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In Ron Howard’s historical epic, “In the Heart of the Sea,” Chris Hemsworth — Thor himself — again takes on a punishing physical role as whaler Owen Chase, a self-made sailor who finds himself tangling with egos both large (a murderous white sperm whale hellbent on destroying his ship, the Essex, which inspired “Moby Dick”) and small (his captain, played by Benjamin Walker, is consumed with a need to oversee his men that verges on the maniacal) as he sets out on an ill-fated trip to harvest the ocean of some of its largest bounty.
It’s just another challenging role for Hemsworth, who’s used to bulking up for his ever-popular turns as Marvel’s most godly superhero, but it may also mark the (at least temporary) end of these sorts of roles for Hemsworth, who has recently begun turning to comedy, thanks to films like “Vacation” and the upcoming “Ghostbusters” film. These days, he’s also on the hunt for a contemporary drama that maybe doesn’t involve working out so much.
Indiewire recently sat down with Hemsworth to talk about why he keeps going for physically exhausting roles, the one thing about the second “Thor” he didn’t love and why the world is ready for a female-led “Ghostbusters” feature.
Between this and the demands of the Marvel movies, has it occurred to you lately that maybe you should try to make a film that doesn’t require so much physical exertion?
[Laughs] I’d probably get bored if I did that. But, actually, yeah, a lot of the time, doing big, sort of epic films like this, and “The Huntsman” sequel I just did, “Thor,” it’s exhausting. Physically draining, and emotionally, too. Just yesterday, I said to my [team], “I want to find something that’s contemporary, a drama, where there’s less action.” As much as I love it, it would be nice to settle a little bit.
What were the physical demands of this role, and what was different from other films you’ve done that required physical transformations?
I’d come off my “Thor” weight of almost 215 pounds, shot Michael Mann’s movie where I was losing a little bit, eventually coming to this, and got down to, by the end of it, about 175 pounds or something. It was incredibly exhausting. The inconsistency in your emotions and moods is kind of a nightmare, especially for those around you. My wife, in particular, voiced her frustrations a fair bit [laughs].
I think it was essential to play these characters, for all of us. We wouldn’t have had nearly the chemistry, we wouldn’t have nearly done it justice if we hadn’t gone through it in some small way ourselves.
And then you also have this massive ship set that you’re on, which surely only added to that.
The ship had two stages to it. We shot in London for two months in a large swimming pool set, on a big ship with all sorts of gimbels and hydraulic machines and stuff. We’d be shot with water cannons; it was like the theme park from hell.
Then we went to the Canary Islands and we shot for two months at sea on a real ship. That was incredible. We’d sail seven hours in one direction, turn around and come all the way back again. And you do feel, as large and spectacular as those ships are, you realize how insignificant you are when [you’re] drifting out there in the ocean, and how you’re at the complete mercy of mother nature. It made me realize, “wow, this would have been the most horrific experience for these men once lost at sea.”
Even when things go well for these whalers, it’s quite daunting, especially when they’re just hunting whales with harpoons and rowboats.
I thought they must have been attached to some cannon or something. I was like, “hang on, what, they rowed up to the thing, threw a spear at it and it towed them along for a moment?” I couldn’t believe it either. It’s mind-blowing and brutal and horrific, and to realize that was the industry at the time and that was somehow acceptable.
I think there was some question or remorse in a lot of the men about what they were doing, and this sort of attack on nature, but we still do it. We now pull oil out of the ground and certainly don’t treat the planet with any great respect environmentally. The cycle continues, unfortunately. In some ways, I think we have learned lessons; we aren’t doing this particular damage anymore.
There is a scene where Tom Holland’s character first sees a whale, and you get the wonder on his face, but also the sense that he’s thinking that this isn’t the best of ideas.
I think it was essential, because we certainly don’t want to do a pro-whaling movie. And in order to stomach the brutality of it, if you saw a little bit of self-doubt and compassion within each of these men, then you begin to understand it, hopefully. That it was what fueled the industrial revolution and what fueled the world at the time. These men had no other options, this was the industry, this was the workforce.
How has your relationship with Ron Howard changed and evolved since you first worked together on “Rush”?
It was nice to pick up where we left off. I started that film being full of anxiety of whether or not I was going to be re-cast each day, or does he even like me, or does he regret casting me and so on. Once you get past that, everything’s cool and we’ve got a good collaboration going here and a good relationship. It was nice to just get straight down to business when we started with this, and knowing each other’s rhythms and so on. Everything I read lately, I want to send straight to him and have the opportunity to work with him again.
So you’d like this to be a continuing thing?
I hope so. I get sent scripts: “Have a look at this, no director attached yet, but see what you think,” I’m like, “cool, how about Ron?”
And who would say no to Ron Howard?
Both “Rush” and this have such similar themes about competition and masculinity and physicality. Did you and Ron discuss that?
No, it strangely occurred to me after we were shooting or even mid-way through it, the parallel of Pollard and Chase or James and Niki, and about ambition and proving yourself to the world and what you deserve—
And what you’re born into versus—
Yeah, and two different styles of leadership. It wasn’t intentional, but there is a very similar path there.
Yet, even with “Rush” and this film and the Marvel movies, you’ve been moving more into comedy with roles in “Vacation” and the upcoming “Ghostbusters” reboot. Is that something you went specifically looking for?
I’ve always loved it, I’ve always loved comedy and wanted to do more of it. We lost some of it in the second “Thor,” it got a little sort of weighty — there’s a little bit of humor in it, but the fun of the first one I kind of wanted to continue with, and I do want to continue with. Even in the last “Avengers,” I think we did more of it, and the next “Thor” hopefully, [too].
It’s such a relatable aspect, humor. It’s instantly accessible for an audience. You look at guys, actors that I grew up loving and watched, and they had a tremendous amount of charisma; which was due to, I think, the ability to make people laugh. It was just fun.
I’ve got to say “Ghostbusters” was one of the best experiences I’ve had. It was four weeks of just laughing my ass off. It was mostly improvised, not knowing what was going to happen, just trying to keep it together. And I think, “what better way to spend the day?”
It also reunited you with Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, who you worked with when you appeared on “Saturday Night Live” last year, which you’re doing again this month.
That was awesome. Those women are four of the funniest women in the world, and those two I had worked with before, and the other two I had seen all their work. It was intimidating, actually, going on set because before we started shooting, I didn’t even have a script. And I was like, “what am I even going to do?” and Paul [Feig] was like, “it’s fine, it’s fine, we’ll work it out.” You just had to take a leap of faith and jump in.
Do you expect that people are going to like it?
I think so, yeah, I think it’s going to be awesome. I think people are going to love it.
If you’d gone and remade the same thing with four guys, it would have been so directly compared to the previous ones. This is obviously going to be compared to it, but I think the fact that it’s four women now is a huge plus, it gives it such a contrast. I just think with the talent involved in that film, from those women to that director, it can’t go wrong.
“In the Heart of the Sea” is in theaters this Friday.
READ MORE: Watch: Ron Howard and Chris Hemsworth Battle Moby Dick in Epic ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ Trailer