While best known to audiences the world over as the Marvel superhero Thor, Chris Hemsworth has much more to offer than brooding looks and a magical hammer. He shined tremendously in director Ron Howard’s underrated Formula 1 racing drama Rush, and now he’s reunited once more with Howard for another true-life story: In the Heart of the Sea. Based on the book of the same name by Nathaniel Philbrick, the story tells of the whaleship Essex, which was attacked and sunk by a giant sperm whale, leaving its crew stranded, lost, and starving for months on end.
Hemsworth leads the film as Owen Chase, the ship’s First Mate who took charge of one of the lifeboats after the attack. The actor faced a tremendous physical challenge in taking on the role, as he had to drop over 30 pounds to convey the starved look of Chase post-shipwreck. Moreover, he had only 24 hours in between wrapping Michael Mann’s thriller Blackhat and starting In the Heart of the Sea, plus he was juggling the press tour for Thor: The Dark World at the same time, so he had quite a lot on his plate.
Along with a small group of journalists, I was invited to the London set of In the Heart of the Sea in November 2013, and we got a chance to speak with Hemsworth during a break in filming an emotionally charged scene. It was a chilly day, but there was a charge in the air given that production was taking place on the Leavesden Studios backlot, where Howard had built an enormous reconstruction of early 19th century Nantucket, complete with a full-size ship in the harbor.
During our conversation, Hemsworth talked about his busy schedule, the weight loss, reuniting with Howard, and a lot more. Read the full interview below, and if you missed any of my other set visit coverage, click the links.
- ‘In the Heart of the Sea’: 20 Things to Know about Ron Howard’s Whale Tale
- Tom Holland on ‘In the Heart of the Sea’, Working with Thor, and More
Ben was talking about the training room regiment and losing all this weight. Can you talk a little bit about it? What are you down to now?
CHRIS HEMSWORTH: I think I’m around kind of 185 and I was 215 for Thor. I’m not necessarily an unhealthy white male, it’s just that I was at such an extreme for Thor that it’s a long way to get back to …
Was it harder losing the weight?
HEMSWORTH: Yeah, it’s the second time I’ve done it, both times with Ron so maybe he’s got some obsession with me being skinny. I don’t know. [Laughs] But each time you put the muscle back on, your body has that muscle memory and wants to hang on to it, so you just have be well underfed and over-trained to get it off and it’s exhausting.
Was that something you were concerned about when you were getting ready for the film, how arduous all of this was going to be?
HEMSWORTH: Oh, no. I mean, every film has challenges and all of us are doing it together, all the cast is doing it together so you keep each other motivated I guess and keep each other in check. And we all knew that that was what we had to do and what was required from the beginning. I can’t say I was looking forward to it necessarily, but it’s all good. [Laughs]
Do you find that the hunger actually powers your performance?
HEMSWORTH: If I need to be agitated or angry or frustrated or depressed or moody, yeah, sure. [Laughs] Definitely. It’s tricky when you have to do the opposite of emotions, you know? But I think it does, especially this stuff, coming back after we return and when we are lost at sea at the worst of it. Yeah, you don’t have to convince yourself that you’re exhausted and hungry; you feel it. So yeah, I think you definitely use it.
How’s it working with Ron on this compared to Rush? Is there anything about his process that’s stayed the same or changed drastically?
HEMSWORTH: I mean, what I love about Ron is even from his sort of resume, across the board his varied taste and skillset and different genres, but I think he does that on purpose. He loves to challenge himself and put himself in a situation where he’s got to push the boundaries and think outside the box. Now the great thing is we have shorthand, we know what one another needs in order to get to a certain place. You know, you don’t spend the first month or so getting to know one another. We jump straight into it. And we were talking about this just after Rush anyway, so it’s been amongst our, you know, conversation and mindset for a while now. It’s nice.
Only a few days ago you were on the red carpet for the Thor premiere. Now you have to jump back into the mindset of this character who’s just been through hell. Is that a tough leap? Or to go the other way, to promote a movie while you’re shooting something as intense as this?
HEMSWORTH: Yeah, it’s not ideal. [Laughs] The last six months have been tough because this and Michael Mann’s movie shot back-to-back, literally 24 hours between the two of them, and I had the Rush tour and the Thor tour, so I had four different characters swimming around my head. [Laughs] I was a little bit schizophrenic, but, you know, you get in a rhythm, and especially promoting Thor, [it] had such positive feedback around it, it was lucky. I wasn’t having to push something uphill necessarily. But in an ideal world, I’d love to just be on this set and concentrate on just this character, but, you know, no complaints.
Can you tell us where that gnarly scar came from?
HEMSWORTH: It’s just his history. You know, a lot of the guys are pretty worn and torn and the look of the film from costume to physical features was this sort of grit and grime of what this period was and the reality of what this work was like and it was incredibly taxing. It wasn’t swashbuckling, skipping off to sea. This was the industry and it was hardcore and similarities to going off to war. You know, you didn’t know if you were coming back and you were gone a long, long time.
Can you tell us about the relationship between your character, Pollard and Nickerson? We heard a lot about Chase and Pollard butting heads, but in the book, Pollard is much more submissive and Chase takes control.
HEMSWORTH: There are sort of varied opinions about that I guess in the book or other reports and other people’s journals anyway. In our version of it we take creative license and there’s a lot of friction between the two of them from the get-go and Nickerson is sort of the observer, but also obviously interacting quite heavily once things take off. Ben’s fantastic. I think we both had the same idea about having these guys be in conflict, but underneath, there’s an amount of respect, and that’s always an interesting rivalry. It’s the same with the Nicky Lauda, James Hunt story that me and Ron talk about often being one of the most successful things or one of the most exciting things about that relationship was the fact that you don’t have that kind of competitiveness towards someone unless there’s an amount of respect to it. Respect comes with that.
In the Heart of the Sea opens in theaters on December 11th.