LONDON – On-set interviews are a tricky job for any actor – particularly in the world of superhero movies, where many journalists have deep-rooted knowledge of the material and are duly hungry for information. Secrets must be kept, spoilers must be skirted, intrigue must be fed. The line between saying too much and too little is a fine one, and Chris Hemsworth seems well aware of this as he sits down to face a particularly inquisitive firing squad of film bloggers during the filming of “Thor: The Dark World” last October.
It’s a damp, slate-gray day in London, and it’s clearly been a long one for the 29-year-old Australian actor, who arrives at our makeshift interview tent in full costume, his somber battle gear and signature blond mane – duller and lanker, respectively, than what he sported in 2011’s sleek, shiny “Thor” – caked in mud that may or may not have been part of the shooting plan. At a gym-built 6’3”, he’s not significantly less imposing a presence than the hulking Norse god he’s already played twice, to star-making effect, in “Thor” and last year’s phenomenally successful superhero-salad blockbuster “The Avengers.”
So it’s amusing to see this formidable figure forced to play coy. Resorting frequently to nervous chuckles and stammering “um” sounds, he politely fends off one question after another that demands a little too much inside knowledge of where Emmy-winning director Alan Taylor and his team are taking Thor for his second solo screen adventure.
Can he elaborate on the personal dynamic between Thor and newly arrived supervillain Malekith (played by Christopher Eccleston)? No, he can’t: “They’re obviously not related,” he says with a sheepish smile. Okay, what can he tell us about the developing relationship between Thor and buxom childhood friend Sif (played by a returning Jaimie Alexander)? “Um, not much!” he says, with a playful glint in his eye – he’s doing the dance, and he knows it. “There”s obviously an attraction, and there was little, uh, peppering of that in the first one. There may be more indication this time.”
And so on and so forth, most revelations couched in maybes as Hemsworth teases us with good grace and scarcely suppressed excitement; whatever he’s holding on to, he seems to think it’s worth the wait. What can he tell us about “The Dark World,” though? Well, for starters, he can reveal something of the story world itself – dark or otherwise – which he claims is larger and more elaborately realized than in the first film. Does it maintain that film’s balance between Earth and the realm of the gods?
“It”s certainly set in both worlds, pretty substantially,” he says. “We certainly see more of Asgard, and more of the nine realms in this film than we did in ‘Thor.’ In ‘Thor,’ we were just on Asgard, whereas this time there”s a bigger universe out there which we get to explore … The scope of this just feels massive, you know. I mean, we were just in Iceland for a week, and there”s volcanic lava, rock mountains and snowcapped mountains. We didn”t see that in the first one. So it already feels like there”s a bigger expanse to it.”
He partially attributes the shift in the film’s story world to the presence of new director Taylor, who took over from Oscar nominee Kenneth Branagh – an unexpected choice to direct ‘Thor’ in the first place. Branagh is a renowned classicist, whose Shakespearean background infused the first film with a literate sense of humor and heightened dramatic register. Taylor, by contrast, is best known for his work on such renowned TV shows as “Mad Men,” “The Sopranos” and “Game of Thrones,” and apparently prefers a shot of realism (inasmuch as it exists) in his superhero movies.
“Obviously with two different people you get two completely different styles,” he says. “But they’re also two very different stories: an origin story versus the ongoing story … Thor”s journey, I think, picks more so up from where we left the first one. About to take on the throne, about to earn the right to be king. And now coming to the realization of what responsibility comes with that.
“Alan keeps talking about the dark side of that responsibility, and the secrets within being king, becoming very political about what people need to know and what they want to know. You can even see with the set design that Alan sort of wanted to ground it in a more organic tone. ‘Game of Thrones,’ obviously, is set in a reality-based world, but there are fantasy elements which are quite prominent. It”s similar to what we’ve got going over here.”
This darker, grittier world is also very different from the one Thor inhabited in his last screen appearance – in the dayglo comic (in more ways than one) universe of “The Avengers,” where Thor partnered up with such Marvel stablemates as Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk to fight his own brother, Tom Hiddleston’s memorably deranged Loki. Was a conscious effort made to distinguish Thor’s own stories from the Avengers narrative?
Hemsworth thinks it’s important that they remain separate, particularly with “The Avengers 2” on the way. “They all link up in some way, but I think Marvel is pretty adamant about them being their own stories. I was sort of wondering if we were going to start doing cameos in everyone”s film, but I guess that would take away from the impact of all of us when we do finally come together.
“So I think these stories kind of segue off into their own world – and, you know, each of the Avengers are conveniently not around at the time. And that”s the thing. You watch ‘Iron Man’ now and you wonder, where’s Thor? Was he on vacation or something?” He laughs. “But they”re being really smart about removing everyone in a way that hopefully takes care of that.”
So while the new film’s obviously a less sprightly, comedic affair than “The Avengers” – blame the absence of Robert Downey, Jr., Hemsworth says wryly, since “he takes care of that for us” – fans of the first, decidedly droll “Thor” film will be relieved to hear that the Dark World isn’t a wholly unfunny one.
“Natalie [Portman] and Kat Dennings certainly have some great humor,” he says of the actresses playing Thor’s unlikely Earth allies. “There are a few nice fish-out-of-water moments with Thor, but not quite as naïve and obvious as in the first one. I think the earthbound stuff sort of really grounds the story in both films, and keeps a lightness to it that trickles through to Asgard as well.” That lightness extends to Thor’s budding romance with Portman’s human scientist Jane, which Hemsworth promises will pick up where the first film left off.
Arguably more important, however, is the development of Thor’s relationship with the men in his life, his firm but fair father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and his venal brother Loki, with whom our hero continues to find himself torn between avowed opposition and unconditional brotherly love. “I don”t think they”re going back to being best friends,” says Hemsworth, noting that such reunions were eye-rollingly frequent in the comic books. “But I think Thor”s at a loss about how they got to this point. I think that in this film he certainly can acknowledge now with a maturity that, okay, he should have been more aware of Loki over the years, why maybe that led him down a certain path. So I think there”s an empathetic view for Loki that no one else can have, because they”re not bound by blood.”
Thor’s relationship with his father, however, has apparently mellowed somewhat in the new film. “The conflict between Thor and Odin was, I think, so great in the first one, and he didn”t want to repeat that,” says Hemsworth. “So certainly they disagree, as I think they always will at times. But there”s a far greater respect for each other. It becomes, I guess, a more mature conversation. It”s not sort of just their individual egos – the whole universe is at stake.”
And that, as Hemsworth trudges off to do battle once more in the English drizzle, appears to be the approach to the entire film. As far as they can tell us, at least.