Taylor Kitsch: The New Action Hero

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Any day now, Taylor Kitsch will cut his hair. To transform into the title character in John Carter of MarsWall-E director Andrew Stanton’s first live-action feature, based on Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burrough’s sci-fi novels about a Civil War veteran’s adventures on the Red Planet—the 28-year-old actor, who plays the dreamy, brooding, beer-drinking, football-playing Tim Riggins on NBC’s cult drama Friday Night Lights, will lop off his locks for the first time since he was 19. “Hopefully, it’s a 10-year job,” Kitsch says of the potential franchise, which co-stars Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton and Thomas Haden Church.

Even though the motorcycle-riding actor has spent four seasons playing high-level pigskin on TV, and was a serious hockey player in college (it was only after he busted his knee that he took up acting), the intense preparation leading up to John Carter exceeds anything he’s done before. It includes sword training, gun fighting, horseback riding and seven-hour cram sessions on the Civil War. And while learning to fence with four-armed giant green Martians might not be every actor’s idea of the method, Kitsch uses physicality as entrée into psyche. “It makes it a bit easier,” he says. “I have to look like this, walk like this. I have to lose this much weight. I’ll know this inside out. Then I work on the mental state.”

Before Carter’s eight-month shoot in London and Utah begins, Kitsch will wrap this season of Friday Night Lights and hopefully see The Bang Bang Club screen at Sundance. In Bang Bang, Kitsch plays another Carter, this one a Kevin, a real-life photographer who, along with three friends, captured raw and horrifying images of the end of apartheid in South Africa—and killed himself weeks after winning the Pulitzer Prize. The shoot was grueling. “No joke, I think I was on bandaged knees and broken down in every scene past the halfway mark,” Kitsch says. “I needed a lot of counseling to come out of it.” After that he’s on to Carter, which Kitsch admits is stressing him out a bit. “It’s not a bad stress where I wake up and say, Oh my God, I’m doing this and that,” he says. “But the stakes are incredibly high. It’s a big movie. I just have to keep my head down and go to work.”

Over the course of Friday Night Lights Riggins has gone from being very quiet to being, if still quiet, very funny. Can you talk about that a little? That’s from Pete [Berg] and four years of playing Riggs. I watched it last night and I started laughing too. I cannot stop smiling when I see some of the scenes between Riggs and Billy. Sometimes it’s just so whacked out you’ve got to just laugh. But at the same time, there’s an actor in both of us, and the guy who plays Billy is a damn good one, and we have a good time really diving into the dramatic stuff. I do what they call for me to do. If they want me to be funny and do the comedic stuff, I’ll do it.

It sounds like you enjoy the dramatic storylines more. I love the comedy too. It’s a lot of fun to play and I love breaking the guy next to me. There’s a scene where Saracen and I go hunting and I cannot even tell you the laughs we had on that. It was 90 percent improv and it was just ridiculous. I was just thinking, “What would it be like hunting with Riggs?” I mean, he’s 18. I sometimes forget about that. He’s a fucking 18-year-old kid and I’m 28. That’s why it’s so fun to dive into that stuff. Just those little things, like the, “tater me.” I think that’s what works best, when we don’t play for the humor, but we find it.

So you aren’t thinking, that’d be funny to say? No way! The director was like, “You haven’t eaten for a bit.” So I was like, fucking chugging down tater tots and I’m just chugging down food the entire scene.

Both the show creator Peter Berg and the showrunner Jason Katims have said they wanted to explore a character, like Tim, who comes home to a small town, without having really tried to “make it” in the big world, and have that be alright. Not everyone has to leave. I think we’re dealing right now with the transition of Tim’s coming home and the fact that he’s not who he was before he left. The town has kind of moved on, especially in terms of football. There was that scene where Billy just lays it on Tim and Tim can’t grasp why Billy’s snapping on him. And then Tim basically says, “I just want to come home.” He doesn’t have much else. Later on in the season it circles back to the pilot, to the Texas forever speech, where Tim just says he is going to get a plot of land. That’s truly just as simple as he feels about life. He’s a simple guy, a small town Texas kid. We have football guys that come and play on the football team who are living what I’m playing right now. Maybe not living in a trailer, but they were definitely 18, 19, 20, 21 years old playing college football in front of a 100,000 people and all the sudden it’s taken away from them. I think Tim has always been lost, but football was the place where he had a sense of purpose, at least when he was out in the field. That’s why I think so maybe people relate to Tim. You meet people in their 40’s who still don’t have that one purpose that gets them up in the morning. Tim exemplifies that.

Are you going to have to cut your hair to play John Carter? I hope so.

A thousand fan girls just cried. This year Riggin’s hair is ridiculously long. I have never had it longer. It’s well past my shoulders.

So if it was up to you, you’d have cut it already? Right now, I’m totally in Riggins mode so I like it. He’s living in a trailer and he’s a mechanic so like, really, why is he going to try and look good? I think that’s the least of his worries.

When was the last time you had short hair? When I was 19. I can’t wait for John Carter. He’s going to have a lot of looks, believe me. There’s this one part where he’s just so grizzled. I’m pumped. I can’t wait to dive into it and all the prep and all the other actors. I think we’re going to hit the ground running. We’re very ready.

Have you read the John Carter of Mars books? I have now. I’ve been studying. The books don’t give Carter a backstory to dive into, so I’ve been studying the Civil War. I sat down with a historian for like seven hours straight to talk about Civil War stories and that helped a lot. It’s everything, the mindset, why they fought. Life was a lot simpler in the 1800’s and hopefully we can bring that to the film. It was fucking raw the way they lived out there and I love that part of it. Sword training is starting up too, which I love. Horseback riding, gun fighting, and of course, just the training to get ready for the physicality of it.

Did you have to audition for the part? Oh, believe me. A lot of the actors, their resumes are self-explanatory and I was up against some great cats, man. The screen test was the most intense screen test. They want to see if you have the chops to carry this guy. It wasn’t as simple as going in and reading a scene, I’ll tell you that much. The stakes are incredibly high. It’s a big movie. Hopefully it’s a ten-year job.

Does that stress you out? Man, you have your days just because you want it so bad and you want to do a great job. I’m very passionate about my deal so, yeah, of course. It’s not a bad stress where I wake up and say “Oh my god, I’m doing this and that,” but it’s just keep putting your head down and go to work.

Tell me about The Bang Bang Club. I’ll get to see a lot of it this Sunday and I’m incredibly nervous for it. I put so much into it, I needed a lot of counseling to come out of it. Coming home I had some problems, just adjusting to find me again. You just kind of lose yourself in it and I had some difficulties getting back to everyday stuff. I had kidney problems doing that as well. It was just heavy. The stakes are so high. You’re playing somebody who left such a mark. It’s a true story and the family is going to watch it so you put anything and everything you can into doing it. I’m incredibly proud of what we did with it so I’m just hoping it came out. I know in my gut though that I played every moment as honestly as I possibly could. Every moment was truthful and as an actor, that’s a very rare deal, especially when there’s so much demanded for this role. No joke, I think every scene after the halfway mark I was on bandaged knees and broken down. It takes a lot to play that truthfully and to go there day in and day out. I’m incredibly anxious to see i

You seen to be attracted to parts that have a big physical component. I think it helps when you have a lot of substance to dive into, when you have a lot of layers to play. As an actor, as ironic as it is, it makes it a bit easier to go, “Okay, I know what I have to do for Kevin Carter. I have to lose this much weight. I have to look like this, walk like this. I’m going to shadow this photographer. I’ll know this inside out and then I’ll work on this mental state.” That gives me a lay out of what to do. If I go, “Okay, I’m going to play this good looking guy whose a quarterback for a football team,” I think I’d be fucking terrible at that. Just because there’s nothing to grab onto, there’s not much substance there. To play some generic guy who just comes in and out and there’s nothing to him that’s hard. I think that’s very soapy and that’s where I tip my hat to those guys because there’s no way I could do it. I would look so bad if I went onto something like that. I think it’s just a different art in it’s own right.

Like the art of faking it, you mean? The more real it is and the more stuff to dive into, the more honest I can be with it and dive into it. So it just feels a lot more organic that way.

Photo by Jeff Wilson Grooming Darilyn Nagy Location Donn’s Depot, Austin, TX