Based on the memoir by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the Peter Berg–directed Lone Survivor follows four Navy SEALs (Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch) trying to stay alive after their location is discovered during a covert mission in Afghanistan. Though Wahlberg is the face on the poster, it’s Kitsch who unexpectedly shines: After toplining three misfires last year in John Carter, Battleship, and Savages, he’s finally found the right vehicle for his easy, masculine charisma, and as Navy Lieutenant Michael Murphy, he displays the sort of leading-man potential that many predicted when Kitsch came off a hot run in the TV series Friday Night Lights. Last week, he sat down with Vulture to discuss the next phase of his career (which will include an against-type turn in Ryan Murphy’s AIDS drama The Normal Heart) and why he’ll never, ever do a Friday Night Lights movie.
What was it like when you saw Lone Survivor for the first time? I know Mark Wahlberg had a very emotional reaction to it at the premiere.
I broke down three times. You just hold all this energy in as an actor, and I didn’t truly let it go until then. Knowing all the families and getting to be a part of it and tell the story … yeah, it fuckin’ crushed me. That’s what takes you out of your head when you’re watching yourself. I wasn’t there when Ben shot his big scene or when Emile shot his last moments, and it got me. I wasn’t ready for it.
You were out there undergoing SEAL training well before production started. Does all the stuff you picked up for the movie stick with you even now?
Absolutely. I was just talking with Luttrell, and we’re gonna go hunting on his ranch — I told him, “You give me an M4, I’m gonna be all right.” I never thought I would say something like that! I’m Canadian, you know what I mean? That’s such an incredible thing about my gig, these tools that you accumulate along the way. And you learn these things from the best of the best.
Are there any other random skills from your acting career that you could still bust out?
Yeah, you give me a fuckin’ bo staff and I can do some damage! Playing with cards. Accents. Oh, photography — that’s huge. I learned that for The Bang Bang Club. I went to Iceland by myself a couple months ago, and just took my Leica and a couple other cameras and just went on my own adventure with ‘em. That would never have fuckin’ happened if I hadn’t been in that movie. And football! Again, man, I’m Canadian — give me a hockey stick, I’m good, but a football?
You’re playing Navy SEAL Michael Murphy, who was a big hockey guy, too. So you had that in common.
Yeah, he was a huge Rangers fan. I mean, even aesthetically, we’re pretty similar guys when I have the beard going on. He was a big boy, Murph, so I gained a good twenty-plus to play him.
I know that the women in my audience appreciated that, since you walk around shirtless in your first scene. Is there ever a part of you that thinks, “Okay, I know Hollywood sees me as this buff, handsome guy, but it’d be nice to ditch the gym for a few months and play someone who never takes his shirt off?”
The Normal Heart was like that for me. I lost twenty for that one. It’s a big part of those SEALs, though, man. I have no trouble representing that, and I’m very proud of that [shirtless scene]. Like, that’s not me. I don’t look like that, and it took a fucking insane amount of discipline to get to that point. There’s a workout that’s actually called the Murph! But Pete didn’t tell me, “Look like this, train this way” — I did that. I loved that part of it. You just carry yourself differently. Confidence comes with that. You don’t have to do as much — it’s there.
You mentioned The Normal Heart. You didn’t just lose twenty pounds for that … you were rockin’ some super-big, blond hair.
Fuckin’ eighties, right? And I was getting blown out every morning. I didn’t even know what that was! I just wrapped last week in New York — another insanely heavy movie, very heavy stuff — but man, we would die laughing. I would come in with blond hair like a mess at 5 a.m. I’m not a morning guy, for one, but I’d just be sitting there eating my breakfast, half asleep, and you’d just hear the blow dryer going forever. By the end of it, it was just a joke: I had to add some volume in between takes.
Ryan Murphy has a real knack for casting against type and letting actors do what they normally haven’t gotten to before. Did you feel that here, like you were doing something new?
[Exhales loudly.] On every level. But being out of your comfort zone is why you become an actor. You try to stretch yourself as much as you can.
So how did The Normal Heart stretch you?
I mean, look: I was born in ‘81. I had no idea about the whole AIDS epidemic. I’m straight, and playing a gay guy who’s leading a double life, who’s still in the closet, who’s losing his lovers, who has AIDS but won’t admit it to himself, who ends up dying … I mean, where do you want to start? Fuck me, dude. It’s insane. The body type, the fact that he works at Citibank, very high up on Wall Street, so learning that part of it and reading an insane amount of books about guys who were leading those kinds of lives, learning about AZT and where it started … I knew probably the surface stuff, but what I learned for this, the education I got, that was another great tool.
And something that can hopefully build on what Dallas Buyers Club is doing right now.
That’s a great film, and McConaughey just knocked it the fuck out. [The Normal Heart] will really put you there. It’s a bit more aggressive look into that world.
Is this last year of character-driven material a reaction to 2012, when you had to lead all these tentpole movies that didn’t quite work?
I don’t know, man. Yeah, I was on that track as well, but it’s really about reacting to the opportunities that come in front of you. In retrospect, I’d do them all over again. I mean, “Andrew Stanton is a multi-Oscar winner and he wants you for this movie”? I was like, yeah! Or Pete Berg with Battleship. I love working with him, and hopefully I’ll be lucky enough to engage on another film down the road.
What do you remember about meeting Peter Berg, way back when you auditioned for Friday Night Lights?
I was nervous. I was sitting in a boardroom and he came in and brought me down this long hallway, and we were doing improv with me as Riggins. He was interviewing me like an ESPN reporter.
Were you ready for all that improv right off the bat?
Fuck yeah, man. He’s a guy’s guy, and there was that connection real quick. Even shooting the FNL pilot, we were working pretty darn well together.
People still talk about the idea of a Friday Night Lights movie, and—
I’ll just say no. [Slams fist on table.] No, period. I’m not doing it. I’m never gonna be in that movie. There was already a movie! And the show ended fuckin’ spot-on. We’re good.