LOS ANGELES — Three days after Walt Disney Studios said it would incur a $200-million loss on “John Carter,” the film’s star, Taylor Kitsch, was still licking his wounds. He had just returned to his Beverly Hills hotel, cheeks flushed following a boxing workout where a fellow gym rat had tried to console him about the box-office dud.
“This guy came up to me and goes, ‘Next one. Don’t worry about it, you’ll be fine,’” Kitsch chafed. “I’m like, ‘I’m not worried about it, man. I didn’t market the movie. I didn’t finance it. I gave everything I had to the film.’ It sucks to feel like you have to be defensive. But if someone’s gonna take the fall, it’s gonna be me.”
Now, two months later, Kitsch has another big-budget movie riding on his shoulders: Universal Pictures’ Navy action flick “Battleship,” opening in the U.S. on Friday. Although he can take some comfort in knowing that the film has already raked in over $250 million overseas, it remains to be seen whether American moviegoers will embrace the special effects-heavy picture in equal measure and put it in the black.
Peter Berg, who directed the $211-million production, is standing by his man. Berg, who created the high school football TV drama “Friday Night Lights,” first displayed his belief in Kitsch after casting him as the show’s womanizing jock Tim Riggins — a role that catapulted the actor into the spotlight. The promise Kitsch displayed on the program had many buzzing about him as Hollywood’s next leading man, and helped him land the role in “John Carter” as well as a part in Oliver Stone’s gritty drug-cartel thriller “Savages,” due out in July.
“No one I’ve ever heard of has had the year he’s had,” Berg said. “So it’s hard for people not to say, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ But there’s a difference between him living up to the hype and a movie he’s in not performing well. Yeah, ‘John Carter’ hurt him. But it wasn’t like he was inconsolable, walking around with a rope looking for a branch.”
Despite his chiseled bone structure, Kitsch didn’t aspire to be an actor when he was growing up in Kelowna, Canada. His family was poor, living in a trailer and at one point above a grocery store where Kitsch and his brothers helped their mother sell canoes.
For fun, he and his siblings would steal golf balls from a local course, clean them and sell them in egg cartons. Kitsch’s father, who left the family when his children were young, sent $200 checks monthly, the actor said.
Kitsch’s ticket out of town seemed to be hockey. By age 18, scouts were approaching him at nearly every one of his games, and he said he was being courted by a number of Division 1 colleges in the United States. Then he suffered a knee injury that ended his career.
“I fell to the ice and I (said), ‘I’m done, mate, I’m done.’ In the locker room, I wouldn’t take my gear off for probably 45 minutes. I was just so defeated.”
He eventually headed to New York, where he booked gigs modeling for Abercrombie & Fitch and took acting classes. But he still comes off as an athlete — especially through his speech, which sounds like a mesh of archetypal surfer brah and frat bro. He ends the majority of his sentences with the word ‘man,’ calls most everyone by their last name or assigns them a nickname — “Stants” for “John Carter” director Andrew Stanton, or “JC” for the movie itself.
As Stone put it: “He’s very Canadian — quiet, laid back — sluggish, at times. He likes to rest. But that’s not to say he’s lazy.”
It’s partly his casual nature that makes him relatable — as relatable as a former Diesel underwear model can be, anyway, says Donna Langley, co-chairman of Universal, which is releasing both “Battleship” and “Savages.”
“His character in ‘Battleship’ is misunderstood and goes from bad-boy antihero to hero. He’s exceptionally good at that — showing innate vulnerability like he’s a diamond in the rough, but still rough around the edges,” she said.
“That’s kind of who Taylor is,” agreed Berg, who is seeking to cast Kitsch in his upcoming film “Lone Survivor” as a Navy SEAL who dies leading a raid in Afghanistan. “I buy him as the guy that’s going to make the wrong decisions, be impulsive and have anger-management issues — but never out of malice.”
Unlike the flawed characters he gravitates toward, Kitsch seems to recognize his triggers and consciously avoid them. He lives in Austin, Texas — where “Friday Night Lights” was filmed and where his best friend is his stunt double from the show — instead of Hollywood, in order to put some space between himself and his work.
“I’m grateful I was in Austin when all this ... went down with ‘JC,’” he said. “I’m grateful I’m not driving around seeing billboards of myself every corner.”
A few days before the release of “Battleship,” Kitsch was back home after a long press tour, editing a documentary he shot in Africa about a children’s choir and contemplating his next role.
“Excited to find something I HAVE to do,” he wrote in an email. “It’s def(initely) been a crazy few months of ups and downs and I’m sure there will be more of both. ... I had a moment by myself when it was at its worst and allowed myself to laugh — especially with the struggle I’ve (had) getting here. ‘Oh, c’mon, Kitsch, ya never thought it was going to be easy, did you?’”
Stone, the “Savages” filmmaker, doesn’t think the actor has much to fret over. Likening Kitsch’s part in “John Carter” to Steve McQueen’s turn in the 1958 film “The Blob,” the director said: “Sometimes people are in strange movies. I felt sorry for the guy, because I knew he was in this mega-expensive movie, but I still think he’s gonna grow into a major movie star.”