I’m at the cozy Kafe K in Santa Monica shaking the ginormous right hand of Australian-born actor Chris Hemsworth when I have the piercing realization that this many adoring eyes haven’t been affixed my way since I was in a baby carriage.
Hemsworth’s hand will soon be seen carrying the most famous hammer in history—Soviet icon notwithstanding—as the titular god of thunder in Thor, the 3D would-be blockbuster hitting theaters this coming May. Hemsworth asks the woman behind the counter for a glass of tap water. She smiles and nods incredulously, eyeing his tight black T-shirt as if he were one big bag of biceps. Grabbing his drink, Hemsworth avoids the chair across from me, facing outside, and sits down at the table next to me so he’s hidden from view. He may not be an A-lister quite yet, but Hemsworth’s already got the paparazzi on his mind.
Southern California suits Hemsworth, but it’s clear his native Australia is never far from his mind. After high school, Hemsworth starred in the Aussie soap opera Home and Away (which, he is quick to point out, is where Heath Ledger and Naomi Watts also got their start) and, since moving to Los Angeles in 2007, has appeared in Star Trek and the Joss Whedon-produced as-yet-unreleased horror/thriller Cabin in the Woods, but Thor will be Hemsworth’s first major foray as a leading man (later this year he stars in Red Dawn, reprising the role originally played by the god of Swayze). At approximately 6’4/220 lbs. everything about Hemsworth is outsized—even his expectations: “My hope is that Thor is an intelligent blockbuster. The ones that work are.”
But will it work?
In recent memory, the superheroes—and specifically the actors playing them—that resonated most deeply with audiences have all been a bit off-kilter. Think of Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man, Christian Bale as Batman, or Toby McGuire as Spiderman—each is sort of weird by leading man standards. Superheroes are notoriously quirky and Downey’s snideness, Bale’s moodiness, and McGuire’s neurotic tics have made it easier for comic book nerds (so critical to establishing a film’s early buzz) to identify with these otherwise larger-than-life heroes. But in casting Hemsworth, it seems that the makers of Thor have departed from this formula. And with good reason: Seth Rogen might be able to pull off the Green Hornet, but he ain’t passing as a Norse god.
And clearly Thor’s creators believe they have found in Hemsworth someone who will come across as a Norse god—just check out the mindboggling number of bare-chested shots of Hemsworth in the film’s trailers.
“We needed a Thor who was capable of primitive, unthinking violence, a thuggish and brutish quality,” Thor director Kenneth Branagh tells me the following week. It’s the nature of Chris’ maleness that makes it work. His easy masculinity was crucial to the film’s overall tone.”
Cynics may scoff, but ever since Thor’s most storied run under writer/artist Walt Simonson, Thor’s alter-ego has been less “alter” than most comic book superheroes. In a joke about the utter implacability of Thor’s manliness (as well as a tweak to DC’s Superman narrative), Simonson has Nick Fury tell Thor to put on a pair of glasses and somehow everyone will start believing that he’s someone else (Thor #341).
But might Hemsworth’s “maleness”—the same quality that is responsible for the pool of saliva collecting beneath the head of every straight woman and every gay man in the café make for one of the most difficult to pull off superhero films in recent memory? Might 21st century audiences find Hemsworth too super to play a superhero?
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Hemsworth didn’t grow up reading comics. “As a kid,” he tells me, “I was more into surfing magazines.” He remembers tearing pages out of his beloved surfing glossies and sticking them on the wall of his room. His idea of “geeking out” is an impassioned homily on why the Aussie glossy Tracks is superior to the American counterpart, Surfer—whereas most fanboys are still debating whether Supergirl would be sluttier in bed than Wonder Woman.
When he met his minions last July at Comic-Con, he admitted to feeling pressured. “After all, most of the people there know your character more than you do,” he says—and that is after he read virtually every Thor and Avengers comic book he could lay his hands on (Hemsworth will join Robert Downey, Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Evans, Jeremy Renner and others in the Joss Whedon-directed, highly anticipated The Avengers in 2012), plus several books that Branagh gave him about Norse mythology that he particularly enjoyed.
“One thing I took from it is how much life was influenced by fate and how that motivated Thor’s fearlessness as a warrior. It helps explain why he is so brash and cocky.”
It’s clear that Hemsworth’s training for his role as Thor went well beyond daily protein power shakes and sit-ups. But Hemsworth is in a much less risky proposition than is his character. “It’s a balancing act for Ken [Branagh] and the producers,” Hemsworth tells me. “We’re getting constant guidance from people who knew the stuff inside out. We want to appeal to the fans and the masses.”
But there are legitimate concerns.
For one, Thor is a god. “The trap would be to play him all magisterial and god-like,” Hemsworth tells me as he spins his white iPhone on the table. “Ultimately, he’s got to be relatable.” Branagh tells me that the filmmakers even considered omitting any mention of Thor being a god out of fear that it would create too much distance between the hero and the audience.
If that’s not a formidable enough challenge, Thor is kind of, well, an a-hole. Says Hemsworth: “We had a big discussion prior to shooting. There’s a fine line. You want an arc in the story. Yes, he’s cocky and brash, but you don’t want people to dismiss him as a wanker.” Acknowledges Branagh: “Yes, he’s a pain. A number of the people in the audience probably won’t be sure whether they like Thor in the beginning of the film.”
And finally, there is the camp factor. Even if audiences can relate to a god and buy into his character’s arc, how will audiences respond to a protagonist protecting his friends and family “for the good of the universe,” Hemsworth says without a glint of humor, and not to mention a costume that makes him look more like the missing member of Siegfried and Roy than a superhero?
“The kitschy elements are something we had to navigate,” Branagh tells me. “We needed the audience to feel that strong Viking influence and also that they had advanced technology and take delight in it. We didn’t ask the audience to wink at it as silly. The price would have been to undermine Thor’s redemption and the father and son [Odin and Thor] relationship that is at the heart of the story.”
Clearly, the film’s producers didn’t hire seasoned Shakespearean story-spinner Kenneth Branagh and actors Natalie Portman (who plays love interest, Jane Foster) and Sir Anthony Hopkins to get all winky-winky, but while Thor is sent into battle with his hammer, he might be missing a stronger weapon—irony.
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Before our meeting, I had the idea of taking Hemsworth to one of L.A.’s famous 24-hour strip clubs—after all, how many people can say that they’ve had the chance to “make it rain” with the god of thunder. But it was around when Hemsworth listed The Neverending Story, The Princess Bride, and Labyrinth as his favorite flicks that I realized it wasn’t going to happen. Hemsworth doesn’t have a Hollywood bad-boy bone in his body. He is humble, genuine, and wholesome. The first two words that come out of virtually every person I speak with who knows Chris Hemsworth are: “Good guy.”
Thanks to her leading man, Portman even felt comfortable literally flying through the air during shooting: “I think the craziest day was when we flew together and they harnessed us attached to each other and we were up a hundred feet in the air with no safety mat… It was nice to have someone up there with me who was so lovely and calming.”
Branagh recalls: “I received a completely unsolicited call from Joss Whedon during the casting process. We were having a hard time casting the male lead, and he told me that Chris was immensely charming and a very good actor. It was an extremely unusual call for him to make and extremely heartfelt.”
When the woman behind the counter eagerly comes to our table with a pitcher of water to refill his glass that’s already filled nearly to the brim, I figure it’s as apt a moment as any to ask Hemsworth what it feels like to be a Hollywood hunk. Not that there’s any truly down-to-earth way to respond to a question like that, but it’s a testament to the actor that his instinct isn’t to start defensively quoting Stanislavski to establish his thespian street cred: “For sure you cringe when you see some of that stuff. I try to undercut those things by giving the character dimensionality, but at the same time, you’ve got to play to your strengths.”
I tell him that when I type “Chris Hemsworth” into Google, “shirtless” appears as a suggested next word before “actor.”
“I don’t read the blogs—it’s very easy to be distracted, easy to get lost in it all.”
After some initial prying, Hemsworth tells me he’s currently reading Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund and Armageddon’s Children by Terry Brooks. He’s also been surfing with his brother Liam (who co-starred with Miley Cyrus in 2010’s The Last Song [the two had an off-and-on relationship] and in a strange coincidence was also up for the role of Thor).
“I live in Santa Monica where there’s more space, and I surf a lot, train a lot, read books, and try to have a life outside the business.”
Hemsworth looks out the window of the café as if the Santa Monica shore were coastal Victoria. It’s not quite as far away as Thor’s godly realm of Asgard, but Hemsworth’s native Australia is a long way away.
“From time to time I miss being there. I was on the phone with my older brother Luke [who runs a floor sanding business in Australia] and I was complaining about it here and he held up the phone and said, ‘You hear that? That’s the sound of a floor being sanded.’ It helped put things in perspective.”
For now, Hemsworth will have to do without the seal colonies and Fairy penguins of his native land and fend for himself in a place where the sharks you’ve got to worry about demand 10-20 percent of gross.
When I say goodbye to Hemsworth that afternoon, a strange thought occurs to me: it isn’t easy being a beefcake these days. I know, cue the violin. A soon-to-be household name, hefty paycheck, not to mention at least eight women at this café alone who would line up just for the opportunity to wax his surf board, but you sort of feel for the guy. Brawn, to be sure, is still as envied as ever, but the Hollywood hunk with the impossibly square jaw, pearly whites, and burly chest has recently become, well, a bit silly.
The inscription on Thor’s hammer—“Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor”—are a test to anyone who picks it up—Hemsworth included.