Having already conquered the worldwide box office, Marvel Studios has their sights set on brand-new territory this summer — outer space. The Marvel Cinematic Universe goes cosmic in writer/director James Gunn‘s upcoming “Guardians of the Galaxy” feature film, based on the Marvel Comics series featuring a team of misfits banded together to protect the cosmos.
Last September, CBR News took part in a roundtable with Chris Pratt, the actor best known for his role as the delightfully dimwitted Andy Dwyer on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.” Pratt trades in Andy’s guitar and Burt Macklin shades for the chance to play action hero as Peter Quill — better known as Star-Lord — in “Guardians.”
Pratt seemed relaxed and upbeat, constantly joking as he answered select questions from the press during a London set visit. Pratt spoke about balancing his work on the tentpole film with his role on “Parks and Rec,” working with CGI, injecting plenty of comedy into the action, how he prepared to play a half-human, half-alien hero and more.
First off, how are you balancing filming with your TV commitments as Andy Dwyer in NBC’s “Parks and Recreation?”
That was something NBC and Marvel worked out before my deal was finalized. They said, “We’ll let him out for some episodes, but he has to come back.” NBC let me out for six episodes, and they came out here and we did a couple here in London, and also I went back for 10 days in August and did an episode. So we’re making it work. When I wrap on this I’ll go straight back into filming “Parks and Rec.”
Stepping into a world like that of the Guardians, is part of the challenge just learning to look like you belong there?
That’s definitely part of it, if you’re talking about the props and the toys and the sets and costumes, yeah. But all that stuff makes my job much easier, because it’s doing a lot of the work. Everything that distracts the viewer’s attention from me, I invite. You know, just look at the cool guns!
Can you talk about the physical transformation you went through for this role? Did losing the weight change the way you work as an actor?
Yeah, it was one of the elements that made it easy for me — the props, the hair, the costumes, getting in shape — I’d look at myself in the mirror and not even see myself, I’d see Peter Quill. I’d say it’s a third of what I do, just what I look like. It can’t not affect the way people perceive you and the way you perceive yourself.
Were there any characters you were inspired by for your approach to Peter Quill?
Sort of. You’d think, going into it, that you’d take influences from performances you’ve seen, but that’s not necessarily what I did. I’ve heard people say I’m like Han Solo meets Marty McFly, but that wasn’t intentional. I know that I, personally, am different from anyone else, so I think if an actor can stick to making the character resemble something from their own spirit, it’ll automatically be unique.
The props department said they sent you Star-Lord’s blasters to try out. What was it like the first time you held them?
Yeah, they sent me a gun so they could see how I held it. But then all I was thinking was, “Oh, I’m going to send a picture then they’ll think I’m too fat and fire me.” That’s all I remember thinking! I was still in the process of losing weight, sucking the gut in. My wife was like, “You look uncomfortable in this photo!” Then immediately after I sent it, they were like “Hey, we need to come get your sizes again…” But yeah, it was pretty neat. They’re awesome props. We’ve got a great props department here.
To go into depth about Quill, we know he’s half-alien and hasn’t spent a lot of time on Earth. Which side of the character informs him most, human or alien?
He’s very much informed by who he was on Earth. The arc of the character is very human, it’s based on what was taken from him as a kid, something he lacks and has to gain back through the course of the movie. He’s like nine or ten when he leaves Earth, so you get to see his origin and why he is like he is.
In the sizzle reel, we see a moment where you say “I’m Star-Lord!” and Korath says “Who?” — obviously that’s designed to echo the public’s reaction a little, but is that something that benefitted you in making the character your own?
As I remember it, that idea kind of arrived on screen organically — in the script he was just saying “I’m Star-Lord!” and I think it was my idea that Korath should react like that. But the stakes legitimize this nickname he wants to call himself. So without giving away too much, you see why he’s called that by the end of the movie.
But the fact that Star-Lord doesn’t exactly have a high profile with audiences, was that a benefit to you, or the opposite?
I don’t know that it affects me particularly. I think it’s probably helpful, because it’s my intention to make the role my own anyway. Robert Downey, Jr. did it with Iron Man — he just is Tony Stark. And I mean he really is now, he could probably build his own suit with all the money he’s made! I mean, I’m joking, I don’t know him or anything — but to me Robert Downey, Jr. is Tony Stark. So I’d like to do that, keep it close to who I am. It’d probably be helpful that there are no preconceptions because when you look at the “Star Wars” prequels, there were a lot of expectations there. Shouldering that makes it difficult, but the first “Star Wars” didn’t have those problems because it was all brand new and you just take it for what it is. So what I’m saying is that we’ll be definitely better than “Star Wars” [Laughs]
So much of the film is about building this amazing, eclectic ensemble cast. Did you kind of feel that way when you were working, that you came together by the end?
Sort of, yeah. We don’t really get to feel the synergy of the whole group, because two of the characters are CG. We’ve definitely gotten to know each other better, but it’s not been like other movies I’ve done where we all hang out, we’ve just been working non-stop. It’s been eye on the prize the whole time.
How have you been adjusting to the fact that there are two CGI characters there throughout the entire film?
Turns out it’s kind of the same as it being not CGI. You’re just standing there, looking at something and pretending. It’d be harder if we didn’t have Sean Gunn playing Rocket [Raccoon]. So much of what actors do is just listening and responding, so it’s very easy. There’s a connection and flow. I’m not just talking to a tennis ball or whatever.
When the audience first meets Quill in space, what are his goals, and what is he up to before he meets the Guardians?
He’s on a quest to escape, essentially. In the same way a lot of people are, he’s got like a hope to him, the kind of hope you have when you buy a lottery ticket. He thinks if he can just make that big score then everything’s going to be fine. And he learns over the course of the movie that that’s not where you find satisfaction, or happiness. It comes from giving yourself up to something bigger than yourself.
You and James [Gunn] are both very funny guys, so how important is comedy to telling the story of “Guardians of the Galaxy?”
Oh, super-important. If we pull it off right it’s going to be very hard for other movies of this type to come out afterwards. James is very funny, we have a similar sense of humor and a great relationship on set that’s keeping us both sane. This is ultimately his movie and his voice, and you’ll definitely see that. It’s the key to making this movie work — it’s not just a straight action-adventure, it’s got lots of comedy too. “Indiana Jones,” “Romancing the Stone,” any type of movie where you have an adventure, romance and humor, it really works.
How many comics did you read to prepare?
When I first talked with James I’d read some of the very newest [Brian Michael] Bendis stuff and I was like, “What do you think?” And he was like, “Don’t read any more! I don’t want you to read any.” He said I should look at the [Dan] Abnett & [Andy] Lanning stuff if I felt compelled to read something, because we’ll be closest to that, but don’t because we’re not recreating the comic books, we’re just telling the story in a different medium. The name and title and characters come from different incarnations of the Guardians, but this is its own thing. He probably just wanted me to use his script as the bible!
How much changed from when you got the script through the shooting process?
Not very much. 10-15% maybe. It was pretty solid going in, we rehearsed and brought stuff up then. It’s always an evolution, but it was pretty damn good to begin with. There was nothing like, “Oh, this doesn’t work.”
Do you get to improv on a movie this big?
No, not really, this is not the place for that sort of thing. I do, though! It’s not what I should be doing but I can’t help it. And there’s a difference between improv-ing, and what I do, which is saying the same thing using different words. You can put in your own words if it makes it more natural, but I’ve been trying hard to stick to the lines, though, because you don’t want to blow a $300,000 shot just so you can have a little fun! There’s room for that in some scenes, but for the most part no.
Given the chaotic nature of the world you’re in, have any of the days been notably more surreal than others?
Yes. Our Morag set was mind blowing. There was another day in the Kyln when we had an industry veteran second called Michael who was doing crowd control on like a hundred extras, all of whom were in alien make-up, and we were in a huge warehouse with prison cells all the way around us, a giant tower in the middle, and this long crane that flies through the whole set in one shot. And Michael was shouting, “Remember! If you can see the camera, the camera can see you! You are in prison! You are not happy!” and then we were walking through with the dolly behind us and it starts spinning, you see a fight break out, somewhere else you see these prisoners grab someone and drag them off, you see so many details, and then the shot ends on my face, taking it all in. And it was so crazy, I was like, “How much does this cost per second!?”
Who’s your favorite character other than yourself?
Oh man. Drax is awesome, not just the character, but Dave Batista, the actor. Rocket is a great character, there’s so much heart there. James did a really good job of making sure he wasn’t just a cartoon character. When you see the story unfold, you feel bad for him. He’s got this sense of loneliness that makes him sympathetic. And badass, because he’s still a raccoon with a machine gun.
“Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy” opens August 1, 2014.