DAYS OF THUNDER: We’re counting down to Friday’s release of “Thor” with a month of on-the-set reports, exclusive photos and interviews with the cast and crew of the first truly cosmic Marvel Studios film. Today: Chris Hemsworth.
As a youngster, Chris Hemsworth, star of the new film “Thor,” believed in magic. After all, he had seen it with his own eyes. The 27-year-old grew up in the sun-scorched northern territory of Australia and once watched as his father — who had been hospitalized again and again for painful back spasms — gave himself over to the rituals of a healer from a nearby Aboriginal tribe.
“He had gone to hospital like once a month for these spasms and this man had said he could see something wrong with my dad’s aura and that he could fix it,” Hemsworth said. “After that ritual, my father never had a problem again, ever. At the time it just seemed the norm to me. It was a time and place where magic was just part of the landscape.”
In those days, Hemsworth and his brothers — whose parents worked one of the region’s “cattle stations,” as ranches are called — had no television but they created personal adventure sagas by crafting spears and staffs and roaming dusty mountains.
“It’s all memories of buffalo and crocodiles and we had shoes but didn’t wear them,” Hemsworth said. “It was just too hot, so I was this kid with feet like leather. It was the middle of nowhere, living close to the land and it was great. We used to build weapons and go up into the mountains and have adventures. It gave me a real love of adventure and fantasy stories, too. My life then seemed like another world.”
Now Hemsworth is back in the epic mode of brothers, primitive magic and adventure as the title character in “Thor,” the Marvel Studios film that opens Friday and borrows from ancient Norse myth and from the pages of Marvel Comics, where masked-men, ancient gods, aliens, monsters and cosmic robots fill the skies.
Hemsworth’s character in the film, which is directed by Kenneth Branagh, finds himself landing in modern-day America as a stranger in a strange land, and there’s a bit of that to the actor as well, although the towering, easygoing blond star doesn’t project any of the hubris of his screen counterpart. It’s also not quite right to assume that Hemsworth is all country boy — his family moved around quite a bit in his youth and spent years in Melbourne — but he is the first to admit that he’s in new territory with the blockbuster.
“It’s a bit surreal, really, but it’s wonderful and it’s been really great to work with the best talent and be part of something that is top-level in every way,” said Hemsworth, whose costars include Anthony Hopkins as Odin, newly minted Oscar winner Natalie Portman as Thor’s love interest and Tom Hiddleston, Rene Russo and Jeremy Renner.
That’s some elite company for an actor whose previous claim to fame was his work in Australian soap operas, a fleeting (although memorable) bit of screen time as Capt. Kirk’s doomed father in the J.J. Abrams “Star Trek” film and the starring role in a “Red Dawn” remake that, so far, is best known for being postponed and reworked. Right now, Hemsworth is preparing to reprise his role of Thor in “The Avengers,” the next Marvel production, and there’s talk already of a “Thor” sequel.
The role put some unique demands on Hemsworth. Thor has a giant magical mallet that he uses as a weapon, not exactly your typical on-screen prop. “It’s hard to know where to start when you come in and you get the hammer handed to you,” Hemsworth said, adding that he didn’t want to come off as a lumberjack or an ax murderer onscreen.
The actor studied the feral fighting stances of boxer Mike Tyson to capture the brawny mien of Thor and also worked with “motion coach” Paradox Pollack on the hammer swinging and slinging.
An avid surfer and overall athlete, Hemsworth could deal with heavy costume and combat duty, but it was a far more intimidating challenge when, the first week on the job, Branagh handed him the St. Crispin’s Day monologue from Shakespeare’s “Henry V” and told him to be ready to perform it on camera the next day as a regal diction and cadence exercise.
Branagh calls Hemsworth “an actor of talent and charisma and, on the screen, a powerhouse figure, he is our star and he is our Thor,” while Portman said that he is “absolutely wonderful and able to pull off the heroic scenes and the humor, too, which isn’t easy.”
For Hemsworth, working with Branagh was a clinic. During the filming of one pivotal scene, depicting a confrontation between Thor and his father Odin, the director clapped and cheered after one take, telling the actors, Hemsworth remembers, “We have it. That’s the one that’s in the movie.” Then, after a beat, Branagh added: “But let’s do one more, and this time, Tony, do it like your heart is breaking.” The result was a powerful moment that Hemsworth speaks of in awed tones.
“Having a director who is also an actor makes for that very relaxed way of working and it’s empowering,” Hemsworth said. “You’re no longer walking a tightrope and wondering what you have to hold back. You experiment and play and that’s the way it should be. That’s when the magic happens. It makes a difference to have someone so heavily involved in story and character as the director on a film like this. It’s so easy to get lost in the special effects and the spectacle of it all; you see that happen all the time and you get movies that don’t really have any heart.”
At the premiere of “Thor” on Monday at the El Capitan, Hemsworth ducked out halfway through the movie to use the restroom and decompress a bit. Jacket off and tie loosened, he bumped into Hiddleston, who plays Thor’s brother Loki, in the lobby and with broad grins they clapped each other on the back.
After Hemsworth headed back inside to join his family — visiting from Australia — Hiddleston shook his head in admiration. “He’s 24-karat, is what he is. After the wrap party we had a few beers to celebrate and we were riding in this car leaning out the window, taking it all in. We had just made this huge movie with one of the greatest actors in the world. He looked at me and said, ‘Mate, you’re the only one in the world that understands.’ But really, it’s going to be different for him. The audience already knows, you can hear it in there. He’s going to be massive.”
If it turns out that “Thor” truly is a thunderclap career moment for Hemsworth, he will treasure shooting scenes on the gleaming set of the mystic city of Asgard and trading lines with Oscar winners, but he says he also will remember his last day of shooting which, despite the red cape, felt very blue-collar.
“Everyone else was finished, almost the whole crew had moved on, and there I was in the parking lot at Marvel with just a few people and when we were done, we all just said, ‘OK, thanks,’ and sort of walked to our cars. It was anticlimactic, to say the least. There was no lightning. Just a day on the job and then heading home.”
– Geoff Boucher
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