Taylor Kitsch On Firefighter Biopic 'Only The Brave': "People Are Going To Base Their Opinions Of The Character Through My Performance"

The 'True Detective' star on the two different movies he’s currently in, and memories of playing a certain card-throwing mutant.

2012 was supposed to be a big year for Taylor Kitsch. The Canadian hunk, then best known for his role on the football drama Friday Night Lights and as mutant Gambit in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, had three movies — the Mars epic John Carter, the board game-inspired Battleship, and the drug smuggling actioner Savages — coming out with three months of one another.

Sadly, all three movies — how canwe put this delicately? — underperformed. Written off as box-office poison, Kitsch retreated to TV Land where he found acclaim, not as a leading man, but as part of an ensemble on HBO’s AIDS drama The Normal Heart and gritty crime thriller True Detective.

This year, Kitsch returns to the big screen in not one, but two movies: Only the Brave, the true-life story of a group of wildfire fighters, and American Assassin, the action thriller about rogue soldiers and stolen nukes. In both movies, he doesn’t play the lead.  Does blockbusters still appeal to him?

“I don’t think I’ve turned myself off to them,” the 36-year-old actor tells us over the phone.  “But I’m in an incredibly fulfilled state right now with the work that I’ve done, so I’m excited to just keep swinging. If the right blockbuster comes around, I’ll be all in. Just like I’m all in on these other movies. It’s just a matter of opportunity — if it’s the right time, the right filmmaker, and if the role speaks to me.” 

8 DAYS: Only the Brave, out this week, is about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the real-life team of Arizona fire-fighters who lost 19 men in a blaze in 2013. You play one of the firefighters who died in the line of duty. How much did you know about firefighting before working on this movie? 

TAYLOR KITSCH: Two of my best friends are firefighters, but none of them are wildfire fighters or hotshots or smoke jumpers, so it was really a crash course for me, to be honest. It’s really a perk to being an actor, where you get to immerse yourself in all these different professions, train with the best, and be a part of their stories. 

Is training for wildfire fighting as hard as training to be a naval officer in Battleship, a Navy Seal in Lone Survivor and a cop in True Detective?

lone survivor photo
Men of valour: Taylor Kitsch - with (from left) Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch) in 'Lone Survivor'. 

The training itself is hard to compare, but again, you’re exposed to so many different things. As an actor, what I focus on is the person I’m portraying. For Only the Brave, it’s really focusing on who [my character] Chris MacKenzie is — his spirit, how he led, and everything about him — and let the mechanics of the job be literally one of the last things I learn.

So playing a real person is tougher because you’re bound by his legacy? 

It’s one of the most flattering things you can do as an actor, when you’re asked to portray someone, especially like Mike Murphy [in Lone Survivor] or Chris MacKenzie. There’s a legacy there that you are responsible for. A lot of people don’t know who MacKenzie was and they’re going to base their opinions of him through my performance. So it’s a whole different kind of responsibility from playing a fictional character, and I love it. I love the challenge. 

Some of the fire sequences were CG. How much of it was real? 

 A lot. They built this five-acre set with aluminum trees that were connected underground to huge propane tanks. So when they got the cameras rolling, they would light these trees up to 12 feet of flames. I got to hand it over to [director] Joseph [Kosinski]; I loved that he really wanted to shoot it outdoors and in a live setting. That helped us as actors immensely by putting us in the moment.

There’s a scene in Only the Brave where the wildfire fighters have to get under a fire shelter in under 30 seconds. How fast can you do yours?

About 22 seconds, maybe. We did a lot of training for weeks on end together with the real hotshots. Obviously, time is of the essence when you do that drill, so I think a lot of us had it down pat. 

taylor kitsch only the brave
Both ends of the spectrum: Taylor Kitsch as Miles Teller’s buddy in Only the Brave (above), and Michael Keaton’s worst nightmare in American Assassin ​(below). 

You’re also in American Assassin opposite Dylan O’Brien, as a rogue Special Forces soldier trying to destroy the world. 

Yeah, I [did that movie] literally right after [Only the Brave]. Lorenzo di Bonaventura, the producer of Only the Brave, also did American Assassin, and he asked me to come play this villain  — which I haven’t played before —  in a really intense, grounded action movie. It just felt right to do it. The more I got to know Dylan O’Brien, the more of a fan I was. So it was a fun role. I had a blast. 

taylor kitsch american assassin

Is it stressful to have two movies out around the same time? And is it as stressful as the last time you had three movies — John Carter, Battleship and Savages — opening in the same year? 

It’s more exciting than stressful. I’m proud of these movies. I’ve never signed on with a release date in mind.  You have no control over release dates and whatnot, so you just worry about what you can control, and that’s your performance. I think the longer you’re in this business, the more you realise it’s a waste of energy to worry about things you can’t control.

What draws you to a project these days?  

It’s the stories and characters. You want to be uncomfortable; you don’t want to be in your comfort zone. You want to be able to take risks and really immerse yourself. I have Waco, a six-hour mini-series [about cult leader David Koresh] coming out in January. That was a pretty awesome project [to be a part of].

taylor kitsch waco
Papa don’t preach: Kitsch as cult leader David Koresh in Waco, a TV mini-series about the Branch Davidians sect’s 51-day stand-off against the authorities that ended in tragedy. 

In Only the Brave, many of the actors — Josh Brolin, Jeff Bridges, Miles Teller and Jennifer Connelly — have appeared in Marvel movies. You, of course, played Gambit in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It wasn’t a great movie, but you were a great Gambit. 

Hugh Jackman left a big impression on me. I was just coming off this small TV show [Friday Night Lights] that not a lot of people watched. I had a lot of fun prepping for Gambit, and I still think that character’s really intriguing, and there’s so much to be explored there. But I learnt a lot from Hugh Jackman and he’s nothing but a great guy and a professional. To see him spend the amount of time and work on that franchise is incredible.

gambit photo
It's a stick up: Taylor Kitsch as Gambit in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. 

Have you seen Logan

I did see it, and I thought it was great… 

Did you cry when Wolverine died in the end?

It’s bittersweet. He’s just so good at it that you hope that maybe he comes back. But I thought it was really well done and you could see that Hugh’s just so good at playing Wolverine, and brought so much humility to him. I thought he was fantastic. 

Photos: TPG News/Clicky Photos, Golden Village.

Only the Brave (PG13) and American Assassin (NC16) are in cinemas now. 

Seen on instagram

As Seen On Instagram