Chris Pratt dangled high in the air, his eyes closed, his arms hovering underneath his head, his legs splayed apart in gray, tight, precariously short shorts. He looked peaceful, asleep. His body drifted across an elegantly appointed two-floor bedroom suite, until, suddenly, his head thumped against a far wall.
“Ow,” said director Morten Tyldum, watching the rehearsal safely from the ground.
Pratt didn’t even wince.
It was November 2015, day 28 of shooting on Passengers. The grand sci-fi romantic adventure stars Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence as two unfortunate souls awakened 90 years too early on a 120-year interstellar voyage to another planet. Facing a lifetime of solitude aboard a luxury starship — its pools, restaurants, and shopping areas meant to entertain its 5,258 inhabitants on only the final months of their journey — Jim (Pratt) and Aurora (Lawrence) begin to settle into their new reality. And then, one day, the gravity mysteriously malfunctions, and a sleeping Jim unwittingly floats out of his bed and across his room, until the wall gets in the way of his head.
To achieve the illusion of weightlessness, Pratt was strapped into a specially designed harness, which was attached to a wire rig that allowed him to float and rotate freely while in midair. It was a clever mechanism, but it still left most of the hard work of achieving the proper degree of steady, languorous movement to Pratt’s world-famous abs.
“I didn’t work out today, specifically because I knew I’d be doing this,” the actor told me later during a break in filming on the Atlanta soundstage, sitting in a director’s chair near the bedroom suite set. “To suspend yourself just at the hips and to appear to be asleep and relaxed and in zero gravity is pretty tricky. The first few times I did it, I didn’t pull it off at all.” Complicating matters further, the harness was hidden underneath Pratt’s tiny shorts, requiring some careful rearranging before and after every take. “They’re quite short,” he said, stifling a laugh. “We’re trying to conceal this harness, but also not expose my genitals, I guess. I don’t want it to ride up my butt. It’s, uh, this is what we do. This is the important stuff.” He giggled. “If we get one take that works and it gets into the movie, it will be kind of a miracle.”
Chris Pratt and director Morten Tyldum on the set of Passengers
Back on set, the Norwegian-born Tyldum — making his first Hollywood studio film after earning a Best Director Oscar nomination for The Imitation Game — was indeed struggling to get Pratt to convey just the right degree of weightless slumber. “That was pretty good, pretty good,” Tyldum told Pratt after one take. “Just straighten your wrists.”
“How many times have you given me that note?” Pratt said. “Every take, you’re like, ‘A little limp-wristed.'”
Tyldum laughed, and then gently noted that in zero-G, Pratt’s hands wouldn’t naturally bend towards the ground. Another take, another bonk against the wall. Cut. “Your arms, they were a little robotic there,” said Tyldum. “Your arms can float.”
Pratt nodded. Action! Bonk. Cut.
“You good, Chris?” asked Tyldum.
“Yeah,” said Pratt. Action! Bonk. Cut.
“You want to go straight into another one?” asked Tyldum.
“Yup!” said Pratt. Action! Bonk. Cut.
As the crew reset for another take, Pratt turned to a nearby electronic press kit crew, there to capture some B-roll footage for the marketing campaign. “Hey, I’m Chris Pratt,” he said with a big grin. “I’m getting weightless. We’re doing wire work. Actors are really like puppets!”
After Tyldum was finally satisfied he’d gotten what he needed for the wide angle, the crew began rearranging the cameras for a closer shot, and Pratt came back down to the ground to rest. He dropped his shorts to get the harness off of him as fast as possible, seemingly unconcerned with flashing his square-cut underwear to anyone who happened to be watching. “I think that’s life,” he said after throwing on some pants. “You have to be able to hang from a harness in tight shorts and bang your head against the wall.” He smiled. “It’s a real metaphor.”
Pratt’s overnight success as a movie star has indeed taken over a decade of banging his head against the wall. His career trajectory is almost too on-the-nose, as if tailor-made for splashy celebrity profiles and late-night talk show appearances: The son of blue-collar parents, the Washington state native dropped out of college at 19, and lived for a time out of a van and a tent in Hawaii. He was discovered while working at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. by actor Rae Dawn Chong, and then spent the next 13 years hammering out a series of roles on TV (Everwood, The O.C., Parks and Recreation) and in features (Wanted, Bride Wars, The Five-Year Engagement) that ranged from “asshole-boyfriend parts” to “super-confident dumb fat guy” roles, as he put it to GQ in 2015. He’d auditioned for the lead roles in Avatar and Star Trek, and choked so badly he told Entertainment Weekly that he doubted his own talent. It wasn’t until he revealed a buff selfie in his underwear on Conan in 2012 — taken as he trained to play a Navy SEAL in Zero Dark Thirty — that Pratt began to shake his image as just a doofus with a Cheshire grin.
Left to right: Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy, Jurassic World, and The Lego Movie.
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / Universal Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures / all Courtesy Everett Collection
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, Pratt was a movie star. Since 2014, his films have made over $3 billion worldwide — more than the movies headlined by Lawrence or Robert Downey Jr. over that same time frame. And yet the 37-year-old hasn’t so much escaped playing asshole-boyfriends and super-confident dumb fat guys; it’s more that he’s figured out how to transmute those qualities (and a crap ton of gym time) into an irresistible leading man persona, equal parts roguish confidence and boyish charm. It is simply really, really hard not to like him, both on and offscreen.
But his steep rise now has Pratt testing his newfound renown. His films as a star to date — the adorably madcap animated feature The LEGO Movie, the Marvel Studios superhero comedy Guardians of the Galaxy, the gargantuanly lucrative sequel/reboot Jurassic World, and the remake of the classic Western The Magnificent Seven — all drafted their success off of an established brand. Passengers, by sharp contrast, is an original old-school star vehicle, a sci-fi romantic adventure that lives or dies on the audience’s connection with its two leads — and especially with their idea of who Pratt is.
If Lawrence is the living embodiment of Gillian Flynn’s Cool Girl, then Pratt is in many ways her male counterpart: the Fun Dude, a work hard, play hard former fat guy who can deadlift 315 pounds and French braid his wife’s hair, who wows Will.i.am with a magic trick and confesses to getting the “nervous poops” on a plane. He is simultaneously your office intern’s not-so-secret lust object and the guy you’d happily bring home to meet grandma. He could throw back a beer with both your gay BFF and your MAGA hat–owning uncle. He is the guy we can all agree on at a time when we cannot seem to agree on anything at all.
But his morally complicated role in Passengers could shatter that carefully established image, and quite possibly alienate his vast fanbase in the process. “It’s a character who has to make some really big and dark choices,” Tyldum said. “You have to understand and feel for him.” For the first time since becoming a star, America’s wingman gets to see how far he can stretch the limits of his multibillion-dollar likability.
When Pratt first read for Guardians of the Galaxy, director James Gunn didn’t even want to bother sitting in on the audition. “I had seen, like, one scene from Parks and Rec or something, where he was falling around an office place and being a bumbling fool,” Gunn said in a phone interview. “I didn’t think it was going to work.” He chuckled. “We saw truly hundreds of actors to play the role of Star-Lord. We probably had already screen-tested over 20 people. So we were kind of scraping the bottom of the barrel by the time we got to Chris.”
Compare that sentiment with how producer Neal H. Moritz responded when I asked him on the Passengers set why they cast Pratt in the film. “There’s nobody else,” he said. “There was a lot of actors that wanted to do this. There’s nobody else that we could see in the role, honestly.”
The feeling, it turned out, was mutual. “The minute I read the script, I knew there was no way it would be made without me,” Pratt said of Passengers, which had spent years bouncing around Hollywood as one of the best unproduced screenplays in town. “When I finished, I had tears in my eyes. … I was like, I’m going to do that movie, and I’m going to fucking crush it.”
It is a quintessentially Pratt-like — Prattian? Prattish? — reaction. The actor recognized just how different the project, with its romantic intrigue and intimate scope, would be for him. Pratt and Lawrence are practically the film’s only actors, and he was excited, he said, to bring his “own special brand of acting juice” to the movie. So I asked him to describe that brand.
“I guess every person has something about themselves that makes them unique,” he said after mulling over the question. “I can’t exactly pinpoint what it is about myself. I don’t know if anyone really ever could, and if they did, they’d probably be pretty douche-y. It’s kind of weird to describe yourself, like, ‘I’ll tell you what makes me special!'”
And then, with total sincerity and without once seeming douche-y, he proceeded to do just that. “I think it’s just breathing my own spirit into these characters, and getting roles that are not that different than who I would be if I was in that situation,” he said. “It was the same thing with Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy, or Owen in Jurassic World — if all of the events leading up to that moment for that character were the events that led up to that moment for myself, I wouldn’t be any different from those characters.”
It is about the best description of what it means to be a movie star that you could ever get from someone who actually is one. The strange, special contract we’ve always made with Hollywood’s biggest stars — from Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant to Julia Roberts and Will Smith — is that they bring an essential, unforgettable them-ness to every role they play, and we’ll rush out to see it, every time. At their best, movie stars present us with a distinctive, aspirational image for what it means to be a certain kind of woman or man, and that image transcends whatever movie they happen to be in. It is far different from the kind of transformative performances one might expect from Viola Davis or Joaquin Phoenix, but it is no less difficult to pull off, let alone pull off well.
Pratt at the premiere of The Magnificent Seven in Venice, Italy.
Ernesto Ruscio / Getty Images
And it has been dying. Leading male actors of Pratt’s generation — like Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pine, and Chris Evans — have watched their careers explode when placed at the center of a single massive franchise, but they have floundered trying to transfer that success to anything that doesn’t call on them to play Thor, Kirk, and Captain America. Audiences only seem to want to see Ryan Reynolds’ handsome mug when it’s covered by Deadpool’s smart-ass mask. Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Gosling, and Tom Hardy evince a drive to be serious actors rather than movie stars, while James Franco has turned his stardom into the world’s least interesting performance art project.
None of those actors, however, have established and maintained a movie star persona that is quite as sincere and manifest as Pratt’s. “He has charm, lightness, a sense of adventure, that All-American Boy type of quality,” said director Antoine Fuqua, who cast Pratt as the wily gunslinger Josh Faraday in The Magnificent Seven, which opened in September. “He’s sort of the light in the room, but he’s got an edge to him when he needs to. Who else can say ‘You’ll be killed by the world’s greatest lover’ and get away with it?”
Despite his initial misgivings, those qualities were readily apparent to Gunn within a few seconds of Pratt’s Guardians of the Galaxy audition. “I felt like this was a guy, if he ever did share the stage with Robert Downey Jr., he wouldn’t just be swamped up by that guy’s charisma, which I feel almost every other actor is,” said Gunn. “Chris is an old-time, Gary Cooper movie star, but he has a vulnerability to him that is completely modern. … I felt like he was somebody who would fill up the screen.”
Filling the screen — i.e., unquestionably commanding the audience’s attention — was particularly essential for Passengers, which asks its leads to spend a great deal of time in the film alone within a vast, empty, deliberately austere spaceship. “We needed a guy who could feel like an everyman,” said Moritz. “It’s obviously a really hefty challenge for an actor to have a lot of scenes on your own. You needed somebody who was very, very endearing, had some humor, but could also do the physical side of it.”
That need for physicality isn’t just about effectively executing Passengers’ action sequences. The film also speaks to a specific, dire working-class yearning that so many of Pratt’s more posh peers couldn’t ever quite pull off. “He’s a blue-collar guy,” Pratt said of his character. “He works with his hands. He builds things. He wants to be useful.”
Pratt’s distinctive combination of qualities led Passengers‘ filmmakers to see him as the only star in Hollywood today who could play Jim. “He’s very approachable,” Tyldum said on the phone a few months before the movie’s release. “At the same time, you are just riveted. Your eyes automatically go to him in the screen. And he’s probably the nicest guy in Hollywood. So that helps a lot.”
Pratt in Passengers.
Courtesy Of Sony Pictures
Pratt’s image as a Really Nice Guy isn’t just within the industry. His robust Instagram account — with over 7.9 million followers — regularly features images of Pratt visiting sick kids in hospitals, supporting the troops on USO tours, and promoting charity sweepstakes to visit him on set. “That’s something that we talk about a lot,” said Gunn. “He cares a lot about doing something with this. … He’s taken on the role of being famous, and he’s done something with it.”
That’s another big difference between being a well-known actor and a true movie star: Kerry Washington and Bradley Cooper can carefully titrate how much or little about their personal lives they share with the public, but stars are expected to maintain the infrastructure of their fame — and the contours of their personas — at all times. Along with his charity work, Pratt has also treated his social accounts as an occasion for self-deprecating previews of his glossy magazine spreads, behind-the-scenes shots from his film shoots, a chance to playfully tease his new co-star Lawrence, and a kind of release valve for his more outré comic impulses. (For an October photo of a tree with a series of deep, red grooves scratched into the bark, his caption reads, in part, “#TrollTime is the time of year when evil trolls roam the woods and scratch their greasy nails up and down the tree bark sharpening them for the purge.”)
Pratt proudly displaying a bass he caught at Lake Oconee, 2016.
@prattprattpratt / Instagram / Via Instagram: @prattprattpratt