By DAVE ITZKOFF
Published: July 8, 2011
WHEN some actors land a potentially life-altering role, they celebrate that success with exorbitant purchases: new homes, sports cars, plastic surgery. When Chris Evans agreed to play Captain America, he went into therapy.
For several weeks Mr. Evans, 30, had been wrestling with — and repeatedly turning down — the offer to play that star-spangled Marvel Comics superhero, and wondering why the anxiety he often feels about public scrutiny and momentous choices was hitting him harder than ever.
He wasn’t necessarily seeking opportunities to star in a comic-book movie franchise or to spend about a month’s worth of meetings talking to a professional about his feelings. But he concluded that these seemingly unrelated options were intertwined steps on a path he needed to follow.
“I wouldn’t have done it,” Mr. Evans said, discussing his therapy experience over a recent lunch at a Studio City delicatessen, “had I not agreed to do ‘Captain America’ and gone into panic mode.” He added, “The second I agreed to do it, I was like, ‘All right, I’ll do this, but I’ve got to start working on my head.’ ”
It may be difficult to summon up sympathy for Mr. Evans, a Massachusetts-born dude’s dude who has brought slyly self-aware performances to films like “Cellular,” “Fantastic Four” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” and who has had to navigate Hollywood with little more than his rugged good looks, piercing blue eyes and billowing forearms that threatened to topple the lunch table.
Yet beneath that enviable exterior Mr. Evans is an unexpectedly thoughtful guy — perhaps perilously so. His self-questioning, often humorously self-effacing nature has helped him build a distinctive résumé, but his lead role in “Captain America: The First Avenger” (which Paramount will release July 22) brings with it a whole new set of existential crises.
“The question is: What’s the endgame?” Mr. Evans said in a characteristic moment of self-analysis. “What’s the goal? If the goal is to be a giant movie star, then yeah, this is a great way to achieve that. That’s not necessarily what I’m trying to achieve.”
Mr. Evans, whose mother, Lisa, is artistic director of the Concord Youth Theater in Massachusetts, and whose uncle Michael E. Capuano is a Democratic congressman, was probably destined for a career in acting, or at least public speaking. (His father is a dentist.)
Fresh out of high school he landed roles in films like “Not Another Teen Movie” and “The Perfect Score.” In 2005 he played the Human Torch in “Fantastic Four” and repeated the role in a 2007 sequel based on the Marvel adventurers.
In these early, high-profile experiences, Mr. Evans said, he found acting to be “a very safe place to play, have fun and not feel judged or scrutinized.” The downside was having to give interviews to promote his work. “I feel fake,” he said. “And then I feel transparent. And I feel the other person can see that I’m fake.”
“Captain America” has required Mr. Evans to at least tolerate a certain amount of glad-handing and air-kissing; the night before this interview he taped an appearance for Spike TV’s Guys Choice Awards and appeared the night after on the MTV Movie Awards.
But during a European junket for a “Fantastic Four” movie, he said, he became so nervous that he fled a room full of reporters. “No one’s even speaking to me,” he said, “and in a matter of 60 seconds I went from being fine to full meltdown, just stood up and walked offstage.”
When Marvel Studios began casting “Captain America” in late 2009, it did not initially consider Mr. Evans for the title character, a virtuous World War II hero who eventually finds himself in the present day. The presumption was that Mr. Evans was too closely associated with the “Fantastic Four” movies, which performed well at the box office but were critically panned, and had been through the superhero wringer already.
Yet once the studio set its sights on him, persuaded by his performances in movies like Danny Boyle’s 2007 science-fiction film “Sunshine,” it may have come to wish it had forgotten the actor’s name.
Mr. Evans said he resisted a test audition, for which he would have had to sign a pre-emptive deal for as many as nine Marvel movies, including three “Captain America” films and three films for “The Avengers,” about the super group that includes Iron Man, Thor and the Hulk. When Marvel reduced the contract to at most six movies and “sweetened the pot a little bit,” Mr. Evans said no again.
Even after a meeting with the Marvel Studios president, Kevin Feige, and the director of “Captain America,” Joe Johnston, and being shown concept artwork and other designs, Mr. Evans said, he still turned down the offer.
He said his opposition stemmed from a fear of commitment — not just to publicizing a $140 million behemoth like “Captain America” but also to signing away, potentially, a decade of his life. “In a few years what if I don’t want to act anymore?” he said. “What if I just want to — I don’t know — do something else?”
On further reflection Mr. Evans said: “The reason I kept saying no is because I was scared. Maybe this is exactly what I had to do. Maybe this is exactly what I had to face.”
Mr. Feige said Mr. Evans’s “internal debate” over the role did not diminish Marvel’s enthusiasm for him. “He passed to his agent more than his agent passed to us,” Mr. Feige said. “There was always a glimmer of an opening, and we pursued it.” (Mr. Evans ultimately agreed to the six-film contract.)
Mr. Johnston, who had directed “Jurassic Park III” and “Jumanji,” and contributed art design and special effects work to the original “Star Wars” films and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” said Mr. Evans’s moral quandary showed he was perfectly suited to play Captain America and his alter ego, Steve Rogers.
“Steve Rogers is a guy who, at the heart of it, has a very simple mission,” Mr. Johnston said. “He just wants to serve his country and do the right thing. And Chris comes off as basically a really good human being. He can wear his heart on his sleeve when he needs to.”
After principal filming for “Captain America” wrapped in London in December, Mr. Evans took a short break. He shot some additional footage in New York in April and is spending his summer in Albuquerque making “The Avengers,” which is directed by Joss Whedon and planned for release next summer.
Mr. Evans said he was relieved that “The Avengers” did not rest solely on his shoulders yet felt nervous about working alongside Marvel veterans like Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the secret agent Nick Fury, and Robert Downey Jr., the star of the blockbuster “Iron Man” movies.
Mr. Downey was an early supporter of Mr. Evans, having quietly lobbied Mr. Evans’s agent to keep him from passing on “Captain America.”
“I did the Eastern medicine approach,” Mr. Downey explained. “Rather than apply direct pressure, I went to the furthest meridian point.”
The challenges that Mr. Evans faces, Mr. Downey said, are familiar to the profession and all too real: to reconcile his background as an “almost blue-collar Boston Joe” with his Hollywood trajectory; to see “Captain America” keep pace with the successes of “Iron Man” and “Thor”; and to measure up to his acting idols, a feeling Mr. Downey vividly remembered from making the 1989 drama “True Believer” with James Woods. (“If he told me to go eat the camera lens,” Mr. Downey said of Mr. Woods, “I would have.”)
But Mr. Evans will work through these issues, Mr. Downey said, because “he has the main tool, the main arrow in his quiver already, and it’s that he’s communicative.” He added: “How do we all manage our anxiety? By not keeping it a secret.”
Chris Hemsworth, the “Thor” star who was a relative unknown before his Marvel debut became a $400 million worldwide hit this spring, said he and Mr. Evans had talked about their anxiety issues on the “Avengers” set.
“We make the assumption,” Mr. Hemsworth said, “that no one else is going through what we are, and I said, ‘Of course everyone does.’ But any kind of courage or bravery is not about being fearless. It’s about doing it despite the fear.”
From his therapy sessions Mr. Evans learned that “it is really good just to talk about what you’re struggling with,” he said. “It’s not like I had any massive breakthrough, but for some reason this feels more manageable.”
No matter the fate of his on-screen superheroics Mr. Evans will be seen this year in the drama “Puncture,” playing a drug-addicted lawyer, and “What’s Your Number?”, a romantic comedy with Anna Faris.
But have no illusions that anything other than “Captain America” — and a desire not to bungle the handoff to “The Avengers” — will be on Mr. Evans’s mind for the next several weeks. If “Captain America” is a dud, he will be disappointed. And if it succeeds, the next 10 years of his career might be spoken for, and that could be the bigger problem.
“It’s nice job security, but it doesn’t give a whole lot of freedom,” he said. “That’s the compromise, and it’s worth it. These are good problems to be having. It’s not like, poor me, I’m working in the coal mines.”
Photo by Daniel Peebles for The New York Times
Photo courtesy of The New York Times