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Chris Pine Is Having a Moment

Esquire spends a day in LA with Chris Pine - Captain Kirk, CIA hotshot Jack Ryan and Hollywood's new breed of leading man.

Chris Pine Is Having a Moment

Dildos. That’s what Chris Pine is thinking about right now. Not the objects themselves, necessarily, but a quote regarding “dildos”, a quote he just gave, not five seconds ago.

“That’ll be the quote right next to the picture, I know it,” he says, looking at my voice recorder with a furrowed brow. The light’s on. It’s all on tape. The damage is done. 

From where I’m sitting, however — across the table from Pine at a bustling Italian place in Silverlake, LA’s hipster district– the quote wasn’t all that bad. At least, as far as dildo quotes go. We were chatting innocently about Star Trek at the time, given that the second movie Into Darkness comes out in May.

He was telling me that even though the role of Captain Kirk changed his life, transforming him from Joe Actor to the face of not just one massive action franchise (Star Trek) but two (Jack Ryan comes out in December), he very nearly turned it down. When director JJ Abrams offered him the part in 2007, his heart was elsewhere.

“It was called White Jazz, the sequel to LA Confidential,” he said, taking a mouthful of branzino. “Mmm. That’s good. Wow. I was going to play George Clooney’s partner, who’s this sociopathic, latent homosexual detective who’s in love with Clooney and…  Oh, I wanted it so badly.”

It helped that the director was Joe Carnahan — “I love Joe” — who he’d worked with on Smokin’ Aces, a few years earlier, playing another sociopath as it happened, the speed-freak neo-Nazi kind.

“I know that White Jazz wasn’t my film, it was Clooney’s,” he said. “But my character — there was just so much meat there. I could eat for days off of that thing. I could chew up scenery right and left.”

And this was where the dildos reared their heads. We could have segued to any number of topics, like how supporting characters are often better than the leads, or how White Jazz never came out, and isn’t it funny how things go? But no — Pine made an actor’s choice. He reacted in the moment, call it instinct if you will.

“There was this one scene,” he said, “where my apartment explodes, and dildos and pornos are flying all over the place. I’m like — count me in!”

If there were footage of this moment, I’d play it back ever so slowly just to see the uh-oh dawning in glorious slow motion, morphing that beaming blue-eyed smile, so full of exuberance, into something rueful, as he calculates the scale of his blunder. Because Pine knows how these things play out.

He once told Details magazine he wanted to be a permanent bachelor like George Clooney. “It was just a dumb quote,” he says, and yet it took centre stage in the article and has followed him around ever since. And that was a dumb quote about Clooney. This is a dumb quote about dildos.

“Just to make sure, Chris,” I ask him. “The quote is: ‘Dildos? Count me in!’ Is that right?”

He groans. “I’m going to be thinking about that on the drive home.”

He needn’t worry. It’d take a lot more than a stray comment about sex toys to derail Pine at this point. At 32, barely a decade into his career, he’s poised to become the year’s leading action hero. Mr Square Jaw Saturday Night. Mr Saves The Day And Gets The Girl. Just look at the shoes he’s filling.

As Captain Kirk, he follows the imperious William Shatner. And as Jack Ryan, of the Tom Clancy novels, he walks in the shadow of Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and Alec Baldwin. The combined budgets of these movies — the bet Hollywood is placing on Pine in 2013 — is expected to be well in excess of $250m.

It’s enough to give a young man pause. And so it does.

When Pine describes himself, he uses words like “cerebral”, “analytical” and “total fucking control freak, oh absolutely.” Which is to say that he thinks about things. He takes them seriously, and considers the consequences. This interview for instance. He arrived bang on time, fresh from the Esquire shoot on the streets of West Hollywood. No flash or swagger, just a tallish bearded guy, in a T-shirt and cargo pants, with a touch of gravel in his voice.

A model of containment and discipline, he’s off the booze today, and the garlic and the dessert: “I’m doing a mini-cleanse”. And he pauses often as we talk, careful to edit and filter his thoughts before speaking. Which is why the dildo thing grates, it’s just not like him.

In short, he’s nothing like Kirk, the character he reinvented to such acclaim in the first movie in 2009. He managed to release the iconic Captain from the camp and spandex of Shatner’s era, and recast him as a kind of intergalactic McNulty, an unleashed and brawling rough diamond, the kind of all-American heart-on-sleeve hero who might break the rules from time to time, but never the code.

But Pine himself is more Spock-like, more reserved and thoughtful. And like the half-Vulcan, he’s in a constant state of self-examination. It’s no surprise that for years therapy has been “like going to the gym”, a constant fixture, and not just because it helps with his acting.

“I like this idea of becoming fully realised,” he says. “We have one shot at this life, and we have all these potentials and capabilities, so what I’m interested in is how can you live so that by the end, you’ve truly investigated yourself and lived life to the full?”

Here’s what we know about how Pine’s exploiting his potentials and capabilities so far. He lives up in the Silverlake Hills in a glorious new home overlooking one of those twinkling grid views you see in the movies. He appears to have embraced the role of the rakish bachelor; clearly his reverence for Clooney isn’t just talk.

He’s been linked to Audrina Patridge and Olivia Munn in the past, and by all accounts he’s currently dating the statuesque South African model Dominique Piek. And at this point in time, he has only two months of work lined up this year – a month of publicity for Star Trek and a month for Jack Ryan. The rest of the year is all his, feet-up time if he wants it.

It sounds wonderful but to Pine, there are all these hidden pressures. He’s anxious to make a new film this year, for example, to make the most of this golden period in which he’s in such hot demand. There’s the pressure to pick the right project out of all the scripts that land thud on his doormat these days. And above all, there’s the pressure to enjoy this extraordinary ride he’s in.

If there’s one thing he’s learned through years of therapy, it’s that he needs to stop and smell the roses a little more.

“I’m always calculating what I want to do, who I want to be, what I want to accomplish,” he says. “I don’t need to worry about that, that’s always there on a slow simmer. The muscle I have to work on is being more present.”

So that’s what he does. Quite deliberately, as our food comes out, course by course, he takes a moment to lean over each plate and breathe in the aromas, eyes closed, making the appropriate noises of ecstasy and appreciation. “Mmm… This asparagus is perfect,” he says. “Oh wow, this salad. Amazing.”  

This is what success does sometimes, especially in Hollywood. It sweeps you along with such force, that you need to stop sometimes, just to notice what it feels like. For Pine it arrived rather suddenly. Prior to Star Trek, he was a relative unknown, one of the many middle-billing strivers on movies you’ve not seen — unless you’ve seen Blind Dating and Bottle Shock? Thought not.

But Star Trek beamed him up to another reality altogether, a world in which he’s sharing the screen with Denzel Washington in Unstoppable, about a runaway train, which was more or less what his career had become. Then he’s competing with Tom Hardy for Reese Witherspoon in the action comedy This Means War. And now, he’s here, as far up the mountain as he’s ever been, getting all tuxed up for the Academy Awards and walking down the red carpet, consciously trying to apply the brakes.

“It’s so overwhelming, I tried to really concentrate and truly appreciate it,” he says. “I’m thinking, ‘it doesn’t get cooler than this. There’s Clooney looking like Gable with his beard and his salt and pepper hair. He’s having a great time.’ It was like when I sat down with Tony Scott and Denzel before we did Unstoppable. Even in that meeting, it’s like, ‘shut the fuck up and listen. Think about the time I was watching Top Gun at eight years old. Really try to take in the fullness of that.’”

This is the burden of success – it demands to be savoured properly, even while it brings with it untold distractions. Pine says he’s “swimming in opportunity”, and that therein lies its own difficulties. When I ask him if he feels any relief that he’s arrived at last, and the money’s flooding in, so the pressure’s off, he just laughs.

“No, quite the opposite. Before, it was so much easier. You had this Zen-like tunnel vision of ‘must work at all costs’. It’s so wonderfully focusing. Now, I get lots of great opportunities, with lots of money attached and great people to work with, but the excitement doesn’t compare to the time when I got my first movie 10 years ago. That was a pretty amazing day.”

He remembers it well. He was all of 23 years old, driving home in his 1972 BMW 2002, “a little oyster can of a car”, when his agent called with the news he’d just landed The Princess Diaries 2, his first-ever movie. And he realised instantly what that meant: his years of restaurant work were over. His life had changed. “I had a job at this French restaurant, and I hated it,” he says. “I don’t like serving, I don’t like getting people ketchup. Getting that movie meant that I was going to become a full time screen actor.”

At the time he was the only person in his family who hadn’t become an actor. His mum, dad and older sister had all taken the plunge, as had Chris’s grandmother before them. But unlike the power dynasties like the Coppolas, the Houstons or the Barrymores, the Pines lived a little further down the ladder, in the realm of the “jobbing actor”.

His father Robert — the only one still in the business beside Chris — was never a marquee star like his son, but one of those faces you’ve seen a hundred times on a hundred TV shows. He’s best known as the police chief on the Eighties series CHiPs, a show on which Chris made his debut of sorts, as a foetus. “My mom would occasionally guest star as my dad’s wife,” he says. “And she did one when she was eight months pregnant with me.”

Pine grew up around entertainment people in the valley, in North Hollywood; it was all he knew, whether at school or at home. He went to a hippyish private school called Oakwood where Frank Zappa sent his kids, as did Denzel Washington and Samuel L Jackson. “You call your teacher by their first names,” he says. “That kind of thing.” And at home, the Pines were friends of the Winklers, notably Henry from Happy Days. Going to the Fonz’s house for a birthday party was perfectly normal.

There was no child actor phase, his parents wouldn’t have allowed it anyway. It wasn’t until high school that the theatre caught his attention. An English teacher put him in what “Waiting for Godot” (pronounced “G’dough”), and by the time he’d left college, English degree in hand, his mind was made up: He’d be a thespian. And after spending two summers at a theater festival in Massachussetts, there was no doubt in his mind as to where his future lay.

“I was moving to New York,” he says. “That’s where my friends were going, and I had a free place to stay there for two months. It was perfect. So I went back to LA and gave up my apartment. I told my agent, I was leaving town in two weeks, and that was that.”

But he never left. In those two weeks, his agent sent him on audition after audition, and by the end of it, Pine had booked his first two guest star spots on TV, and that first movie, Princess Diaries 2. He learned a lesson we all learn eventually – the moment you stop craving something, it comes to you. “It’s not voodoo,” he says. “It’s because the censors lift, the self-criticism is lifted and you’re not impeded by any form of desperation or need.”

He should know. In Pine’s story it comes up more than once.

Ask him what it was like to be a young actor in LA — not famous but paying his bills nevertheless — and he doesn’t hesitate: “Fucking awesome”. He looks back on those pre-Kirk years with a nostalgia that feels out of place on someone so young. He lived right down the street in Silverlake, in a “killer apartment, across from my favourite coffee shop.”

He worked once or twice a year, making enough to take care of his car lease and his rent, which were about the only responsibilities he had. And he was having a blast.

“Sure, the auditions and the rejection – if you’re a sensitive person at all, it’s fucking brutal. But, if you can work in this town, it’s a joy. You just have to keep your focus. LA’s a pretty, warm, easy, breezy place. You can sunbathe, get a mai tai and wake up five months later. And it’s still sunny. And they’re still serving mai tais.”

All this talk of cocktails, but the booze was never Pine’s thing. He fairly sailed past all the usual temptations in this famously debauched city — the sniff, the pills, the whole Robert Downey Jr of it.

“Drugs were never interesting to me,” he says. “With drinking, you slowly learn how much you can handle, but with drugs I just don’t know what the fuck they are or what they do. Also I was a shy kid, a late bloomer. At 22, I was probably 16 emotionally.”

For a 16-year-old, he was uncommonly stable during this time. It’s partly down to the work ethic he’d inherited from his parents, the drive to go to acting class, learn his lines and show up to auditions prepared, rain or shine.

But it’s also a product of having grown up around actors and seen how they navigate the ups and downs of their careers and still come out shining at the end. It gave him confidence that he would be OK. “For whatever reason, I never had a doubt in my mind that I was going to work,” he says.

One of his favourite stories is the time he went on audition with his father, both of them going for the same show. “When we arrived he saw a friend he’d known for 40 years, and we were outside talking,” says Pine. “It felt like a steel town or something. This is what people do in Hollywood. It’s a cool feeling, to feel the lineage of it. People work at it, go to auditions, and they have good days and bad days like anyone else.”

There’s no steel town equivalent of what Pine has become. The whole blue collar jobbing actor thing doesn’t ring quite as true when you’re an A-lister and the studios are burying you in cash for just a few months’ work. But that all happened  in an instant — the instant he said yes to Captain Kirk and agreed to pass up the dildo opportunity we talked about earlier.

“I wasn’t a fan of Star Trek,” he says. “It didn’t excite me. All I wanted at that time was a part that I really connected to and when my agent said ‘Star Trek’, I said, ‘No! Have you not been hearing anything I’ve said? Star Trek is the furthest thing from what I want to do.’”

The only reason he showed up to the audition was to meet JJ Abrams, whom he felt was a good business contact. “So I told my agent, ‘Look, as long as they know going in that I don’t want the part, I’m just there to meet JJ…’” He laughs. “I was pretty high on my horse, I guess.”

Even after he’d been offered the part, he hemmed and hawed for over a week. And it was fear that persuaded him to take the role in the end.

Star Trek scared me a lot more than White Jazz. It terrified me really. Because of the scale, the responsibility, the fact that it was this iconic character. It was the bigger challenge so I had to take it.”

The bill arrives, and Pine effuses to the waitress about the food, right down to the decaf macchiato. He asks if I’ve got any more questions, and I tell him: only about dildos, and there’s that smile again, ever so slightly pained.

This is a marquee year for Pine, and he wants it to go well. It’s a year he’s determined to savour, dildo quotes or not.

He’ll go home soon, to his pad in the hills, and it looks like he’ll be able to make his way there unmolested by paps or fans. So far, it seems, he’s not been the subject of screaming girls in the way that some screen idols are. But this could be the year that all that changes.

“When I went to Japan for Star Trek, the fans were at the airport waiting,” he says. “But they didn’t scream until Benedict [Cumberbatch] got off the plane. And I was like, fuck man? What about me?” He laughs.

“But no, no, no. You see Justin Bieber and Robert Pattinson, what they go through, and dude, that’s not as exciting as it looks. I’m sure they’ve taken advantage of it, as they should, but me, I’m cool with this, right here.” He looks around at the restaurant, where everyone is pretty much minding their own business. “I can slip in, slip out. I’m fine where I’m at.”

You’re telling me that strange women don’t hurl themselves at you in the street? Come on. I’ve seen Entourage.

He grins and gets up.

“Fine. In that case, I need to get home, because my jacuzzi is warming up and the brunettes are arriving any minute.”

And with that, he’s gone.