Chris Hemsworth is On a Hero's Journey

Credit: Michael Schwartz

Chris Hemsworth arrives early, about 10 minutes before his call time for the photo shoot. This is highly unusual for a movie star, but here he is. Even more surprising is that when he marches through the door, he’s alone, without an entourage or even a lone handler.

He has just flown into Los Angeles this morning from Las Vegas, where he spent the previous night at the Floyd Mayweather–Conor MacGregor bout. We know this because he posted a selfie on Instagram while traveling on a private plane and whooping it up with various friends, among them superproducer Jerry Bruckheimer; his agent, William Ward; and his personal trainer and childhood friend Luke Zocchi. The hashtag: #bestdayever.

But the day after, his eyelids are little heavier, his enthusiasm dimmed from his prefight high. He is offered a beer, which he politely declines, saying he had a few the night before. It raises the question: Did Thor—the Norse god of thunder portrayed by Hemsworth in four films—get hammered last night? 

He greets everyone warmly, then disappears to clean up and change clothes. He re-emerges and takes his place on set in front of a gray background. And then, seemingly in an instant, Chris Hemsworth, Aussie surfer dude and Vegas fight fan, becomes Chris Hemsworth, Hollywood leading man and bankable action-franchise hero whose fifth turn as the god, Thor: Ragnarok, comes out in November. At one point, he’s handed a pocketknife and a green apple. He tosses the apple in the air and impales it on the blade perfectly on the first try.

The shoot wraps up quickly, to Hemsworth’s obvious relief. His energy seems to dissipate as quickly as it emerged. Still, even when he’s exhausted, it’s not hard to see the actor’s appeal, to understand why People named him the “Sexiest Man Alive” in 2014, at age 31. I ask him if the honorific came with a plaque or statuette. “I think there was a little trophy or something, but I don’t know where it is,” he says. He’s quick to point out that it happened way back in 2014. “It’s gone,” the actor deadpans. “It’s faded. Lost my title.”

This is something else you quickly learn about Hemsworth: He’s legit funny. And not just in terms of delivering a screenwriter’s well-crafted quip but instinctively. He has done a couple of smart and hilarious online spoofs as Thor deciding to live like a mortal, sharing an apartment with an everyday office worker, and hosted Saturday Night Live twice in 2015. Those comedic chops were seriously put to the test in the recent Ghostbusters reboot. In the spirit of the film’s gender reversal, Hemsworth played a dopey male bimbo who works as an assistant to the four female ghost hunters. It was, he says, far more challenging than playing a superhero. “I saw the director [Paul Feig] the night before I started shooting, and I’d just gotten the new script,” he tells me. “I said, ‘Look, I don’t know what I’m doing here. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do tomorrow on the set.’ And he said, ‘Cool. We’ll work it out. We’ll just keep rolling and go for it.’ ” In other words: You’re improvising.

That meant trading barbs on the spot with Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon, four of the most talented comedic minds on the planet. As it happened, Hemsworth scored some of the funniest lines in the movie.

If you’re keeping score at home, you now know that Hemsworth is improbably handsome, preternaturally photogenic, adventurous, multitalented, funny, friendly, and modest. These are all fine qualities, of course, but when they are bundled into one person, it's a bit much. 

McCarthy came to the same conclusion. During the promotional tour for Ghostbusters, she and hert hree co-stars appeared on The Graham Norton Show. Asked about Hemsworth, McCarthy says, “I have never rooted for someone maybe to be just an unbelievable jerk. I just needed something to be wrong with him.”

Says McKinnon: “I’ll bet he doesn’t even have boogers.”

If he had heard it, Hemsworth would have found all this amusing. He’s game for a bit of self-mocking, which is not unusual for an Australian. The country has a built-in ego regulator called the “tall poppy syndrome.” If you’re a high achiever—a tall poppy—others will cut you down to size. “You aren’t allowed to feel good about what you’ve achieved,” Hemsworth says. “You’ve got to hide that sense of pride. Otherwise, people remind you very quickly that you’re getting ahead of yourself.” 

The superhero origin story is a staple of the genre, with its own simple logic and mission: You learn the source and limit of the super- powers; how the hero earned the snappy outfit; when the arch nemesis began to torment the good guy: all the core experiences that motivate the superhero to pursue his or her destiny.

Take Thor, the Norse god of thunder and son of King Odin. Thor and his magic hammer were cast out of Odin’s kingdom and exiled to Earth. Blessed with physical prowess to match his status, Thor eventually reclaims his hammer and saves the world on those occasions the world needs saving. (These days, that apparently happens roughly every three years.)

So we know how Thor happened. How did Chris Hemsworth happen?

The son of a social services counselor father and English teacher mother, Hemsworth spent his childhood in Melbourne and the North- ern Territory, a rugged, remote part of the Australian outback. He was preoccupied with surfing, waking up every morning at 4 a.m. to catch waves before school. He and his brothers, Liam and Luke, were “obsessed with it,” he says, “in love with the ocean and the coast—it’s where most of our free time was spent.” The vivid memories of the untamed land stayed with him. “Having a sense of adventure was instilled in me at a very young age,” Hemsworth says. “I think that’s part of the attraction to why I wanted to travel and work in the film industry.”

Hemsworth landed his big break in 2004, when he scored a role on the popular Aussie soap opera Home and Away—the long-running melodrama that also launched the careers of Isla Fisher, Heath Ledger, and Naomi Watts. After three years, Hemsworth moved to the States, where he caught the eye of J.J. Abrams, who tapped him to play James Kirk’s father in a small but memorable part in 2009’s Star Trek reboot, followed by an audition to play Thor. “It feels like one big adventure,” he says, “every new location or film set I walk on.” Hemsworth’s siblings apparently feel similarly. Both also became successful actors: Liam, of Hunger Games fame (and fiancé of Miley Cyrus), and Luke, who had a recurring role on the HBO hit Westworld.

In Ragnarok, Hemsworth’s Thor finds himself saving the world from an apocalypse at the hands of the goddess of death (Cate Blanchett), a nasty piece of work who comes off as the universe’s ultimate mean girl. She’s not satisfied with just killing you and decimating your planet; she wants to hurt your feelings, too. Thor is up to the task of not just heading off the apocalypse but also trading insults with friends, frenemies, and foes alike, including the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and the villainous Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Hemsworth also played the Marvel superhero in two Avengers films, with the third installment, Avengers: Infinity War, planned for 2018.

That’s a lot of hammering. And a lot of CGI. “A big part of me really wants to find smaller, character-driven films and not be distracted by the special effects and green screens,” Hemsworth says. So between the blockbusters, he has landed roles as a womanizing Formula One driver (Rush), a cybercriminal (Blackhat), and a sailor on a whaling ship (In the Heart of the Sea). His upcoming film Horse Soldiers, set to hit theaters in January, is an even bigger departure. Based on a true story and co-starring Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, and Rob Riggle, the film is about a group of U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan who team with Northern Alliance warlords to take out the Taliban. Hemsworth plays Capt. Mitch Nelson, the leader of the American unit. “It was really intense,” Hemsworth says. “It was a low budget considering the scope of the film, so it was just go, go, go. We were rewriting stuff on the fly, constantly workshopping the scenes, and speaking to a lot of military advisers and people who were involved in the story.”

For Riggle, the film was intensely personal. He’s a Marine Corps veteran whose unit served around Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan, arriving shortly after the events depicted in the film. But Hemsworth, Riggle says, had no problem pulling off the role. “He is a true professional,” Riggle says of his co-star. “He worked hard. He was focused. He was curious. He was present. I was very impressed with him.” Nicolai Fuglsig, the director, also has battlefield experience—he served as a tank commander in the Danish military and worked as a photojournalist during the conflict in the Balkans. “He needed to have a certain type of quiet confidence and strength to be believable as a great leader,” Fuglsig says, “but that seems to come natural to Chris.” 

When he's not on location, he prefers to be in the water. And the bigger the waves are, the better. He and his wife, actress Elsa Pataky (they met on a blind date in 2010), live in Byron Bay, a small beach town on Australia’s east coast in New South Wales, near such legendary Aussie breaks as Phillip Island, Victoria, Mallacoota, and Julian Rocks. “I’ve had a lot of scary incidents,” he says, "but if the risk factor is a little high than usual, that makes it all the more interesting.” When the water is more peaceful, he’s out teaching his three kids, a 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old twin boys, to ride. “My wife is always saying, ‘Come on, let’s do something different.’ And I’m like, ‘If it’s as good as surfing, sure.’”

Hemsworth appears wary of the corrupting influences of Hollywood fame and fortune. “Whatever success I have had has been because of having the right people around me and having close friends to keep me grounded,” he says. “It’s very easy to get swept up in all that madness, but when you got your mates, they make it fun and distract you when you get too involved in the work.” 

His personal trainer, Luke Zocchi, is a childhood friend who travels with him to movie sets all over the world. The two have known each other since they were 6. As they got older, they worked out together in a boxing gym. When Hemsworth was cast as Thor, he asked his friend to be his off-and on-set personal trainer. “We’ll train our hardest before the shoot,” Zocchi says. “On set it’s more about maintaining. I help police his food and feed him the right stuff. For certain scenes, I’ll be there on the sidelines pumping his arms up.” Adds Hemsworth: “We’re constantly pushing each other.”

And Hemsworth shows no sign of letting up. After all, even the most successful actors speak of a gnawing insecurity of suddenly falling out of favor and never being cast. “There’s always that bit of doubt or fear,” he says, "which jsut sort of keeps you hungry and keeps you motivated."

The actor Anthony Hopkins once gave him some advice. “I was talking to him about this very thing, and he told me he was once flying out of L.A. on a private plane. He looked out the window and saw this old house that he lived in when he first moved to L.A. He said, who would have ever thought however many years later he’d be sitting in a private plane going to star in this huge production. He said, ‘You’ve just got to appreciate every moment because it goes so quick. Make the absolute most of it, and treat everyone with respect. Enjoy every opportunity. Never take it for granted.’ ”

Hemsworth doesn’t. “A lot of times you don’t get to make that decision,” he says. “I think your audience chooses to say whether your time’s up or not.”