On the morning that we meet, 32-year-old actor Taylor Kitsch is a patchwork of frayed flannel and denim. He’s Paul Bunyan-big, and speaks like a country road – leisurely paced, with winding turns that sometimes go nowhere. We’re sitting down to breakfast at his favorite beachside hotel in Santa Monica where he’s hunkered down for a week of meetings. At night, he’s been driving out to the Valley to play hockey.

“Us Canadians, we find that shit,” he says with a laugh. “Hockey’s like therapy for me. I went through a terrible break up a while ago and it was the one thing that allowed me to actually not think about it for an hour-and-a-half.”

A tossed off aside, to be sure – therapy on ice! – but it encapsulates Kitsch’s onscreen appeal, and has a lot to do with why the L.A. machers keep banking on him. He’s a man’s man, a jock even, but he’s comfortably evolved. He talks about his vintage Triumph bike like a veteran gearhead, but he isn’t afraid to feel.

This much was clear on the cult series Friday Night Lights where, for five seasons, he played Tim Riggins, a star high-school fullback saddled with a drinking problem, a conscience, and his own catchphrase – “Texas Forever.”

After Friday Night Lights, the powers that be gave Kitsch the keys to two potential franchises: John Carter and Battleship. For a variety of reasons beyond a young actor’s control, both went tits up, and he found himself in the odd position of having to hit the reset button on a film career before it really started.

And so here we are. The underdog label fits him better anyway, and Kitsch’s 60-second back-story is a lesson in triumph over adversity. The youngest of three brothers, he was raised by a single mom when his father took off. Money was sometimes tight. Like many young Canadians, Kitsch dreamed of playing pro hockey one day, and maybe could have if a knee injury hadn’t sidelined him. Asked to quantify his disappointment, Kitsch trains his emerald green eyes and says plainly: “One of the only memories I have of my father is him skating with me when I was 4-years-old. That’s pretty heavy shit.”

Indeed it is. In need of a new career plan, Kitsch moved to Manhattan at the urging of a modeling scout, where he got more work catering bar mitzvahs than he did on the runway. These were dark days, though some were darker than others. At one point, he admits, he was even properly homeless, sleeping on subway cars when the weather got too bad.

Which is all to say that when those would-be blockbusters crapped out, well, Kitsch had seen worse. And if he’s got any regrets about doubling down on movies with CGI aliens, he’s certainly not saying. In his defense, he points out, John Carter was a live-action Mars epic directed by the guy who just won a couple of Oscars for Wall-E.

“If I even told you who else was trying to get John Carter’s role!” Kitsch says, though he stops himself, and won’t elaborate. As for Battleship? If nothing else, it was a chance to spend a couple of months in Hawaii playing a board game with real U.S. warships. “The Navy closed down the USS Missouri for us for two weeks!” he says, proudly.

At this point, a waitress comes by again to ask Kitsch if he’d like coffee. This is not her first spin by the table, nor will it be her last. Kitsch is still getting used to the attention, which might be why he still lives in Austin, Texas, two years after FNL wrapped. The pace, the people, the landscape – it suits him. In fact, the only particularly Hollywood thing about Kitsch is his breakfast order: a fruit plate with Greek yogurt on the side. I ask if he’s felt pressure to move to L.A. You know, to be seen. He shakes his head: “They want you bad enough they’ll come get you.”

And it sounds like they do. Rumors of Kitsch’s meteoric ascent weren’t exaggerated, just premature. Look for him to earn his Next Big Thing crown in 2014 with pivotal roles in two very different male ensemble films: Lone Survivor (a true story about a tragic Navy SEAL mission in Afghanistan) and an HBO adaptation of The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s Tony Award-winning play about the 1980s AIDS crisis.

Lone Survivor comes from director Peter Berg, who cast Kitsch in Friday Night Lights, and gives him another gift here. Kitsch plays Mike Murphy, the leader of a four-man platoon that went hunting for a Taliban leader named Ahmad Shah in the mountains of Afghanistan in 2005.

Kitsch likens Lone Survivor to The Deer Hunter and Platoon, and he’s not overplaying his hand. The film is two hours of tough-to-watch battle-scenes wrapped in moral quandaries, tied up in an ethical-dilemma bow. To prep for the project, Kitsch and his co-stars (including Mark Wahlberg and Ben Foster) trained with actual Navy SEALS in the desert outside Albuquerque.

“The first day of training was live fire,” Kitsch says, assuring me this wasn’t some pretty-boy project. “Real bullets, dude.” He recalls hiding in a ditch while SEALs dressed as Taliban charged past him unaware. During training, he even shot a SEAL in the face with a paintball gun and drew blood, he says, grinning wide. But don’t let his bluster fool you. When Kitsch saw a finished cut of the film, he admits. “I cried three times.”

No one was injured during the filming of The Normal Heart, though by all accounts the experience was just as harrowing. It’s a story about the earliest days of the AIDS Crisis, when men were dropping dead at an alarming rate from a mysterious “gay cancer.” Kitsch plays Bruce Niles, a Wall Streeter who moonlights as the head of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a pioneering treatment center and pressure group. What Kitsch loved about the role was the towering fear it inspired within him.

He took the script to his old New York acting coach, Sheila Gray, and laid himself bare: “We were both, like, Holy fuck,” he says. It’s worth nothing there are no CGI Aliens in either of these projects. When asked if that was intentional- if he was looking for a pair of deeply human roles to erase the memory of a box-office turkey based on a board game – he shrugs it off: “I’ll keep swinging for the rest of my career.”

For Kitsch, opportunity looks a lot like hard work, and he prepped for The Normal Heart by “reading a stupid amount of memoirs.” The film co-stars Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer, and Kitsch will remember the experience as a master class in acting and knowing one’s limits. When the production set up shop on Fire Island for a pivotal scene, Kitsch chose to sleep on the mainland. “I know if I’m with the boys I’m gonna party ’til 3 AM and drink 18 bottles of wine,” he says. “I needed to get some rest.”

Kitsch picks at the remains of his fruit plate, moving a pair of figs around with his lumberjack paws. He’s got a busy day ahead – “eight back-to-back meetings” – but seems in no rush. Like any athlete raised in a locker room, he loves to shoot the shit: about the house he’s building on a lake in Austin, about learning to fly-fish in Newfoundland, about women. On the subject of his dating life, he’s country boy coy, but it sounds like he’s having a very good time. “I’m not getting married next year. I’ll tell you that much,” he says.

Making any kind of long term commitment, personal or otherwise, isn’t likely. He was offered a big network TV show this past season – a gig that paid “just stupid money,” he says, still marveling at the figure – “but I ain’t signing no seven-year deal.” As for the rumored Friday Night Lights movie, he wishes them well, but says he’s done playing Riggins. “Why mess up something that ended so fucking great?”

Kitsch pauses to reflect on the past year and the freedom he’s enjoying. “I love that I can literally shut down and just concentrate and really see what I’m capable of doing.” Texas Forever.