Interview: Taylor Kitsch, actor

Canadian actor Taylor Kitsch attends the UK premiere of John Carter in central London, on March 1, 2012. AFP PHOTO/CARL COURT (Photo credit should read CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images)
Canadian actor Taylor Kitsch attends the UK premiere of John Carter in central London, on March 1, 2012. AFP PHOTO/CARL COURT (Photo credit should read CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images)
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A box office failure like John Carter won’t break the spirit of a star who starved himself to get his big break in movies. Taylor Kitsch tells Siobhan Synnot how the hard times have worked in his favour

TAYLOR Kitsch has around half a billion dollars riding on his shoulders this year. It’s a responsibility that most young actors might find daunting, but Kitsch is not a man lacking in confidence.

“We won’t be denied,” he told me rather grandly, just before the launch of John Carter. “We just won’t let anything fail.”

A few weeks later, and John Carter may be one of the biggest failures in cinema history. In the United States, no-one seemed to know if the science-fiction epic was about Mars, monsters, civil war or studio executive hubris – but more crucially, audiences didn’t bother going to the cinema to find out.

The rest of the world has been a little more receptive but it’s likely to be years before the film recoups its £250 million budget. This is bad luck for John Carter’s director, Andrew Stanton, who seemed invincible after Finding Nemo and WALL-E, and appalling news for Disney, the bankrolling studio. Yet Kitsch remains bullish, and loyal to the movie that gave him his first starring role. “Box office doesn’t validate me,” he says now. “I’m very proud of the film, and I would do John Carter again in a minute.”

Alas, that seems unlikely. Before John Carter’s release there were plans for two sequels and a theme park. All these plans have now been binned. Kitsch is one of the few elements to emerge from the rubble with any credit, alongside Woola, his adorable spacedog. Headlining a box-office bomb never looks good on the CV, but Kitsch did look good on the poster, bookended by two snarling space apes, and clad only in the briefest of loincloths. “After we wrapped,” says Kitsch, “I burnt that skirt”.

More crucially, no-one seems to blame Kitsch for the costumes or the lack of atmosphere in his space flick. This month he’s been given the opportunity to flash his muscles again in Peter Berg’s Battleship, another £200m-plus blockbuster, where Kitsch plays a naval officer who, alongside Liam Neeson and the pop singer Rihanna, has to take on an armada of aliens.

Kitsch has been on the road promoting both Battleship and John Carter for more than three months already, so understandably he’s perhaps a little bored of being asked what attracts him to fighting extra-terrestrials either on Mars or at sea. “Here’s how I pick my movies,” he drawls, with a hint of eye-roll. “I read the script and check for aliens. If there aren’t any, then why call me?”

After Battleship, audiences will get an eight-week break before Kitsch returns to multiplexes for a third time in the crime thriller Savages.

Oliver Stone personally tapped him to co-star with John Travolta as a pot dealer forced to take on a Mexican drug outfit when they kidnap his girlfriend. Stone is renowned for needling his actors into giving the performance he wants, an approach that drove some to distraction.

“I got letters,” admits Kitsch. “Some of them were from directors who I admired, advising me not to do Savages. I actually got one email which said: “As a friend – get out.” So when we started filming, I didn’t know what to expect when Oliver came over at the end of a take. Was he going to tell me it was fine, or rip me in half? But I think it helped that I was playing a former mercenary, and that I worked out with a really tough SEAL, the kind who carries shrapnel in his body to this day. I hope I projected some of that attitude, and that maybe it stopped Oliver going after me.”

Directors Stone, Berg and Stanton have contributed to what Kitsch acknowledges is a “make-or-break” 2012. Hollywood has been hunting for the next Brad, Tom or George: a next generation box-office draw with an across-the-board appeal. Could the next big thing be this sleepy, unshaven, 30-year-old Canadian – even though most of the world still thinks of him as “Taylor Who?”

“Kitsch is a German name,” he says. “I hope I don’t live up to it.”

The youngest of three brothers and raised single-handedly by his mother, Kitsch’s first ambition was to be a professional ice hockey player, until an injury damaged his knee. His mother then encouraged him to try modelling, which he loathed, but he moved to New York, hoping to use modelling work to support his acting studies.

He soon ran out of money and sofas to crash on. An all-time low was sleeping in the New York subway for two weeks: “A friend who lived about two hours out of New York used to come in from college into the city and bring me food from his cafeteria,” he says. “Later I stayed in a place in Spanish Harlem with no electricity, so I lit a bunch of candles. The police came round one night because a neighbour thought the place was on fire. But hard times make you a better actor. When it came to auditioning, I was hungrier for it than the next guy.”

He starts to tell a scornful anecdote about a rival, then opts for discretion: “I’m not going to tell you who the actor was, or what the film was, but I was at a midweek reading with a few other guys, and one of them looked like competition until I heard him talking about how he’d been out partying in Vegas,” he says. “I thought, ‘Well, you’re out.’ And he was. I got the job. It’s a matter of ‘who wants it more’ in my opinion.”

Kitsch clearly wants it badly. When he landed the role of Pulitzer prizewinning photographer Kevin Carter for a movie called The Bang Bang Club, he had just two months to get down to the weight of a drug-abusing depressive. By the time filming began, he had shed two-and-a-half stone. “I didn’t do it the healthy way because there wasn’t time. It was veggies with hot sauce at night and a lot of running. I ended up with some kidney problem because I wasn’t taking in enough protein – but that’s what was necessary.”

For John Carter, he spent nearly a year dieting and training to bulk up to a comic-book physique. Six days a week, he got up at 4.30am to work out, and gave up alcohol and socialising. Twice he fainted on set from exhaustion. In comparison, Battleship sounds a bit of a breeze; he didn’t even have to audition because Berg had known Kitsch for years and gave him his first steady payday, as a brooding teenage American football star in a TV series called Friday Night Lights. Kitsch teases me for not having caught the show – ITV4 ran one series then dumped it from their schedule – but I think he is a bit miffed. “Just watch one episode,” he says, with another tiny eye-roll. “I guarantee, you will be hooked.”

He cheers up when I say I have seen Wolverine (2009), the origin story of how Hugh Jackman gained his signature three claws, an adamantium skeleton and a place in the X-Men line-up. Kitsch had a brief but eye-catching role as man-mutant Gambit, who could blow things up at will and perform card tricks, like a volatile, sexy Paul Daniels.

The two men hit it off immediately, despite a fight scene which left Jackman short of one of his claws until it was located, sticking out of Kitsch’s hand. “I learnt a lot from Hugh Jackman and we’ve become really close friends, apart from the day that he stabbed me,” says Kitsch. “He’s very focused and it opened my eyes to what can be achieved if you have a work ethic. Plus we both got our big kick when we were 30. At this age you can see that fame and celebrity will pass. It’s the work that prevails.”

It’s surprising that Kitsch, who gives every impression of being a career in a hurry, is so sanguine about marking time waiting for his career break. Does he truly never wish he’d arrived in movies a little earlier?

“If I was 21, with this?” queries Kitsch, sweeping his hand around the hotel room. “I’d probably be at the bar right now.” «

Battleship is on general release from 11 April