Taylor Kitsch on '21 Bridges' and Taking Pride in 'John Carter'

Taylor Kitsch 21 Bridges Screening - Getty - H 2019
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
The actor, who has experienced ups and downs, notes his high-profile Disney flop has had a "mini-resurgence" in recent years: "People stop me all the time for that."

[This story contains spoilers for 21 Bridges.]

Taylor Kitsch takes everything in stride — including his career. The 21 Bridges star became an overnight sensation in 2006 via NBC’s critically lauded TV series Friday Night Lights, whose devout following refused to let the football drama die after each underviewed season. Because of his breakout role as fullback/running back Tim Riggins, Hollywood immediately created movie-star expectations for Kitsch, but once his first two blockbusters, John Carter and Battleship, vastly underperformed at the box office, Hollywood quickly threw the baby out with the bathwater. Fortunately for Kitsch, he soon found his footing with a string of well-reviewed performances including HBO’s The Normal Heart, Lone Survivor and True Detective.

While Kitsch couldn’t control the expectations placed on him, he appreciates the ups and downs, as well as the continued opportunities to jump back and forth between leading man and character actor. In his latest movie, 21 Bridges, Kitsch plays a supporting role as Ray Jackson, a war veteran and small-time criminal who’s being hunted by veteran police detective Andre Davis (Chadwick Boseman). And soon, Kitsch will return as the lead in Neill Blomkamp’s Inferno.

“I could honestly give a fuck if I’m 15th on the call sheet or first,” Kitsch tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I see myself as a character actor first, and it really boils down to that. I love coming in and playing a flashy guy like Ray and supporting Chadwick…. So I have no problem doing one scene if it’s something worthy or something that makes me uncomfortable.”

Oddly enough, Kitsch has noticed a recent resurgence for Disney’s John Carter, one of the films he's been in that didn’t meet box office expectations.

“I think it got another life when it went on Netflix not long ago…. People stop me all the time for that, especially in Europe,” he says. “Maybe, at the time, it was more of a knee-jerk reaction of ‘Let’s see how we can bury this and everyone that has a part in it.’ Over time, I think you take a breath and understand that it is what it is ... I guess people who watch it now for the first time can take a lot more away from it than people did at first … I learned a ton on that movie. I honestly don’t see it as a failure.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Kitsch also discusses his upcoming lead role in Inferno, his memories from the series finale of Friday Night Lights and his experience on True Detective season two.

My favorite part of movie robberies is the mask choices, and in 21 Bridges, your character, Ray, wears a skull bandana of sorts. If you ever performed your own make-believe robbery, what would be your go-to mask?

Ooh. It’s funny because I do it in Savages as well. There was a long debate — and no one knows this — but we were going to wear old man masks. We screen-tested it, and I was just hoping that [Oliver] Stone would go for it. But, they went away from that, obviously. I would probably do something more enveloping — more like a full head thing. The old man mask — I was dying laughing in it. It’s a little more self-deprecating, and maybe a fuck you to whomever is coming after you. I’d probably go in that kind of direction. Point Break had all those president masks, and that was a lot of fun because you’re along for the ride.

It seems like there’s less and less crime drama these days — at least on the big screen. Do you also get that sense within the industry?

Without a doubt. I notice it with scripts, to be honest. It’s the stuff that I grew up on. This is kind of an ode to those thrillers: the Heats, the Serpicos, the Dog Day Afternoons, the Mean Streets. Obviously, I’m not comparing it to those classics, but I think we all know the game has changed with the studios and their direction. I think I’m doctoring up the stat, but I think 21 of the last 22 number-one movies have been superhero, or sequel, or prequel, or something like that. Original content from major studios is getting rarer and rarer to hit theaters. Hopefully, this does well, and we can keep making these types of movies.

There's the cliche that villains or antagonists think they're the heroes of their own story. Actors are also taught to not judge their characters. With that in mind, did you find a way to humanize Ray Jackson, even though he’s one of your most ruthless characters?

I think you have to. You have to erase your own judgments, like you said. It’s imperative to go in with a clean slate as much as you can. That loyalty with Stephan James’ character, Michael, is a beautifully tragic thing for Ray, and that was my hook into it all. He is a stone-cold killer, but for me, personally, he’s willing to literally die out of loyalty to Michael and the guilt over losing Michael’s brother overseas. There is humanity, and it is gray. You’ve gotta tip the hat to Brian Kirk, our director, as he really gave me the reins and that responsibility to go there with him. We reworked it a bit to infuse that. If Kirk called me and said, “Your character just kills cops,” literally anybody could go do that role. You always want to make it as deep as you can. That’s why we do this.

Ray also reveals he’s in recovery at a certain point in the film. Besides loyalty and guilt, was that character detail another major draw for you, since it gave you something else to play?

It was everything. It starts with this stone-cold guy that you don’t think is gonna crack, and to see that, to understand that and to relapse because of the circumstance, that is everything. The scene at the vault was a pivotal scene — to see him start to unravel. He also mentions the loss of Michael’s brother in that moment. This guy is human, and you have to show that.

My screening was so loud that I couldn’t hear Ray’s final line, but it seems like he died trying to take all the blame off of Michael. Before giving your thoughts on his death scene, do you remember the final line?

Of course. It’s “Michael, he’s not like me.” That was two takes. It was one of the last scenes, and my only scene with Chadwick. That’s literally his last breath. Thankfully, we shot that later in the shooting schedule. Kirk and I really worked on that in the script: what would he say, how do we want to end him and make this an earned beat in the film, especially for Ray. We really didn’t rehearse, but we talked about that moment when I signed on, and then we reworked it to that. There was a little bit of luck with Chadwick’s character in that moment, which really grounds it. I think he was gonna lose that gunfight if that innocent guy doesn’t come around the corner. Ray was just trained on those steps. And, just as important, the moment where he lets go of the woman. He’s dying, and he knows it. Ray dragged his hand across a handrail and wall so that Chadwick would follow his blood, giving Michael more time. That’s why Ray told Michael they had to split up; Ray didn’t want to tell him he was gonna die.

You've handled weapons in plenty of past projects. Did you have to do weapons training again, or have you maintained those skills over the years?

You always want to press the refresh button. A lot of these weapons are different as well. It’s repetition, repetition, repetition. I feel I have a good base for it. I feel very comfortable with it, but I don’t really handle weapons unless I’m working or the job calls for it. I don’t do a whole lot of that when I’m at home. I just practice those reloads, learn how to unjam and all those kinds of things. You want to be comfortable, and you want it to be a part of you so you don’t even think about it while you’re working and in character. It’s a great tool to have.

Do you ever try to avoid using the same style or moves as Lone Survivor’s Michael Murphy or True Detective’s Paul Woodrugh?

To be honest, I’m not that conscious of it. The characters are just so different. I had the same Navy SEAL teach me the handgun stuff and the M4 stuff — from Lone to True. They just say, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Take your time. You’re in no rush. Make sure you have the target before you shoot.” I think it’s more what’s behind the eyes, in that sense. The movements are usually pretty similar if you really train with a gun. Certain people may have their own movement, but SEALs or police officers know the second you pick up a gun if you know what you’re doing or not.

Is 21 Bridges the most night shoots you’ve ever done?

I did a series [Shadowplay] in Europe right after this, and we did a crazy amount of night shoots on that. I don’t wish it on anybody. You literally kind of lose your mind. When you’re a month in, your off-days are messed up because you don’t want to screw up that pattern. You’re doing these scenes at 4 or 5 in the morning. You go to bed at 9 a.m. and you’re up at 2 p.m. or 2:30 p.m.; hopefully you can work out first. Then you’re on set rehearsing the scene during the daylight, and the second it gets dark, you’re shooting it. It’s tough on the crew; it’s tough on everybody. It’s obviously a huge part of this movie, since it takes place in five allotted hours. So you know what you’re signing up for.

When it comes to shooting on location, do you prefer shooting all over a major city, or are you most partial to remote locations around the world?

Whatever suits the script. I will take locations any day of the week over a fucking studio. I’m not a huge fan of studios, but I understand you have to use them. 21 Bridges was all on location, and I love that. It just puts you in the moment, and you’ve got all these factors that you probably wouldn’t have to deal with in a controlled environment.

You're an actor who can be a leading man and a character actor as needed. When making choices at this point, are you less concerned with the type of role as long as the writing, cast and filmmaker are compelling?

Obviously, I’ve had great lows, great highs and this and that. I’ve worked with some amazing people. That’s always been the target — just be scared, be uncomfortable and take risks. My next one with is with Blomkamp, and it is the lead [Inferno]. My character is basically in every scene of this movie, but the character and the tone of this is what draws me. I could honestly give a fuck if I’m 15th on the call sheet or first. I see myself as a character actor first, and it really boils down to that. While kind of impossible, if David Koresh was seventh on the call sheet, I still would’ve done Waco. I love coming in and playing a flashy guy like Ray and supporting Chadwick, a guy who’s been doing great work and is an even better guy. So I have no problem doing one scene if it’s something worthy or something that makes me uncomfortable.

Jumping back a bit, I’ve heard a surprising number of people celebrate John Carter in recent years and how it deserved a much better fate. Have you noticed how well Carter has aged?

I think it got another life when it went on Netflix not long ago, maybe a year ago or something, but, yes, to be blunt. People stop me all the time for that, especially in Europe. It’s had a little mini-resurgence. Maybe, at the time, it was more of a knee-jerk reaction of “Let’s see how we can bury this and everyone that has a part in it.” Over time, I think you take a breath and understand that it is what it is ... I guess people who watch it now for the first time can take a lot more away from it than people did at first. It’s always flattering, and I learned a ton on that movie. I honestly don’t see it as a failure. I have great memories from it, and I still talk to a bunch of the cast. It is what it is, right?

True Detective has helped fill the big screen’s crime drama void, and I actually enjoyed your season from an actor and character standpoint. Was that a great experience, regardless of how it was received?

Yeah, it was. I still check in with Nic [Pizzolatto, the showrunner] once in a while to see how he’s doing. Selfishly, probably, because I’d love for him to write me something. (Laughs) Going back to that first beat, these noir movies or shows aren’t really getting made much, and Pizzolatto is a beast. I’d work with him again in a heartbeat. I loved his process. I watched True Detective season one, and I remember saying, “This is the kind of stuff I want to be a part of.” Obviously, it worked out, and I’d do it again. But, yeah, I’m a huge fan of Pizzo, and we got along incredibly well. I’m still grateful for that opportunity. 

I’m not gonna ask you about a Friday Night Lights reunion or revival, since you’ve been pretty consistent about not being interested.

Right. Thank you.

Since the finale is where you’d prefer to leave things, what do you remember most about those final couple scenes of yours with Adrianne [Palicki] and Derek [Phillips]?

It was sombering — metaphorically, literally. Doing that sunset scene on this house they were trying to build is such a metaphor. I like that they left it open, and that’s very FNL. We made the audience work for everything, and I love that process. I try to keep that with me in everything I do. It was just a beautiful moment, and you’ve gotta tip your hat to [showrunner] Jason Katims. He was really receptive to our ideas and applied a few of them. I’m still best friends with Derek Phillips, who was obviously Billy Riggins for five years. He actually came to Prague and visited on my last gig. I’m a big supporter of his, too. We laughed a lot, but it was just sombering, not just with that scene, but because it was over. It was a five-year run against all odds. I don’t remember a day where we weren’t being told it was going to be canceled. I think we ended up on 25 networks, on 16 different days and at 12 different times. (Laughs) That allowed me to just enjoy the process, because it can be taken away from you in a minute.  

Is there a Friday Night Lights cast group text?

No, we’ve moved forward. I'm still in touch with [Kyle] Chandler, Connie [Britton], Derek and [Jesse] Plemons. I wish everyone all the best, and it all ended on great terms. 

You touched on it already, but how did Shadowplay go?

Well, I think. I’ve seen a baby teaser of it, and it’s beautiful. I love that period piece. Nina Hoss is one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with. The cast is great, including Mike C. Hall. It was a long shoot; we were all just exhausted, but I can’t wait to see how it turned out.

What else can you say about Neill Blomkamp’s Inferno?

It’s about a guy who loses everything and will do anything to get it back. There’s some beautiful undertones with addiction and immigration. It’s something that I can’t wait to dive into. It’ll be very challenging; it’s emotionally raw.

21 Bridges is now in theaters.