Chris Hemsworth speaks to Tom Ellen about low boredom thresholds, near-death experiences and swapping Thor’s hammer for James Hunt’s famous red overalls
Forget Rada showcases and Saturday Night Live sketches; directors wanting to see Hollywood’s future acting elite should just watch Home And Away. The likes of Heath Ledger, Guy Pearce and Naomi Watts all cut their teeth in Summer Bay, and the show’s most recent high-profile graduate, Chris Hemsworth, now sits before ShortList, having transformed from Aussie soap lifeguard to A-list film star in less than a decade.
As well as his hammer-flinging turns as Thor in various Marvel outings, the 30-year-old has had entertaining stints in postmodern horror The Cabin In The Woods and bombastic fairytale Snow White And The Huntsman, but the film we’re talking to him about today finally allows him space to demonstrate his (not inconsiderable) acting skills.
Ron Howard’s Rush sees Hemsworth ditching the capes and protein shakes to play – get this – a real human being, in the form of late, great British F1 legend, James Hunt. And, it seems he rather enjoyed swapping comic books for sex, drugs and fast cars…
Were you an F1 fan before you got the role?
No, it just wasn’t around my circle [of friends] growing up. My dad used to race motorbikes, but he had a couple of bad accidents around the time my brothers and I were born, and my mum said, “Yeah, this isn’t cool,” so he stopped. He’d read the biographies on James Hunt, so I was on the phone to him a lot while making the film.
Obviously you look alike, but did you find you shared any other characteristics with Hunt?
I think James had a cheeky, child-like quality, which I share. I also have a similar sense of extremes; all or nothing. As long as I have something I can throw myself into, then I’m good. The moment I get bored is dangerous. He had great ambition, too, to prove that he could be somebody. That’s why he gave the finger to people who said he wasn’t good enough; he thought he was. Something I really appreciate about James was that he didn’t conform to any standard or etiquette. He just did what he wanted. I think we’d all like to do that; tell people what we really think of them [laughs]. He did it all the time.
Was Ron Howard keen for you to take an, ahem, ‘method’ approach to Hunt’s playboy lifestyle?
Oh yeah, he was all about me getting drugs and alcohol and hitting up the town [laughs]. No, I wish he did. There were plenty of things I could draw upon [from my own life] to play James, but not to his extreme. After having a kid, you realise it’s not all about you any more. If I do something stupid, it affects other people.
What was the most shocking thing you found out about James during your research?
Well, I swear to God, I met three or four women over the past year who I mentioned the film to, and they all said: “James Hunt? Oh yeah, I dated James.” Isn’t that crazy? Years later and people still remember that one. He may have seemed like a womaniser, but his exes spoke kindly of him. They said he never lied about who he was; he was so honest that people just accepted him.
If you weren’t an F1 nut as a kid, who were your heroes growing up?
Kelly Slater [US pro surfer] was my idol. When I was 15, I was in a school play and I had to go to a rehearsal on a Sunday, which I was p*ssed off about, because I couldn’t go surfing. I got back that evening, and my dad was like, “Guess who we surfed with today?” I just started crying because I knew it was Kelly Slater. It destroyed my world.
You should call him – I’m sure he’d go surfing with you now…
I’ve hung out with him a bunch, actually, but we haven’t surfed together yet. I haven’t even told him that story. Hopefully he’ll read it now. Actually, maybe he shouldn’t; it might come across as creepy [laughs].
Have you ever had any Hunt-esque brushes with death?
There were probably tons of times in my childhood when I was close to dying and didn’t know. My parents would probably say: “What about the time you jumped off the roof on to the trampoline and into the pool?” There have been times while surfing when I was held under for longer than I should have been. I’m not sure if I was close to dying, but it was pretty scary.
One of your lines as Hunt in the film is about feeling more alive the closer you are to death. Did you get a sense of that while being held underwater?
Yeah. I think that’s why people do these dangerous activities. Before shooting Rush, I read about the psychology behind why people do things such as skydiving and rock climbing, and the conclusion seemed to be that pushing at life forces us into the present. We’re always texting, emailing and sitting inside, so any activity that brings you into the moment is liberating.
What kind of driver are you?
Pretty timid. Especially if I have the baby in the car. I grew up in the bush, so we had motorbikes to fall off [rather than cars]. My dad always said: “If you want to race, do it in the bush. No matter how good you are, there are too many people on the road, too many variables.” That always stuck with me.
Was it nice to get away from superheroes and play a real-life character?
It was great to have something to research that wasn’t in comics. I met people who actually knew James, read books, watched interviews. On Thor, you’re competing with special effects, sets and costumes. It was great not to be swinging about on wires.
Finally, Hunt put his life on the line for his job – is there anything you wouldn’t do for yours?
I wouldn’t put my life on the line for this job [laughs]. Are you kidding me?
(Image: REX/GUILLAUME COLLET/SIPA)