Chris Evans' start in Hollywood wasn't so auspicious. From his infamous scene in Not Another Teen Movie to playing "Harvard Hottie" in The Nanny Diaries, starring his future co-star Scarlett Johansson, he's enjoyed a slow burn rise to the top. "I'm glad that I didn’t you know come out of the gates with the first thing being some huge critically-acclaimed success. It’s been very nice and educational," he says. For the past five years, he's been known to us as Captain America, one of the most classic roles in the Marvel universe, which is why it made sense to pair him with a new arrival to the superhero genre, Chiwetel Ejiofor, in our annuals Royals package. Here, he talks about his rise in Hollywood, from the his very first part in high school to his roles in the cult-favorite Snowpiercer and the upcoming Gifted.
Tell me the first thing you ever auditioned for. How old were you? I must have been 12 or something. Maybe my first audition ever was a school play, a play called Crazy Camp. And it was in sixth grade. And, well, I didn’t get the lead; I played the supporting lead, which was just as good. I ended up dating one of the more popular girls as a result, and then the second the play was over, she dumped me. And I learned then the power of getting a good role.
And did you get the bug as well, aside from the girl? I did. It was a lot of fun. It was something that I took to it very easily. It just felt very comfortable, very natural. My older sister did it, so seeing her do it, and anything she did, we wanted to copy. So it just felt natural, and there was a bunch of local community theaters so I just started doing plays year-round. At that point it was still a hobby. I still kind of had my sights set on being an artist. I was big into drawing, painting. I really liked animation. You know part of me kind of wanted to work for Disney or Pixar. Well I guess Pixar really hadn’t been flushed out at the time. You know I remember when Beauty and the Beast came out in theaters, it was the first time they had started to incorporate computers, and it was just a really cool thing, and I remember thinking 'I'll never not like cartoons' [laughs], and this is just a great format for really unique storytelling. And I loved Fantasia. And so at the time it was much more about art. Then at some point in high school, it started to become a little more focused on acting, and by senior year I had committed. That’s the good thing about doing community theater. The ratio of guy to girl is drastically imbalanced, so you have a much greater chance of getting a good part.
And you can sing. Captain America co-star Scarlett Johansson says you are a great singer. Coming from Scar, that’s not fair, 'cause Scarlet is like a legitimate amazing singer.
That’s why it is a big compliment, 'cause she says you’re singing all the time. That’s very kind of her. I don’t know that I'm singing all the time, but that’s very sweet of her to say.
So now on Captain America you’re not singing show tunes between sets? No, I'm probably doing like a little soft shoe. I grew up tap dancing as well. My mother was a tap dancer, so we had a tap floor in the basement, and we all got lessons.
You had a tap floor in your basement? Yeah, it was just you know it was a carpeted basement for most of our life, and then my mother put in this like you know little breakable plastic flooring that actually sounds great to tap on. And she just started giving us tap lessons. I played soccer my whole life, but you know I kind of again by the time I hit high school that took a back seat. And then in high school I wrestled and I was awful, and I played lacrosse and I wasn’t much better. But yeah, I mean I did that 'cause all my friends played sports. I was the only one out of my buddies that was in theater.
So did you make a big decision at some point to move to L.A.? Well I didn’t really make the decision. Luckily the decision was made for me. You know I had moved to New York first out of high school, and then I got a pilot. And the pilot got picked up, and so. It was a critically-acclaimed series for Fox called Opposite Sex. At the time it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was a show about an all-girls high school, and it was the first year the school had gone co-ed, and only three boys applied, so.
And how long did the show last? We filmed about eight episodes; I think we probably only aired six. But I was living at the Oak Woods, which is a very cliché path. And you know I met some friends and I made a little money, and I felt like I belonged. And it was a very comfortable introduction to Los Angeles and being away from home and a new industry.
And did you decide at a certain point to not do TV and focus on movies instead?
I think the first three years I was out here, I did a pilot every year, and each year the pilots didn’t get picked up thankfully. And then around 2001 I got my first movie, another critically-acclaimed Oscar darling called Not Another Teen Movie.
I love Not Another Teen Movie. It’s very high-brow stuff. I had a banana in my butt; I mean it’s what you train for.
But people remember that movie. I'm sure even on talk shows they’ve shown that scene. Yeah, yeah, they remember it. But again, it’s okay. I'm glad that I didn’t you know come out of the gates with the first thing being some huge critically-acclaimed success. It’s been very nice and educational. And I think this is a tricky industry where success can happen fast and it can really be a flood. And I think in order to navigate this business healthfully; it’s nice to have a slow drip. I think it really does ease you in to a certain frame of mind that I think if it comes all at once can actually be jarring and you may not adapt that well.
Well the thing that’s interesting about you is though that you haven’t been pigeonholed in one genre. If you are in one category you try to completely go to another category? If it shakes out that way, it’s not because of how I think the industry will view me or how I think my perception will dictate my opportunity. For me it’s fueled completely by my creative appetite. You know I'm a pretty material guy and I think most artists – it sounds a little pretentious – but I think most actors are fickle, and what excites me one month may not the next. And so for me it’s truly about just whatever I'm hungry for as an actor, and it usually incorporates some level of variety.
So one of the things that’s also interesting to me about you vis-a-vis Captain America is that you took this character and made him a really fascinating character. I mean on paper it’s not necessarily he’s very straight up. Did you get that when you first read it, or was that something you knew you could bring to it? Well, that was the worry when I first took the job, you know how do you make this guy who’s wildly selfless and very internalized and how do you make him have struggle and conflict. How do you make him complex? How do you make him interesting? The first movie’s interesting because he is given this amazing gift and you see a guy who had nothing and now has everything, and all of a sudden there’s enormous responsibility and expectations. So there is things we can all relate to as people. But by the second film, even the first Avengers movie or the second Captain American film, you know he’s really grown into his own, and now he just has this kind of sound moral compass. He operates with authority, and it’s very easy to all of a sudden make that guy just seem like you know your friend’s scary dad that you know you didn’t really know much about but you know he’s a good guy and you stay out of his way.
He also might be a virgin. That's possible too.
But I love that because he’s kind of scared of girls. Well, that’s the one thing I think he still hasn’t quite found his footing. But I think they do a good job of making him care about things. You know if you show that he has something that can touch his heart, if you see where he emotes, even if it’s privately, you see him be affected by love in some capacity, whether it’s the love of a woman or a friend or you know a responsibility, whatever it is. He believes in something and loves something and he’s affected by it. And so when you see him kind of in that pain or show that compassion, I think that’s what humanizes him and makes him interesting.
And you were nervous at first about taking this on? Yeah, it’s not a bad franchise to be a part of especially if you got Marvel doing it, because Marvel just has some sort of winning formula up their sleeve. But yeah, I was apprehensive. It’s intimidating to commit to these big six-picture contracts, you know what I mean? If all of a sudden, like I said, if your creative appetite takes you in a different direction, or maybe you don’t even want to act anymore. Maybe you just want to pursue something else in life. You’re really not afforded that opportunity with that type of commitment. But I think that’s just me doing what I think most people do. You focus on the negative immediately, and you really only see the bad side of things. At the time I really just panicked, and in retrospect, it's the best decision I could have made. I probably wouldn’t be doing this interview if I hadn’t done it.
So tell me about the new movie, Gifted, that’s coming out in October? It’s myself. It’s Octavia Spencer and Jenny Slate, Lindsay Duncan. Just this young girl who is ridiculously talented named McKenna Grace. It’s a movie kind of in the vane of Kramer vs. Kramer. The movie picks up with me and my niece. My niece is a gifted child; she’s a math prodigy. Her mother, my sister, had taken her own life a few years prior when my niece was an infant. And I raised with the baby in an effort to keep her from my mother. My mother is a very overbearing woman who is also a bit of a math prodigy herself and pushed my sister, who was a genius, to her limits, and she kind of buckled under the pressure of her own mind. So ultimately my mother tracks us down and it becomes a custody battle over who has the right to raise this kid.
So what’s more difficult, acting opposite a child or acting with a lot of green screen? I'll say a child just because you don’t know what you’re gonna get. At least with a green screen you know. At least with a green screen you can fill in the blanks. A kid, some days are hot, some days are cold, although McKenna’s really great. I mean I've worked with a few kids before, and you know McKenna really is like nine going on 50. She’s so poised and mature. But still you know days are long and you know kids can get tired. Yeah. You need them to be kids. That’s what makes it a pure performance. If all a sudden they’re too rehearsed and too mature, it feels contrived. You need a kid who is a kid but can still take direction. It’s a real tricky balance to navigate, and McKenna you’ll see; she’s something special.