Ask Taylor Kitsch if he’s a one-dimensional actor—what with his starring roles as the stereotypical Hollywood bad guy-fighting beefcake in big-budget films like John Carter and Battleship, this year’s war thriller Lone Survivor, not to mention perhaps his most memorable turn as Tim Riggins, Friday Night Lights’ fullback with those clear eyes and a full heart—and he can only laugh. “I mean every actor has what they want to get out of the business,” Kitsch told ELLE.com when we called him up on a recent afternoon. “But here’s the thing: people think it’s all so pre-meditated.”
You see, to Kitsch, the money and fame—they don’t matter all that much anymore. Sure, the 33-year-old Canadian is a ruggedly handsome hardbody who, while not an A-lister, has box-office draw. In recent years however, he’s come to find he lives more for enveloping himself in emotionally powerful roles. It’s hardly surprising then to see him play gay activist Bruce Niles in HBO’s The Normal Heart—a Ryan Murphy-directed TV-movie adaptation of Larry Kramer’s iconic stage play that chronicles the cruelly ignored AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s, and features a star-studded cast including Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, and Jim Parsons—with such restrained grace and emotional precision. Making the film was an enlightening journey for Kitsch—one he was eager to revisit during a conversation that touched upon his passion for fearless acting, a recent foray into writing and directing, and why it’s his job to make people forget about Riggins.
The Normal Heart is such an emotionally draining movie to watch. It must have been even more exhausting to take part in as an actor.
This film kind of encompasses, and I guess it’s a cliché, [the idea] of ‘what you put in is what you get out’, you know? Obviously the subject matter is bigger than all of us. So we kind of came together during rehearsal just months before—me and Ryan Murphy—talking over Bruce and the approach there and how we wanted to do it. So I think so much came through prep, knowing that you’re getting into something that’s heavy. And I think a lot of us kind of bonded over that experience of telling the story that needs to be told and that’s draining. It was extremely draining. Especially for Mattie Bomer (who lost 30-pounds for the role). I mean, physically as well.
It’s not like your last major film role, in ‘Lone Survivor’, was any less intense. Just in a different fashion.
I gained twenty [pounds] for Lone and lost twenty for Normal. And we wrapped Lone in the end of November and I think we hit camera for Normal in, I think, May. So yeah. That’s the beauty of my gig though, you know? I can go and kind of envelop myself in these war heroes and these Navy Seals and tell a different but almost emotionally-kind-of-draining film as well with Lone, you know? With the families and all those guys, it was a heavy set to be on as well.
Unfortunately both of these subject matters are probably a one-degree separation from all of us, if not less. With war, I’m sure you have a cousin or brother or friend that went to war, and unfortunately AIDS is a one-degree separation with me. It’s incredible.
I imagine on both The Normal Heart, as well as Lone Survivor, for that matter, there’s a pressure on you as an actor to get it right.
Without a doubt. And that’s where it goes to [director] Ryan Murphy’s process. It was so thorough and he was meant to direct this. And obviously from an actor’s standpoint you’re going ‘You gotta go through this process and let yourself be exposed on a different level than a lot of films.’ Almost to an extreme. And you have to have that much more trust on set as well. And I had that with Murphy.
I think people have this preconceived idea of you as strictly the macho type of actor. But even going back to your earlier films, like 2010’s Bang Bang Club, it was clear you weren’t afraid to tackle emotionally challenging roles.
Thanks for doing your research! But yeah, it’s an opportunity that you’d be silly to say no to. And this scared the shit out of me, to be blunt. It definitely on so many levels made me not just a better actor, but a better person as well.
You’ve had real struggle in your life: from being homeless for a short time in New York City to digging ditches in Barbados with your estranged father to make ends meet. Have such life challenges helped you to better inhabit these draining roles?
I don’t think I’m that conscious of it. I just think it’s more of that the upbringing that I had kind of squared me away. A single mom raising three boys. From a trailer park. So I understand an opportunity when it comes maybe more than others that were a bit more fortunate. And I think a late start helps: I really kind of broke out in my mid-to-late twenties. So having at least some kind of ground to stand on within myself helps a lot. And it’s more about the work than really anything else. I’m not chasing celebrity or money or whatever it is.
These days so much is made of who’s an A-list star or a leading man or what have you in Hollywood.
[Laughs] Like what number am I on the call sheet?
Exactly. And even though there was a lot written about you making a leading-man push around John Carter, maybe I’m wrong, but I get the sense that wasn’t really all that important.
Absolutely. Even with Tim Riggins, man, I was told when I signed up for that that I’m gonna be done after the first season.
Speaking of Riggins, does it shock you that a role like that has stayed with people for so long? For example, when I told people I was interviewing you they immediately said “Ah, I love Riggins!”
[Laughs] I guess it’s my job to kind of do something that special again. So they’ll be like “Ah, Mike Murphy” or something like that. But it’s all flattering. I think that guy just hits home to men and women. It was a blast to play him. I learned so much through that process.
You recently wrote, directed and produced a thirty-minute short entitled Pieces. And you’re planning to turn it into a feature as well, correct?
I’m like eighty-percent done with the script. And we’re pumped. And I’m in no rush. We’re kind of juggling a couple gigs right now of what we’re going to dive into next. So that will probably prolong this process with the film, our own feature. You know, the more movies I do as an actor the better director I’m going to be as well. So I’m in no crazy rush. But we’re definitely excited for it. And it will only be a thirty-day shoot, if that.
Were both writing and directing always career ambitions?
I’ve always been writing. I was just never really telling anyone that would listen about it. And [Friday Night Lights director] Pete Berg has rubbed off on me an incredible amount. He’s one of my closest friends. And watching Oliver [Stone] do his thing. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some really talented people. So hopefully I can kind of steal from them and create my own process through that. But I’ve definitely taken from Berg quite a bit.
You’ve shown your film to both Berg and Stone, right?
I’ve shown it to a bunch of the heads of Pixar, to Pete [Berg], to a lot of people, actually. Stone was Stone with it. He was like “Congrats for doing it.” He had some questions that were definitely fair. But I guess the bottom line is he was very complimentary. He loved the way it looked and the tone is there, which is so much with any film—getting the tone and keeping it in the realm of it. So yeah, he had productive criticism, for sure. But he was very complimentary.
This interview wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t ask about your incredible blonde ‘do in The Normal Heart. That was a wig, right?
No! That’s my flow, man! Isn’t that incredible? I didn’t even know what a blowout was when I started the film. Usually I’m not in the makeup chair or hair or whatever. But I was in there thirty minutes a day just for hair just to get it done right. It brought you right back to the early Eighties with that.
Did you get any outside opinion on the blonde, blown-out Kitsch?
I mean, Kitsch, me personally, I wasn’t a fan of it after I was working. But I loved it for Bruce. And I tip the hat to [Ryan] Murphy for that: while we were getting ready and just bouncing ideas off each other, he was like “What do you think about going blonde?” And I’m kind of just fearless in the sense of like “Yeah. I’m in for it. What do you think?” It just took it to that next level.