Taylor Kitsch's career hits a crest

The actor best known for his roles in TV's Friday Night Lights, cinema's John Carter and now Battleship, talks to James Mottram about taking chances in his career and finding a true home outside of Los Angeles.

Taylor Kitsch as Lt Alex Hopper, a naval officer assigned to the USS John Paul Jones in a scene from the movie Battleship, opening in the UAE today.
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I've just asked Taylor Kitsch what drives him. "The fear of failure," he replies, the four words spilling out of the Canadian-born actor's mouth without a moment's hesitation. "You always want to set the bar. I'll be the guy to push the limit, absolutely." The darkly handsome 31-year-old politely waves his plate of eggs away in the London hotel suite where we meet. Failure, it seems, is uppermost in his mind right now in the wake of John Carter, the US$250 million (Dh918m) Disney-funded sci-fi released last month in which he plays the title role.

Despite a more-than-healthy global gross of $269m, the film has been deemed a flop, particularly in the US where it only took $68.7m. Fortunately for Kitsch, he has his second blockbuster in as many months lined up. And judging by its opening weekend, it doesn't look as if anything's going to sink his Battleship. Having been unveiled in 26 markets, a month ahead of its US release, this huge-scale alien invasion saga has already taken $58m.

While Kitsch jokes the film is "a subtle independent", his involvement does stem from his friendship with the director Peter Berg, who helped cast the actor in his breakthrough TV role, the football drama Friday Night Lights. "He flew up to London to pitch me Battleship. And to lead that movie right after John Carter … I was extremely tired, and very blunt. And he was true to his word, saying: 'Look, man, I've got your back, you've just got to trust me on this and take a risk with me.' We have very similar personalities - if we're in, we're all in."

Based rather loosely on the famous board game, the film sees a Pearl Harbour-based naval fleet come up against marauding aliens known as The Regents. Kitsch is Lt Alex Hopper, the reluctant hero who is forced to save the day. "He's a guy who's basically afraid of his own potential and afraid of failing," says Kitsch, "so he doesn't even engage, until his brother [played by the True Blood star Alexander Skarsgård] literally puts him in the navy, forces him in."

While John Carter was hardly small, Battleship is Hollywood spectacle on a grand scale. Explosions, hardware and ocean spray. "It's enormous," nods Kitsch. "I just saw the third trailer. I was on the phone to Pete while I was watching it. It ended, and he was like 'What do you think?' - because Pete and I are very close - and I was literally speechless. You're in awe of it. What they do to make it that intense … it's just really the pinnacle summer blockbuster. It's huge."

Kitsch must be relieved at Battleship's early numbers, not least because he's already seen one career flop. Raised near Vancouver, Kitsch was a former ice hockey player - "that's the Canadian in me" - who considered turning pro, but had to rethink when his knee gave out, twice, when he was 20. "That was it. That was my make-or-break year, and it just … broke!" Ironically, had he remained in the sport, his time would be at an end now. "And I wouldn't be the person I am today, growth-wise, for sure."

If that wasn't enough to scare a man, Kitsch also hit rock bottom when he left Canada for the US. Relocating to New York to earn money as a male model while studying acting, he was homeless for a while, reduced to sleeping on subway trains. When he moved to Los Angeles, to audition for TV shows, he was forced to use his car as a makeshift home. It wasn't until 2006, when film roles in Snakes on a Plane and John Tucker Must Die led to Friday Night Lights that Kitsch could finally rest easy.

Committing to five seasons, FNL also allowed him to move to Austin, Texas, where it was shot. He seems eternally grateful to be away from LA. "It's just not for me," he shrugs. "It's so unfulfilling to be a part of that Hollywood thing." A lover of the great outdoors, he's now building a lakeside house in Austin. "I grew up on an apple orchard and I still love being outside," he says. "I just don't think it's a good thing for a kid for TV to be a babysitter. I definitely will have my kids very active, and outside. I love that."

Having recently completed his third film for 2012 - Oliver Stone's violent drugs drama Savages, which Kitsch gleefully describes as "in the vein of Pulp Fiction meets Reservoir Dogs" - he clearly has a strong work ethic. He credits his mother, who raised him alone, along with his two older brothers, after she divorced their father. "She had four jobs at one point. Seeing that, and just having that struggle [meant I was] very grounded growing up." As he looks to survive the Hollywood battleground, it's a trait that will stand him in good stead.

Battleship opens in UAE cinemas today


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