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Taylor Kitsch: His make-or-break year

The ”Friday Night Lights” star headlines three movies in 2012, two of which — ”John Carter” and ”Battleship” — are big-budget gambles. Feeling excited and a little bit nervous, Kitsch opens up about this giant moment in his career

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As is often the case, Taylor Kitsch was working during Super Bowl XLVI. So he didn’t get to see the ads that featured him in two Hollywood behemoths: Disney’s ambitious sci-fi adventure John Carter and Universal’s gonzo action pic Battleship. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t hear about them. ”It was pretty hilarious,” says the actor, 30, just back from a remote island near Bali where he was finishing Oliver Stone’s thriller Savages. ”All my best friends were texting me, saying, ‘I would just like to watch the Super Bowl in peace.”’

Kitsch’s friends had better get used to his hunky mug. In the next five months, the Canadian actor — best known as the brooding, impossibly sexy Tim Riggins on NBC’s beloved Friday Night Lights — will star in three films hitting theaters in short order. ”He’s going to have a tremendous amount of exposure,” says Stone. ”I don’t envy that position.”

But Battleship director Peter Berg — who cast Kitsch on Friday Night Lights not long after he was a dirt-poor wannabe actor sleeping on friends’ couches and, occasionally, the New York City subway — has a notion of how his friend’s career will play out. ”I liken him, in his own way, to a young Bruce Willis,” he says. ”He’s strong and very confident, but he’s also very self-deprecating and funny. He’s willing to fall flat on his face five times to get it done on the sixth.” Here’s a look at Kitsch’s upcoming films — and a year that, for better or worse, he will never forget.

John Carter

Edgar Rice Burroughs created John Carter in a series of novels 100 years ago. He’s a Confederate Civil War hero who gets accidentally teleported to Mars, struggles to find his place among its battling races, and falls for a warrior princess along the way. Director Andrew Stanton thought Kitsch would be perfect for the role after seeing only the pilot of Friday Night Lights in 2006, but, fearing he was too young, launched an exhaustive casting search. ”Then I realized that Sean Connery was 29 when he was in Dr. No, his first James Bond role,” says the director (Finding Nemo, WALL?E). ”And Harrison Ford was 33 in Star Wars.”

Of all Kitsch’s movies this year, John Carter is the riskiest. It cost a whopping $250 million, and — while there are certainly hardcore fans who know about the seminal sci-fi novels and how they inspired Star Wars and Avatar — the film hasn’t yet set the larger moviegoing public’s blood racing. Early audience tracking reports haven’t been encouraging. Some advance predictions have put its opening weekend at $30 million, a daunting figure for a film that’s meant to launch a franchise. But Disney’s production chief, Sean Bailey, insists ”it’s too early to tell” how the film will do. ”Hopefully audiences will respond to this story and this grand, epic vision of Andrew’s,” he says. ”We’re going to put everything we have into this one, and we’re going to let the audience let us know if they want more of it or not. Obviously we’re optimistic that they do.”

Kitsch will emerge relatively unscathed no matter what happens with the film, but he’s still feeling the pressure. ”I’m in every scene of the film, almost. I don’t think it can be good if I’m terrible in it — put it that way.” And he loyally stands by his director: ”He’s just a f—ing brilliant storyteller. Whether this does a billion dollars or 10 bucks, man, you cannot take that away from Andrew.”

Battleship

Four years after he cast Kitsch on Friday Night Lights, Berg flew to the set of John Carter in London to pitch the actor the lead role in Battleship: a ne’er-do-well naval officer named Alex Hopper who’s thrust into the middle of an alien invasion in the Pacific Ocean. The movie, of course, is based on the Hasbro board game, which means it has the kind of name recognition that Hollywood craves. It also means that audiences will need to suspend all disbelief, in true summer-movie fashion. ”It’s absurd,” Kitsch chuckles. ”Alex Hopper [goes] from being this drunk living on his brother’s couch to saving the f—ing planet.”

Kitsch signed on to Battleship mostly to work with Berg again, but it was also the culmination of a careful strategy, starting with supporting roles in big-studio tentpoles (like Gambit in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and lead roles in small indies (like real-life photojournalist Kevin Carter in 2011’s The Bang Bang Club). He just didn’t plan for his two biggest movies to date — Battleship cost about $200 million — to open right on top of each other. ”I guess we could think, ‘Oh, no, all these movies within five months,”’ says Kitsch’s manager, Stephanie Simon. ”But he’s so different in every movie — at least people get to see how good he is in everything.”

Battleship has gotten some flak for looking like Transformers at Sea. But Universal knows there are worse things than being likened to a multibillion-dollar-grossing franchise. ”Both Transformers and Battleship are Hasbro properties — it’s understandable that people would compare them,” says Universal Pictures chairman Adam Fogelson. ”I think the comparison is a compliment and benefit to the movie, not a detriment.” Adds Kitsch: ”I think it’s going to surprise a lot of people. I mean, if you can’t go in there with an open mind to enjoy it, I don’t know what to tell you. Go watch Schindler’s List.”

Savages

Before Oliver Stone felt comfortable casting Kitsch in his adaptation of Don Winslow’s 2010 crime novel, he asked Peter Berg to show him 30 minutes of Kitsch’s work in Battleship. Stone’s verdict? ”Taylor looked good,” he says. ”Comfortable as a leading man. Obviously he’s frontlining two big movies — he’s got more than enough experience right now. What intrigued me was his experience on the other side of the coin as well, which is absolute poverty.”

Kitsch plays Chon, a jaded Navy SEAL-turned-pot entrepreneur who takes on a Mexican drug cartel after they kidnap the girlfriend (Blake Lively) he shares with his business partner (Aaron Johnson). The actor loved that the film was modest in scale — it cost less than $50 million — as well as the fact that it told a gritty tale. ”My body’s covered in scars and tattoos,” Kitsch says with relish. ”I shadowed a Navy SEAL. I mean, this one kill I have in the movie is literally how the SEALs do it. It’s an unapologetic film.”

Universal’s recent decision to move the movie’s release from fall to summer suggests they have real confidence in it. ”We saw Oliver’s first cut of the film and were completely blown away,” says Fogelson. Whatever becomes of John Carter and Battleship, Savages should prove to Hollywood that Kitsch is a damn fine actor, which neither of those effects-heavy films was ever likely to do. ”I was excited just to get back to something with no greenscreen in sight,” he says. ”Yeah. I’m going to go that way now.”

And for how long? Who knows. The actor, who’s currently building himself a house in Austin, seems intent on keeping audiences, and Hollywood, guessing. ”I just want people to enjoy the ride,” he says. ”I’ve put everything I had into these films. I love f—ing taking these risks. I’m going to continue to do it if people keep allowing me to.”