Chris Hemsworth: More than just a beefcake Norse god

Playing against type helps keep actor Chris Hemsworth, known for playing Thor, passionate about the work

The latest role for Chris Hemsworth is a whaler in In The Heart Of The Sea (above).
The latest role for Chris Hemsworth is a whaler in In The Heart Of The Sea (above).PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

Thor actor Chris Hemsworth wants you to know he can do more than just flex his muscles and look like a Norse god.

The 32-year-old Marvel star even shed a few of those superhero muscles for his new movie, In The Heart Of The Sea, a historical drama that opens in Singapore tomorrow. He plays the half- starved first mate of the Essex, the ship that experienced the dramatic whale attack that inspired the novel, Moby Dick.

Like his co-stars Benjamin Walker and Tom Holland, Hemsworth went on a low-calorie diet to show the effects of being lost at sea for months on end.

From his Thor heft of 96kg, he started losing weight during the shoot of the Michael Mann cybercrime drama Blackhat (2015) and arrived at a lean 79kg by the end of the shoot of In The Heart Of The Sea.

He dropped so much weight that it became uncomfortable to even sit down, he tells The Straits Times. "I remember sitting in the whale boats and looking for any piece of foam or material I could wrap onto the wooden seat because there wasn't any padding left in my bum," he says, chuckling.

Speaking to reporters in New York, the star of the Thor and Avengers films (2011-2015) explains that a desire for "keeping people guessing" is why his movie choices have been all over the map lately, ranging from the latest seafaring adventure to the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot due out next year.

The latter is part of a growing resume of comedic roles that began with a raunchy cameo in this year's road-trip film, Vacation, which the Australian star agreed to "simply to do something different".

"Comedy, drama, romance, whatever, just to sort of separate the Thor of it all, you know?" he says. "I mean, I love and appreciate that, but you don't want people to assume that's all you can do and that opportunity was a chance to do that."

Earlier in the year, he hosted the comedy show, Saturday Night Live, a stint during which he pulled off a love scene with an actual clucking chicken and played Thor as a whooping jock who gives an interview after destroying New York City.

He says he landed his role in Ghostbusters after his skits on Saturday Night Live aired. "Ghostbusters director Paul Feig said, 'Oh, I didn't know you could do that. I'd love for you to come and work on this film.' So that was the beginning of a few more doors opening."

However, the 1.9m-tall star has made peace with the fact that his appearance makes him a natural fit for movies such as Thor.

"My manager said a while ago, 'Look, don't get caught up in denying whatever it is that gives you opportunities,'" he says.

"I think you can spend your whole career avoiding whatever it is you are or what first impression you might give off. But, yes, you also want to be taken seriously and not be thought of as just one thing."

Playing against type keeps him motivated too. "I think my need to want to do different things is based on my own interest. I noticed doing Thor that the more I do it, it's easy to get lazy at times. I think that's the danger," he says. "So, to stay passionate and excited about the material, it's got to be something different."

That strategy paid off in Rush, the 2013 sports biopic in which his portrayal of racecar driver James Hunt earned him some of the best reviews of his career.

After that film, director Ron Howard told the actor he wanted to work with him again, at which point, Hemsworth showed him a script based on the best-selling non-fiction book, In The Heart Of The Sea, an account of the Essex's dramatic 1820 voyage.

The Oscar-winning film-maker (A Beautiful Mind, 2001) has nothing but good things to say about his star, whom he believes is a rather underrated performer.

"I think he's got a great outlook and approach. He has the screen presence, a great look and all those things, but he's also ambitious about what it is he's trying to do and he's growing in leaps and bounds," Howard says of Hemsworth.

"He not only lived up to the challenge of the James Hunt role, but he was also additive. He found things, details that were kind of brave and interesting. I liked the way he pushed that character and the possibilities."

Looking back on Rush, Hemsworth says it was "a turning point in my relationship with acting. I started to let go a bit more and not try to control things as much out of fear of failing. Allowing that vulnerability is, I think, essential to being an accessible character".

He was eager to recapture some of that magic by teaming up again with Howard for In The Heart Of The Sea, but the shoot - which saw the actors being tossed about in water tanks as well as a full-size replica of the Essex - was no picnic.

The cast were often wet, cold and, because of the diet, grumpy. "It was also probably the most emotionally exhausting film I've done, which was, in part, due to that physical transformation.

"But at the same time, there was a real sense of camaraderie. By the end of it, we all felt as if we'd climbed a mountain."

He had no trouble identifying with his character, Owen Chase, and says he understands why whalers would embark on dangerous expeditions that lasted years.

"I can relate to who he was in the first half of the film - that ambition and wanting to prove myself to the world. You got to have some of that insanity and drive to push through what comes with this business. "But more so when I was younger, less of that now."

He is married to Spanish model and Fast & Furious 7 (2015) actress Elsa Pataky, 39, and is loathe to leave the side of his wife and their three children, aged one to three, at their home in Byron Bay, Australia. "If I spend two days away from my kids and my family, it's heartbreaking. We kind of have a two-week rule. Anything beyond that, it's not healthy.'

His immediate family - which includes actor siblings Liam (The Hunger Games, 2012), 25, and Luke, 35 - are also the only people he wants to watch his movies with.

"I usually watch them with my wife and my family, so when I come out of there and pick myself to pieces, she can say, 'No, it's fine, you did good,'" he says with a smile.

No one in the Hemsworth clan is a harsh critic because they recognise how tough the profession is, he explains.

"There are so many inconsistencies and vulnerabilities that come along with it, I think everyone's aware of it. You need that support, especially from the people you love and respect," he says.

"It's one thing for a fan base to say they do, but you don't know what that's built on and you can't believe that sort of hype. So yeah, we're supportive of one another."

•In The Heart Of The Sea opens in Singapore tomorrow.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 02, 2015, with the headline 'Hemsworth casts his net wide'. Print Edition | Subscribe