The 'Star Trek' actor stars in 'Hell or High Water,' in theaters this Friday
You don’t really know Chris Pine. Not yet. Yes, he’s been Captain Kirk, Jack Ryan, Guy on Train With Denzel Washington, literally Prince Charming. Yes, Pine’s been a fixture on the blockbuster circuit since his 20s, when the rebooted Star Trek promoted him to the stratosphere of Action Stars Named Chris. But a year ago, Chris Pine decided to double down on a decision to change the course of career. “I was sick of being articulate and loud and charming,” he says, just back home in Los Angeles from a ’round-the-world press tour for Star Trek Beyond. “I didn’t want to play that guy anymore. I wanted to play the absolute opposite of that.”
On Aug. 12, you’ll see what that looks like. A scant three weeks after Beyond hit theaters, Pine headlines Hell or High Water, a cat-and-mouse thriller set right here, right now in a depressed, desperate America. Directed by David Mackenzie (Starred Up) from a script by buzzy screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), the film follows two brothers (Pine and Ben Foster) on a series of bank heists across post-recession Texas. (Jeff Bridges plays the Rooster Cogburn-sounding lawman on their trail.)
There are action set pieces — some of them quasi-funny in their depiction of open-carry gun laws — but Hell or High Water is also a showcase for everything Pine usually doesn’t get to do: hold an audience rapt with nothing more than his acting. “Action films unfortunately don’t let you spend a lot of time sitting,” he says. “So you don’t have much time to create something indelible or unique. A diner scene can be just as moving and powerful and important as an action scene in Star Trek.”
Success, particularly a hit franchise like Star Trek, can be its own trap. Stars often get paid a lot of money to essentially play the same kind of role they’ve played before. Pine, 35, was itching to break free. “I’d been getting scripts from my agents that I didn’t really like,” he says. “I told them, ‘Look, send me 10 of the best scripts that you have, even if they aren’t really appropriate for me, even if it’s about Ukrainian children.’” At the time, Hell was titled Comancheria, and Pine responded to it immediately. He still gets seriously revved up talking about it. He calls screenwriter Sheridan an American Pedro Almodóvar, a modern-day Paddy Chayefsky, and a more whimsical Cormac McCarthy. He compares his character, Toby, to the kind of American male played by legends like Bronson, Eastwood, McQueen — “a stoic, terse, deeply felt man that has incredible difficulty articulating that deep feeling.” Many of his best scenes are practically silent. “I wanted to be a bigger dog that didn’t have to bark so loudly,” he says.
Ironically, Pine never expected to bark that loudly in the first place. He was raised in the business: his father, mother, grandmother, great-uncle, and sister were all actors at some point. That made Pine pragmatic about the industry in a way that few young actors are. “My father has been an actor since 1964,” Pine says. “Things were tight a lot of the times, financially. It wasn’t like a big romantic adventure. Some years were fine. Some years my father didn’t work as much. S— sucked a lot of the time.”
So he began his career on a bit of a lark, driven mostly by youthful ego. “I was 21,” he says, laughing. “I wasn’t really good at anything else.” His first big role came in The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement. “I was pretty much solely motivated by validation. I just wanted to be told I was good and handsome and part of the gang.”
Hollywood agreed he was all those things, and his career took off. But as time went on, Pine realized he was unfulfilled and, most important, that he had the power to change it. “I’m in that lucky percentile where I can worry about how I want to shape my career,” he says. “That’s a wonderful place to be.” So in 2014, after a second Star Trek and the Jack Ryan reboot, Pine got adventurous. He was a comical villain in Horrible Bosses 2, a singing cad in Into the Woods. In that year’s criminally underseen Stretch, he played a lunatic kabillionaire, his blue eyes barely recognizable under layers of facial hair and drug-slurping mania. “No wonder Johnny Depp likes to put on makeup and do weird s—,” Pine says. “It’s a lot of fun!”
Still, nothing could prepare him for Hell or High Water, which lets Pine penetrate the most deeply internal character of his career. Watching him, you find yourself thinking, “Who knew Chris Pine could do that?” Turns out, his costar Ben Foster did. Foster gained a unique perspective on the other side of Pine after the two spent weeks getting sprayed with a fire hose on the set of The Finest Hours, the nautical disaster film released earlier this year. “You get to know somebody pretty well when you’re taking the same punishments,” Foster says. “He’s a true-blue actor. There are a lot of what you might call Handsome Leading Men out there and very few who can actually deliver.”
One of the best scenes in Hell or High Water finds Pine and Foster on the family ranch, playfully wrestling at magic hour. The moment happened almost by accident. “That came out of the fact that there was a lightning storm, and they had to turn off the generators,” Pine says. So he and Foster, director Mackenzie, and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens went into a field to film. Silhouetted against a darkening sky, their wordless improvisation resulted in the film’s most poetic imagery.
Pine is searching for more of that kind of storytelling, but, lucky for the studios, he still isn’t giving up his day job. Paramount just announced a fourth Star Trek film, and Pine will appear as Steve Trevor in Wonder Woman next year. In an unexpected twist, the wandering spirit that lead Pine to Hell or High Water has helped him forge a deeper connection to his most famous character. Star Trek Beyond begins with Kirk years into his career on the frontier. “He has raged; he’s done well,” Pine says. “And then it’s like he says to himself: ‘Now what? Do I even want to be here still?’ I totally know what that feels like. I have to find new things to compel and propel me Hell or High Water into the future.” And then, to go boldly toward it.
A version of this story appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1425, available here.