He’s one of the most highly paid, generously muscled and envied actors in the world. But Chris Hemsworth is a man who wears his prodigiousness lightly. Men’s Health kicked back with the Avengers star at his home in Australia to discover the secret of his success. The answer? Humility.
As ice-cool, superhero Norse deities go, you’re renowned for not taking life too seriously. Has your upbringing helped you to stay grounded?
I had an amazing childhood and lovely, brilliant parents. They shaped who I am. Dad worked in child protection – a selfless line of work that says so much about someone’s character. He always had a strong sense of right and wrong, standing up for the most vulnerable among us.
As kids, my two brothers and I were hugely athletic, so we were always outdoors, kicking a football, riding motorbikes, surfing together, or playing water polo. We didn’t live in a suburban setting; our nearest neighbour was a couple of miles away in the Dandenongs, east of Melbourne. We fought like all siblings do, but mostly we had the same enthusiasms, interests and hobbies. And we were there for each other in times of need. Something I’m very aware of is that I wanted to have kids young, so I’d be athletic enough to keep up with them.
At a guess, that isn’t yet a problem you’ve experienced too often.
Well, maybe sometimes [laughs]. You should meet my son…
Both you and your younger brother, Liam, were up for the lead part in the original Thor film. Does healthy sibling rivalry extend to the roles you pursue?
For a while, that was the go-to story. I had a conversation with Liam about it recently, because it makes us sound like we’re these macho bastards who are battling all the time. People always gravitate towards the more shocking stories, so they ask me, “Hang on, you guys used to have fights with ninja stars, chasing each other around with saws?” And, um, yeah – but who didn’t? It was becoming a cliché. My dad said that we were making it sound like we grew up in the Dark Ages.
So, yes, we’re competitive people, but no more so with each other than with anyone else. I watch my kids now down at their primary school, and it’s a case of “Who can jump higher?” or “Who can run faster?” It’s in our nature. In some ways more than in others, absolutely.
We had a healthy dose of that. But when it came to something like acting, there was so much fragility, so much vulnerability and anxiety, that you wouldn’t dare pull one another down because, trust me, you do enough of that yourself, you know? Self-bashing. I do, anyway. And I know that Liam and [eldest brother] Luke do, as well. A lot of artists suffer from that. So, they’ve only ever been supportive. This was the process with Thor: I auditioned but I didn’t get it at first; Liam was auditioning, so I helped him out. Somehow, there emerged this story of intense rivalry, but none of that was true.
After Star Trek (2009), your breakout Hollywood movie, the phone didn’t ring for eight months. How did you deal with the pressure and uncertainty?
I was about to quit. I always wanted to act, and one of the first things I wanted to do when I got any money was to pay my parents’ house off. I’d once asked Dad when he thought he’d pay it off and he said, “Honestly? Probably never.” Most people are in that boat and, for whatever reason, I’d set my mind on changing that. So, I was super-active with auditions. Then, during that eight-month period, I became more and more anxious, to the point where I couldn’t harness or use that energy. It was all to my detriment. I was trying to convince myself I wasn’t nervous before auditions, rather than just grabbing hold of the part. I was at the stage where I was thinking, “I’m going to go back to Australia. I’m going to knock on Home and Away’s door and ask them for a gig.”
Then, my mentality changed. It was right before Christmas. I had one more audition, and I just thought: “Do this for Dad’s house. Think about reasons other than yourself.” When you’re constantly self-analysing, it’s ultimately a selfish endeavour. That audition was for The Cabin in the Woods [filmed in 2009 but released in 2012]. I got the job, and from there I got Red Dawn. Then I got Thor.
So, shifting the focus away from yourself was the key to moving forward?
Yeah. It was about looking a little deeper and asking, “What is this fear based on? What is it trying to tell me?” And analysing that. Getting away from the “Poor me!” scenario, which is massively unhealthy. Beating yourself up after the event because you screwed up [doesn’t work]. You can’t control that. When the fear comes, it’s easy to think that everything depends on a single moment. But nothing does. No single moment ever defines your journey. I’ve found it comforting to let go a bit and think, “I’ll do my portion of it, but maybe life or nature has a plan.”
Most men would relate to that.
But we all still need to be reminded of it. I still need reminding. My wife will probably read this and say, “Hang on! That wasn’t you yesterday!” [Laughs.] That was kind of the genesis of this app…
The Centr wellness app that you’ve created with your wife, Elsa Pataky?
Yeah, absolutely. The whole thing was about not becoming stagnant. That’s when your emotional and physical problems occur, I think. Initially, when the app idea came up, I didn’t want to do anything that had been done before. I wanted to create something that embodied the three main elements of healthy living – movement, nutrition and mindfulness. That’s a first, I think. For me to do a great job on screen and not to implode from the anxiety or the pressure, I’ve got to find that centre. So I thought about it, talked to my wife, and I was, like, “We could put together a team of people in about five minutes!” It actually ended up being a two-year journey, but very quickly I could point to people within my reach who’d taught me so much. I’m always getting asked: what’s the secret formula? The truth is that there’s no single answer. It’s about staying open to advice, learning and constantly growing.
Do you think the app will help men become more active?
I hope so. I remember this quote by Mark Manson [author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck]: “Movement creates motivation.” Rather than sitting around, waiting for motivation to occur, take the first step, take that initiative. Get involved in something, and there’s a snowball effect. You’ll find motivation. Once I’m in the midst of training and staying healthy in mind and body, it becomes an addiction. But that first step is the hardest. Get up, move, then it will follow.
Many men struggle to find the time to work out as much as they’d like. Does Centr help with that?
We’re all terrible at time management. People always ask me, “How do you find the time?” Well, calculate how many minutes of the day you spend scrolling on your phone. Hours, right? So, are you telling me you can’t find 20-30 minutes a day to work out? You’re lying to yourself. You just chose to watch TV instead.
You clearly don’t struggle much when it comes to packing on muscle for certain roles. If you know you have to bulk up, what do you focus on, in terms of training and eating?
I did struggle the first time around. Before Thor, I was always much leaner. A lot of my training was cardio-based – surfing, flexibility work. So, the first eight months or so were brutal. Now, I feel like I could do it in eight weeks. It’s just down to muscle memory and smarter training. The knowledge you acquire is so important. I was doing it completely wrong at first. Back then, I just ate huge steaks, chicken breasts and broccoli – and I didn’t feel great. These days, I eat a lot more plant-based foods, and I feel much better. I’m also more aware of listening to my body and resting. Stress is a huge issue. If I’m travelling too much or my head is busy, my body doesn’t change shape or respond to what I’m trying to get it to do.
You’re 35 now, but with the likes of Jason Statham, Hugh Jackman and The Rock still punching hard, the window for male action heroes seems to be staying open for much longer. Are their careers something you hope to emulate?
On certain days, when I’ve had a few injuries – and I had quite a few during Thor – it can start to become a drag, you know? But over the past year or so, I changed up a lot of my training and nutrition programme, and I feel the best I’ve ever felt. So, if you’d asked me that 12 months ago, I would have said that I’m already over it, but I feel great at the moment. With films, it’s about whether the story interests me, to be totally honest. You work hard on a movie; there are so many people involved, so many hours, so many years of work. And so, when it comes and goes and doesn’t work, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t disappointing.
Do you miss your twenties, in terms of your physical ability?
I used to be able to get up and sprint. But I’ve found that, after lifting weights for so long and not getting in touch with my fast-twitch fibres, the snappiness that my body had [has gone]. In the dads’ race at my kid’s school last year, I hadn’t sprinted in about five years – then, boom, you go and do a 100m sprint at full pelt. My back was cranked for weeks. [Incidentally, he won.]
There are ways around it: training differently, reminding your body to do those things, basic maintenance. But when you’re in your twenties, you’re constantly moving. At school, you’re kicking the footy at lunchtime; after school, you’re playing sport. I have two state medals for hurdles, silver and bronze. I made state a couple of times in the 200m and I loved it. But I tried to sprint recently and my mate was like, “You kind of look awkward. What are you doing?” I need to do some more sprint work, I guess. It just hurts. Running is painful. I don’t do a lot of running for that reason. I’d rather have mobility in my body from surfing and get that fluidity that I enjoy.
To what extent do you feel pressure to maintain the body that made you famous? And how does that influence your relationship with exercise?
It’s not so much about being famous. It’s more that the roles I’ve taken on have shaped my physique. It just goes hand in hand with the parts I play. But occasionally, I’ll see paparazzi poking out of the bushes and I’m, like, “How’s my rig look? Am I on point, or have I slacked off lately?” [Laughs.] Also, I maintain my fitness simply because it makes me feel better.
Finally, in the decade or so since you landed in Hollywood, how would you say you’ve grown, as an actor and as a man?
I’ve become more comfortable in my skin. And I’ve stopped trying to think about who I have to be, or what kind of personality I need to have to succeed in this business. I’ve learned to truly be myself. [When I figured that out] that’s when things started to change. I felt happier, and my work got better. It’s an interesting one: if you try to emulate the people who inspire you, you’re not being true to yourself. You can allow for inspiration on step one, I guess. But the real work comes with asking, “Who am I?” As toxic as it can be to think about yourself constantly and analyse all this stuff, it forced me to wonder, “Maybe there’s not enough truth here. Am I denying part of myself here?” I really think there’s a lightness to the way I approach things now. I certainly have less angst. I’m more comfortable and more confident in saying no. It used to be a case of, “This could be my last chance!” Now, I kind of go, “I think it’s going to be alright.”
Hemsworth’s app Centr is accessible via iOS app, Apple watch and online at centr.com
THE CHRIS HEMSWORTH PLAYBOOK
Bear crawls on a Tabata protocol. You get movement in all your joints, which you don’t get from running or lifting weights. The advantage is the mobility. It’s a core exercise, and your heart rate is elevated. You’re working your legs, shoulders, arms – they’re all incorporated. And there’s no impact. Anyone between five and 80 can do it: there’s no pressure at all. If I pick up injuries, I’ll do this a lot.
Least favourite exercise?
Deadlifts. They’re hard on my back. I wish I could do them more easily, because there’s something very satisfying about deadlifts. When I do them, I use very light weights. And distance running: I find steady-state cardio work mind-numbingly boring.
It really depends on my mood. I often have mellow music on when I’m training. It’s almost like meditation. The Teskey Brothers – they’re my favourite band of all time. They are locals from Melbourne. Their mother was the midwife at my brother Liam’s birth. I can’t get sick of their music.
Last book you recommended?
Some poetry by Charles Bukowski: it’s heavy and dark, but it can make me laugh because it’s so in your face.
Pizza: ham and pineapple or pepperoni.
Growing up, I would constantly watch Kelly Slater’s surf movies. But he’s a mate now, so he can’t be my hero: that’d be creepy.
“Do stuff, be nice, have fun.” My mum and some mates have it tattooed. Good, isn’t it?
A version of this article appeared in the March 2019 issue of Men’s Health Singapore.
Interview by Ben Jhoty; Photography by Steven Chee