Chris Evans has a lot on his mind.
The Oscars are in less than a week, and he’ll need to look so good on the red carpet that people don’t notice how uncomfortable that whole situation makes him. He just got back from a fitting with his stylist. The tux he’ll end up wearing, a royal blue take on a classic, works nicely. Now he’s looking at a night filled with some much-needed house cleaning, because as he puts it, “it’s getting pretty gross.” But, mostly, he’s thinking about America.
“Lately all I’ve been thinking about is politics,” he says, before launching into a sincere monologue about what that means. Because he’s not thinking about congressional districts, or immigration reform. When he says he’s thinking about politics, he’s really thinking about how we’re supposed to live our lives in these crazy times.
“It’s not just Trump’s policies, or politics, or his behaviour. It’s just shined a light on how to treat one another and I question whether we’ve forgotten the technique behind discourse; the actual art of disagreeing with someone while still respecting our humanity,” he continues. “People are so polarized right now, and the issues are so personal, that this rage has crept in and it’s made for very little patience, and understanding, and empathy. It’s almost become not, ‘your opinion versus my opinion,’ but in certain people’s minds, ‘good vs. evil.’ and people don’t want to compromise with evil.”
To be clear, I didn’t ask him about politics. Getting the guy who professionally embodies Captain America to sound off on the state of political discourse would be a little too obvious. Instead, I just asked him if he’d had any mini-epiphanies lately. You know, those discoveries that we make over and over again without realizing it. Evans’s answer to that was: politics. This isn’t all that surprising — as his recent Twitter spat with David Duke demonstrates, Captain America doesn’t need much prompting to talk about American ideals. Maybe that’s life imitating art, or maybe that’s part of why Evans makes such a good Captain America — he really is that gee whiz decent — but either way, it’s a lot to be thinking about, especially when, technically speaking, he’s under no obligation to consider much of anything.
Wait. Just stop.
I’m about to call bullshit on myself. “Chris Evans has a lot on his mind?” Really? That’s disingenuous fluff. And I respect Chris Evans too much — especially after actually talking to the guy — to engage in that kind of lazy malarky.
A celebrity profile — like this one — has three, maybe three and half — major objectives.
1. You want to humanize the subject. Sure, Evans is world famous, and has a body that will make your wife fall in love with him, even while you’re sitting right there in the theatre with her (true story), but it’s okay to like him, because he’s just a regular guy!
2. Justify the subject’s renown. You understand that, while being a non-threatening normal person, the subject also has some quality that you, perhaps, lack, otherwise you’d be famous, too! “Chris Evans has a lot on his mind,” lets you know that he is worthy of his position because, unlike some imagined, impossibly vacuous actor who we all have in our collective unconscious, this guy actually thinks about stuff. His brain is always going, he’s always working, he’s a smart cookie and a hustler. He’s earned whatever he’s got, and, remember, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer, more down to earth guy.
And finally, objective 3. Provide the frisson of access and the thrill of vicarious living. Chris Evans has a lot on his mind — and you are special because you know this about his mind, even though you are a stranger who might never see Chris Evans in person. (Oh, and objective 3.5: promote the movie the subject is starring in, thereby paying for subject’s time.)
Chris Evans has played this exact Hollywood game for more than 15 years now. (It doesn’t happen so much now, but for a long time, most profiles of him had a fourth objective: make women/gay men swoon in the presence of his shirtlessness. But, a few years ago, a publicist put a stop to all that. Dude still looks mighty good in a t-shirt though.) You get the sense that, despite his non-tortured demeanour, he’s done with the inauthenticity of it all. You get that sense mostly because he’s admitted as much.
“A lot of times in this industry you are tasked with, not just acting in a film, but then you have to sell the film. And it can be hard if the film isn’t, maybe exactly what you anticipated,” he says. “It’s hard to sell anything, in my opinion. I don’t like selling things. I feel very transparent when I feel myself embellishing. And that’s where the anxiety is born.”
So, in that same spirit, let me admit something: I don’t actually know if Chris Evans had a lot on his mind when we spoke, nor do I necessarily believe that thinking about human decency in the age of Trump, the Oscars, and cleaning one’s house necessarily qualifies as having a lot on his mind. That’s me embellishing. And while I don’t necessarily feel the same discomfort as Evans, maybe I should.
So, in the spirit of Chris Evans, let’s start again. Maybe this time with a bit of integrity, goddammit.
While I’m waiting to speak with Chris Evans, there are two competing narratives in my head, two possible Chrises I might encounter.
It’s funny: one of the serendipitous results of there being, at the moment, several A-List actors named Chris — who are all, it should be said, handsome, blonde, white dudes — is that they inadvertently create a spectrum of Male Celebrity Persona. On one end, there’s Pratt: affable, charming, game. At the other end of the spectrum, you have Pine, who’s more reserved, sensitive, desperate to show his seriousness and range. Hemsworth, for what it’s worth, resides closer to Pratt. Evans could go either way. In some past interviews he demonstrates a gentle Bostonian dudeness — like, if life were an 80s movie, he’d be a part of the popular crowd that picks on the wimpy nerds, only he’d be the one trying to get his friends to cut it out, and he’d stick around for a few beats after they left to make sure the nerd was okay. But then, in other interviews, he’s honest about how much he hates interviews, how they make him self-conscious and anxious.
This dichotomy, while a natural part of being human, is interesting because the movie he’s promoting seems to deal with something similar. At least to me. In Gifted, Evans plays a man raising his young niece after his sister’s suicide. She had been a math genius and her daughter inherited her preternatural abilities. Not wanting his niece to go through the same hardships as her mother, Evans raises her in Florida, as far from demanding academic elites as possible. The conflict comes when the girl’s grandmother takes him to court, in order to bring the child back to the ivory tower, where she can do something Mathematically Important. The movie, of course, is heartwarming, and his performance is natural, and nuanced and you almost forget that the last time you saw him on screen he was beating up Iron Man with a stars and stripes shield.
But in trying to take her granddaughter back to the Big City, we get a clear picture of the Two Americas we heard so much about during the election. A child psychologist looks concerned and pitying when the girl talks about how she watches UFC with her uncle, or how her best friend is a neighbour played by Octavia Spencer. Evans is an everyman (albeit one that is secretly a philosophy professor, slumming as a mechanic), trying to give his adopted daughter a ‘regular’ life, the villain is a card carrying member of the coastal academic elites. It’s messy, but it’s all American. Both sides make mistakes, both sides are human.
For what it’s worth, he’s happy I saw Gifted as an exploration of the duality of the American experience, but that wasn’t what drew him to the part. “I think it’s always fun to try to interpret films through different lenses. For me, it was more about the friction and conflict that can happen between a parent and a child, when a parent is overbearing and expects too much and a child rebels, and kind of just wanting love and never feeling good enough,” he says. It was about family for him. But — and maybe we’re stretching here — I say there isn’t much difference between the dichotomy of familial relationships, and how Americans relate to one another, and their government.
And, while I’m straining for a thematic through line, Captain America touches on something similar. Think about it: we have the living symbol of American strength and righteousness constantly being pitted against his own government. If both Cap and the United States government are symbols of America, which America is true? What does Family mean? Who is Chris Evans?
You think about a lot of things when you’re waiting for Chris Evans. It turns out though, that the Chris that shows up is closer to Pratt on the spectrum than the Pine side.
He sounds energized and positive, ready for a nice, light conversation about his new movie. I’m almost disappointed. Mostly because — and this is projecting — I had decided that the quietly anxious, adonis-with-an-artist’s heart was the real Chris Evans, and this charm machine that’s talking to me is a facade.
“I don’t actually mind doing these interviews,” he says, after I apologize for forcing him to participate in something he hates. “The first time I made a few movies that I loved so dearly, you couldn’t ask me enough questions about them. I was thrilled. But, if you see my IMDB page, at the beginning of my career it’s just evidence that making a good film is hard. If it were easy, there would be a lot more of them. You work really hard on this thing, and then you have to figure out what to say, how to say it, everything felt just a little too tailored, everything felt a little too forced. It made me very self-aware, and I felt really uncomfortable in that environment.”
And speaking of dichotomies, I realize while I’m talking to him that we constantly put actors in this maddening position: we expect authenticity, then we either make authenticity contractually impossible, or we punish it when we see it. We expect them to happily promote whatever film they’re in, then we blame or mock them if the movie isn’t very good. On the other hand, if an actor so much as hints at unhappiness during a press junket or TV appearance, we scold them for being ungrateful, or shake our heads at them for selling out.
It’s easy to understand why some actors — especially Serious Actors — would be media shy, or overly sensitive. But, when Chris Evans talks about this situation, it doesn’t come off as preening or pretentious. He inserts enough qualifiers into his sentences that he’d be unimpeachable. And even when he talks about how he wants to focus on directing — a precarious subject for any actor that often comes off like a freshman English major talking about how he’s writing the next Infinite Jest. Evans sounds more like a coworker speculating about making a lateral career move.
“It’s tough, because if you’re not going to write original content, and you’re just looking for projects that are available, the truth is it’s slim pickings. A lot of great scripts that are up for grabs, big great accomplished directors are snagging them. So it’s a little tough trying to find that diamond in the rough. But that’s been my hunt as of late,” he says. “I think with directing you get to do less press. Every time I do these movies, and do these junkets, you see the director very little. So that would be nice to not be tasked with the job of doing talk shows. But, I also feel with every passing year I’ve become more and more comfortable with certain things that, 10 years ago, I was not.”
He manages to sound grateful and grounded, but also, well, like he actually has integrity. Because of course it would be maddening having to promote films you didn’t believe in. Especially since, what with editing and directing and studio notes and all that, it’s almost impossible for an actor to know whether he’s making a Captain America: Civil War, or if he’s making Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Integrity though is not a trait one usually associates with celebrities, especially ones who have action figures made in their likeness.
I mentioned the objectives of a celebrity profile — and I stand by them — but, really, setting aside any thematic musings about dichotomies, and who the real Chris Evans is, the main question these pieces should answer is simple: what’s it like talking to Chris Evans?
It’s refreshing. It’s decent. It’s like meeting your friend’s new boyfriend and realizing he’s a pretty damn cool guy. And on the one hand, you’re not surprised because your friend is a pretty damn cool girl, and so of course she’d have good taste in men, but on the other hand, she’s dated some real assholes.
But that new boyfriend, you don’t spend all that much time with him. You get a glancing sketch, a taste, for lack of a better, less vaguely homoerotic-in-this-context word. You don’t see the whole picture, but what you do see is promising. If there is an anxious, striving Chris Evans he’s not all consuming. In fact, it’s almost as if the stuff that would make him insufferable — which is to say, his discomfort with the commercial side of the business — is actually what makes him more relatable. Because it comes from a real, homegrown, son-of-a-teacher, bring-his-sister-to-the-Oscars, place. Which, actually, is exactly right.
Because Chris Evans is human. He’s famous and fun and serious and vulnerable. And he deserves his fame, and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Probably.