“Greatness is relative, of course.” (Finnegan, William, Barbarian Days, P. 224)
The scope of Chris Hemsworth’s physical size is a matter of some debate. For those who have only seen him on the big screen, he is truly gigantic — larger than life. This is probably due to the characters he plays: Thor, son of Odin, king of the Norse gods, hammer-wielding Marvel superhero; James Hunt, daredevil British F1 champion; George Kirk, decorated Starfleet officer and father of Captain James Kirk. That is, Chris Hemsworth has a knack for playing big men in a world of big men, bulging and flexing his way through large-scale performances with grace.
But Chris Hemsworth isn’t as big as all that. If you were expecting him to prowl his way through life at Thor size, seven feet tall and with arms like tree trunks, you will be disappointed. In truth, Hemsworth is a perfectly reasonable size — maybe even a perfect size. He commands a room but doesn’t tower over it. He fills out a suit. He swaggers.
And he has much to swagger about. Hemsworth’s size may also seem inflated because he is, by any measure, on something of a high right now. The Australian actor is set to open Thor: Ragnarok, the third in his very own superhero franchise — and that’s not even including all the countless Avengers movies, his scene-stealing role as the hunky receptionist in last year’s Ghostbusters, or his other franchise, The Huntsman, currently two films deep and counting. Then there’s the new fragrance endorsement — he takes over from Gerard Butler as the face of BOSS Bottled — and the beautiful young family and the idyllic beachfront life he’s built for himself, and suddenly it’s clear that Chris Hemsworth might just be the biggest man in the world.
Not that any of this is unearned. Hemsworth paid his dues, and started early. He first rose to prominence in Australia as a regular in the teen soap Home and Away. He toiled on TV for three years, all of them under the long shadow of his older brother, Luke, an Australian star known for his long-running soap Neighbours.
But Australia is a small island, and just a short 13-hour flight to Los Angeles. It was calling — for all of the Hemsworths. Luke landed a role on Westworld. Chris’s younger brother, Liam, made the trip too, and is now known mainly for his work in the Hunger Games series, and for dating Miley Cyrus. Chris, the middle child in a preternaturally gifted family, could have disappeared, as middle children are wont to do. Instead, his star grew bigger and brighter than he could have ever imagined. Only, miraculously, he didn’t.
“I like to think I’ve stayed the same over the years,” he says. “What I’m most proud of is that the people with whom I’ve interacted have a good impression of me and that I have a lot of good relationships.”
If this is the measure of a man, Chris Hemsworth is a goddamn giant.
“Waves were the playing field, they were the goal. They were the object of your deepest desire and adoration. At the same time, they were your adversary, you nemesis, even your mortal enemy. The surf was your refuse, your hiding place, but it was also a hostile wilderness — a dynamic, indifferent world.” (P. 18)
In 2014, Hemsworth and his wife, the Spanish actress Elsa Pataky, moved their young family from Los Angeles to Byron Bay, a tiny beach town in New South Wales, Australia. Hemsworth had grown up nearby, but the move was not strictly nostalgic. With three young children and a skyrocketing career, the pressures of Hollywood were becoming overwhelming. There is a dark side to success in show business, and Hemsworth was beginning to feel trapped.
“We’d bought a house there, this beautiful house,” he says of his life in Los Angeles. “We loved it. It was perfect. We finally had a home. And then it was just nuts — paparazzi and all that. We couldn’t go anywhere. We ended up just staying home.”
Rather than grit his teeth and endure — not something you get the impression Hemsworth does much of — he and his family moved down under, to the most idyllic spot they could find. “We’re so far removed from work and L.A.,” he says. “Our kids were happier. There was an instant change in their attitude. And we surf everyday.”
This last part is important. Hemsworth is a surfer. It’s in his blood. We talk about Barbarian Days, William Finnegan’s genre-defining surfing memoir, which we’ve both just read, and his face lights up brighter than you’ll ever see onscreen. We talk about surfing as sport, as practice, as meditation. We talk about surfing as a life force — which, clearly, it is for him.
“I surf every day if I can,” he says. “If my wife’s out of town I’ll surf the whole day. What makes me come home and stops me from staying in the water all day is the fact that I’ve got a wife and kids. Otherwise I’d be out there all day. If I didn’t have a wife and kids, I think I’d probably live on a boat and just bounce from surf spot to surf spot. I’d be quite happy doing that.”
It’s probably true. He could continue acting. He could be in more movies, make more money. But those are things he doesn’t need to do. Surfing, on the other hand? That’s a compulsion. He’s just not the same man without it. “It is a meditation for me, definitely,” he says. “I can feel it — and so can my wife — when I haven’t been in the water enough. Or if I have a bad surf. Even my mother-in-law can tell.”
This is what success has afforded him: a trip home, to his happiest place. The water calms him, so he went to the water. He brought his kids all the way from America to where the water is bluest, where the waves break best. And it’s clear that everything else — Hollywood, fame, fortune — may have been part of the plan, but it was never the goal. The goal was far bigger than any of that.
“After that, as the waves bent onto the reef, there were only our wakes: thin white threads unspooling down the line.” (P. 447)
The best part about moving away from Los Angeles, for Hemsworth, is that it means more time with his children. Or rather, more quality time. Despite the extra plane rides it involves for work, living on the beach means that when he’s home, he’s home. And Chris Hemsworth really likes to be home.
Most men will talk to you about their children if given the chance. But Hemsworth makes the chance. He adores them. He thinks about them so much — so fully to the exclusion of almost anything else, save possibly surfing — that he spends most of a day of interviews promoting a movie and a fragrance talking about them. No fictional character can compete, not even a god; his kids are his identity.
“I always wanted kids, from a young age,” he says. “I think because I had such great parents and I had such a great time with them. And my mom and dad’s line of work was child protection, and they had such a nobility about them. Nothing broke my dad’s heart more than the welfare and protection of kids and disadvantaged kids who weren’t loved. And I could see that in his face when he’d talk about work.”
You can see where this is going. Now Hemsworth is back not far from where he grew up, with his own wagonful of rambunctious offspring, planting new roots adjacent to his own. He is building a future in his own image. All that’s left is to see how they take to the water.
“My kids are now starting to get a bit of a taste for surfing,” he says. “I’m mindful that I don’t want to be pushing them into it because then they’re going to rebel. I gotta gently go, ‘How cool is this?’”
And then a pause. A long, thoughtful, hopeful pause.
“But that would be cool. I grew up surfing with my brothers and my dad and those were some of my happiest memories. As a father now, I’d love to see my kids have the same joy. That would be pretty damn special.”
“The best days at the best breaks have a platonic aspect — they begin to embody a model of what surfers want waves to be. But that’s the end of it, that beginning.” (P. 203)
The more you talk to Chris Hemsworth, the more you see that his life has come to embody a kind of ideal. It is wholesomeness incarnate. It is well-rounded. Complete. The wife, the kids, the house, the career. Envy would not be out of place here.
Turns out you’re not the first to recognize this. Even his corporate endorsements understand that he’s bankable for more than just his superhuman good looks. Earlier this year, Hemsworth was announced as the new face of BOSS Bottled. His bearded visage launched a new fragrance, BOSS Bottled Tonic, a citrus-heavy daytime scent that seems tailor-made for the beach-loving Australian. He also launched a campaign called “Man of Today,” an ad line focused not, weirdly, on his indisputably bankable sex appeal but on all the things Hemsworth seems to take most seriously: integrity, honesty, success, and good humour.
“Success is defined by our actions,” he says, leaning in, staring you down with those piercing blue eyes as if daring you, for a moment, to forget entirely about his fame or his box office tallies. “It’s about staying true to my values. It’s about how I act around my three small kids.”
And, for that matter, how his three kids act around him. Hemsworth doesn’t have the usual hang-ups about success. He doesn’t embrace it the way some celebrities do — he moved his family halfway around the world to avoid it. But neither is success anathema to him. Resentment isn’t a word in his vocabulary. Instead, Hemsworth’s relationship to his fame is remarkably healthy. Normal. Average-sized. He knows what it’s all worth. He knows what matters. He knows who his real critics are.
“One of my boys is kind of obsessed with Thor,” he says. “I really noticed the first time he flew back from Europe with my mother-in-law and he must have watched it on the plane, because I was sort of avoiding showing my movies to them. He saw it, and he was like, ‘Oh my god, you’re my hero.’ Because he’s very physical and active, and he wanted to know, ‘Papa, papa, did you hit that monster today?’ He thinks that’s what I do at work, fight the bad guys. And my other son is like, ‘Yeah, whatever, dad’s cool.’”
We’d have to agree with both of them.