Chris Pratt was in the worst shape of his life when he heard about the auditions for the latest Marvel sci-fi blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy. “I was fat,” the 36-year-old says bluntly, referring to his 134-kilogram frame.
But the actor best recognised as Andy Dwyer in the TV comedy Parks and Recreation and as the voice of Emmet in The Lego Movie decided to go after the lead role anyway. “After the final screen test, the Marvel guys told me they’d read with some great actors but nobody had the character’s voice except me - and then they told me I just didn’t look the part and I knew what was coming,” he says laughing.
Pratt was given six months to drop at least 27 kilograms to secure the role. Nine months later, the buffed 102-kilogram star is in a conference room opposite Stage R at Shepperton Studios near London during a break in filming.
Looking at Pratt now, it’s hard to believe Guardians director James Gunn refused to even consider him when he first started casting the role of space adventurer Peter Quill.
“The casting director kept submitting him and I kept saying, ‘he’s the chubby guy on Parks and Rec, no way!’” Gunn now admits a little sheepishly. “But one day I was tricked into hearing Chris read and within one minute I saw beyond his body shape and realised he was the guy and all we had to do was get him into superhero shape.”
Guardians of the Galaxy is based on a series of Marvel comic books introduced in 1969 about a team of space superheroes whose members are the last of their kind. Quill’s story begins in the 1970s, when he’s abducted from Earth as a child and raised by a group of thieves and smugglers. Years later, he becomes the object of a manhunt and is forced into an uneasy alliance with a group of misfits he meets in prison: the talking tree Groot (Vin Diesel), the mutated raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper), the green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and the vengeful brute Drax (Dave Bautista).
“I can’t help but feel I am on the coolest Disneyland ride and I don’t even have to wait in line for it,” Pratt says with a goofy grin. “And I have this incredible set up around me that makes me feel like Indiana Jones. He knows if he goes into that Temple he could die but it’s the little boy inside him that gets excited and makes him try. Peter Quill is very much the same way and so am I.”
Marvel has high hopes for the latest instalment of their superhero universe - a release date for a Guardians sequel has already been confirmed, July 28, 2017 - and predictions for its opening weekend box-office are sitting at $US65 million (which is impressive but nowhere near the $US95 million its Marvel stablemate Captain America: Winter Soldier, pulled on its opening weekend). Early reviews have also been positive, review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes has it sitting at a 97 per cent "fresh" rating, while The Hollywood Reporter gleefully called it a cross between Stars Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Joss Whedon's Serenity.
However, it's not just about the numbers (or the Stars Wars references). At Comic-Con in San Diego last weekend, the teaser trailer for the Avengers sequel, Age of Ultron, appeared to reveal a stack of dead superhero bodies. Could it be that Quill, who far from Iron Man's gadgetry and Thor's hammer, prefers to listen to Blue Swede's Hooked on a Feeling on his Walkman, will be the last Marvel man standing?
Back inside Soundstage R, ambitiously located on the corner of David Lean Drive and Orson Wells Avenue, Pratt is watching a mechanical gimble get his spaceship into position for the next flying scene. Also standing on set is co-star Michael Rooker, who plays blue-faced Yondu, the Ravager who raised Quill but is now pursuing him. “He is a legit black-belt and he beat me up the other day pretty badly, so there are bumps and bruises,” says Pratt. . “I always knew I had a stunt man in me and I’ve always loved doing physical things but I never thought I’d get to do it all as an actor.”
When Pratt grew up in Lake Stevens, Washington, he was more interested in sports than theatre but eventually got the acting bug after watching his older brother in a school play. After starring in the teen series Everwood from 2002-06, he went on to appear in films such as the Oscar-nominated films Moneyball and Zero Dark Thirty and the comedy The Five-Year Engagement.
Often cast as a sidekick, Pratt knows this movie will change all that - he has just been cast in another blockbuster, Jurassic World, and is being hyped as the next Indiana Jones. “For the longest time all I cared about as an actor in L.A. was just not having to be a waiter,” he says. “But then my struggle was about finding my identity and body image became a big part of that for me, because there were times I was overweight and not considered for this type of roles. I tried to get comfortable with thinking my path was going to be playing just the friend, the buddy, the goofy character,” he adds, “but I’m just glad James took a chance on me.”
Guardians of the what now?
They've been called the "alt. Avengers" - the superheros you call when you need a little comic relief from Captain America's earnestness, Iron Man's smugness and Thor's Norse god schtick. But who are the Guardians and how on earth (or more correctly space) do they fit into Marvel's ever-expanding universe?
1. So, it's not the Avengers?
No. Basically, the Guardians are a ragtag team of warriors who have vowed to keep outer-space safe. Led by Star-Lord, aka Peter Quill, they battle Thanos, who can be linked to the Avengers via the Infinity Gauntlet (which is linked to the Tesseract and Aether in Avengers and Thor). I know it's confusing, but it will all make sense if you stick to the No.1 Marvel movie rule: stay right until the credits end if you want to know the next link in the Marvel chain.
2. There's a talking raccoon. Puh-lease
Yes, there's a talking CGI racoon and his name is Rocket. More importantly, he's voiced by American Hustle's Bradley Cooper in a performance that's being touted as another reason that voiceover work should get more Oscar love (for example, Scarlett Johansson's excellent work in Her last year). Anyway, he's a genetically engineered raccoon who is a bounty hunter and weapons master. Got it?
3. Zoe Saldana kicks butt
You've seen her turn blue for Avatar, keep a cool head in Star Trek and now, for Guardians, she's added another warrior woman to her list of feisty ladies, the green assassin Gamora. Who ya gonna call? Saldana, apparently.
4. Wait. It's funny?
Yes! While all the Avengers have their moments, none of them go straight for the funnybone like Guardians. It's freewheeling and highly silly, and fans of Chris Pratt's work in TV comedy Parks and Recreation know the man can deliver a line. Besides, what else did you expect from a film that features Vin Diesel in, quite literally, his most animated role yet - as a talking tree named Groot.
5. If the Avengers were an arena-spectacular tour, Guardians is an excellent retro night out
While Tony Stark prefers (what else?) heavy metal with AC/DC's Back in Black and Black Sabbath, Guardians' hero Peter Quill prefers his grooves 1970s-style. Think 10cc's I'm Not In Love, Hooked on a Feeling by Blue Swede and Come and Get Your Love by Redbone. Flares are optional. LOUISE RUGENDYKE
Guardians of the Galaxy
Genre Action adventure
Buzz Marvel’s new potential franchise ticks all the boxes to become another global hit
Stars Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Vin Diesel
Director James Gunn
Released August 7, rated M