will be put in during post. I’m working with Tars… Willem Dafoe AS Tars Tarkus. (laughs) There you go, that’s how real he made it. (laughs) And working with him and Samantha Morton and having all these Oscar nominated people around me was great and that helped, but what was tough was when there was nothing Stanton could do. You know, sometimes it’s literally a pink X on the wall and it’s something your battling or something you have to be emotional towards or whatever it is. That’s tough. I kind of pride myself on being quite subtle as an actor, and in this I felt like I was overacting a lot because the stakes are so insanely high, and the energy needs to be that way, but at the same time, I can’t act off of anything. In a scene with another actor, I can see what they are doing and just feed off that and give it back, but if it’s nothing I have to go to Stanton and say “Is this good? High? Low? Left? More?” It was that kind of feeling a lot of the time.
And the stunts, that was insane. The wire work, the hundred-fifty foot jumps, that kind of stuff. The sword training. And, you know, just the aesthetic of keeping in the role of him for seven months was just tough, but I loved it. Keeping that fit and getting up at 4:30 in the morning and working out six days a week and then going to work, and doing that four four out of the seven months. That was tough, and being in every shooting day… that just chips away at you.
But I think the beauty of Carter, as well, comes out in the action. Who he is as a man and a person, and his motives or lack thereof… that differentiates this film from a lot of others. I love that stuff.
Now there’s a lot of John Carter story and there could be a sequel, but if you had the chance, would you rather play John Carter or Gambit again?
(without hesitation) John Carter.
What on a personal level made the character itself appeal to you?
I think it’s just if you give me a platform to dive into, for me as an actor and for you guys as an audience to have something like that to just go into it. I love how dark Carter is and this stigma attached to these movies to be more character driven. I wouldn’t do this film if it was just action for the sake of action, and to do this alongside one of the best storytellers of our time is a real no brainer.
You once said that if something scares you, then you know you’re doing it right. What scared you the most about this film and this character?
Man, so many things. I think for me personally it was when I first read the script. It took me three full reads and a white chalkboard to break it down, but it was all to do the script the best amount of justice. To me that was scary because there was so much there to dive into, and I had to breathe life into Andrew Stanton’s dream. There’s a lot to be the title guy. There’s a lot of variables, and it’s not like you’re just playing the lead. It was more about how Andrew had wanted to see this on the big screen since he was 11 years old, and it’s shaped so much of what he is and what he does, and he’s tapped you to play it. That was a huge part of it.
A lot of the film was shot in the middle of Utah out in the middle of nowhere. What was the weather like out there and how difficult was that?
(laughs) I’ll give you a good story. So there’s 60-80 mile an hour sandstorms and we had to shut down set a lot of the time. So I’m obviously in this glorified skirt and boots, and Willem’s on three foot stilts and in pyjamas, and Lynn Collins is in her armoury, which is quite revealing as well, and we look around and you see basically the storm coming. Then you look around at the crew who are wearing military boots, jeans, huge coats, scarves or bandanas wrapped around their faces, goggles, and hats. Then there’s the actors just waiting there half naked for this sand to just hit you at 70 miles an hour. (laughs)
Honestly, I’d probably rather be half naked than be on stilts if that was coming at me.
(laughs) Yeah, Willem was a trooper, really. But that really encompases our time in Utah. Plus throw in hundred and ten, hundred and twenty degree weather. That was pretty great. And I had to stay pale. Andrew wanted me to be really extra white so I looked different, and I didn’t even know this existed, but I was putting on 115-125 SPF sunblock. It’s crazy.
It sounds like it was an exhausting shoot with all the work you put in. At what point as an actor do you really have to pull back for your own health and well being?
Well, I learned a lot from doing Bang Bang Club. I learned that I would have to prepare for a role a lot smarter. On that one I was just going too extreme and too myopic, and it taught me to have a more objective POV the next time.
I’ll paint you the picture on this one. I can paint it. Picture yourself first training everyday, six days a week, for four months, on a really strict diet. Then you go to London starting at 4:30 in the morning, working and training and then you have to stay on that diet for seven more months after that and working six day weeks every week across four of those months. There was a time when I was in Utah and I was supposed to go up this small hundred yard hill. I came out of the trailer and I was kind of fading. I could feel my body getting smaller and I was just exhausted. I couldn’t walk up that hill, and I was 29 and in the best shape of my life. It wasn’t even the hill, it was just exhaustion. That was when I had to take a knee and say I couldn’t go and I got the rest of the day off to go sleep.
I just don’t want to look back and think “Oh, Kitsch, you could have done this or that.” That’s fear based, and as long as I personally know that I prepped in every way possible, it lets me have an easier sense of closure. Because lord knows you aren’t going to please everyone, because if you let that affect you, you’re never going to win, and to have Andrew Stanton or anyone tell you that they appreciate the effort, that’s the best feeling you can get.
Working with someone coming from an animation background, did you notice any major differences between how Andrew worked and past shoots?
Well, I’ve never met anyone who’s prepped as much as he has. I don’t know if that’s the background and/or his personality. I mean, this guy is incredibly smart. He’s a genius. That word’s used a lot, but he is that guy. It’s funny because we were having a beer in London right when we got there, because you want to pick the brains of these guys and see what makes them tick and all that. And you know how we can do a couple of things at once? He can do about five, six, seven things. If you don’t have his full attention he could be doing so many things. He was telling me this story and we’d be having this really intelligent conversation and I would just ask “So how many things are you thinking about right now?” That entails who he is to me. He’s one of, if not the best storyteller I’ve ever worked with.
You get to use some pretty sweet props in the movie. Was there anything you got to keep or that you took home with you?
Yeah! I got to keep Carter’s rings, which were everything to him, and I got to keep his journal, which helped me a lot because it was fully designed. What else did I keep? (pause) I burned that skirt. (laughs) I have the boots, I think. Those were good boots.