Thanks in part to a couple of “Star Trek” movies, Chris Pine is now one of the most recognizable faces at the movies. His mixture of old-school swagger and disarming charm helped introduce a new generation to Captain James T. Kirk, while keeping diehard fans at bay, and that appeal shows no sign of letting up: The latest “Star Trek” film has grossed close to $200 million worldwide this summer and it’s still going.
But while some stars anchoring franchises may stick close to the blockbuster routine, over the past year, that hasn’t been Pine’s only mode — or even the one that interests him the most these days. In last year’s minimalist post-apocalyptic drama “Z for Zachariah,” Craig Zobel directed Pine as one-third of a tense love triangle featuring three survivors on a farm who comprised the entire cast of the movie.
And now, Pine holds his own as something less than a hero, playing one-half of an outlaw duo in “Hell or High Water,” a Texas-set tale of bank-robbing brothers (with the other, more immoral brother played by Ben Foster). Written by “Sicario” scribe Taylor Sheridan and directed by rising Scottish talent David Mackenzie (“Starred Up”), the movie opens this week in the shadow of Pine’s much bigger release, but the actor still found time to promote the smaller effort, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and has made it clear that he’s pursuing a wide range of opportunities these days as his career expands in several directions at once.
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In a phone conversation with IndieWire, he broke down the factors driving his interest in various projects. Filmmakers eager to snag an in-demand movie star may want to take notes. Pine is repped by CAA.
Just Because It’s Indie Doesn’t Make It Great
By working with Zobel and Mackenzie, Pine has signaled his interest in working with directors hailing from far outside the Hollywood equation, but wasn’t his sole mandate. “I wasn’t actively looking for things I thought would be indie or artsy,” he said. “I just wanted to do good work.”
In the case of “Z for Zachariah,” the actor saw Zobel’s provocative thriller “Compliance,” which instigated heated conversations immediately after its Sundance premiere, and sought out the director. Sheridan’s script “Hell or High Water” came to Pine after he complained to his agent that he wasn’t receiving good material. “I wasn’t reading anything I liked,” Pine said. “I only give myself credit for doing the legwork to find more material. I just had to seek out and watch more things to expand my bandwidth of what I was reading and watching to let my taste take me where it takes me.”
He acknowledged that “Hell or High Water” would never have been made at the studio level. “It’s either ‘Saw’ made for $4 million or ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Star Trek,’ ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ et cetera being made for $150 million,” he said. “So the $30 and $40 million films don’t get made unless they’re maybe ‘Ride Along.’ But I don’t really know why. I don’t get paid to know why.”
Don’t Expect Him to Get Your Fancy Reference Points…
Some viewers have appreciated that “Hell or High Water” harkens back to classic Westerns and other key cinematic ingredients, but wasn’t not Pine’s motivating factor. If you see him around and corner him to discuss your project, it won’t help your case to mention a wide range of classic films that you’re trying to copy.
“I’m not a cinephile,” he said, citing the late actor and “Star Trek” co-star Anton Yelchin as one of one of more knowledgable movie viewers he encountered. “Anton’s cinema knowledge was off the charts,” Pine said. “I just know what I like, for whatever that’s worth.”
…But a Strong Vision Is Key
So what does he like? Directors with their own trademarks. In addition to Zobel and Mackenzie, Pine also cited Jeff Nichols — the actor at one point was attached to star in the filmmaker’s evocative Southern tale “Mud” — as striking a noticeable contrast to the lack of identity associated with many Hollywood projects.
“In the studio system, many things are diluted to appeal to as many people as possible,” Pine said. “The script can have as many as seven writers on it. Whereas these voices — like, say, Jeff Nichols — they are unique and indelible behind the camera.”
He Needs Room to Explore
Although Pine is eager to find directors with singular voices, he still wants to bring his own perspective to the material. “Some directors come to set with an idea of exactly what they want to achieve,” Pine said. “Others come with some foundational ideas but then really want you to explore.” That’s the kind of opportunity Pine wants to find, and refers to it as “‘living the question,’ rather than defining or prescribing what you want. That allows for an intense and really eye-opening experience of exploration rather than paining by numbers.”
One Attractive Theme: Masculinity
In both “Z for Zachariah” and “Hell or High Water,” Pine plays macho guys at odds with other men jockeying for superiority over their situation. That’s not quite a coincidence.
Discussing “Hell or High Water,” Pine noted that he knew Mackenzie was a good director for the project because of the way he handled the tense prison drama “Starred Up,” in which father and son criminals bond during lockdown. “His understanding of male relationships and the way they’re articulated and physicalized — and not articulated and physicalized — was beautiful, sensitive, nuanced and violent all at once,” Pine explained. “‘Hell or High Water’ was a film about men relating to men. I felt he had the perfect eye for it. I’d never been more excited for a project.”
He May Not Notice Your Work Right Away
Chances are strong that just even if your film is playing at a film festival where Pine is promoting his own work, he won’t have time to watch yours. He worked over the last 12 months on one project after another for six days at a time, and when he went to festivals, his schedule didn’t allow time for screenings.
“Festivals are work for me,” he said. “This past year, I didn’t have time to go to the theater.”
Instead, he caught up with recent titles on planes and watched films sent to him on his laptop while on the road. “That’s not always my favorite way, but you gotta do what you gotta do,” he said. “There’s no rhyme or reason to it. Sometimes you catch something on a plane and go, ‘What about this filmmaker?’ And sometimes you read something online and go, ‘What about this guy?’ And sometimes you hear from an actor friend about some project. Life happens, and sometimes, there are awesome explosions.”
TV and Film Are Both Fair Game
To date, Pine hasn’t branched out to a lot of television projects as many movie actors have done, but he did land a recurring role on the Netflix-produced series adaptation of “Wet Hot American Summer” and would be open to doing more. “I’ve been petitioning to get back on that fucking show as fast as possible,” he said. “I had so much fun doing it. Comedy is a shit-ton of fun.” He acknowledged that he has stuck for film projects for a reason. “I have a romantic vision of the beautiful delineation between TV and film that existed for so many years,” he said. “I romanticize the studio system and movie stars as a whole, but obviously that’s just anachronistic and probably a non-reality.”
Like most people, Pine watches a lot of high quality television, citing both seasons of “Fargo” in addition to “Mr. Robot” and “Homeland” as shows that appeal to him. “There’s some beautiful filmmaking on television,” he said. “I’m getting a lot of my artistic sustenance from what’s happening there.” So would he consider more TV projects? “I don’t count that out at all,” he said. “I’m just going to hunt out the best stories.”
He acknowledged a cultural shift in viewing habits that has impacted the industry as a whole, noting that companies like Netflix and Amazon have shifted into producing their own original productions. “I would love to see those films in theaters, ” Pine said. “This is the breaking down and dismantling of the film business, but films will always continue to thrive.”
Provocative Material Isn’t Enough
While Pine doesn’t want to remain tethered to safe blockbuster bets, he’s also not looking for edgy material as a general rule. “I don’t have any interest in filmmakers making statements just for the sake of being provocative,” he said. “I’m not into people trying to bark all that loudly to prove how badass they are.”
He positioned Zobel as a contrast, both in terms of themes he tackles in his films and how he makes them. “He’s the sweetest man on the planet, but has the balls to ask good questions — and to lay out a master shot for a minute with no one talking,” Pine said. “Not a lot of people are willing to do that. So I’m more interested in people asking deep questions and thinking how best to utilize the medium of film.” But that doesn’t mean he’s afraid of taking risks. “I wan to work with the people will allow me the freedom to explore, try and fail,” he said. “That’s where the excitement is for me, not in playing safely within the boundaries.”