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How Chris Hemsworth avoided puking though 'In the Heart of the Sea'

The Marvel actor tells us about the difficulties of shooting on the ocean —and playing someone who turns to cannibalism — for "In the Heart of the Sea."
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    Chris Hemsworth, right, tries not to go down with the ship in "In the Heart of the|Warner Bros. Pictures

Chris Hemsworth is Hollywood’s go-to man’s men — the hulk you call when you need someone to play "Thor," or in comedies like “Vacation” and the forthcoming “Ghostbusters” reboot, in which he makes fun of his hyper-masculinity.

With “In the Heart of the Sea,” he’s called on to be even more macho than usual. Directed by Ron Howard it tells the true story of the 1820 sinking of American whaling ship The Essex, which inspired Herman Melville to write “Moby-Dick.” He plays the first mate, who is among the survivors who spent months in lifeboats, and had to turn to cannibalism to survive.

This was shot for two months in a massive swimming pool tank and another two months actually out at sea, off the Canary Islands. You don’t get seasick, do you?

Seventy percent of the crew were throwing up that first week — like, solidly. I was lucky. I had taken all the seasick tablets we were told to take. But having been on the water most of my life — surfing, little bits of fishing — that probably prepared me for it. I just kept my eyes on the horizon, as they say, because I’ve been seasick before and it’s the worst thing in the world.

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How about your balance? A ship far out at sea isn’t the most stable place.

As good as I thought my balance was, you watch people who do it every day, just Peter Pan their way about the place. They look like they’re attached to wires, the way they leap and bound across things and then never stumble or wobble. There was a lot of faking going on the first few weeks — trying to look cool and steady when you’ve got the strongest grip on one part of the ship to keep you looking solid.

This seems like it was your most physically demanding role yet. You lost a lot of weight for the part.

It was most real experience I’ve had shooting. There wasn’t a lot of the off-switch. You were at sea all day or you were on the whale boats all day. You’re just there. You get home and you’re still not eating. Then there was dealing with the mood swings and chemical imbalance due to your low-calorie diet. You’re in the sun, you’re salty, you’re wet. On one hand it was incredibly grueling. At the same time it added so much depth to all of our performances, because we were living and breathing that experience as much as possible.

How grueling was it playing someone who turns to cannibalism?

We were pretty damn hungry by the time we shot those scenes. [Laughs] The psychology behind that and that mindset were things we talked about. At that point it’s no longer about being hungry and satisfied; it’s more about survival. Do you want to go home? Do you want to see your family? At what cost? Well, here it is. The bigger thing became about how do you deal with that when you come home and try to adjust back into a normal world and into society? If it meant seeing my kids again, then yeah.

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We might like to think turning to cannibalism is something in the past. But the Uruguayan rugby team who crash-landed into a mountain — the story told in the film “Alive” — that wasn’t too long ago.

I remember watching that film at a very young age and thinking, “What would I do?” That’s what I like about films and stories like that: they pose a question to you and you’ve got to think to yourself. It personalizes it.

I’ve read you don’t like to overthink your performances, a trick you borrowed from Anthony Hopkins. Do you feel the same way with comedy?

That was a huge learning curve. You can’t plan too much, especially with “Ghostbusters,” which had a huge amount of improvisation. You’ve got to just be there — just be in the moment and adjusting, flying with whatever they’re throwing at you. It’s got to be spontaneous, otherwise it’s going to be dead. Paul [Feig, “Ghostbusters” director] said to me early on that people who come in and try to be funny, it’s just a disaster. Your truthful reaction to a ridiculous situation is what’s going to be funny.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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