Chris Pine, the Next Action Hero

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Photograph by Max Vadukul

There he is, a 33-year-old movie star, improbably handsome, out drinking with friends on a drizzly autumn Saturday in London, chatting up girls, getting a little buzzed, letting loose – an indulgence he's just recently begun to allow himself. Chris Pine has a week's worth of stubble going and a gray knit cap pulled low over his dirty-blond hair, but inevitably, he keeps getting recognized.

Well, sort of.

One of Pine's pals is wearing sneakers, so they're having trouble getting into a club. They're stuck waiting in the rain when the hostess spots Pine and waves them through. He thanks her, and she offers a fame-besotted smile. "Don't worry," she says, gazing into familiar pale-blue eyes. "I loved you in 'The Hangover.' " Bradley Cooper – in her club!

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Then there's the guy who tells Pine how totally psyched he is to be at the same bar as Chris Hemsworth – Thor himself. And yet another dude, who asks Pine what movies he's been in – Pine lies, tells him, 'Captain America.' "Oh, my God, yes!" the dude says, thrilled to be meeting Chris Evans.

Worst of all, there's the pretty young British woman. "I'm going to guess you're an actor," she says. "You're American, you're here on business. . . . "

"That's an incredibly on-the-nose guess," Pine replies.

They chat, and it seems to be going OK, until she starts apologizing: "I'm so sorry," she says. "I don't know who you are."

"Sweetheart, it is totally cool," he says, thinking, "and I have no idea who the fuck you are." But she keeps doing it, until he loses patience: "If you apologize one more time, I'm going to have to leave this conversation."

"I'm sorry," she blurts, for the fifth time. Pine walks away.

"I clearly haven't made a good enough impression on people," Pine says the next day, laughing. "My go-to line when it's the résumé game is that I'm either Chris Evans or Ryan Reynolds."

To clear up any confusion: Pine is the guy who plays a young Captain James T. Kirk in the new 'Star Trek' movies, the one who's about to take on the late Tom Clancy's CIA-analyst hero in January's 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.' He held his own against Denzel Washington in the runaway-train flick 'Unstoppable,' started his movie career as a tween eye-candy prince opposite Anne Hathaway in 'The Princess Diaries 2.' He's been in London since August shooting 'Into the Woods,' a film version of the Stephen Sondheim musical fairy tale, in which he plays another prince, this time the one who gets with Cinderella.

There are so many of them now, these blue-eyed, blond-haired, movie-star Chrisses and Ryans, each more jacked and CGI-perfect than the next, and Pine is uncomfortable with what he sees as an unhealthy homogeneity. "The mass audience doesn't want to see you if you aren't perfect," he says, leaning against a brick wall in Tinello, a posh Italian restaurant dark enough to cast unnecessarily flattering shadows on his cheekbones. "If you don't look a certain way, if you don't have big pecs and great skin and the perfect eyes. And it's unfortunate, because kids are growing up with body image dysmorphia because not everyone is represented on the screen.

"I get it," he adds, sitting there in a gray T-shirt, loose at the neck, with his own big pecs and great skin and perfect eyes. "For me to talk shit on it? I'm one of the guys!"

He's too smart, too polite to actually say it, but it's pretty clear that Pine wants to be the best, the deepest, the most lasting of the Chrisses, if not of his whole generation of leading men. "There's certainly the ego-based me that is very competitive," he says. Pine is playing a long game, honing his craft and his deltoids, doing theater in his spare time, making savvy, diverse film choices – the Sondheim musical, an obnoxious boss's son in 'Horrible Bosses 2,' a character part as a ZZ Top bearded billionaire in the comedy 'Stretch.'

In Hollywood's new audience-tested, foreign-market-pandering reality, proven franchises – brand names – have become more important than the actors in them: That's why 'Star Trek' director J.J. Abrams was able to cast an all-but-unknown Pine as Kirk in the first place. But now that the two Treks have made a combined $850 million worldwide, Pine is a certified leading man, with looks, acting chops, physical grace, and bankability that make him a solid choice to anchor pretty much any movie that needs a fit, square-jawed white guy at its core. He's hoping the franchises will be a safety net that will allow him to experiment. "The nice thing about 'Star Trek' and, God willing, Jack, is I can always kind of hop back and do that thing," he says. "But the past couple years for me were just trying to really figure out what I want to do."

Pondering it all, he can't help yearning for a different era of film. "Look at the movies of the sixties and seventies. They were making a different kind of movie then. Would 'Network' ever be made now? No. Would 'Kramer vs. Kramer' ever be made now? No. Would 'Tootsie' ever be made now? Probably not. Robert Altman films? Never.

"I'm not saying that the action/science-fiction genre is bad in itself," he clarifies. "I make those films. I'm just saying that the studios have put all their cards on black."

Again, he's part of the problem, and he doesn't offer a solution. Even if he never saw himself as a franchise guy, he's now holding down two of them. "It definitely wasn't what I had signed up for," he says, plunging his fork into a plate of burrata cheese ("Holy fucking wow! I love this"). "It just kind of seemed to be where my life took me. If I would have planned it, I would have had what Gosling has, that kind of art-house career."

On some level, the I-just-fell-into-this talk doesn't ring true. Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, he was a driven, compulsively well-behaved kid, a "golden boy" who thought he had to be perfect, who always did all his homework, even if an actual goal for all his striving remained elusive. His expectations for himself were high, and only got higher in adulthood. He's a cautious man, a thinking man, more Spock than Kirk, really: Ask a simple question about his life or career, and you may well get a full minute of silence as he agonizes over the answer like Hamlet hitting Final Jeopardy, eyes drifting as mental gears turn. (He says that one of the keys to film acting – especially the kind that involves shooting guns – is letting the audience see you think. Clearly, he's got that part down.) He'll order a lovely $455 Tuscan red ("Sometimes it's worth it," he says, though he's not paying) and take down half of it with his pappardelle with wild-boar ragout but fail to loosen up.

"I'm surprised how hard on himself he is," says Abrams. "It was remarkable how often he would do something well and then for some reason be furious at himself that he hadn't done it better. He gives himself so much grief when something doesn't hit as he wants it to – as if we can't just go and do another take."

Pine had zero interest in acting in his early years, focusing instead on baseball. "I was really good at 12," he says. "I was a fucking stud." But he started to find himself outclassed as he got older, and he didn't deal well with failure on the field. "When I used to strike out," he says, "I would, like, smash the bat, get some kind of catharsis out of it. I'm much better now with that."

In hindsight, he admits, his path seems almost inevitable. He was essentially bred for it. His dad is the ubiquitous journeyman actor Robert Pine, who's been on pretty much every TV show ever made, from Bonanza to Curb Your Enthusiasm, and most famously played Sergeant Joe Getraer on CHiPs. Chris' mom, Gwynne Gilford, was an actress before she quit to become a psychotherapist and acting coach; her mother, Anne Gwynne, was a World War II pinup and a Universal contract player (she co-starred in the 1940 horror film 'Black Friday' with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff).

"You never encourage your children to attempt this business," Robert Pine said a few years back. "It can be just too painful and heartbreaking. But if they show a will, and will not be denied, you do a 180 and give them all the support and encouragement you can." Pine is tight with his parents, and his older sister, Katie, too – like their mother, an actor turned psychologist. "Gwynne and I take such delight in our kids' closeness," Robert has said. "They make each other laugh." On Chris' wrist is a silver bracelet Katie gave him. "It reminds me of my family," he says.

Chris is the third-generation product of a rarefied Hollywood gene pool. His looks have a test-tube precision, caveman eyebrows and aggressively jutting jaw balanced with delicate, almost feminine lips and those Sinatra eyes. It's hard, then, not to roll your eyes when he starts with the stories about a teenage ugly-duckling phase. He's aware that it's a horrendous cliché, that every crazy-hot actress says the same thing, but he swears it's true: He was skinny, bespectacled (he wears contacts now), and, more to the point, had truly horrendous skin.

And after baseball stardom faded, he wasn't left with much. "I was kind of a lost, shy kid in need of encouragement," he says. "Scared, pimply-faced, geeky, in huge coke-bottle glasses and a hat. A very sensitive kid. The last thing I would have ever imagined is I would be acting on film. Obviously, when I had horrible acne, I would naturally retreat. You don't want to look at the world and you don't want the world to look at you, and so when I was 15 or whatever, I got really into writing and books and studying."

Pine went to the nurturing, Quaker-influenced Oakwood School (Samuel L. Jackson's and Frank Zappa's kids are fellow alumni). "I can't imagine what it would have been like if I were in a public school," he says. "I would have probably gotten beaten. My school was very inclusive. There were no jocks; there weren't labeled groups of kids."

Several times in high school, he broke sufficiently free from his temporary shyness to get up and sing in front of his classmates at their Quaker-style assemblies – even doing "Let's Get It On" in falsetto. He loved performing, how it allowed his anxieties to slip away as he lived fully in the moment, but when he wasn't actually singing, he didn't think much about it.

When he got to Berkeley, he was terrified, looking for a place where he'd belong. For the English major, fraternities didn't seem like an option. "Fuck, no," he says. "They always just seemed, like, aggressive and violent and, like, beer. It was way not my temperament." So he started doing theater, where there were girls and validation and friendly oddballs. "I was looking for someone to be like, 'Oh! You're handsome; you're good,' and that felt fuckin' great. And theater kids, especially at Berkeley, are fuckin' weird . . . and I felt right at home."

After graduation, his dad hooked him up with casting directors, and he started nailing auditions. He soon found himself in 'The Princess Diaries 2,' and then played a similar hot-guy role in the fluffy Lindsay Lohan vehicle "Just My Luck," where the sight of a shirtless Pine so flusters Lohan that she dumps a whole bottle of detergent in a laundry machine. "I didn't give a shit," he says. "I was 24 and I was in New Orleans and making more money than I ever thought anybody deserved to have. And I was getting paid to learn to act basically."

He had trouble accepting how much his looks played into those early successes – and still claims to be unable to process it. "That's been the oddest part of this whole journey," he says, "and one that I take with a major grain of salt and smile and think, like, my God, this is pretty funny."

He describes life before 'Star Trek' as "pretty much work, work, work. I was just a very results-oriented kid." He spent a substantial amount of time in New York and L.A. doing theater, which he took to more naturally than film. He played the lead in a Los Angeles production of the typically brutal Neil LaBute play 'Fat Pig,' winning over the playwright himself – and impressing a Paramount exec in the audience, who happened to be looking for a Captain Kirk. "He just struck me as a guy who was serious," says LaBute. "It wasn't a guy who was looking over his shoulder thinking that this would get him the next job, like, 'I'll play this guy and then I'll get one of those tight-ass 'Star Trek' outfits.' People see a handsome, well-built kid and they go, 'Oh, he'd be good at this' or 'Oh, he's perfect to reboot that.' I think he's a really gifted actor who happens to have the looks and the physique to support these tentpole movies but has the smarts and the desire to do all kinds of things."

LaBute was almost simultaneously working with Pine's dad on an indie movie, Lakeview Terrace. "That was kind of an interesting back and forth, having both father and son around," he says. "I see his dad as the best kind of actor out there. One that takes his craft seriously and doesn't look at a one-episode arc as a character on a show, as just work. So I can see that seriousness of purpose in both people."

At that point, Pine was looking for deeper and darker roles, not a sci-fi thing with phasers. "It's like the ghost of James Dean was telling me, 'You must be brooding and complicated and be in really, um, artistically worthwhile films,' " he says, sipping wine. "My agent came to me and was like, 'What do you think about 'Star Trek'?' I was like, 'If anything, I want to take a break, reassess, figure my life out. The last thing I want to do is a fucking science-fiction film.' I was hoping for something dark, brutal; something where I'd cry a lot. And then I realized how much of a game changer it can be, and the meeting with J.J. [Abrams] was so fun."

It's hard not to wonder: Did Pine pursue 'Star Trek' – and Jack Ryan – because he knows his dad never quite got these star-making opportunities?

He shakes his head, furrows the eyebrows. He doesn't need to pause before this answer. "I just don't think of my father that way," he says. "This is a really hard business; I've been incredibly lucky. Incredibly lucky. And my father never made a 'Star Trek,' but he's been a successful actor for 50 years, put two children through private school and college, and has worked in every medium of our business. So I view my father as a great success, as a superstar. Because in many ways it's much harder than when you get to sit where I am, where as long as you don't completely fuck up, the door will stay open. I think what my father has done has been much, much, much harder."

The day after his bar crawl, Pine sleeps until noon, and is still waking up by the time we meet an hour later at the Punch Bowl, a faux-traditional pub owned by Guy Ritchie. He's hungry, and we quickly switch venues to the nearby Soho House, where he's a member – we're seated at a plush booth with magical speed. He's also close enough pals with the stylish young maître d' that he asks about Pine's night out – until Pine points, with reflexive caution, to my digital recorder. Pine is wearing a white T-shirt over what appear to be the same black jeans and boots from the night before, plus a blue leather jacket ("That must have been a weird-looking cow," he says). He's not particularly hungover – he paced himself. And many of his nights out are even more civilized: Friday evening was spent with co-star Emily Blunt and her husband – they saw a Hollywood-themed play, 'The Drowned Man,' which he'd already caught in New York.

Pine's politics are far left even for Hollywood – he's bookmarked Truthdig and 'Mother Jones,' and has grown disillusioned with Obama, whom he went door-to-door for in Nevada in 2008. Despite Tom Clancy's obvious right-wing inclinations, Pine always had a soft spot for the Jack Ryan movies. He went to Alec Baldwin, the first actor to play Ryan (and not exactly a Tea Partier himself), for advice. Baldwin simply grabbed him by the shoulders and said, "Just do it, and don't look back."

Pine particularly liked that, unlike the brash, un-cerebral Kirk, Ryan's defining trait is intelligence. Instead of guys wanting to test his toughness by fighting him in bars, "maybe they can just throw me a puzzle. Like, solve this Sudoku, asshole. You think you're smart? Solve this algorithm!" 'Shadow Recruit,' set mostly in Moscow, brings the Jack Ryan character out of the Cold War and into the present day – when the story begins, Jack isn't even a CIA analyst yet. "Jack Ryan isn't a paid assassin," director Kenneth Branagh has said. "He's not a man coming off a program. He's got his brain, and he's got a desire to do something, to serve in some way."

The movie has all the action you'd expect from a spy thriller, but for Pine, the physical demands are the easy part. What's hard is bringing depth to Jack Ryan, who's a blank slate, a heroic everyman figure who's there to react to the excitement around him.

"Oftentimes, what you're asked to do is just be, which is hard because as an actor you want to do things to get noticed. You have to hold those things back to be an anchor, without getting in the way of the bad guy doing the accent or whatever."

We finish lunch and walk around Mayfair, the ultra-upscale neighborhood where Pine is renting an apartment. As we pass a bar's courtyard, a slim twentysomething brunette in blue vinyl pants looks up from her cellphone and gives Pine a huge smile, with meaningful, almost hungry eye contact. It's not altogether clear whether she recognizes him, but it doesn't matter: He smiles back, as pleased as if it were a rare occurrence.

Pine ended a relationship with model Dominique Piek last April and then was spotted out with another brunette model, Amanda Frances. He once half-joked that he'd like to be a George Clooney–style perpetual bachelor, and then backed away from the quote. Now he says, again, that he's not ready for a relationship.

"I have a lot of fucking growing up to do," he says. "I'm a relatively young guy and I feel like I'm hitting my stride with my work. I don't know if I have the capacity at the moment to be a good partner to somebody. I could meet someone tomorrow and change my mind, but that's how I feel on this Sunday afternoon." (A month later, pictures appear of him in Paris with one Iris Björk Jóhannesdóttir, a blonde, 23-year-old former Miss Reykjavík.)

Truth is, he does admire Clooney – but who doesn't? "I don't know him at all, but I enjoy watching him. He takes it seriously, but he's not gloating down the red carpet. He's a movie star – and there's something glamorous and wonderful that we all kind of buy into. People enjoy George Clooney, and he's enjoying it."

Lately, Pine is doing his best to walk that path. "When Heath Ledger died," he says, "I was making the first 'Star Trek,' and I didn't know him at all, but it really hit me. He was my age, basically, 28. Life is so short. It's obviously a trite thing to say, but it could not be any truer. It would be such a waste given all the opportunities I've been given not to have as much fun as I possibly can."

So for the first time in his life, he's letting himself be a little irresponsible. Hence the drinking, the girls, the sleeping until noon. "I feel like I'm Benjamin Button-ing myself," he says with a laugh, "It's like as I get older I'll be the guy with the Lamborghini." In fact, he already has a Porsche 911 Carrera S, which makes it hard to obey speed limits. "It's the architecture of the car – it wants to go fast." Three years ago, he bought himself a $3 million house in Los Feliz as well, with a view of the Hollywood sign.

He wishes he could go back and shake his 18-year-old self, and tell him, "Have fun." "For whatever reason, I didn't misbehave as a kid. I studied hard, did my homework – and it's all unraveling as I get older."

Pine has been careful about the roles he takes – but if anything, he wants to be less cautious in the future. He doesn't want to get trapped in what he calls "the bubble life of movie stardom."

"I've always just been very cognizant of how easily it all can be taken away," he says, standing under the gray London sky. "You may be great-looking, you may be charming. But it doesn't fucking guarantee squat." He says it again, as if the idea pleases him, as if he's picturing that bubble popping: "It's just not guaranteed."

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