Making (Captain) America great again
Chris Evans is sick with some kind of fever. His body aches and he can’t stop sweating. So while he has arrived at our shoot location ten minutes ahead of schedule, he’s not in the best mood for a camera to be pointed in his face.
Having enjoyed watching more than my fair share of YouTube clips of the Captain America star on press junkets, thanks to his down-to-earth demeanour and warm sense of humour (the ones where he’s interviewed with fellow Avenger Chris Hemsworth are particularly enjoyable), I’d figured that we’d get on really well today. We’d have a bit of a laugh during the shoot, then possibly become friends afterwards. But right now he just wants two Advil rather than a new bud, and is more concerned with feeling okay for an important meeting with Sony in about four hours’ time.
We’ve met in an impressive mid-20th century home in the West Hollywood hills, Los Angeles, on a sunny morning in early March. It’s not Evans’ house, although it’s the kind of place I’d imagine film stars pad around in wearing cashmere socks.
A warm spring sun shines through tall windows, which open out onto the patio and a big, blue, kidney-shaped pool that’s lined with mature trees. Beyond the perimeter of the garden the ground drops away to reveal a scrub-filled canyon. It’s exactly what you’d picture if you shut your eyes and visualise old-school California, which is why we’ve hired it for the day for our cover shoot. Best of all, the Hollywood Sign stands on the hill right above us. It’s the nearest I’ve ever been to the iconic typography, despite multiple trips to LA over the years; a fact I share out loud to no one in particular. “Me too”, replies Evans, which surprises me. Surely a man of Evans’ level of stardom has been up close with the ultimate symbol of the Hollywood dream before?
For a couple of hours, the tasteful 1950s-inspired decor, with iconic pieces of furniture and paintings dotted about the place, serves as Evans’ retreat. Curtains are drawn to minimise the sun heating up the home (and prevent any more sweating), and everyone talks in hushed tones as if too much chatter might further damage the health of our fragile star.
It’s a far cry from Captain America, the Marvel comic book hero that Evans has so successfully brought to life on screen.
The 35-year-old actor signed up to play ‘Cap’ in 2011, with the first of the trilogy, Captain America: The First Avenger. While comic nerds were at first sceptical of the studio casting a boyish-looking Evans, record-breaking takings at the midnight screenings on release day confirmed the actor as a worthy choice. Evans was widely seen as having brought heart and soul to the beloved character, and in 2014 the second movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, cemented Cap as a beacon of nobility and self-sacrifice in a sea of selfish, damaged, and often petty so-called heroes.
Something about this wholesome portrayal of the character obviously resonated with the public. Let’s not forget that Iron Man might be a genius, but he’s also a chauvinistic, greedy arms dealer. Spider-Man is a smarty-pants teenager who got his powers by accident. Thor is a pompous prince, Superman has a tendency to be conflicted and Batman is just a loon. Steve Rogers, who becomes Captain America, is basically a nice, honourable guy who wants to beat the Nazis, hence he is chosen to become a Super Soldier. He’s hard not to like, and Evans ensures that this remains the case on screen. It’s a kind of alchemy that not everyone masters, and being in a superhero movie doesn’t automatically make you a star. Remember Catwoman? The Green Lantern? Steel? Nope, us neither.
“Not many actors have such a sophisticated sense of the camera as Chris does,” Joe Russo, one half of the Russo brothers who directed the last two Captain America movies, tells me via email. “He’s a very technically gifted actor, and he uses those skills to bring a nuance and subtlety to the role of Captain America. For us, it’s so important in big spectacle movies to also be doing sensitive, smart character work. Chris nails that blend.”
The first weekend of May rounds off the initial three movies, with the release of Captain America: Civil War, which is why he’s in the Hollywood Hills doing publicity shoots when he’d presumably rather be in bed sleeping-off his fever. “It’s funny because in the beginning I was so nervous,” he recalls of taking on the franchise. We’re reclined on a leather sofa for the interview after the shoot and he’s chattier now, feeling a lot more like himself. Or maybe it’s just the Advil kicking in. “I was nervous about the responsibility and about the way the character would be received, but it’s been so great. I’m just so lucky that I decided to jump on board and it’s kind of scary thinking about it coming to an end.”
Evans still has two more Avengers movies to make over the next two years, where the stories of Marvel’s Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Black Widow and Cap intertwine, and he seems more than happy to continue his involvement in the Marvel universe.
“If they want to make more, I’m game,” he says. And it’s likely they will do just that. In less than 20 years, Marvel has come from the brink of bankruptcy as a predominantly magazine business to being a multi-billion-dollar, multimedia enterprise. People may have stopped buying comic books and collectors’ cards, but cinema has resurrected their characters with the result that superhero movies now dominate the box office.
So what is it about superheroes that we can’t get enough of at the moment?
“I think studios are eager to make them because they have built an audience with familiar titles, which is why studios do so many remakes,” Evans offers. “But more than that, technology has finally caught up with the imagination. A lot of these people who grew up with comic books, and hold them very dear to their hearts, had really fantastic fantasies in their childhood. And finally we can actually bring some of those fantasies to life in a really effective manner. So this is like a perfect storm, in terms of time and opportunity, and the studios have done a good job of putting powerful people at the helm of these movies. The directors, the special effects artists, the music… everyone is so brilliant behind the scenes and they make some great films.”
The best affirmation for this technical prowess is the fact that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was nominated for an Oscar last year, for Best Visual Affects — an important industry affirmation that these movies aren’t just gratuitous Kapows, Biffs and Whams.
Today’s quiet mood and physical ailments notwithstanding, Evans is much like Cap in some ways. He’s tall (6’1”), handsome in an unintimidating way, with clear blue eyes, and is muscular yet lean. Arriving in trusty blue Levi’s, a navy sweater and unassuming brown boots, he’s well-mannered, letting people walk in through doors before him as we navigate through our Hollywood home. And while photoshoots are probably his least favourite part of the job, he’s hardworking and switches on the charm as soon as the camera shutter starts snapping. The overwhelming sense is that he’s one of the good guys.
This can probably be explained by a grounded and happy childhood in Boston, Massachusetts, where he grew up and still keeps a place despite being based in LA. He says he frequently goes back to visit his family — his mother, an artistic director for a theatre company; his dad, a dentist; two older sisters, Carly, an English and drama teacher, and Shanna, an NYU graduate. His younger brother Scott, has followed a similar path, with parts in ABC’s soap opera One Life to Live and Law & Order.
“I had a really good childhood,” he says of those early years. “Or maybe I’ve built it up in my head to be better than it was, but either way I’m very nostalgic. And I really lament the time in life when I had to become self-aware. The period before that when you did things just because it was fun, not for anything, and you were just present all the time, it’s a beautiful thing. So for me, being home is just bliss.”
While a young Evans dreamed of becoming an animator for Disney, like most actors he discovered his talent while honing his craft in school plays. But instead of getting plucked out of a sea of teenagers by a talent agent, Evans made a game plan.
He’d move to New York and get himself an agent. He offered his services and coffee-making skills for free at a casting agency over the summer when he was 17, and then asked a few of the friendlier agents if they’d let him audition for them. By the end of that three-month period, he’d signed to an agent, moved back to Boston to finish high school, and in the January moved his life to New York to start his career. It wasn’t long before he booked a pilot and, in 2000, hit the smallscreen playing the role of Cary Baston on the TV series Opposite Sex.
“It just seemed like a very logical thing to do,” he explains of his entrance into the business. “A lot of people ask me how to do it. The truth is it comes down to whether or not you can afford to live for three months in New York without being paid. If you can afford an internship at a casting office, you’ll get an agent — you will. Just be nice on the phone and someone will give you a shot. Make some connections, make some friends.”
From that initial TV role, Evans built up his IMDb profile with films including Not Another Teen Movie, Fantastic Four, The Nanny Diaries, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Snowpiercer. But it’s Captain America that cemented his status as a big movie star and got him tickets to the Oscars.
I ask how his parents feel about what he’s achieved so far, and he laughs. “My mum’s nuts. She’s a lunatic. Every single thing that I could possibly be in or on, she saves. I kind of poke fun at her, but it’s a really sweet thing. And my dad’s proud too but he’s not to the degree of, you know, collectibles.”
Evans also clearly loves what he does and is proud of his achievements. But he has a more complicated relationship with the celebrity-obsessed side of the business. “Fame can be challenging,” he sighs. “It’s gotten better because you learn.”
He says that when he first got the role of Captain America he was “scared of the unknown” and told himself stories about how bad it might be trying to deal with being famous. “You always make it the worst possible scenario,” he admits. A Britney Spears-shaved-head scenario? I offer as an illustration of celebrity meltdown.
“Right,” he laughs, nodding in agreement. “I had a few friends who were far more famous than I was at the time and you see how they have to tailor their lives. For someone who never gave it much thought, it felt like a real compromise. You go to the worst case scenario where you think, I would never be able to do this, and I’ll never be able to do that. It really is like the sky is falling.” He says he now takes it one day at a time. “Some days it’s going to be hard to go certain places at certain times, and that’s tricky.”
That doesn’t mean he isn’t grateful for the good fortune that has come his way. He is quick to clarify that being famous isn’t the worst job in the world. “For every con, there’s a lot more pros. And it really is how you choose to view it. If you want it, you can certainly fan those flames. But if you don’t like it, there’s plenty of restaurants you don’t go to. So it’s manageable.”
And manage it he does — you won’t find any tabloid scandals on the private actor and he’s one of just two Marvel stars (the other being Scarlett Johansson), who don’t have a personal social media account. So while we know he dated Jessica Biel for five years from 2001 to 2006, and has been romantically linked to Minka Kelly several times since 2007, it was his sister Carly he brought along as his date to this year’s Oscars.
Thanks to his status in the public eye as a scandal-free role model, it’s interesting to note that Evans’ uncle, Mike Capuano, is an American politician who serves as the US Representative for Massachusetts’s 7th congressional district. Is that something Evans could see himself doing one day in the future? He leans back, deep in thought, while I offer some chat about Donald Trump being a great potential Marvel character to fill the silence. He shoots me an alarmed look, so I clarify that he’d make a great baddie. “Oh, baddie, yeah, thank God,” he says with a grin. “I didn’t know where you were going with that.”
As to the notion of one day following in his uncle’s footsteps, it turns out to be something he has considered. “I would never say never. I’ve always thought it would be nice one day to think about some sort of political pursuit. I’m so proud of my uncle and of anyone who dedicates themselves to helping the progression of society in exacting change for the betterment of mankind. Ultimately, there’s very few things that I consider to be noble and challenging. I know that Washington is a tough place. I have my opinions and maybe later on in life I might try and actually get up on a soap box.”
More immediately, the subjects of government and politics appear in the new Captain America: Civil War movie. The film is focused around mounting political pressure to install a system of accountability when the actions of the Avengers lead to collateral damage. However, Captain America believes superheroes should remain free to defend humanity without government interference. Although the film is set around 2006, when the comic book series was written, the subplot of government intrusion on society seems very topical, given the extraordinary events of the presidential campaign.
“I bet every generation feels like society is crumbling and that America’s always falling to pieces. It’s always the worst of times,” he says of the current political climate. But surely it doesn’t get much worse than Trump? I reply.
“To be completely fair, Trump really has…” he pauses, before becoming as animated and passionate as I’ve seen him all day (it’s funny how Trump seems to have that effect on people).
“It’s the demise of the Republican Party,” he continues. “It would be amazing if the Republican Party can survive him. In the UK they had meetings about banning him from the country. That just doesn’t happen. It’s insane. It just really says something.”
Running for office might be a distant, and as yet half-formed idea, but Evans does have some more immediate ambitions. His directing debut came late last year with Before We Go, an independent, romantic film following two strangers who spend one night together. The reviews were mixed, though most praised his performance in the leading role alongside Alice Eve. Nevertheless, the experience has made him crave more shots at taking on this much bigger responsibility. “I’d wanted to direct for a long time. It’s just hard to find someone who’s willing to let you direct,” he explains.
“I have no training, I’ve never been to any sort of school, so it’s a gamble. It was a situation where we found a script that felt manageable. This was a simple story, it’s two people. It just felt very contained and, not to sound awful, but I aimed a little low, just because I just wanted to get my feet wet.
I think there’s no shame in that. I didn’t want to bite off more than I could chew the first time out.”
He describes the process as being an educational experience. “There were a lot of things I thought I was prepared for that never became a problem, and things I didn’t think would be an issue that ended up being one. So it was very eye opening. But I loved the experience and I want to do it again. I’m trying to aim a little higher in terms of the story and the scope. I feel a little more comfortable behind the camera, and it’s now just about finding the right script. Because the really great scripts are snatched up by the really great directors. So it’s about digging and trying to find the diamond in the rough.”
Before shooting that film, Evans asked the Russo brothers, and his Scott Pilgrim Vs The World director, Edgar Wright for advice. “They just said don’t be afraid to ask questions. You’re surrounded by very talented people in their own respective departments, so lean on them, trust them, take their advice.
And that was incredibly valuable on set. Plenty of times I was like, I don’t know, what do you think? And that was really helpful.”
Evans admits that he came out the other side as a better actor, knowing the industry on a deeper level, and with tools to take his craft forward. “I would never stop acting completely, because I do love it, but if I was to get married and have kids, I could see myself wanting to be less of a famous actor. The fame thing is the tricky part, especially when you have children, and there is a nice element to the investment in directing. Even the amount of time and passion required for pre- and post-production; you’re with a project intimately for a year. As an actor you’ve got a few months and then you completely forget about it. So I like that connection, and I like that you can be a little more in the shadows but still be part of a profession that you’re in love with.”
Evans is a lot more chipper. I think he’s enjoying our chat and now that the pressure of the photoshoot is done he seems to have relaxed. Plus he’s stopped sweating and should be in one piece for his Sony meeting. But before he leaves we have a final question: what’s the big end game? He’s a solid fixture of the Marvel universe, which doesn’t seem likely to dry up any time soon. He’s young but experienced enough to handle the pressures of fame and seems to be navigating the Hollywood game just fine. So now what?
“My big ambition is to not have a big ambition,” he replies ambiguously before clarifying his point. “I know it’s kind of strange but my goal in life is to practice trying to be present on a daily basis. I think, as people, our consciousness is spread out. We analyse the past, we worry about the future, and it’s all fuelled by fear and pain and all these negative things. Even when it’s good it’s going to be not good in a minute. Then you’re chasing it again. It’s all rooted in time and I think my big ambition is to really practice the ability to quiet my brain a little and just learn how to enjoy the moment.”
Right now, I think he is putting this into practice and is enjoying the moment. “I love this industry, but it certainly puts you into scenarios where you can see very clearly the cyclical struggle that life can present,” he agrees. “I know that sounds kind of apathetic. It shouldn’t be looked at as complacent or indifferent. We have that awful saying here in LA, ‘Show me a content man, and I’ll show you a failure’. That’s the most disgusting Western saying I’ve ever heard. That’s not the way it is with other places in the world. It’s not the way I want to live my life. I love to be content.”
My conclusion? Hollywood’s found a good guy here, one who’s got his head screwed on, takes the moral high ground and one that might even have managed to stay surprisingly sane.
No wonder he makes a great Captain America. And maybe one day he’ll make a great public servant too. But for now, as he waves us goodbye, beneath the Hollywood Sign, I realise that if I was feeling ill and under the weather, the last thing I’d want to do is a magazine cover shoot. But he did it anyway because it’s what’s going to keep pushing this young actor forward. Even if he is content with the now.