It was on an unseasonably humid day in March that we got to sit down with actor Taylor Kitsch to chat about his latest film, Battleship. Like John Carter, released earlier this year, it’s a big, bombastic movie full of eye-popping special effects, and also required a potentially arduous shoot in difficult conditions – Kitsch went from the Utah desert for John Carter to the South Pacific for Battleship, and both films presented their own unique challenges.
But while his leading roles in those high-profile movies have brought him lots of mainstream press attention, Kitsch has also starred in the much-loved TV series Friday Night Lights, appeared as Gambit in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and as photojournalist Kevin Carter in the drama The Bang Bang Club.
It was a pleasure, then, to get the time to not only chat about John Carter and Battleship, but also Kitsch’s other roles, as well as the movies he’s doing next – including the particularly intriguing Savages, directed by Oliver Stone…
Your latest film Battleship’s an obvious place to start. Given that so much of it appeared to be filmed out in the ocean, how did you get on with the shoot?
I loved it. Especially when you can be in Pearl Habour working with the guys who served in World War II, who were a part of that. So it was really fun to go to work on any day on the USS Missouri. And, you know, a live setting’s the best setting. We can work on these ships and this incredible history that they have, it’s awesome.
It looked, in some shots, as though you were far out in the ocean. Was that the case, or was it just cunning photography?
Oh, we were. Without a doubt. Especially in the first part of the ship, where my character walks out onto the ship and touches it, we were out in the middle of the ocean, off the coast of Hawaii.
That surely made it tough, then, to set up shots.
Yeah, a lot of it was. But I think you know that getting into it. And I learned an insane amount of patience with John Carter, which was even more technical. So I was fine with it. And again, it was fun to be in a live setting out in the ocean. It felt like you were achieving something really cool.
You’re a bit of a glutton for punishment, really, aren’t you? Because you went from shooting in the middle of the Utah desert for John Carter to the middle of the ocean for Battleship.
One extreme to the other, yeah!
But you’d say John Carter remained the more difficult film to make.
Without a doubt. For me, just because I’m in every scene, almost, and I had to be in a certain shape for seven months. It was just exhausting for me.
And there was a lot of wire work, too, which must have been difficult.
Oh my God, man. Oh my God. If I could even begin to explain. That wire work was insane.
You got to work with Peter Berg again, who you previously worked with on Friday Night Lights. Did that mean you had a kind of verbal shorthand on Battleship?
Oh yeah. We’re friends, first and foremost, and it was a big step to come and ask me to lead this film for him. But also a flattering one, and for him to come and ask me to collaborate in the way we did, and for me to have the freedom that I had, to create the character of Hopper and breathe life into this guy Hopper was a lot of fun.
So what did you bring to the character?
We were talking about him so early, and we were at dinner in London. He [Peter Berg] flew to London to pitch the movie. And I think it’s all about relatability with any movie that you make, otherwise it’s just not going to be fun for anyone. And I think this guy really encompasses that.
So it was a guy that’s truly afraid of his own potential. Everyone’s been there in life, and some people never get out of that. And they don’t take a risk, or they don’t take the chance of putting themselves in a position where they could fail. And that’s where Hopper was, to me. As funny as it is, and lighthearted though that first scene is, Hopper’s a guy who lives on his brother’s couch, and is kind of just a fuck up, you know? He really does encompass that kind of guy who doesn’t want to engage, and just wants to be on the surface the entire time.
He’s not a stock hero, is he? Which is a slightly different thing for a summer movie.
Oh, no. And you know what the best scene is? The one where, through attrition, he becomes the captain. And that scene is great, because he’s completely lost, out of his element, and scared shitless. And I loved that relatability. Because where a summer movie can play into that stigma, where he gets the call and he’s the captain, and all of a sudden he’d be chest out and ready to lead everyone, no problem, it’s instead a human moment. I loved that. That was a huge thing for Pete and I to get.
The other big thing in this film, of course, is its special effects work. I assume that required lots of motion capture, with actors covered in dots and so forth?
Oh the aliens, yeah. He was a great big guy, about six-eight, in grey pyjamas. With little foamy things representing the apparatus or weapons, or whatever. And he was on wires sometimes. So that helped enormously. He was really good. All those guys love it, because they get to play around, walking like this [mimics a hulking creature marching about]. It’s all about bringing you guys into that. It’s the seven-year old in all of us, running around in the outdoors playing GI Joe. I’m lovin’ it.
There’s been some talk in the press about how you’ve suddenly been thrust into the A-list as a big star, having been in two high-profile, expensive movies. But presumably for you, it’s been a long road to this point, rather than an overnight thing.
It’s been a long and testing one, for sure. And I never set out… I don’t think a validation for oneself is the budget of a movie. So I’ve been fortunate to be very proud of my whole body of work, from Friday Night Lights, which was a small, tiny TV show, to The Bang Bang Club, which was a small, $2 million movie. I take as much pride in that and those kinds of roles. It doesn’t matter about the budget. But I get that, through exposure, it seems like I’ve come out of nowhere. But I’ve definitely chipped away, and I’d go right back into a small movie, no problem.
Is that something you’d like to do as a change of pace?
Uh-hmm. We have Savages coming out, the Oliver Stone film.
I was going to ask you about that.
Yeah. That’s an unapologetic, different view. No one’s seen me as this kind of guy. And that’s the beauty of acting, the beauty of this job, that I can disappear into these different kinds of roles. John Carter into Battleship, is incredibly different, and I love that. They’re almost unrecognisable, these two guys. So that’s all part of my gig, and hopefully I can keep switching it up like that.And you got to work with Oliver Stone, which is amazing.
There you go. To be one of the leads in an Oliver Stone movie by 30 years old is a pretty good accomplishment.
You’re starring alongside John Travolta…
John Travolta, Benicio Del Toro, Uma Thurman, Salma Hayek. It’s pretty great.
So what can you tell me about your character in that?
I play a mercenary, more or less. A really jaded Navy SEAL, who’s part of this drug game in Southern California. He and his best friend, who’s played by Aaron Johnson, these two best friends have this boutique drug growing operation, a cartel from Mexico’s infiltrated Southern California. And it really boils down to a movie about power and ego. The gain of power and the loss of it, and what you’ll do to attain it. It’s really an unapologetic, raw film.
Is it a thriller, or is it more of a drama?
It’s very Pulp Fiction-esque. I’m tellin’ you, man, it’s fucking violent. I mean, we do not cut away. It’s old-school Stone. I think it’s refreshing, too – you rarely get scripts like this, and movies like this don’t get made now, you know? That Reservoir Dogs-type tone. Those are the sorts of films that I love to keep being a part of, and I had a blast playing this guy. It was really great to go mano-a-mano with a lot of these great actors, and work with these guys and see their process. And not an inch of green screen, which is a good thing!So you definitely think that’ll get an R rating.
Oh, without a doubt.
Because as you say, those are the kinds of more adult movies we’re seeing fewer and fewer of lately.
Well, some comedies that are coming out are R-rated.
It’s interesting that you can get away with adult content in comedies but not so much in dramas or thrillers.
I know. Especially with financing – they’ve got to be über low budget. But this is right down Stone’s alley, and he knocks it out. Benicio is phenomenal in it. He plays a mercenary in the cartel, and it’s just a really gritty, raw film. A contemporary piece. Very R-rated.
I shall look forward to that. On a different topic, we’ve heard rumours, on occasion, of a Friday Night Lights movie. Do you think that’s likely to happen?
I don’t think there will be. From my position – I haven’t even seen the script. I’m very happy with the way I left Tim Riggins. And I’ve complete closure with it, and left on such an amazing note. So I’m very happy to let it rest.
So he’s not necessarily a character you’d want to return to.
You feel it’s run its course.
Yeah, because I’m so happy with him. And I want to keep challenging myself, and keep being different, and not taking a couple of steps back and re-engaging with someone I played for five years.
Another character you’ve played is Gambit. Is that someone you’d return to, perhaps?
I would, man. I know Hugh [Jackman]’s doing Wolverine soon, so I’m not planting a seed in any way, but if he called me and wanted me to do a cameo in it or something, I’d do it. It’s that simple. But I haven’t been approached by anyone.
What’s been really flattering is that a lot of fans want to see it. And that’s the best compliment you can get, is that people want to see you again in that role. Or any role. And I loved playing him – he’s a suave motherfucker. He’s fun to play, man. So I’d love to do it. But I doubt it’ll happen.
Maybe one day, though.
Yeah, maybe way down the road. Which is great, because I’m sure I’ll be a way different actor when I’m 40 or 45, and I can see myself playing him down the road, developing that. You never know.
As we’ve already touched on, you’ve already worked with some great directors. Who are you looking forward to working with who you haven’t already?
Well, I’m working with Pete [Berg] again on Lone Survivor, with Mark Wahlberg and Ben Foster. That’ll be a gritty war film. So I’m sure I’ll work with Pete again a couple more times in my career. There’s a lot. The obvious guys are Scorsese and stuff. That would be very flattering to be a part of. But I don’t know if have a list… [Christopher] Nolan would be a joke. I’d love to work with him. I’m very open to it, and that’s a best part of it. There’s a mini list, but it’s not like I’m hunting these guys down. I’m hoping they’ll see my work and want to engage with me as well. We’ll see!
Going back to John Carter, briefly, did you have to fight hard for that role?
Oh yeah, fuck. I battled for that. It was months and months – two 14 hour-per-day screen tests, but it was three or four auditions just to get to those screen tests. And then there was an hour-long general meeting before just to get an audition. It was no joke.
Do you have a character you’re most proud of playing?
The beauty of it is, I don’t think it’s a one-two-three. I’ve learned so much, and taken so much, and that’s when you know you’re making the right choices. Kevin Carter stands out to me, in Bang Bang Club. That was a very fulfilling thing, because I don’t think I’ve ever been more scared to take on a role like that, and that guy took the best out of me. I love that fulfilment through that. But every role has taken a different piece of me, and that’s what’s great about it. The character in Savages was a lot of fun to play.
So Lone Survivor’s your next project with Peter Berg. And that’s quite a tough war film, isn’t it?
Yeah it is. It’s a true story about four Navy SEALS trapped in the mountains of Afghanistan, fighting against the Taliban. And only one guy, one survivor, lives. I play Mike Murphy, who gave his life to send out a signal for the rest of the guys. It’s incredible. We haven’t shot it yet – we’re going to shoot it in New Mexico in September.
Another desert movie!
I know! That’s going to be a tough shoot. But that’s gonna be that old cliché of what you put in, you get back out. I can’t tell you how honoured I am to play this guy.
Taylor Kitsch, thank you very much.
Battleship is out in UK cinemas now. You can read our review here.
A special thanks to Glen Chapman and Duncan Bowles for their help in compiling some of the questions for this interview.