The ''Friday Night Lights'' star breaks out as Gambit in ''Wolverine''

Taylor Kitsch, insofar as is possible, looks like hell. Best known as hunky drunk Tim Riggins on NBC’s Friday Night Lights, the 28-year-old Canadian actor is currently getting a big-screen break as card-throwing mutant Gambit in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and his boyish mug is plastered on Big Gulp machines nationwide. Yet in person, no amount of scruff can hide his sunken cheeks. A thick sweatshirt can’t conceal his shockingly scrawny frame. Kitsch may have seduced a subset of the female population by playing a hot, brooding rescue puppy on television, but the degree to which he now appears to require saving would alarm even his most devoted fans. ”I’m an emotional wreck, to be honest with you,” he admits.

No need to fret, ladies. Your pretty Kitsch isn’t losing his mind. He’s just not content to stay a pinup boy forever, and Wolverine — which opened this week to a snarling $85 million — marks the first step down that path. ”I would never be like, ‘Oh, I’m so good in it,”’ he says, but ”I can breathe. Put it that way. Not seeing Riggins in Gambit was incredibly important to me.”

The next step? Playing suicidal Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Carter in The Bang-Bang Club, a true story of photojournalists at the end of apartheid, which he’s about to finish shooting in South Africa. Kitsch immersed himself in the role, dropping 30 pounds — hence the scrawniness. ”Everyone is like, ‘Oh, can you handle the stress of playing Gambit?”’ he says. ”I get it, but playing Carter…it’s heavy, and it’s changed me. It’s a dream to play someone so chaotic and emotional, but it’s also an undertaking. I want people to be like, ‘Holy f — -. This guy’s messed up.”’

Kitsch’s dedication (and willingness to live on 400 calories a day) isn’t surprising once you learn his backstory: Had a promising hockey career until he blew out his knee at 20. Tried college. Felt ”lost.” Was tricked by his mom into meeting a modeling scout. (She bribed him with lunch.) Moved to New York, started taking acting classes. Slept on the subway for a while when the money ran out. (”I don’t know. I thought it was something you just did.”) Met a manager, went to L.A. with $5,000 he’d earned digging ditches for his dad on a construction site in Barbados. Ran out of money again. Started living in his car.

Salvation came in 2006 with FNL. Kitsch moved to Austin, where he still resides. Soon he’ll start filming on season 4, even though his character has graduated from Dillon High. ”I don’t want Riggins to go to college,” Kitsch says. ”It’s way more interesting if he doesn’t.” That the critically acclaimed show — always an underdog in the ratings — got renewed at all is miraculous, and Kitsch admits it’s going to be ”weird” to go back after the cinematic year he’s had. Still, he says, ”I know what FNL has done for me, and I will never say no to them.” He wants to direct a few episodes this season, and he’s signed on for two more Wolverine installments. He also wouldn’t mind a Gambit franchise of his own, ahem. ”I’ve had three years plus to show a spectrum of colors as Riggins,” he says. ”I get under eight minutes to show my Gambit. Believe me, I would crush this f — -ing role.” Until then, however, Kitsch is happy to bide his time in Texas. His biggest plan for the summer is to buy a boat. And one assumes, should things go south, he’s prepared to live on it.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine
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