Chris Pine: The Thinker
By Shana Naomi Krochmal
Photography by Nino Muñoz
Chris Pine shows up with a thesis statement. “I think there is a growing homogenization of what masculinity means,” he says.
Asked by Pine’s reps a week earlier for a brief outline of the focus for this piece, I’d fired off a vague, pretentious email about how leading men in movies seem ripe for reinterpretation -- especially, say, the kind of characters Pine plays, like Star Trek Into Darkness’s Captain Kirk or, coming later this year, Tom Clancy’s CIA hero Jack Ryan. Maybe he would want to talk about that.
He’s read my email. He’s come prepared.
Heroes in today’s films all look the same, Pine argues, ticking off a list: “Bare chested. Very tan. White. Brown hair, blue eyes, perfect skin.” He grimaces. “That is so -- not real.”
But Pine seems very real, in a very perfect, unreal way. Today, sitting outside a small coffee shop in Los Angeles, he’s wearing a baseball hat, sneakers, slim-fit cargo pants, and a tight white tank top. The California sun glints off his golden-brown shoulders, and, when he lifts his sunglasses, his eyes are most definitely blue. (Indoors, they are a speech-stoppingly bright blue, a shade so intense I’d assumed they only looked that way onscreen because of some post-production magic.)
Somehow he doesn’t draw any undue attention sitting smack in the middle of a Sunset Boulevard sidewalk with his iced coffee and chicken sandwich. Maybe it’s because we’re slightly off the city’s center aisle at Intelligentsia, a low-key neighborhood staple in Silver Lake, and he’s dressed more like the well-maintained bro next door than a guy who will star in not one but two massive franchise films in 2013.
Or maybe it’s because he doesn’t want to preen for a celebrity puff piece. “Trying to think of new ways to talk about myself is always… odd,” he says. He’d rather wax poetic about masculinity -- and he will, at length. “It really got me thinking,” he says. “I don’t even know where to begin.”
Pine reminds me that there’s something people always say about a guy like him: “The big joke is, what are you going to do with an English major?”
He’s not kidding -- he earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley’s top-notch English department in 2002 -- but even without the pedigree, it’s obvious this guy is smart. Not just actor smart. Not just wisecracking late-night talk-show smart or charming, control-the-narrative-of-your-own-cover-story smart. He’s the kind of smart you have to hustle to keep up with. The kind of smart that seems unfair, given the fact that he’s also a keenly talented actor who stares at you so sincerely with those blue eyes while spitting out 50-point Scrabble words.
It’s possible that Pine’s success is in part a fluke of timing. He’s come into the prime of his leading man potential just as action movies—still the gold standard for a box office–driven industry obsessed with drawing young men into its clutches—seem to be getting more intelligent, even if they cycle through the same archetypal territories of daddy issues, best-buddy bromances, and reluctant heroism.
Nerd king Joss Whedon (a feminist film studies major once best known for creating Buffy: The Vampire Slayer) helmed the biggest opening-weekend box-office success of all time with last year’s complex comic supergroup, The Avengers. Sam Mendes (American Beauty) made a new man out of James Bond in the artsy, slick Skyfall. And Pine’s two big tentpole movie directors -- Star Trek’s J.J. Abrams and Jack Ryan’s Kenneth Branagh -- used to be synonymous with critically acclaimed TV (Lost) and William Shakespeare, respectively.
Branagh, who also gave us Chris Hemsworth as Thor, has a simple formula for upping the ante: “You just assume at all times that the audience is as smart -- and probably much smarter -- than you are,” he says. “The best action movies are when you feel that there’s a credible motivation behind what’s going on. People like Chris Pine, they go hunting for that. They’ve got this radar for the truth, and they try to apply that—however fantastical the situations may be.”
Like those grown-up geeks now let loose in the studios’ big sandbox, Pine is a serious student of the silver screen -- especially its leading men.
“You take someone like a Bruce Willis or a Charles Bronson -- the definition of masculinity there becomes about the ability to inflict violence, take revenge, take what’s yours,” he says. “I’m thinking in my mind about Clint Eastwood squinting with the gun in Dirty Harry. Not smiling, squinting -- very cold and cut off.”
“But then you have Marlon Brando in The Wild Bunch. In Streetcar Named Desire or Last Tango [in Paris]. Or Tom Hardy, I think, has it -- this ability to inflict incredible violence in the blink of an eye, but then also to cry and to show great vulnerability. Those two polarities are in many ways indicative of the human experience in its most extreme.”
None of those are quite the kind of male movie star Pine has become. He carries too much mirth to be stone-cold cruel, too much charisma for the brute force Hardy displays, for example, in Warrior. Branagh cites another blue-eyed antecedent: “It goes back to someone like Paul Newman,” he says. “The character actor in the leading man’s body -- Chris has that.”