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“I was particularly invested in the experience of this film,” the actor Chris Pine says of the film Hell or High Water as we sit down at The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR‘s awards podcast ‘Awards Chatter.’ In David Mackenzie‘s modern-day Western, Pine and Ben Foster play two brothers who, facing the foreclosure of the home their recently deceased mother left to them, begin robbing banks, while a soon-to-retire Texas Ranger played by Jeff Bridges tries to hunt them down. Pine, who is 36 and best known for his portrayal of Capt. James T. Kirk in the recent big-screen reboots of Star Trek, recalls, “I read the [Taylor Sheridan] script — my agent sent it to me. I put it down. I loved it. And I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s the only experience I’ve had where I knew I had to do it.”
(Click above to listen to this episode or here to access all of our 100+ episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Robert De Niro, Amy Schumer, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Sally Field, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, Tyler Perry, Kate Winslet, Michael Moore, Helen Mirren, J.J. Abrams, Taraji P. Henson, Warren Beatty, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Eisner, Brie Larson, RuPaul, Natalie Portman and Sting.)
Pine, born in Los Angeles, is the son and sibling of working actors. A kid who was not especially confident (“I had really bad acne growing up”) and had trouble making friends, he wound up as an English major at University of California at Berkeley, where he began dabbling in acting. “I never had a passion for acting, I never wanted to do it,” he says. “But like any human being — people want to be loved, and it seemed to be the thing I could do where I got love.” After graduation, he continued to hone his craft at a theater festival in Massachusetts (where he “found a real joy for it different than I had found in college”), and then came back to L.A., where he took classes and struggled to make ends meet while pursuing a career as an actor. “It was such a grind and I f—ing hated it,” he emphasizes, noting that, despite landing occasional episodic TV opportunities, he almost quit just before he landed his big break: the part of a prince in 2004’s The Princess Diaries 2.
“I didn’t know what the f— I was doing,” Pine says of that film. “All it required was being charismatic.” Several of his other early parts, including one opposite Lindsay Lohan in 2006’s Just My Luck, weren’t that different. “I had no f—ing interest in all these,” he confesses. “I got cast in these things because I guess I looked a certain way and I was a good bland blonde kid with the blue eyes that could fit a certain boat.” It wasn’t until Joe Carnahan offered him the part of a neo-Nazi assassin in 2006’s Smokin‘ Aces that he found a part he really cared about — at which point he “just went balls out” and impressed many who saw it. Not long afterwards, he auditioned for two big movies: James Cameron‘s Avatar and J.J. Abrams‘ Star Trek. Neither went well. But Abrams, nudged by his wife, asked Pine to return for a second audition — and he almost declined to do it. “At the time,” he acknowledges, “I had an idea of the kind of actor I wanted to be: I kind of envisioned myself as a young Sean Penn — interesting and brooding and f—ing complicated and smoking cigarettes and cutting yourself and how deep you are — I wanted to do all that shit!” He did not think that Star Trek would offer him that opportunity, so he didn’t especially care if he got the part or not. “The moment you don’t care and you throw it away,” he notes, “is the moment you do a good job.” He was offered the job and, after two weeks of consideration (“I was really scared”), accepted.
“That was the big pivot-point, obviously, in my career,” Pine says. He played the part, which William Shatner originally made famous, in Abrams’ 2009 film Star Trek, as well as Abrams’ 2013 sequel Star Trek Into Darkness and Justin Lin’s 2016 addition Star Trek Beyond. In-between, he also agreed to anchor another franchise, playing the title part in 2014’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. While the Star Trek films were very well received, Jack Ryan, Pine says, “unfortunately didn’t work out the way I wanted it to.” Even so, he learned a lot about how to star in those sorts of movies. “These characters on the page, they are super archetypes,” he explains. “There’s about 30 percent on the page of character and the 70 percent extra you have to just fill in with you. It’s taken me a long time to discover that, in those kinds of parts, what you’re being asked to do is show up and be. And that is actually way more complicated and way more complex to do than to have an accent and a hunch and a bunch of accoutrement of character that you can hide behind. To be naked, like those major movie stars can be, is really, really difficult.”
Since the first Star Trek, Pine has become a member of Hollywood’s A-list (although, he chuckles, he still is frequently mistaken for Chris Hemsworth or Ryan Reynolds), and he’s anchored a number of other films. Some have worked, such as 2010’s Unstoppable, opposite Denzel Washington, and others didn’t, such as 2015’s The Finest Hours. Some were cheered by critics, such as 2012’s People Like Us, and others hated by them, such as 2012’s This Means War. He’s even sung in a musical, 2014’s Into the Woods — “I love to sing — I love the challenge of that,” he notes. But Pine has never done work that has been better received than Hell or High Water, which he almost didn’t get to do because of a scheduling conflict with Star Trek Beyond. In the end, he shot Hell or High Water for just two six-day weeks, and then headed straight to Vancouver to honor his Star Trek commitments. Last May, Hell or High Water premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Then, in August, the $12 million movie opened, grossed $30 million at the box office and became one of 2016’s most acclaimed films. On Sunday night, Hell or High Water was among 10 nominees for the best picture Critics’ Choice Award, and on Monday morning it was among five nominees for the best picture (drama) Golden Globe Award.
Pine treasures his experience on the set of Hell or High Water, but since has turned his focus to other sorts of productions. “The things that I’ve chosen now are comedies and things with a positive message,” he says. “The world’s so dark, I’d rather laugh right now.” His upcoming projects include returning for the second season of the unusual TV series Wet Hot American Summer; shooting an episode of his friend Rashida Jones‘ TV series Angie Tribeca; and then starring in two high-profile movies directed by women: Patty Jenkins‘ Wonder Woman and Ava DuVernay‘s A Wrinkle in Time. “I like gun movies, I like sock-em, rock-em, punch-em-up,” he says. “But we also have, I do think, a distinct responsibility to put kindness in the world. We can do it. You can make good films without people dying all over the place.”
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