Chris Evans must be the only man in Hollywood to win his own superhero franchise then pray for it to fail. Back in 2010, the then-28-year-old actor signed a contract with Marvel Studios to appear in half a dozen films — both solo outings and ensemble jobs — as Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, the Avengers’ flaxen-quiffed moral compass. “One of my biggest fears was that the movies were going to be good,” he says, stroking a beard so keenly edged that it might have been trimmed with a laser.
“Because if things worked out, I’d have to do all six of them. And, at the time, that was the most terrifying aspect of it, that it was going to be so dominating, so all-encompassing.”
Seven years on, as that contract is about to come to a close with a two-part Avengers adventure that Evans will be shooting until August, that’s more or less exactly what has happened. But the actor, now 35 and stretched back in an armchair with a foxlike smile on his face, looks well on it.
Along with Pine, Pratt and Hemsworth, Evans is one of those Chris actors that seem to be everywhere nowadays: bright-eyed, blond-haired comic-book franchise leading men with a valiant screen presence that children fall in love with, and a chiselled, mildly insinuating edge that means their mothers often do likewise. I’ve caught him fresh from the CBeebies studios in London, where he’s just recorded a rather apposite bedtime story, Shelly Becker and Eda Kaban’s Even Superheroes Have Bad Days, which was presumably commissioned by the BBC with both of those audiences in mind. We’ve met to talk about the latest project the actor has managed to squeeze around his Captain America schedule.
Called Gifted, it’s a film about a taciturn boat mechanic named Frank, whose seven-year-old niece and ward, Mary, turns out to be a mathematics prodigy of internationally significant talent. It cost as much to make as four minutes of the last Captain America film, and is a blockbuster detox for both Evans and its director, Marc Webb, who came to it bloody and bruised from The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
Evans had originally hoped to direct the film himself: it would have been his second such job, after an earnest, meandering 2014 romantic drama called Before We Go, in which love springs from a missed train connection. But by the time he’d thought it over the gig had already gone to Webb. All the same, he was happy to star in it: “Those Captain America movies are great. I’m proud of every one of them, but on set they’re giant factories and we spend a lot of time sitting around,” he says.
Having last spoken to him on the set of Captain America: Civil War in August 2015, I can corroborate the story: during the course of one day, I watched the actor shoot a single scene in which his character holsters his shield, and he didn’t even have a shield to work with. (It was added digitally later.) “But on a movie like Gifted, you come home every day and feel like you got to ‘act’!” he glows.
“You feel exhausted. You get through eight, nine pages of dialogue. On Captain America, you might get through two pages per day, if you’re lucky. And that’s fine, it’s a different process,” he adds.
“But there’s something refreshing about that intimate exchange with the other people involved in a smaller film. You feel like you get your hands dirty.”
One of those people was the actress and comedian Jenny Slate, who plays Mary’s teacher and, later, Frank’s love interest. Slate and Evans’s romance is so glowingly persuasive that it’s no surprise that the actors became a real-world couple for nine months when filming concluded, shortly after Slate had separated from her husband, Dean Fleischer-Camp. They met after Evans had already been cast, during a series of “chemistry reads” — shared screen auditions to gauge a couple’s on-screen spark. “Jenny could have chemistry with my shoe,” Evans guffaws. “She has a natural effortlessness about her, and she just exudes truth.”
In a recent interview with New York magazine, Slate says she had been keen to win the role to show that “it doesn’t always have to be a bikini model opposite Captain America” — which she went on to prove more emphatically than she probably expected.
Evans stresses that Slate wasn’t cast for that reason: “We weren’t looking for someone ‘unexpected’.”
He also says he didn’t consider a move in the opposite direction by “uglying up” — that indelicately named process by which an actor temporarily divests themselves of their movie-star looks to prove their commitment to a part (think Charlize Theron in Monster).
“You don’t want to do that just for the sake of optics,” says Evans, whose last unabashedly hideous role was as a mob assassin in The Iceman (2012). “I’ve never been one to preoccupy myself with how I’m perceived.”
The couple split in February — partly, says Slate, because Evans’s super-heroic public profile made the actual mechanics of dating in Los Angeles next to impossible. In light of that, you can appreciate why shooting a small film in the quiet coastal towns around Savannah, Georgia, held so much appeal for him between blockbusters.
“It felt like summer camp,” he beams. “We were all away from our friends and family, so we became each other’s.”
In the evenings, cast and crew bonded over board games — Evans’s idea — including Running Charades, one of the actor’s favourites. (Imagine Give Us a Clue crossed with British Bulldog.)
“I love a good game night,” he says. “My family is very competitive. Monopoly back home usually turns into a screaming match.”
Back home is small-town Massachusetts, where Evans was raised in what he describes as “a family of theatre lunatics”.
When he was 16, his mother, Lisa, became the artistic director of the youth theatre company where he and his three siblings spent much of their teenage years. (He says his mother was “thrilled” at the recent news that he had been cast in a Broadway revival of the Kenneth Lonergan play Lobby Hero.)
The shy child
Unlike Mckenna Grace, his ebullient 10-year-old Gifted co-star, he lacked the confidence to be a child actor. “I was a shy little kid,” he says. “I really liked art — drawing and painting — and that’s what I thought I was going to do.” But on leaving high school in 1998, he was set on course. He moved to New York, took acting classes at the Lee Strasberg Institute on Saturdays, and worked at a casting agency during the week. After a few months, he was cast in a teen TV drama, Opposite Sex, as one of three male pupils at an all-girls school that had recently gone co-ed.
During his first flight to Los Angeles, he felt an uneasy mix of excitement and anxiety that he says still often comes over him as he arrives in the city. “Depending on where you are in your career, arriving in LA can feel like the most wonderful homecoming, or incredibly stressful. There are chapters in my life where it’s been the latter.”
Not that he’s likely to be waiting tables on roller skates any time soon, but Evans is about to rediscover what being footloose and franchise-free feels like. When promotional duties on the latest two Avengers films wind up in 2019, so will his contract with Marvel, after nine increasingly lucrative years. He was paid $300,000 (Dh1.1 million) for Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011, though by Avengers: Age of Ultron, four years later, his pay-cheque had swollen to $7 million.
It’s not quite the $40 million-a-picture commanded by fellow Avenger Robert Downey Jr nor, indeed, the $20 million by Scarlett Johansson, whom Evans has counted as a friend since 2004, when both appeared in a crime caper called The Perfect Score. But it’s a sum he describes as having given him “breathing room” — “not just financial stability, but the profile that means smaller films can get on their feet as a result of your involvement. So you can take more risks.”
Some have been political. Evans has spoken out in support of gun control and immigration, and against the current (at time of writing) US President: subjects on which franchise stars tend not to make explicit pronouncements, given the risk of alienating potential audience-members in politically polarised times. Cap himself, however, has been a progressive liberal voice since his invention during the Second World War, save for a brief (and later disavowed) flirtation with McCarthyism in the 1950s, and you sense the character would approve.
Does taking on Trump feel to Evans like part of the job description? “Yeah, like an obligation or something?” he nods. “It’s tough. I have a lot of actor friends who take no part in the political landscape, and that’s their right. But even if I weren’t an actor I’d support causes I think are beneficial and speak out against things I think hurt people. It just so happens that I have a platform people pay attention to.”
Even so, the hour approaches for his big dismount. “I had six films in my Marvel contract, so I could have said after the third Avengers that I was done [having made three Captain America films and three Avengers films] but they wanted to make the third and fourth Avengers films as a two-parter,” he explains.
“They said they had so many other characters to fit in — Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Doctor Strange, Ant Man — and couldn’t get them all into one movie.”
Cap’s ultimate fate is a secret on a par with the nuclear launch codes, though Evans will go as far as to say he agreed to the two-film arc “because it made sense. It’s going to wrap everything up”.
“I’ve been on sets where you get a vibe that everyone’s making a different movie,” he says.
“The director one, the actors another, the producers another one still. Marvel has a way of ensuring that on the day filming begins everyone is making the same meal.” Right now, that might be Captain America’s last supper. But for Evans, that’s just for starters.