Odin is a major god in Norse mythology, and Thor is the god of thunder. Appropriately cast Sir Anthony Hopkins as Odin and Chris Hemsworth as Thor, the two enjoyed wearing elaborate costumes to help get into character. In fact, Hopkins claims he let the costume do the acting for him. The actors sat down with Buzzine to talk about their favorite heroes, working with Kenneth Branagh as director, and the importance of a sense of humor.
Emmanuel Itier: Chris, this is a movie about a hero. What kind of hero do you think we need today? And also, if you have a favorite movie hero, I’d like to know.
Chris Hemsworth: Good question. Growing up, my parents were my heroes in the way they conducted their lives. [Laughs] My dad works in child protection, and he’s spent many, many years in that line of work. As kids, our experiences shape our opinions on ourselves and the world around us, and that’s who we become as adults, because of that experience. So he’s certainly been my hero. In movies, I think the idea of a heightened reality and then the fantasy that we’re able to be swept up in, and these larger-than-life heroes and the possibility of someone much more powerful than we are, and greater, that can come and save the day, so to speak, is inspiring. And it’s the people who put themselves on the line and sacrifice their own safety for the greater good and for others. Anyone in any sort of profession whose concern is the welfare of other people instead of individual, I think, is inspiring and important.
EI: Do you have any favorite characters, like Thor or whatever?
CH: [Laughs] Growing up, I have a lot of different films. And I think Superman was probably the very first one I was aware of, and I would run around the house pretending to be him at some stage when I was a kid. I also had a Robin costume -- Batman’s sidekick, which is [laughs] a nice pair of green underwear and a yellow shirt and red cape. [Laughs] I was about six or seven; I was pretty small. [Laughs] But I love Han Solo too.
EI: Chris, could you talk about the most miserable things you did to actually get that kind of physique?
CH: The most uncomfortable thing was the eating. I didn’t mind so much the working out; I’d never really lifted weights to that capacity beforehand, and it was certainly a whole new education for a good six months. But I just don’t naturally sit at that weight, so I had to force-feed myself with 20 chicken breasts and rice and steak, and all very boring, plain things. That was the most exhausting part, I think, out of the whole film, actually, was the eating. It wasn’t the fun stuff either. It wasn’t hamburgers and pizza and whathaveyou.
EI: For Sir Anthony Hopkins: What drew you to be a part of this, essentially a comic book movie? Was it working, given the chance to work with Kenneth Branagh, or was it the material itself?
Anthony Hopkins: It’s Ken Branagh, basically. If they gave me enough money to read the phone book, I’d do it. [Laughs] See, I live in a total state of non-expectation, and I don’t expect things; I keep my expectations very low about everything, especially the last few years. And I had come back from a movie with Woody Allen, which was a big surprise -- I enjoyed that. And then I had an agent and I left them because I wasn’t very happy. And I got a new agent and within two days, they said, “Would you like to meet Ken Branagh?” and I said, “Yeah. What about?” He said, “Odin.” I said, “Oh, that’s a god, isn’t it?” He says, “Yeah.” [Laughs] Funny thing was, I hadn’t seen Ken for some years, and I wasn’t sure how he would respond to me because I was one of the bad boys who ran away from England many years ago and I came out to Cuckoo Land because I never fitted into British theater and all that. So I wasn’t sure how [laughs] he’d receive me. But we met at breakfast down in Santa Monica, and he was very pleasant and friendly, and we had a chat about old times and all that. And he said, “Would you like to play Odin?” I said, “Yeah, okay.” He gave me the script and I read it, and I thought, yeah, I’d love to work with him because...I’ve always been a fan of Ken’s, actually. I’m not a geek, but this wake up to Marvel ... turned out that it was the most enjoyable film I’ve been involved in for a long time, principally because of the cast here, and Chris and Tom [Hiddleston] and everyone. And Ken. I think I’d gone through a patch where I was getting very indifferent to everything, and I couldn't care less about anything. And then, to work with Ken, he just pushed the right buttons to get me to give my best. And I really value that in him because I’d gotten lazy. And he’s one of the best directors I’ve worked with, so that was the principle reason. And hey, I wanted the work. Gotta pay the rent, you know. [Laughs] And I thought this was a nice part. Didn’t have to do too much. The only thing was, I wish I’d gone down to New Mexico because I had such a good time in the studios. My time was so brief. I think I was only on it about three weeks, on those great sets and everything. And then, no acting required. I wrote in my script, “N.A.R” -- No Acting Required -- let the armor act for me on the sets. [Laughs] So I let the armor do it for it, and the beard, and that was about it. And showed up and put on my voice, and that was about it. But I really enjoyed it.
EI: Chris, physical demands of the role aside, how did you, as an actor, approach the mighty role of Thor? Did you look into the 600+ issues of the comics, or did you pay more attention to the mythology, like the actual Norse mythology, or did you find a way to combine both? What was important to you when taking on this role?
CH: I started with the comic books, but I didn’t read all however many of them -- there are thousands of them -- 40 or 50 years’ worth. But I certainly read enough to get a sense of who he was and the world he was from. And then I read some things on Norse mythology and this sort of fatalistic view they have that everything’s preordained, and that leads the Vikings into this fearless attitude in battle and with their lives. And they certainly back their opinions, I think. They’re not swayed easily. And that spoke volumes to me about the character. But then you fill your head with whatever information and research you have. But on set, it was just about making it truthful and finding a simpler way that I could relate to it, instead of thinking, “How do I play a powerful god?” It became about scenes between fathers and sons and brothers. And you personalize that, and that helps ground the story, I think, for an audience. And then we can relate to it, and hopefully an audience can too.
EI: Was it more challenging or more fun to wrap your mouth and your mind around the film’s mock heroic middle English? And how much of a pleasure was it to not have to do a fake American accent? [Laughs]
CH: One of the challenges for the script and the story, and now the audience, is that you have these two huge worlds, but they’re equally as well thought-out, well-written. And Kenneth wanted us to all have a uniform sound. And even though you do say mock English, it was set in that world but exactly not English, which is what I was told.
EI: Sir Tony had mentioned kind of facetiously that the costume really does the work for you. But I’m just wondering for you, Chris, who were in elaborate costumes and things -- how does that inform your character, in terms of creating and becoming that person? Or is it just -- you’re pretending?
CH: With Kenneth, one of his biggest notes for me was just let the costume do it, because I had this huge helmet on my head and could hardly see. And Kenneth would just say: Don’t worry. Just live in it, just stay as still as you can, and just let the costume and the opulence of where I was -- my bridge, which is beautiful -- do the work. And the script, of course.
EI: Tony, did you get to pick your eye patch?
AH: No, I can’t remember. [Laughs] They put it on the wrong eye, first of all. And I said, “I think you made this for the wrong eye,” because it wouldn’t fit in. And they said, “Yeah, we did.” But they had another patch put in that eye. The only problem with that was moments of anxiety because I had no three-dimensional vision. So I felt like an old...well, I’m not that young anymore, but... [Laughs] To be guided onto the set, I felt very embarrassed. You know, “This way...” Because I couldn’t see. The thing would come off very quickly, but it was a costume, and it helped and all that. You don’t have to do too much except speak up, I guess. [Laughs] But you don’t have to act. It’s like John Wayne said, “When you’re in the desert, he doesn’t have to act; you let the desert do it for you.” But I think those movie actors of that time knew what they were doing. They just got on their horses and they did it, and they were wonderful. So I take a page out of their copy book and try not to do too much. But Ken challenges you all the time, in a very nice, gentlemanly, charming way. I like the way he says, “My learned, esteemed colleague, I would like you to stand here.” [Laughs] But it seemed like, at the end, he said, “Ah, my esteemed colleague, Mr. Hopkins,” and he’s very cunning. He said, “I’d like you to stand here. And then Chris will come up behind you.” He said, “Do you have any suggestions?” I said, “Yeah, but I’m not gonna tell them to you because you want me to stand here, don’t you?” [Laughs] He said, “Yes.” “So you just tell me where to stand and I’ll do it.” And you know with something like that, he knows so much. And that’s the most comforting thing. You don’t have to work. You just do what he tells you. I know that sounds pretty wimpy to do that, but why not? He knows what he wants. A good director knows what he wants and what it’s gonna look like.
EI: Sir Tony, much has been made of Kenneth Branagh comments about how Shakespearean he saw the mythology and the story. Your experience with Shakespeare goes back to the RADA days and through Titus. Is that putting too much weight onto what’s essentially a comic book story?
AH: No, I don’t think so. I don’t trouble my little brain with that stuff because I don’t think about too much anything anyway when I go on a film set, because you can analyze and analyze, and I leave that to the boss, the director. They decide what it’s gonna be like, and you just follow. I’m not trying to demean my role in it, but you follow certain guidelines, and “This is what he wants.” If you’re working with a director like Spielberg or Clint Eastwood or Ken Branagh or whoever, or Scorsese, you follow the guidelines of what their style is. And he mentioned Shakespeare quite a lot, and in the readings beforehand -- we had about a week’s readings down in Manhattan Beach. We talked, not extensively, but a bit about the good old Westerns -- Shane, one of my favorite all-time Westerns -- when the bad guys come in and they have a conference and they try to negotiate. And Jack Palance looks innocent and all that. And to have that sort of feeling of big, autocratic father and the troublesome sons. There’s a wonderful film called Law Man which Ken and I talked about, with Burt Lancaster -- a great movie about rival factions. There’s the father, played by Lee J. Cobb, and all these bad sons he’s got. And there’s always one son who’s a little in the middle, not quite sure where he belongs. So we have those points of reference. On the horse, when I meet my enemy and I say, “Let’s talk about this. We don’t need any bloodshed,” that was taken from an idea of a Western negotiation. So I love those points of reference because I was a fan of all those early Western movies -- Gary Cooper and all those guys.
EI: Mr. Hopkins, when you were first asked about working with Mr. Branagh, you said, “I was lazy, and Ken pushed my buttons.” What buttons did he push, and did he know you were lazy? [Laughs] What was going on?
AH: No, maybe I’m overstating it. But we’d come from the background. I’m 20 years older than Ken, and I didn’t know him that well. But we had all the same reference points of the theater. We knew about the actors we’d been working with over the years. And we were both pretty rebellious, and I know he was. I was rebellious in the fact that I was a bad boy. I escaped from England and the group theater, and came over to America to Disneyland. And I sold out. It’s nice. I’m glad I’ve sold out. [Laughs] So I wasn’t sure how he’d respond to me. But he’s just as bad as I am. He’s a rebel, but he’s challenged himself over the years. And he did some extraordinary things 30 years ago, when he was taking on people like Lawrence Olivier doing Hamlet and Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing -- a colossal background. And his education is pretty profound. I read a lot, but I hate taxing my mind with analysis. I’m not a good analyst. I cannot talk about acting. I hate talking about it. I hate talking about analyzing. They always say, “Let’s talk about the…” Why? [Laughs] I’ve sat in conferences where you just fall asleep because it’s so boring. You just get up and do it. [Laughs] Get up and do the damned thing, instead of talking about it. And Ken is like that. He just says, “Do it.” And I like that. But I get too much the other way, of being Mr. Cool, not analyzing at all. Just walk blindly on the set. And I think what Ken does is just say, “Come on, you can do more than that,” because I’d like to just be a little restrained. And he said, “No, let’s push it even more.” And it was a welcome invitation. So that’s basically my story.
EI: This is for Chris regarding The Avengers. You play a very larger-than-life role in this film. You’re going into a movie with four or five other larger-than-life characters. What’s the biggest challenge that you see in combining all these archetypal heroes and villains into this one film?
CH: We don’t balance all the other characters, I guess. That’s just the writer and Joss Whedon, who’s the writer-director. His job is to navigate that. And kind of like Tony was saying, we come in and do our bit, and that’s all you can really concern yourself with. But I definitely think it’ll be an interesting combination. Why it will work is that conflict in those larger-than-life characters and egos clashing... I think there will be some great tension there.
EI: Is there another character in the Marvel canon that you would like to take on?
AH: My one regret was that I didn’t go to New Mexico. I think I was about to suggest to Ken that I could play Odin’s twin brother [laughs], who actually goes down and is a sort of Fifth Columnist movement on the... [Laughs] So I wanted to be in New Mexico. No, I’m very happy having done Odin. I don’t know if I'd come back to another one; I don’t know if there’s a talk of [a sequel]. But I’d love to do another one. It was so unexpected, to be in a movie like this. And I like the unexpected. And living in a state of total non-expectation, it’s just a surprise what happens to you -- all kinds of things come your way. It’s when you have expectations, that’s when it’s always disappointing. So to be in this was just a bonus, it was the gravy train for me, because I’ve been around a long, long time now. So whatever comes along, I’m very happy to do it, if it’s a good script and a good director and good actors. So I’m just very fortunate to mosey along and do what I do. But I mustn’t get too lazy. I need another Ken Branagh. Because it’s very hard to find a director of that kind of power...and gentleness. He’s a gentleman. And that’s it.
EI: Chris could you talk a little bit about the dynamic between yourself as an actor vying for the attention of Sir Anthony Hopkins, as well as the brotherly dynamic between you and Tom that went from brotherhood to rivalry so much as to the bloody nose one of you received on set from said rivalry?
CH: I nearly caught Tom talking about having breakfast with Tony at one point. And I said, “What? He’s having breakfast and I’m not?” [Laughs] No, but Tony, actually you said it, that it’s much easier to like someone on screen if you actually like them off screen. It’s just a more enjoyable ride. And this is nothing personal about it. We got along and came into this at the same point in our careers with the same sort of enthusiasm and love for these types of films, and just had a great time doing it. You either have chemistry with someone or you don’t. And thankfully, I think it was there, so to play brothers was easy and fun.
AH: Obviously, I love to have a laugh. I like to tease people. [Laughs] Ken is part of that, as well. I said, “Is he gonna play it like that?” He said, “Yeah.” [Laughs] He said, “That’s all the young actors.” “Is that the way you’re gonna play it? It’s your career.” [Laughs]
CH: I remember being on set with Tom, our first day with Tony, and going through the rehearsal and Tony giving us that reaction. “Is that how you’re gonna do it?” And going, “He’s kidding, right?” [Laughs]
AH: It would be terrible if you met somebody who didn’t have a sense of humor. My first film was Lion in Winter, and we had a couple of sound engineers, and I was a new actor, and there were three of us and we were three new actors on the block. And this guy called Tom Buchanan was the sound engineer. He walked behind me once with his sound mixer; he said, “I hate actors.” [Laughs] But he did it to tease us. He’d be sitting there with the headphones on and I’d be doing a scene. And he’d go, “What?” [Laughs] That humor gets you up. Because you have to have humor. If you don’t have humor and you take yourself seriously, you’re dead in the water. So you have to be jostled. And I love it. You’ve got to have a laugh, because it’s better than working for a living. [Laughs] It is, isn’t it?
Paramount Pictures' 'Thor' is released May 6, 2011.