Get ready to meet the next movie star: After a career playing second fiddles (and an awesome toy), Chris Pratt bolts onto the A list with two major films

”Here’s to you!” says Chris Pratt as he downs his first, but by no means last, Jack Daniel’s shot of the day. They say it’s always 5 o’clock somewhere, but technically it’s 2 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon in New Orleans, and Pratt is about to spend five hours being photographed in the costume of Peter Quill (a.k.a. Star-Lord), the planet-hopping thief-turned-hero of the new Marvel movie Guardians of the Galaxy (rated PG-13, out Aug. 1).

In Guardians, Pratt leads a group of misfits the likes of which have never been seen on the big screen: There’s Zoe Saldana’s green-skinned assassin Gamora, wrestler Dave Bautista’s vengeance-seeking behemoth Drax the Destroyer, and two CG characters — Rocket, a raccoon-like critter voiced by Bradley Cooper, and the walking tree Groot, whose single line of dialogue (”I am Groot!”) is repeatedly enunciated by Vin Diesel. ”What sets this movie apart is that it is in space,” explains Pratt, 35. ”I love all the Marvel movies, but you’re sort of limited to ‘We’re going to destroy Chicago’ or ‘An alien person lands in some middle-American town.’ This has really unlimited potential in terms of the worlds they can create.”

Pratt’s suggestion that today’s photo session at hostelry Barcadia should kick off with everyone present drinking a shot of Jack — and in his case, another one five minutes later — would be approved by his character. As a child, Quill is kidnapped from Earth by the shady Yondu (Michael Rooker), then grows up to be something of a rogue. ”Peter Quill spends a lot of time in space bars,” says Pratt. ”If there’s a sequel, we’ll probably find out he’s got a lot of half-alien kids.” Pratt’s afternoon drinking also jibes with his real-life fondness for the finer — and the more fattening — things in life. That might explain the often portly physique of Andy Dwyer, his character on the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation. ”It was like the fatter I was, the funnier I got,” Pratt says.

But last year, the actor got in six-pack-sporting shape for Guardians, and he has maintained that sculpted look for his starring role as a scientist in next June’s Jurassic World, a fourquel now shooting near New Orleans. Moreover, EW’s plan to go out drinking with Pratt tonight is dealt a serious blow when, halfway through the shoot, he starts mulling an evening gym session. Luckily, the idea disappears — right around the time Pratt takes a third and fourth shot. Photos over, your writer and the actor head out in search of food (which we never get around to ordering) and beer (which we most definitely do).

”Oh, yeah, I’m super-fun when I’m drunk,” says Pratt, after we position ourselves around a patio table at a joint called the Ugly Dog Saloon. ”If you drink with me, I get funnier. If you don’t drink with me, I just get louder.” Pratt, you see, is a bit of a throwback in an age when movie stars — especially movie-stars-in-waiting — speak as if they’re reading press releases packed with publicist-approved messages. Naturally, this worries his wife, actress Anna Faris (CBS’ Mom), to no end. ”Anna tells me to reveal less of myself,” he says. In interviews? ”Interviews. Twitter. Whatever. She’s like, ‘Don’t give it away!’ But I can’t help it. It’s my favorite topic in the world — myself,” he says, laughing. ”Try and stop me!”

If you only know Pratt from Parks and Rec, you might think he’s an odd choice to front two big-budget action sci-fi movies (three, if you count his role as Emmet Brickowski in The LEGO Movie). Not so long ago, he would have agreed. In fact, when he was first asked to meet about playing Peter Quill, he turned it down. ”I was probably scared,” he says, ”and thought I was too fat to play a superhero.”

The teenage Pratt, on the other hand, would not have been surprised at all by his professional rise, which also includes a trio of Best Picture nominees over the past three years: 2011’s Moneyball, 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, and last year’s Her. ”My high school wrestling coach reminds me about this time I came into his office and he said, ‘Chris, what do you want to do with yourself?”’ Pratt says. ”I was like, ‘I don’t know, but I know I’ll be famous and I know I’ll make a s— ton of money.’ I had no idea how. I’d done nothing proactive. It was as dumb as someone saying, ‘I’ll probably be an astronaut. I’m sure I’ll stumble into an astronaut suit and end up in space one day.”’

Pratt was raised in Lake Stevens, Wash., by blue-collar parents — his mother still works at the Safeway grocery store; his father, who died last month, was a gold miner who then worked in construction. After high school, Pratt studied acting at a local community college for half a semester, then made a move you won’t find in the Handbook for Ambitious Young Actors: He relocated to Hawaii and lived in a van. ”I had a friend who was like, ‘Dude, you’ve got to come out here,”’ Pratt says. ”We set up camp on the beach and lived the dream.” He got a job at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., which suited his personality. ”I don’t know if you’ve ever had a dining experience at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., but they love a gregarious waiter who will get in your face and sing you birthday songs and do trivia,” he says. One day, the 19-year-old Pratt waited on actress Rae Dawn Chong (Commando) and decided to carpe the hell out of the diem. ”I was like, ‘You’re in the movies, right? I always wanted to be in the movies,”’ he recalls. ”She said, ‘You’re cute. Do you act?’ I was like, f— it, ‘Goddamn right I act! Put me in a movie!”’

Chong was prepping her directorial debut, a horror comedy called Cursed Part III that she shot in L.A., and gave Pratt a shot. ”He was a joy on set,” she says. ”My movie sucked, but he was awesome.” Although Cursed Part III was never released, Pratt had found his calling. ”The moment she told me she was bringing me to L.A., I knew,” he says. ”I was like, ‘This is what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.”’

TV networks seemed to agree. In 2002, Pratt, then 23, scored the part of high school jock Bright Abbott on the WB drama Everwood, and after that show’s four-year run, he was cast on Fox’s The O.C. as lefty activist Winchester ”Che” Cook. ”It was the final season of The O.C. and the kids were checked out,” he says.

Over the next few years, Pratt landed roles in a number of films, including the Angelina Jolie action movie Wanted and the ’80s-set comedy Take Me Home Tonight. Neither did much for his career. But Take Me Home Tonight, which sat on the shelf for four years, did introduce him to Faris, who was then married to another actor, Ben Indra. ”I was like, ‘Well, that’s all right’ and I just did the movie,” says Pratt. ”But it turns out they had been falling apart for a long time. Two years later, we were engaged.” For Faris, Pratt’s good looks were only part of his appeal. ”His intelligence hits you by surprise,” she says. ”It’s easy to lump him into ‘Big dude who likes trucks.’ As you get to know him, he’s a really complicated, interesting person.”

Pratt is a huge fan of action films — he calls the first Jurassic Park ”my Star Wars” — and auditioned for both Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot and Jake Sully in James Cameron’s Avatar. Needless to say, he didn’t get either part — and the actor recalls the Avatar audition as particularly humbling. ”They said they want somebody that has ‘that thing,’ that ‘It factor,”’ he explains. ”I walked into that room knowing that I did not have that thing, and I walked out thinking I would never have that thing, probably.” So he recalibrated his career ambitions. ”I figured, I’ll find a way to make money and if that means I’m playing character roles, that’s terrific,” he says. ”People have to work. I just don’t want it to be at a f—ing restaurant.”

In 2009, Pratt was cast on Parks and Rec for a six-episode arc as the oafish boyfriend of Rashida Jones’ character. That soon changed. ”Almost at the point of the audition we were like, ‘Oh, we have to reconceive this, because this guy’s the funniest person we’ve ever seen. We’re not letting that guy go,”’ says series co-creator Michael Schur, who marvels at how the untrained actor has held his own with great comic talents like Amy Poehler and Aziz Ansari. ”Pratt is very often the best improviser in the cast, which is really saying something.”

Landing movie roles proved more of a challenge. When Pratt tried out for Moneyball, he was told he was too fat to play real-life Oakland A’s player Scott Hatteberg. This was not an unfair assessment, given that Pratt had gained 40 pounds since starting to date Faris, whom he married in Bali in July 2009. ”Anna’s favorite thing to do is fatten me up,” he says. ”It’s like I’m little Hansel and Gretel out in the woods. I swear she’s gonna push me in an oven one day.”

Pratt decided to lose weight before Hatteberg’s role was cast. ”I’d check, maybe, once a week,” he remembers. ”I’d say, ‘They cast it yet?’ And I would just keep working out. Finally I got in good enough shape that I took a picture of myself and sent it to my agent.” He won the role.

After Moneyball, Pratt gained back the weight to appear in the Channing Tatum-led high school reunion comedy 10 Years, then dropped it again to play a Navy SEAL in Zero Dark Thirty. Watching Kathryn Bigelow’s film for the first time, he was taken aback by his performance in the climactic action sequence. ”I bought it,” he says. ”I was like, ‘F—in’ A!”’ By that point, Pratt had already passed on a meeting about Guardians. ”I didn’t want another Captain Kirk or Avatar moment,” he says.

Meanwhile, Guardians director James Gunn (Slither) had been struggling to find his Peter Quill. ”We tested, I think, 12 guys — fully screen-tested — some of them pretty famous,” he says. ”It needed to be somebody who was able to bring an extra life to the character. I thought, if the Avengers and the Guardians ever meet, and this actor is talking to Robert Downey Jr., I wanted him to give as good as he got.”

Guardians casting director Sarah Finn repeatedly suggested Pratt, but Gunn hated the idea. ”I kept saying, ‘That’s the chubby guy from Parks and Rec — you’ve got to be kidding,”’ the director recalls. ”Eventually, she somehow tricked me. He came in and I knew within 20, 30 seconds he was the guy.” Pratt remembers Gunn asking him if he had any questions. ”I said, ‘Of course I have questions! Marvel’s not going to let me read the script, I have no f—ing idea what I’m doing, I don’t know this character. Do I have any questions? How long do you have?”’ says Pratt. ”He was like, ‘That’s what Peter Quill would say.”’

Pratt still had to win over the bigwigs at Marvel Studios, including president Kevin Feige; he managed to do so despite having gained weight again, for the Vince Vaughn comedy Delivery Man. ”I tried to get to 300 pounds, but every time I got close I’d take a seven-pound s—,” he says. ”That’s the beauty of gorging yourself — turds the size of my arm!”

Guardians of the Galaxy began filming in June 2013 at Shepperton Studios, just outside London. When EW visited last August, Pratt still seemed amazed at how different the experience was from improv-heavy, actor-centric Parks and Rec. ”The first day of shooting I was just sprinting around, essentially being a prop,” he says. ”It was the first time ever that I would do everything right, but then we’d have to do the scene again because a piece of the wardrobe fell off or [my] mask came apart. It’s like, ‘Oh, I’m 5 percent of what’s happening on this set.”’

Pratt says he tried to set an example during the five-month shoot for the film, with a cast that includes Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro, and Lee Pace as the villainous Ronan the Accuser. ”It starts from the top,” he explains. ”I learned that from working with Amy Poehler. If I’m not an a–hole, no one else is allowed to be. My acting probably sucks, but at least people will be like, ‘Yeah, but he’s really nice.”’ As it happens, people are saying nice things about his acting, too. ”It is very difficult to have somebody who can be a traditional leading man yet also be vulnerable and funny,” says Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow. ”There are so many elements in play in Chris’ personality, and he can switch between them miraculously.”

While Pratt may finally be fulfilling his action-hero dreams, the long shoots for Guardians and Jurassic World have kept him away from Faris and their son, Jack, who was born in August 2012. ”From his seventh month to his 13th month, I saw him twice,” says Pratt. ”It’s tough. Anna told me his first sentence was ‘Dada’s working.”’ Pause. ”I wonder how old he’s going to be when his sentence is ‘Dada needs to get a job.”’

It could be a while. After Jurassic World, Pratt will shoot the seventh and final season of Parks and Rec. He’s also expected to return for a LEGO Movie sequel and as many as two more Guardians films. And if it all goes wrong? ”I’ll be 300 pounds again,” he says. ”Anna will have her chubby little husband back. She can spoon gravy into his mouth, and our little boy will be bass-fishing out on some pond, and we’ll be laughing our asses off!”

During the time EW spends with Pratt, absolutely no one recognizes him. Not the two fellow Ugly Dog Saloon patio patrons sucking on their cigars across the way; not the panhandler whom Pratt hands $20; not even the comics-collecting driver who picks him up at the end of the night and informs Pratt he’s heard they’ve made a Guardians of the Galaxy movie. (The actor’s response? ”That could be good!”)

Pratt is aware all of this may change, a prospect he finds exciting and unsettling. ”It feels like something seismic,” he says. ”When an earthquake happens, at first you’re like, ‘Is this really happening?’ And then you’re just holding on for dear life. I’m just trying to get under a doorway.” Not that Pratt is complaining. ”I used to live in a van and worked at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.,” he says. ”So now if I ever f—ing complain about fame, Clark, please find me and kick me in the balls.”

Agreed. As long as we do it in a bar.

30-Second Recap: Guardians‘ comic-book origins

Even in the Marvel comic-book universe, the Guardians of the Galaxy haven’t always been shining stars. The team of intergalactic superheroes debuted in a 1969 issue of Marvel Super-Heroes with a one-off adventure set in 3007 and a lineup that featured the Jupiter-born Charlie-27 and the thousand-year-old Vance Astro, who wore an outfit of copper foil to stop his body from decaying. ”It’s always been this team of misfits and outcasts who didn’t fit in anywhere else,” says Guardians director James Gunn.

The Guardians were briefly revived in the early ’70s and again in the early ’90s, but never really caught on with fans. Then in 2008 writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning relaunched the comic with a roster that included the movie’s colorful quintet. ”They took all these different characters from disparate corners of the Marvel universe and threw them together,” says Gunn, ”and they had all these amazing, zany adventures.” The comic was canceled in 2010, but last year the Guardians title was rebooted once more by scribe Brian Michael Bendis (Ultimate Spider-Man), who brought a vacationing Tony Stark onto the team (and into the bed of the beautiful alien Gamora).

So why did Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige decide to turn the relatively obscure team into silver-screen heroes? ”Doing a big, cosmic space epic is important,” says Feige. Plus, ”we really just wanted to have fun on the other side of the universe.”

The Guardians Vs. The Avengers

Superhero Smackdown: If the Guardians battled the Avengers, who would win? The cast and director weigh in.

Zoe Saldana, Gamora

”I think the Guardians. The Avengers would be really clean-cut. The Guardians would fight dirty. They’ll f—ing poke eyes and s—, they’ll go beneath the belt. I like that. [Laughs]”

James Gunn, director

”The Guardians are not that superpowered. I think that we’re probably smarter than the Avengers. I don’t know. Can we use our spaceship? You know, Iron Man can use his suit.”

Dave Bautista, Drax the Destroyer

”Even though we are alien races, there’s a much more human element to the Guardians. If you’re talking about cast for cast, then we’d kick the s— out of them, man. I mean, our cast is huge! We’ve got me, we’ve got Chris Pratt — I don’t think people realize how big Chris is. We would kill them.”

Chris Pratt, Peter Quill

”Oof. The Avengers are pretty tough. It’d be a good fight. But in real life I have a feeling — just because we have Dave Bautista — that we could just take on anybody.”

Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Movie
  • 122 minutes