Nope, I’m not being Zoom-bombed — that really is Chris Hemsworth on my laptop, stretched out on his couch in Australia, saying hello from Down Under, looking like the most relaxed guy in the world.
Which he may well be.
After a decade of hustling from blockbuster to blockbuster at a pace that made him one of the busiest and highest paid actors in the world, the star of the new Netflix movie Extraction, premiering April 24 — and the once and future Thor — is acclimating to rare period of extended downtime.
There are quarantined dads (and moms) all over the world talking through clenched smiles about how wonderful it is to be home, but Hemsworth is authentically pleased.
“Not to diminish by any means the [coronavirus] challenges that are occurring, the absolute uncertainty, the anxiety that is happening in the world, but me personally, and to that question, it’s (created) a forced sort of meditation and forced sort of stillness that I haven’t been able to dive into like I’ve wanted to for many years,” said the actor, 36, who lives in Australia with his wife and three children.
He is the kind of star who can get a movie made, so for Hemsworth there is always enormous pressure to keep playing the role of sponsor, to keep making them, to keep the international machinery of moviemaking running nonstop.
Now that machine has stopped, everywhere, and the strange stillness — however awful its origins — has for Hemsworth a silver lining.
“For 10 years I’ve been part of the machine, and I’ve been thankful for it, and done so many wonderful things and traveled so much, but what it meant was, I was away from my family. A lot,” said Hemsworth, who since 2011 has made seven movies for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, reboots of Ghostbusters and Men in Black, a couple of Snow White and the Huntsman films, and several more.
“I’ve wanted to just stop being controlled by a schedule," he said. "So to be home now with the kids full time. and to be able to go ‘Wow, this is truly what’s important.’ It would be a real miss if I didn’t use this opportunity to soak up that time,” he said.
And that movie-star inner voice that tells him to get on the phone and make another deal? It’s gone?
“There is also another that other part of me, that ego or whatever it is, that is saying, ‘What else? We’ve got to do something else. Come on, there’s got to be more. But I’m just trying to quiet that and just exist in the present moment now, and it’s really nice,” he said.
He could probably use the rest after Extraction, an action movie in which — and this is a conservative estimate — his character engages in hand-to-hand combat with a hundred guys, in just his first action scene.
He plays a soldier-turned-mercenary hired to rescue a wealthy man’s kidnapped son from the clutches of a drug lord in Bangladesh, then runs a gauntlet of corrupt cops and assassins to keep the boy alive. The movie is one continuous pulse of action, with a drama beat about every eight minutes.
The rise of the stuntman director
Extraction is part of a new wave of movies (the John Wick series, Deadpool 2) directed by former stuntmen who bring with them a zeal for can-you-top-this action. In this case, it’s Sam Hargrave, who along with Hemsworth (and the movie’s screenwriter, Joe Russo) is a veteran of the MCU — he was Captain America’s stunt double and one of the gladiators in the arena scenes with Hemsworth in Thor: Ragnarok.
Extraction is his first movie as director, and while it shares a kind of stunt-driven technical prowess with John Wick, its world is more naturalistic, and so are the emotions of Hemsworth’s haunted character.
“The pitch I made to Chris was this was an art-house action movie. It’s action-driven, but at the heart of it is an emotional story,” Hargrave said.
Hemsworth plays Tyler Rake, a man whose reckless bravado stems from a borderline suicidal streak rooted in personal tragedy. The movie keeps giving him more reasons and incentives to cut the kidnapped boy loose, but for Rake, saving him becomes a means of righting past wrongs and recovering a humanity he’d thought he’d lost.
“I just found that so beautiful and heartbreaking — and enjoyable to play,” Hemsworth said.
He also calls the role “painful,” and he means that literally.
“It was really, really painful,” said Hemsworth, whose sore muscles arose from Hargrave’s mission to take Extraction to uncharted action-movie territory. One incredible single-take sequence follows his character as he battles from the roof to the street of an apartment building, a tracking shot that’s like the Copacabana sequence in Goodfellas only three times as long and with martial arts.
Hemsworth said it was hard work, but the entire cast were inspired by Hargrave’s own crazed willingness to take risks — he tied himself to the hood of a vehicle to record a car chase in a unique way.
“What I wanted to do for this movie was to infuse in it the energy that comes with being in there, putting the camera in a place that it normally doesn’t want to go,” Hargrave said. “I put myself in the hot spot because if something were to happen, I’d rather it happen to me.”
Which led Hemsworth, on set, to wonder: What if something did happen to the daredevil director?
“I remember at one point thinking, when we are doing the chase sequence, and you’re talking about Sam strapped to the front of a car, and we had some pretty close calls — and one in particular — and I thought, that’s interesting. If a stunt guy gets hurt, we just, you know, (send him) off to the hospital and bring in the next one. But, you know, if Sam gets injured …”
It would have been a major problem. The forced shutdown that might have ensued on set is akin to what’s gripping the entire industry right now. People are wondering when, and even if, the movie world will return to normal.
Can Marvel save the movies?
I asked Hemsworth if the Marvel movies — so often criticized for sucking up so much box office oxygen — are uniquely positioned to bring people back into theaters, whenever that can safely happen.
“I hear those concerns, too. That [the MCU] takes up so much real estate, [and] is there enough room for the other things to exist, the art house films and the smaller films we love and admire equally,” he said.
On the other hand, superhero movies are indisputably the most popular movies in the world, with demonstrated ability to bring people into premium formats like IMAX. This suggests they have the leverage to restore the moviegoing habit.
“Films [like Marvel] that you can best appreciate on the big screen, those will draw people out of their homes again," he said. "I’m with you on that.”
One of those is likely to be the next entry in the Thor saga, now in preproduction, called Thor: Love and Thunder, written and directed by Taika Waititi, who gave the franchise such a memorable course correction with Thor: Ragnarok.
That film allowed Hemsworth to show his ample gift for comedy (it can be seen in terse form in Extraction), and also what costar Tessa Thompson (who played Valkyrie) called his uncommon generosity.
While in town during press for Creed II, she astutely pointed out that the movie’s abrupt and unprecedented shift from comic book muscleman earnestness was made possible entirely by Hemsworth’s willingness to embrace the strange new tone — to play straight man and allow actors like her to go big and “steal” scenes that in fact Hemsworth handed to them.
“Chris is so wonderful. He was so excited about Taika’s approach to the material, such a fanboy of Valkyrie, he played a huge part in making everything work,” she said.
When coronavirus is conquered (now that’s a job for the Avengers), that Ragnarok crew is getting the band back together for Love and Thunder — Hemsworth, Thompson, Waititi, Natalie Portman.
Hemsworth can’t talk specifics but said the script from Waititi (and Kaytin Robinson) is even weirder and wilder than Ragnarok.
“It’s one of the best scripts I’ve read in years. It’s Taika at his most extreme, and at his best. If the version I read is the one we get running with, it’s going to be pretty insane.”