Chris Pratt dangled high in the air, his eyes closed, his arms hovering underneath his head, his legs splayed apart in gray, tight, precariously short shorts. He looked peaceful, asleep. His body drifted across an elegantly appointed two-floor bedroom suite, until, suddenly, his head thumped against a far wall.
"Ow," said director Morten Tyldum, watching the rehearsal safely from the ground.
Pratt didn't even wince.
It was November 2015, day 28 of shooting on Passengers. The grand sci-fi romantic adventure stars Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence as two unfortunate souls awakened 90 years too early on a 120-year interstellar voyage to another planet. Facing a lifetime of solitude aboard a luxury starship — its pools, restaurants, and shopping areas meant to entertain its 5,258 inhabitants on only the final months of their journey — Jim (Pratt) and Aurora (Lawrence) begin to settle into their new reality. And then, one day, the gravity mysteriously malfunctions, and a sleeping Jim unwittingly floats out of his bed and across his room, until the wall gets in the way of his head.
To achieve the illusion of weightlessness, Pratt was strapped into a specially designed harness, which was attached to a wire rig that allowed him to float and rotate freely while in midair. It was a clever mechanism, but it still left most of the hard work of achieving the proper degree of steady, languorous movement to Pratt's world-famous abs.
"I didn't work out today, specifically because I knew I'd be doing this," the actor told me later during a break in filming on the Atlanta soundstage, sitting in a director's chair near the bedroom suite set. "To suspend yourself just at the hips and to appear to be asleep and relaxed and in zero gravity is pretty tricky. The first few times I did it, I didn't pull it off at all." Complicating matters further, the harness was hidden underneath Pratt's tiny shorts, requiring some careful rearranging before and after every take. "They're quite short," he said, stifling a laugh. "We're trying to conceal this harness, but also not expose my genitals, I guess. I don't want it to ride up my butt. It's, uh, this is what we do. This is the important stuff." He giggled. "If we get one take that works and it gets into the movie, it will be kind of a miracle."
Back on set, the Norwegian-born Tyldum — making his first Hollywood studio film after earning a Best Director Oscar nomination for The Imitation Game — was indeed struggling to get Pratt to convey just the right degree of weightless slumber. "That was pretty good, pretty good," Tyldum told Pratt after one take. "Just straighten your wrists."
"How many times have you given me that note?" Pratt said. "Every take, you're like, 'A little limp-wristed.'"
Tyldum laughed, and then gently noted that in zero-G, Pratt's hands wouldn't naturally bend towards the ground. Another take, another bonk against the wall. Cut. "Your arms, they were a little robotic there," said Tyldum. "Your arms can float."
Pratt nodded. Action! Bonk. Cut.
"You good, Chris?" asked Tyldum.
"Yeah," said Pratt. Action! Bonk. Cut.
"You want to go straight into another one?" asked Tyldum.
"Yup!" said Pratt. Action! Bonk. Cut.
As the crew reset for another take, Pratt turned to a nearby electronic press kit crew, there to capture some B-roll footage for the marketing campaign. "Hey, I'm Chris Pratt," he said with a big grin. "I'm getting weightless. We're doing wire work. Actors are really like puppets!"
After Tyldum was finally satisfied he'd gotten what he needed for the wide angle, the crew began rearranging the cameras for a closer shot, and Pratt came back down to the ground to rest. He dropped his shorts to get the harness off of him as fast as possible, seemingly unconcerned with flashing his square-cut underwear to anyone who happened to be watching. "I think that's life," he said after throwing on some pants. "You have to be able to hang from a harness in tight shorts and bang your head against the wall." He smiled. "It's a real metaphor."
Pratt's overnight success as a movie star has indeed taken over a decade of banging his head against the wall. His career trajectory is almost too on-the-nose, as if tailor-made for splashy celebrity profiles and late-night talk show appearances: The son of blue-collar parents, the Washington state native dropped out of college at 19, and lived for a time out of a van and a tent in Hawaii. He was discovered while working at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. by actor Rae Dawn Chong, and then spent the next 13 years hammering out a series of roles on TV (Everwood, The O.C., Parks and Recreation) and in features (Wanted, Bride Wars, The Five-Year Engagement) that ranged from "asshole-boyfriend parts" to "super-confident dumb fat guy" roles, as he put it to GQ in 2015. He'd auditioned for the lead roles in Avatar and Star Trek, and choked so badly he told Entertainment Weekly that he doubted his own talent. It wasn't until he revealed a buff selfie in his underwear on Conan in 2012 — taken as he trained to play a Navy SEAL in Zero Dark Thirty — that Pratt began to shake his image as just a doofus with a Cheshire grin.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, Pratt was a movie star. Since 2014, his films have made over $3 billion worldwide — more than the movies headlined by Lawrence or Robert Downey Jr. over that same time frame. And yet the 37-year-old hasn't so much escaped playing asshole-boyfriends and super-confident dumb fat guys; it's more that he's figured out how to transmute those qualities (and a crap ton of gym time) into an irresistible leading man persona, equal parts roguish confidence and boyish charm. It is simply really, really hard not to like him, both on and offscreen.
But his steep rise now has Pratt testing his newfound renown. His films as a star to date — the adorably madcap animated feature The LEGO Movie, the Marvel Studios superhero comedy Guardians of the Galaxy, the gargantuanly lucrative sequel/reboot Jurassic World, and the remake of the classic Western The Magnificent Seven — all drafted their success off of an established brand. Passengers, by sharp contrast, is an original old-school star vehicle, a sci-fi romantic adventure that lives or dies on the audience's connection with its two leads — and especially with their idea of who Pratt is.
If Lawrence is the living embodiment of Gillian Flynn’s Cool Girl, then Pratt is in many ways her male counterpart: the Fun Dude, a work hard, play hard former fat guy who can deadlift 315 pounds and French braid his wife’s hair, who wows Will.i.am with a magic trick and confesses to getting the “nervous poops” on a plane. He is simultaneously your office intern’s not-so-secret lust object and the guy you’d happily bring home to meet grandma. He could throw back a beer with both your gay BFF and your MAGA hat–owning uncle. He is the guy we can all agree on at a time when we cannot seem to agree on anything at all.
But his morally complicated role in Passengers could shatter that carefully established image, and quite possibly alienate his vast fanbase in the process. "It's a character who has to make some really big and dark choices," Tyldum said. "You have to understand and feel for him." For the first time since becoming a star, America's wingman gets to see how far he can stretch the limits of his multibillion-dollar likability.
When Pratt first read for Guardians of the Galaxy, director James Gunn didn't even want to bother sitting in on the audition. "I had seen, like, one scene from Parks and Rec or something, where he was falling around an office place and being a bumbling fool," Gunn said in a phone interview. "I didn't think it was going to work." He chuckled. "We saw truly hundreds of actors to play the role of Star-Lord. We probably had already screen-tested over 20 people. So we were kind of scraping the bottom of the barrel by the time we got to Chris."
Compare that sentiment with how producer Neal H. Moritz responded when I asked him on the Passengers set why they cast Pratt in the film. "There's nobody else," he said. "There was a lot of actors that wanted to do this. There's nobody else that we could see in the role, honestly."
The feeling, it turned out, was mutual. "The minute I read the script, I knew there was no way it would be made without me," Pratt said of Passengers, which had spent years bouncing around Hollywood as one of the best unproduced screenplays in town. "When I finished, I had tears in my eyes. … I was like, I'm going to do that movie, and I'm going to fucking crush it."
It is a quintessentially Pratt-like — Prattian? Prattish? — reaction. The actor recognized just how different the project, with its romantic intrigue and intimate scope, would be for him. Pratt and Lawrence are practically the film's only actors, and he was excited, he said, to bring his "own special brand of acting juice" to the movie. So I asked him to describe that brand.
"I guess every person has something about themselves that makes them unique," he said after mulling over the question. "I can't exactly pinpoint what it is about myself. I don't know if anyone really ever could, and if they did, they'd probably be pretty douche-y. It's kind of weird to describe yourself, like, 'I'll tell you what makes me special!'"
And then, with total sincerity and without once seeming douche-y, he proceeded to do just that. "I think it's just breathing my own spirit into these characters, and getting roles that are not that different than who I would be if I was in that situation," he said. "It was the same thing with Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy, or Owen in Jurassic World — if all of the events leading up to that moment for that character were the events that led up to that moment for myself, I wouldn't be any different from those characters."
It is about the best description of what it means to be a movie star that you could ever get from someone who actually is one. The strange, special contract we've always made with Hollywood's biggest stars — from Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant to Julia Roberts and Will Smith — is that they bring an essential, unforgettable them-ness to every role they play, and we'll rush out to see it, every time. At their best, movie stars present us with a distinctive, aspirational image for what it means to be a certain kind of woman or man, and that image transcends whatever movie they happen to be in. It is far different from the kind of transformative performances one might expect from Viola Davis or Joaquin Phoenix, but it is no less difficult to pull off, let alone pull off well.
And it has been dying. Leading male actors of Pratt's generation — like Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pine, and Chris Evans — have watched their careers explode when placed at the center of a single massive franchise, but they have floundered trying to transfer that success to anything that doesn't call on them to play Thor, Kirk, and Captain America. Audiences only seem to want to see Ryan Reynolds' handsome mug when it’s covered by Deadpool's smart-ass mask. Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Gosling, and Tom Hardy evince a drive to be serious actors rather than movie stars, while James Franco has turned his stardom into the world's least interesting performance art project.
None of those actors, however, have established and maintained a movie star persona that is quite as sincere and manifest as Pratt's. "He has charm, lightness, a sense of adventure, that All-American Boy type of quality," said director Antoine Fuqua, who cast Pratt as the wily gunslinger Josh Faraday in The Magnificent Seven, which opened in September. "He's sort of the light in the room, but he's got an edge to him when he needs to. Who else can say 'You'll be killed by the world's greatest lover' and get away with it?"
Despite his initial misgivings, those qualities were readily apparent to Gunn within a few seconds of Pratt's Guardians of the Galaxy audition. "I felt like this was a guy, if he ever did share the stage with Robert Downey Jr., he wouldn't just be swamped up by that guy's charisma, which I feel almost every other actor is," said Gunn. "Chris is an old-time, Gary Cooper movie star, but he has a vulnerability to him that is completely modern. … I felt like he was somebody who would fill up the screen."
Filling the screen — i.e., unquestionably commanding the audience's attention — was particularly essential for Passengers, which asks its leads to spend a great deal of time in the film alone within a vast, empty, deliberately austere spaceship. "We needed a guy who could feel like an everyman," said Moritz. "It's obviously a really hefty challenge for an actor to have a lot of scenes on your own. You needed somebody who was very, very endearing, had some humor, but could also do the physical side of it."
That need for physicality isn’t just about effectively executing Passengers’ action sequences. The film also speaks to a specific, dire working-class yearning that so many of Pratt’s more posh peers couldn’t ever quite pull off. “He's a blue-collar guy,” Pratt said of his character. “He works with his hands. He builds things. He wants to be useful.”
Pratt's distinctive combination of qualities led Passengers' filmmakers to see him as the only star in Hollywood today who could play Jim. "He's very approachable," Tyldum said on the phone a few months before the movie's release. "At the same time, you are just riveted. Your eyes automatically go to him in the screen. And he's probably the nicest guy in Hollywood. So that helps a lot."
Pratt's image as a Really Nice Guy isn't just within the industry. His robust Instagram account — with over 7.9 million followers — regularly features images of Pratt visiting sick kids in hospitals, supporting the troops on USO tours, and promoting charity sweepstakes to visit him on set. "That's something that we talk about a lot," said Gunn. "He cares a lot about doing something with this. … He's taken on the role of being famous, and he's done something with it."
That's another big difference between being a well-known actor and a true movie star: Kerry Washington and Bradley Cooper can carefully titrate how much or little about their personal lives they share with the public, but stars are expected to maintain the infrastructure of their fame — and the contours of their personas — at all times. Along with his charity work, Pratt has also treated his social accounts as an occasion for self-deprecating previews of his glossy magazine spreads, behind-the-scenes shots from his film shoots, a chance to playfully tease his new co-star Lawrence, and a kind of release valve for his more outré comic impulses. (For an October photo of a tree with a series of deep, red grooves scratched into the bark, his caption reads, in part, "#TrollTime is the time of year when evil trolls roam the woods and scratch their greasy nails up and down the tree bark sharpening them for the purge.")
Mostly, though, Pratt uses his social feeds — including a Twitter account (3.8 million followers) and Facebook page (3.2 million likes) — as an opportunity to document his everyday life. In 2015, he posted shots of him erecting an Easter cross with his buddies, and images of him beaming while hoisting a fish he's just caught are so common they're practically a personal motif. These images further set Pratt apart from his marquee peers — it is rather difficult to imagine Leonardo DiCaprio or Benedict Cumberbatch bass fishing in a sleeveless tee. And Pratt’s evident and infectious enthusiasm for these down-home pursuits allows him to transcend American sociopolitical boundaries that, of late, feel menacingly severe.
The only photos and videos that are more common on Pratt’s Instagram are the ones with his wife, actor Anna Faris, and Jack, their 4-year-old son. (There's even one of Jack holding up a fish.) They're candid, everyday moments — like watching the Olympics, or swimming in the pool, or flying a kite. And since Pratt became a star, they are also quite rare.
Pratt first met Faris — who is one of the leads of the hit CBS sitcom Mom, and has starred in features since the Scary Movie series launched her career in 2000 — while they were shooting Take Me Home Tonight in 2007. They married two years later, when Pratt was still deep into the "dumb fat guy" stage of his career. "And now there's this new element of celebrity," he said. "Like, if you just show up at the airport, you've got 25 photographers there, how are you going to deal with that? It requires an administration. So we've just put people in place, you know, and luckily we can afford it. Because with this opportunity comes the means to make that kind of thing happen. You become more of a manager of this big thing."
He paused, as if realizing how this must all sound. "I used to think of the show Entourage, and be like, Come on! Who needs that?!" he said with a laugh. "But…I do! I don't know if I would just hire my buddies growing up to do it, because it's a pretty serious job. And it's sort of an ugly thing to talk about. So you have to make sure you don't lose touch with the idea that it's kind of a ridiculous, unrelatable issue."
The expansive embrace of the trappings of movie stardom that was once a requirement of the job has not, to date, been of much interest to Pratt. "His big extravagance was us shipping his F-150 Ford truck here from LA so he could drive it back and forth to the set each day because he didn't want to have a driver driving him," said Moritz. "We were talking yesterday about [how] we had had somebody come in to audition for a small role in the movie, and I was showing him some of the auditions. And I said, 'God, aren't you glad you don't have to do this?' And he said, 'Actually, I really used to like doing it. I liked going to these rooms where people didn't know me, and I just go do it. I really kind of enjoyed that.' I found that very endearing."
Pratt has worked virtually nonstop since 2013, jumping from movie and TV sets to international press tours and back again, and he has clearly relished what — and where — those experiences have brought him. "Not to use a cliched term, but it's really like a road trip," he said. "You look out the window of your car, and you can't believe the scenery. You think you'll never forget it. And before you know it, you look out, and that scenery is completely changed. … The view has been fucking spectacular." He grew quiet. "You know, other than being away from my family, it's been all positive."
Even on this plaintive point, Pratt can’t help but return to his trademark irresistible sincerity. “In this time in our lives, we're very lucky: Because of technology, you don't have to be present to be a presence in the life of a kid or your spouse,” he said, sounding a bit like a man trying convince himself of his own optimism. “You can check in. You can text. Talk. Email. FaceTime. You never really go a whole day without seeing one another's face, without sharing what's going on in your life.”
There is, at least, one person in Pratt's life who can relate to the solitary demands of his celebrated profession. "It doesn't hurt that I'm with somebody who's been, for longer than me, super recognizable and famous and working nonstop," he said. "It's a lot to ask somebody to understand, or expect somebody to understand, why you have to be away for so long. But she's, like, 'Dude, I get it, of course you have to go.'"
"Oh, take me back, take me back!"
Shooting the weightless scene was stretching into the evening hours on the Passengers set. Pratt had barely been lifted back into the air when he began wincing, so the crew quickly lowered him back down to the floor.
It was the first time all day that Pratt had expressed any discomfort. He carefully repositioned himself, and clapped his hands. "I'm feeling good," he said. "Let's go!"
"When he says, 'It's a little painful now,' then you know that it's been painful for a long time," Tyldum said. "Because he literally never complains."
The profound effect movie stars can have on anyone within their orbit doesn't stop when the director calls cut. "On a movie like this, there are so many technical aspects to it, it's so important that you have a leading man who is so supportive, who is not complaining, who says, 'OK, let's see what's the problem is,'" said Tyldum. "As an actor, he has to carry a lot of the movie on his shoulder, but also as a person, he really wanted to help carry the production, and help boost it along. … When the crew really got tired, he was the one who stood up — it happened several times during the shoot — wanted everybody's attention, and he just said how happy he was to be here, how thankful he was for everybody. He saw how hard everybody worked, and he really appreciated it, and he couldn't be more proud of it. He lifted morale like that."
Pratt has been studying the impact stars can have on a production since his days on Parks and Recreation. "I learned that from working with Amy Poehler," he told EW in 2014. "If I'm not an asshole, no one else is allowed to be." But with The Magnificent Seven and Passengers, Pratt finally got to observe two of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars up close: Denzel Washington and Lawrence.
They both have rock-solid big-screen personas — his stoic and all-business, hers fierce and formidable — that have carried them to great success. And yet, the actors "couldn't be any fucking more different," Pratt said on the Passengers set. "Just an example of the broad spectrum of people that work in this business." Pratt and Lawrence had not met until roughly two weeks before filming, but, he said, they were "like, kindred spirits — lifetime friends, immediately." When I prodded him for more details about his working relationship with Washington, Pratt seemed to choose his words more carefully.
"Denzel has been in this business for several decades," he said. "He's got a reputation for being tough. He was always really kind to me. I learned a lot from him about acting, and about being on set."
"I think, you know, there's an understanding I'm coming to where I'm seeing how profoundly one can affect the entire set, positively or negatively, based on just the smallest, tiniest, most minor thing that they might not even realize," Pratt said, his speech getting slower and more deliberate. "The things that I learned from Denzel in terms of acting would be, like, stillness. Trusting your instincts. Having control, and keeping control. He was always calculated, and I will come away from that experience having gained a lot of information about how I want to be as an actor and as a leading man."
I told Pratt that it sounded like Washington's focused professionalism perhaps contrasted with Lawrence's reputation for having a good time on set. "Right," said Pratt. "I think it's fair to say Denzel met all of his professional obligations on Magnificent Seven, and it's also fair to say that Jennifer Lawrence is someone I really enjoy being around."
Between that conversation and a follow-up interview a week later, however, Pratt had come to regret at least some of how he talked about making The Magnificent Seven, which he had both praised as a “four-month Wild West camp that actually paid us money” and playfully complained was “a fucking grind.”
"I couldn't help but run through my first interview with you through my head on my way back home, and I was little worried that I came across as bagging on my co-stars from Magnificent Seven," he said on the phone. "I'm just really sensitive to that. The pitfall in comparing things is you end up ranking them as if one is better than the other. I don't feel that way. It's really apples and oranges. I don't want that to come across as I didn't enjoy the experience and find it rewarding or create a ton of really amazing relationships with Magnificent Seven. It was an amazing journey and process. I'd hate for it to come across as anything else."
"That was too hard of a hit, guys."
It was well past 8 p.m. on the Passengers set, and Tyldum was clearly frustrated. After shooting for hours, the weightless sequence still wasn't coming together. "He should be rotating," the filmmaker said after one take. After another: "Are we at the wrong angle? We can't see his face." And again: "It's going too fast — he should be floating more."
Pratt was not spared his director's dissatisfaction, either. "Just the smallest movement," the filmmaker told him. "Remember, you don't weigh anything. You're a feather." Several takes later, Tyldum still wasn't satisfied: "I can see that he's using his own body weight to turn."
As the night wore on, the director tried a different tactic. "Can you make a snoring sound?" he asked Pratt. "Just to see you breathing, like you're asleep."
In practice, however, getting Pratt to hit against the wall gently enough that audiences could believe he wouldn't be jolted awake — especially in close-up — was proving nearly impossible to pull off. "To make this look like zero gravity, it's really important to hide the fact that we're being held by wires and we're in a situation where there is gravity," Pratt had told me earlier in the day. "I think if I wake up and I start reacting and flopping around, those movements might betray this illusion that I'm in zero gravity. The mind would be able to tell that [I'm] on a wire. That was my input, and they seemed to agree."
But Pratt's drive to sell the weightlessness, and the crew's determination to satisfy their star, ended up making the scene seem less convincing, not more.
"Chris is an incredibly over-cerebral person," Gunn said on the phone. "He gets caught up in his brain a lot. It's different from being a traditional intellectual. It's simply thinking too much that gets in the way."
This may come as something of a surprise to observers of Pratt's career, since he often will go out of his way to point out his lack of deep thinking. When talking about how the weightless rig worked, for example, Pratt grew stymied attempting to describe its different points of movement. "You're moving from left to right, and I can rotate around this axis this way," he said, running one hand around the other. "And this way — I don't know what this is called…?" He started moving his hand up back and forth.
The Z axis?
"Z axis, X axis, Y… I don't know." He flashed a smile. "I was super good at math in high school."
Later when talking about the long road Passengers took to get made, Pratt seemed to trip over the financial nitty-gritty of Hollywood dealmaking. "The people who aren't the creatives, but are strictly just the financiers, the hedge fund guys who own the studio — whoever it is," he said. "The dollars and cents guys. I honestly don't know how that shit works."
Within practically the same breath, however, Pratt betrayed his practiced aw shucks demeanor. He was discussing how Passengers' larger-than-life sci-fi scope, and the presence of two major movie stars, finally got the film, which was written by Jon Spaihts (Prometheus, Doctor Strange), greenlit. "I think anytime you're merging art and industry, you have to pay attention to trends," he said. "At the end of the day, for a movie to be successful commercially and a movie to be successful critically are two different things, and adding elements that seem to be on trend are one way to ensure financiers that there's a likelihood that they'll get their money back."
This kind of dry, detailed, analytical reasoning has not been part of the Chris Pratt brand. And yet his keen, occasionally anxious observation of his famous co-stars, his own fame, his behavior in an interview, and the minutiae of a single scene makes plain it is an essential part of how Pratt approaches his life. Reconciling the two, however, has sometimes been a struggle.
"Part of being a movie star, and this was Chris's big lesson, is that to truly be yourself, you have to get out of the way of yourself," said Gunn. "To be able to let go of all the thought and the doubt and the questioning, and just be and accept that the audience wants to see that, that is a difficult thing for an actor to do. Chris, before Guardians, was an entertainer. Sometimes, his need to entertain — to juggle — gets in the way of allowing him to be that vulnerable Gary Cooper movie star."
Two takes after Tyldum's suggestion that Pratt try snoring, he told his actor with a sigh of resignation, "Let's just have you waking up."
Pratt gave a determined nod, and in the next few takes, he started drowsily rousing after hitting the wall. But by that point, he'd had been suspending himself in midair off and on for the better part of the day. His body was beginning to quiver uncontrollably under the strain.
"It's not going to get any better," he finally said to Tyldum with a sheepish smile. "I don't want to be a baby or anything."
"No no no no no no!" Tyldum said, shaking his head, assuring Pratt he was anything but. The filmmaker huddled with Moritz and the rest of his crew, and they came up with a plan B: They'd film a stationary Pratt later against a green screen, moving the camera around him instead to suggest weightlessness, and in post-production, they'd insert him into the empty bedroom.
On set, Pratt walked up to Tyldum looking abashed and defeated. "I got something from that last one," Tyldum said with a reassuring smile. "Getting this looking right is going to take fucking forever. So rest up."
"It's like when you're curling a light dumbbell, and you're like, I can't do anything," Pratt told Tyldum with a grimace. "It's embarrassing."
In the finished film, which will be released on Dec. 21, Tyldum spends far more time depicting how Lawrence's character copes with the loss of gravity — she's swimming, and ends up trapped inside a floating orb of water. In Pratt's side of the sequence, his body never even makes it to the wall.
The next day, Pratt showed up to set sporting a long, haggard beard — the result of two hours in the makeup chair. Tyldum walked up to him with a confused look.
"Why do you have a long beard?"
Pratt blinked. "What?"
"Jim doesn't have a long beard for this scene."
Pratt blinked again. "You're fucking with me."
"That Norwegian sense of humor!"
Pratt's robust facial hair was in truth the pivotal element to a crucial, deceptively spoiler-y scene in the film: Jim stands at a bathroom mirror, and shaves off his beard. The character knows his simple physical transformation signifies he’s made a morally devastating decision, the kind of brutal, selfish, cannot-ever-take-this-back choice that romantic leads never make in a major motion picture. And that decision will have massive implications for the rest of his life (not to mention the movie’s plot), but he still cannot believe he’s actually going to go through with it.
The mundane task plunges Jim into an existential despair, making for an emotionally complex sequence that was the polar opposite of the previous day's filming — and of practically anything Pratt's ever done in his entire career. There were no jokes, no heroics, no self-sacrifice, and no technical dazzle. Instead, Pratt would have to channel acute desperation and denial with nothing more than a pair of small grooming scissors and his ability to arrest the attention of a fixed, unmoving camera.
"Action!" said Tyldum.
"I'm just shaving off my beard," Pratt said in character. Snip.
"I'm shaaaaving off my beaaaard!" he said again, in a forced, sing-song voice. Snip.
Tyldum softly called cut, and walked up to Pratt inside the bathroom. He whispered some direction. Pratt barely nodded. The director stepped away, and called action again.
"I'm shaving off my beard," Pratt said, his voice choked into a croak. Snip.
He looked at himself, as if he was seeing himself for the first time. Snip.
Abruptly, he dropped the scissors. "Please don't do this," he said. His face was pleading and utterly lost, and impossible not to watch. "You cannot do this." Then, after a beat, he began shaving again.
Nearby, Tyldum began emphatically pointing at the monitor, his face breaking into a massive smile. "That was awesome!" he exclaimed after calling cut. "That was fucking phenomenal!"
Even a year later, Tyldum's enthusiasm for Pratt's performance had not dimmed. "It's the mix of a masculine strength and a very gentle sensibility and vulnerability," he said. "That descent into desperation and darkness — there's not a lot of actors who could really take the audience on a journey like that. A lot of people at the studio were very afraid, like, will [the audience] ever forgive him?"
So afraid, in fact, that representatives for Columbia Pictures requested that this story not reveal what Jim actually decides to do. Suffice it to say, it's the reason Tyldum and Moritz felt their film needed Pratt, an enormously likable movie star who the audience would — they hoped — innately believe was a good guy forced into a monstrous choice. "You don't have to really forgive him, because you completely understand him, why he does it in that moment," said Tyldum. "That is what Chris really brought to it — you're so with him, because you can immerse in those feelings."
And Pratt certainly did just that. When I asked him later about the shaving scene, his voice, usually so up and bright, dropped into a low, even monotone. It was almost as if he'd entered a fugue state, allowing those deliberations that race through his brain — the ones he so ably keeps from public view — a chance to run free. "To me that was about kidding yourself," he said. "We try our best to make the right decision, but sometimes we just can't control ourselves. I'm vacillating between, It doesn't mean anything. I'm shaving off my beard, you can shave off your beard, it's nothing. And, I know exactly what it means. You're not fooling me. You're shaving off your beard 'cause you're a piece of shit." He chuckled darkly. "You're trying to convince yourself you're not, but you are. You're a piece of shit."
He grew uncharacteristically quiet. To fill the silence, I told him the scene was genuinely unlike anything I'd ever seen him do. And it was as if a switch flipped. "I was constantly doing that on Parks and Rec," he said. "They just always cut it out."
With the beard — which Pratt proclaimed on set to be "the greatest beard in the history of Hollywood" — fully gone, there was enough time that day to film one last moment in that godforsaken weightless scene: the gravity clicking back on, and Jim crashing to the ground.
This time, at least, there were no rigs or wires. Pratt would simply leap into the air just off camera and fall hard onto the floor in front of it.
As he stepped to the set, Pratt said to no one in particular, "This would be an awesome time to not do a ton of takes." Everyone broke into laughter.
Action! Slam. Cut. Four takes later, Pratt was hit with inspiration. "Oh, this is what I should say, and then you can put it in the trailer: 'Fuck you, gravity!'" The crew laughed again.
Then Tyldum called Pratt over. He realized that in the next scene of the film, Jim’s nose is bleeding. For a shot right after he'd hit the ground — a shot that was ultimately cut in the finished film — they wanted to drop some fake blood up his nose, which Pratt would release on film with his own breath. The star took the position on the ground, and a makeup artist slid the blood into his nostril.
"How is it, Chris?" Tyldum asked.
"It's not too comfortable," Pratt said. "But I think it's fine." ●
Adam B. Vary is a senior film reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
Contact Adam B. Vary at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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