"I'm at a point now where I have a little more room to breathe," says Chris Evans, the actor best known for his work in seven of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters of not only the past decade, but ever, playing Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, in Marvel's Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), The Avengers (2012), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Captain America: Civil War (2016), Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019).
As we record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's Awards Chatter podcast, the 38-year-old continues: "Sometimes I wake up and don't have any appetite to make a film. And then other times I can't wait to get on set because I have a new 'strength,' maybe, in risk-taking: I'm more excited to get to set and take some big swings and not be so concerned about, 'Will this end it all for me?' And I think that's where the best work comes from, especially on Defending Jacob."
Evans is referring to the acclaimed new eight-part limited series on Apple TV+, adapted from William Landay's 2012 novel of the same name, on which he served as an executive producer and stars as an assistant district attorney working a murder case that leads him to very uncomfortable places. "I really took some swings and made a mess, not quite thinking about consequence or whether this will impact getting future jobs," Evans says, "and I think that's where some of the best work comes from."
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.
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Born and raised in the Boston area, Evans participated in youth theater and school productions right through high school. When he was a high school sophomore, a family friend who was a New York actor told him that, in order to seriously pursue a career as a professional actor, he would need to get an agent, and in order to get an agent, he would probably need to spend some time in New York. Evans, in turn, applied for and landed an internship at a New York casting office, where he spent the summer after his junior year, at the end of which he landed representation of his own, and was encouraged to return to the Big Apple in time for pilot season auditions in January. He graduated early and did just that, landing a Fox pilot, Opposite Sex, for which he moved to Los Angeles in 2000.
The TV series didn't last long, but Evans soon began landing work in motion pictures, ranging from Not Another Teen Movie in 2001, which was one of several that showcased his muscular physique, to Cellular in 2004, his first leading role — but none of these early projects really conveyed Evans' acting abilities or particularly resonated with audiences. He recalls, "There was a period of time where you start thinking, 'Man, I can't make a good movie. I don't know what it is. ... I wonder how many chances I'm gonna get at this.'"
Then, Evans landed a major role in a Marvel superhero franchise: Johnny Storm, aka Human Torch, in Fantastic Four (2005) and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). "That was back when the superhero thing was just taking off," he recalls, adding, "I had just been dumped and I needed it!" But around the time of the sequel's release, he began experiencing severe anxiety — which couldn't have been helped by coming close to but missing out on parts in Gone Baby Gone, Milk, Elizabethtown and Fracture, and having some of his best work, in Danny Boyle's Sunshine (2007), go almost entirely under the radar. "Nobody sees my good movies," he says with a chuckle.
By the time he was in Houston shooting Adam Kassen and Mark Kassen's indie gem Puncture in 2010, things were getting really bad. "It was the first time I started having mini panic attacks on set," Evans recalls. "I really started to think, 'I'm not sure if this [acting] is the right thing for me, I'm not sure if I'm feeling as healthy as I should be feeling.'" And then Marvel came calling again. The studio, which had recently launched its MCU with 2008's Iron Man, invited him to test for the part of Steve Rogers, aka Captain America. If they liked him, he would be locked into a nine-film deal which would come with a big payday, to be sure, but also considerably greater fame, which he feared would make his anxiety totally debilitating. "My suffering would be my own," Evans recognized, so, to the dismay of his agents, he turned down the opportunity to even test — several times, even as the proposed number of required films was reduced to six and the proposed salary was increased.
Then, to Evans' amazement, Marvel came back to him again — and offered him the part outright, which made him reconsider his firm stance. He consulted with Iron Man star Robert Downey, Jr., with whom he shared an agent; a therapist; and trusted friends and family, who urged him not to make a major decision based on fear. He finally decided to say yes. And, a decade later, he says, "It was the best decision I've ever made, and I really owe that to [Marvel chief] Kevin Feige for being persistent and helping me avoid making a giant mistake." He adds, "To be honest, all the things that I was fearing never really came to fruition."
Quite the contrary. "I fell in love with Steve Rogers pretty quick," Evans says, and he felt similarly about the other performers who had been cast as fellow Avengers, one of whom, in particular, helped him to navigate his way through his newfound fame: "It was nice having Chris Hemsworth around because he was going through it, too. I mean, at the time Downey's Downey and Scarlett's Scarlett [Johansson]. And [Mark] Ruffalo and [Jeremy] Renner, at the time, were crushing it, too. Hemsworth and I were very new and we also had the stand-alones and so I think we shared in our anxiety, and at least that made it a little bit more comforting."
The critical and commercial success of each of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films didn't hurt, either. Even so, some have denigrated the efforts, lumping them in with all superhero films as being bad for cinema. "We may be a little bit too accustomed to the structure now," Evans says diplomatically, "so I think it's easy to sweep it into the same category as films of that nature. But I really do think they stand apart. And the caliber of talent they attract is a testament to that."
Evans, meanwhile, sought to continue to grow as an actor during the periods between his Marvel commitments, popping up in films big and small, from Ariel Vromen's The Iceman (2012) to Bong Joon Ho's Snowpiercer (2013) to Marc Webb's Gifted (2017) to Rian Johnson's Knives Out (2019) — and also returning to his theatrical roots, making his Broadway debut in a 2018 revival of Kenneth Lonergan's Lobby Hero, which he says was "a little terrifying," but which New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley described as "terrific."
Now, in the first year since his Marvel deal expired, Evans is garnering some of the best notices of his screen career for Defending Jacob, which was created and written by Mark Bomback and directed by The Imitation Game's Oscar-nominated Morten Tyldum. It's the first time that a central attribute of one of his characters is being a father, and it's also his first limited series, which is "really the most challenging part of it," he says. "It's ostensibly an eight-hour movie, so you have a lot of information — a giant arc — that you have to house in your mind," he continues. "But it allows for things to breathe. And that's a really exciting thing as an actor."