Entertainment

12.18.13

‘Lone Survivor’ Taylor Kitsch’s Journey From Homelessness to Hollywood Stardom

The actor will not go quietly into the night. The star of ‘Friday Night Lights’ has endured sleeping on the subways of New York City and blockbuster bombs. Now he’s back as a Navy SEAL in ‘Lone Survivor.’ He opens up about his crazy road to Tinseltown.

Hidden intensity. That’s how filmmaker Peter Berg describes his discovery—and cinematic muse—Taylor Kitsch.

The 32-year-old Canadian actor has made a career out of playing the brooding, tortured hero, be it as football stud Tim Riggins during the first few seasons of television’s Friday Night Lights, which played out like Cain and Abel lite, or as a former Navy SEAL-turned-marijuana baron suffering from PTSD in Savages. It’s this quality, compounded by high cheekbones, a model bod, and steely gaze—that propelled Kitsch to “next big thing” status. In 2010, he was named to The Hollywood Reporter’s annual ‘Hollywood A-List Redefined’—a coterie of talented young actors that the movie industry was pushing towards stardom. The leading-man roles followed in the back-to-back 2012 blockbusters John Carter and Battleship. Both films came with heavy price tags—$250 million and $210 million, respectively—and both suffered from awful pre-release buzz. It was all but inevitable that they’d tank at the box office, and when they did, the blame seemed to be placed squarely on Kitsch’s broad shoulders. “Is Taylor Kitsch’s Blockbuster Movie Career Already Over?” asked Gawker. “Is Taylor Kitsch box office poison?” wrote Yahoo!

“It was disappointing,” says Kitsch, of the films’ receptions. “We’re storytellers and you want people to enjoy it, and not be jaded before they even fuckin’ go into a movie. There are all these preconceived things nowadays about movies, which is total bullshit.”

But the reports of Kitsch’s career death have been greatly exaggerated. In Lone Survivor, in theaters Christmas Day, he delivers a gripping turn as Lt. Michael P. Murphy, the fearless leader of an elite group of Navy SEAL snipers who were deployed to the hills of Afghanistan in 2005 to kill a suspected Taliban leader. “Murph,” along with fellow snipers Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster), and Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), find themselves caught behind enemy lines, surrounded on all sides by enemy combatants. The film is written and directed by Berg—who wrote the part for Kitsch—and adapted from Luttrell’s nonfiction tome of the same name.

To prepare for the role of Murph, Kitsch gave it his all. He spent considerable time with Luttrell and Murph’s friends and colleagues, learning of the late soldier’s “dry sense of humor” and leadership qualities. He went out drinking with SEALs, and admits they all drank him under the table. He also put on over 20 pounds of muscle doing an exercise dubbed “The Murph.”

“It’s no joke,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s all for time, no breaks: a one-mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 sit-ups, and another mile—with a weighted vest. I’d do that a few times a week, and then do 3-5 mile trail runs with a weighted backpack.”

“Taylor got huge,” adds Wahlberg. “He’s a really dedicated actor.”

In person, Kitsch is a lot more laid back than the badasses he plays onscreen. It’s a chilly New York afternoon, and when I meet him, he’s got a big, demented smile on his face.

“Check this out,” he says with a chuckle. He whips out his iPhone, showing me a text message from his little sister that reads: Don’t know where Mom is… haven’t seen her since this morning

“It’s their first time in New York City,” he says. “She’s probably wandering aimlessly through Central Park… or spending all her money somewhere.”

I’d go to the subway and pass out there in one of the subway cars until five or six in the morning—however long I could...

Kitsch is very close to his family. After his parents split, he and his two older brothers were raised by their mother in Vancouver. “My mother is my best friend,” he says. Like most Canadian boys, Kitsch grew up dreaming of being a hockey player. He was on the rink every day from the age of 3, and by 20, had worked his way up the ranks of junior hockey, with the aim of going pro. Then, he busted his knee.

“When the knee went, I was pretty traumatized for a while,” he says. “My hockey career ended very abruptly, and then I had the opportunity to come to New York.”

One day, Kitsch was walking on the street in Vancouver when he was stopped by a man who asked him, “Would you ever think about modeling?” “No… don’t fucking call me,” he replied. But the modeling agent was persistent, and after a while, Kitsch gave in.

After moving to New York in 2002, Kitsch began modeling in various campaigns, including Abercrombie & Fitch and Diesel, and took classes with renowned acting coach Sheila Gray. Then the modeling gigs dried up.

“I was fucking homeless—literally,” he says.

As a Canadian sans working visa, Kitsch couldn’t get a job. He tried catering for two weeks for cash under the table, but quit when they stiffed him the money. With no money and no apartment, he crashed for a few months on the floor of his friend’s apartment uptown.

“After that, I got an apartment at 181st St., but I had no green card or visa, so I couldn’t get electricity,” says Kitsch. “I’d take candles from my friend’s girlfriend and light the apartment with them. Not smart. There was no furniture—just a blow-up mattress I borrowed from the same friend’s girlfriend, and I stole a cooking pot from a garage sale to boil chicken.”

He only lasted a few months uptown before being kicked out because he couldn’t pay the rent. After that, he was really homeless.

“I’d go to my buddy’s place, stay there ‘til 11 or 12 at night, and then say, ‘Well, I’ll see you in a bit!” says Kitsch. “ Then I’d go to the subway and pass out there in one of the subway cars until five or six in the morning—however long I could—and after that, go to the gym and shower.”

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Greg Peters/Universal Pictures

New York was clearly a bust, so Kitsch decided to try his hand out in Los Angeles. He studied nutrition, and got certified as a personal trainer. He’d sneak into gyms in the L.A. area to try and recruit personal training clients under the table. He scored a manager, Stephanie Simon. But he was still homeless.

“I was living in my car in L.A. for, like, four months,” he says. “It was a Firefly—a tiny hatchback with 12-inch wheels. Not great to sleep in. And the fuckin’ thing—the window would jam on the side door, and I was so mad at it that I was pulling it one day and it just shattered. Cut to me with clear plastic over the window held down with duck tape.”

So, Kitsch returned to Vancouver with his head between his legs. And then, something crazy happened: he started scoring movie roles. Kitsch went on auditions for several movies shooting in Vancouver, nabbing bit parts as eye candy in the comedies Snakes On A Plane and John Tucker Must Die, and a bigger one in The Covenant.

The Covenant—which should have been nominated,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t know why it wasn’t!”

Then came the big break. Simon’s pal, Peter Berg, was adapting his 2004 film Friday Night Lights into a TV series for NBC. Simon wanted her client to read for the role of Jason Street, star quarterback of the Dillon Panthers high school football team. But Kitsch felt the role of Tim Riggins, the gifted fullback from a splintered family, hit closer to home. But Berg already had three candidates lined up to read for Riggins.

“I got a call from Stephanie and she said, ‘I found your Tim Riggins,’” says Berg. “I said, ‘I don’t know Stephanie, I think it’s a little late…” and she said, ‘Trust me—you have to meet this guy.’”

Since Kitsch was still sans visa, he auditioned on tape for the role, giving the “Texas Forever” speech from the pilot.

“I found Texan beers, a cooler, and had the long hair,” Kitsch says with a smile.

Then, they flew Kitsch over to Los Angeles where he met with Berg at the NBC Universal offices.

“The second I looked at him I knew: this is Tim Riggins,” says Berg. “The only thing was his Canadian accent was really thick, so I said, ‘Look, I’m gonna bring you in and I think I can get you the job… just don’t talk too much.’” He laughs, adding, “His talent was immediately evident and he has a very wise soul. You add that to the physical thing—he’s obviously a very good-looking dude—and he’s really able to command the screen.”

Kitsch began his stint on Friday Night Lights in 2006, and immediately became a fan favorite. The show also attracted the attention of Hollywood, including directors Gavin Hood and Andrew Stanton, who were huge FNL fans. The former hired Kitsch to play the Cajun card-thrower Gambit in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, while the latter cast him as John Carter.

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Kitsch had already agreed to star in Lone Survivor before his twin box office bombs. But, immediately after, he signed on to play Bruce Niles, a closeted homosexual with AIDS, in the HBO film The Normal Heart.

“It scared me to do it,” he says. “It was a big challenge.”

To prepare for the role, Kitsch dropped 30 pounds, and arrived in New York one month prior to shooting to take private acting lessons from his mentor, Sheila Gray. He’s excited for audiences to see him in a very different light.

Kitsch isn’t sure what his next acting role will be, instead choosing to take some time and “ride the wave of Lone Survivor and The Normal Heart.” He says the rumors of a starring role in Terminator 5 are bogus (“I can tell ya I ain’t doing it!”), and he’s excited to adapt a 35-minute short film he helmed about a drug drop gone awry into a feature film. It recently received financing, and Kitsch plans to shoot it in Detroit and his adopted home of Austin, Texas.

“I just want to be a part of storytelling—whether it’s behind or in front of the camera,” he says with a big grin. “I love putting the weird shit in my head out there, and seeing if it works.”

But for now, he’s going to go try and locate Mom.