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All-American Hero

Chris Evans shoots for stars as 'Captain America'

Actor Chris Evans says he was attracted to the superhero character for his humanity and special powers. Evans, a Sudbury native, stars in “Captain America: The First Avenger.’’ Actor Chris Evans says he was attracted to the superhero character for his humanity and special powers. Evans, a Sudbury native, stars in “Captain America: The First Avenger.’’ (Jennifer S. Altman for The Boston Globe)
By Judy Abel
Globe Correspondent / July 17, 2011

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NEW YORK - Chris Evans often feels like high-fiving the movie gods for bringing him a bounty of success and all that goes with it.

The 30-year-old Sudbury native, who stars in “Captain America: The First Avenger,’’ which opens Friday, has worked steadily since he was a teenager and sometimes he can’t believe his good fortune. Still, not immune to self-doubt, he periodically worries that his luck will run out.

Sitting in a bar at the Four Seasons Hotel in midtown, Evans sips a Heineken and wonders out loud if he’ll ever attain the level of fame that will make him a household name. Then he shakes his head and admits that the prospect is terrifying.

“I’m sitting here right now and I don’t think Brad Pitt would be able to,’’ he says gesturing around the room. “I’m not saying that’s what’s going to happen - in no way am I comparing myself to him. I’m just saying there’s a give and take in this business and there’s a certain level of anonymity that you bargain away.

“But who knows?’’ he quickly adds, seemingly afraid of tempting fate. “Maybe the film will come and go and in two years I’ll be struggling to get a job and waiting tables instead.’’

It’s an unlikely scenario given that dumb luck was hardly a building block of Evans’s career. Instead, his success seems like the love child of determination and moxie, ushered into the world by a spectacular display of parental support.

“I started doing theater when I was around 12 and the more I did, the more I saw the depth to it and, at around 16, I decided I was going to pursue this,’’ Evans says.

He spoke to a friend who told him an agent was essential. So Evans hatched a scheme to spend the summer before his senior year in high school in New York where he’d attempt to break into show business. Much to his surprise, his parents agreed to the plan.

“That was a hurdle,’’ he admits. “The good thing was I had no friends there - there was no one to corrupt me, and I was too young to go to bars. [My parents] knew it was something I was excited about so they knew I’d be proactive and take it seriously.’’

It turns out, their instincts were sound. Young Evans landed a job at a casting agency where he was told to call agents and line up actors for small parts on “Spin City,’’ the situation comedy that starred Michael J. Fox at the time.

“By the end of the summer I’d become friendly with two or three agents, so I said to them, ‘Listen, I know you only know me as Chris from [Bonnie Finnegan’s casting] office, but I’m an actor,’ ’’ he says. “I asked three different agents to give me five minutes of their time for an audition and one of them said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’ ’’

During his senior year, he doubled up on his courses, graduated in January and moved back to New York. Since then, he’s managed to work steadily as an actor, first in television and later in movies.

“Each year I was on a pilot that didn’t get picked up, but I made a lot of great friends and had enough money in my pocket to get by,’’ Evans says.

His movie career kicked off with “Not Another Teen Movie’’ (2001). He went on to make a few more, including “Cellular,’’ with Kim Basinger (2004).

“They all did very underwhelmingly at the box office,’’ Evans says, laughing.

Yipes! It sounds like his career could have floundered! Luckily, there was a superhero on hand to save the day! He landed the part of Johnny Storm, a.k.a. the Human Torch in “The Fantastic Four’’ (2005) with Jessica Alba and Michael Chiklis. He reprised the role in “The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer’’ (2007). And while he had some non-superhero roles - he played the Harvard hottie in “The Nanny Diaries’’ (2007) and appeared with Michael Cera in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’’ (2010) - it was his comic book heroes that gave his career the spark to help it flame on.

Still, he says he was attracted to the character of Steve Rogers/Captain America for both his ordinary humanity and superhero powers.

“I liked him and I liked his character,’’ Evans says. “I think, independent of the fact that it’s the comic book genre, it would have been a movie that I wanted to make. He’s a guy who does the right thing in the face of a tricky early lot in life.’’

“Captain America’’ is set in 1941 during World War II, inspired by the Marvel Comics franchise that debuted that same year. In 1979, two “Captain America’’ television movies aired on CBS, starring Reb Brown as the lead superhero. In addition, Matt Salinger starred in the title role of a 1990 “Captain America’’ film directed by Albert Pyun.

The new movie tells the story of Steve Rogers (Evans), whose attempts to enlist in the Army are repeatedly unsuccessful because of his poor health and slight stature. Ultimately, he is accepted into an experimental program, which turns him into a strong and hulking super-soldier known as Captain America. He joins forces with an Army unit, led by a character played by Tommy Lee Jones, to fight HYDRA, the Nazi deep science division.

Director Joe Johnston, who also served as the film’s executive producer, says Evans’s interpretation of the character made Captain America seem genuine and believable. “He played him like a real man - he didn’t fantasize the part,’’ Johnston says in a telephone interview from Santa Barbara, Calif. “Chris played him in a multi-layered way and brought an element that was not on the page.’’

Evans says he identified with the determination that made Steve Rogers persevere until he found a way to join the military. “People who have physical shortcomings have to struggle and fight for a lot of things - and it’s easy to become somewhat bitter and jaded,’’ he says. “But he’s managed to take it on the chin and be a good man - not for anyone else but himself.’’

The physical work involved in changing from Chris Evans to Captain America was grueling, he says. Captain America is 6-feet-2-inches and 220 pounds, while Evans is 6 feet and 175 pounds. He worked out with a trainer for two hours a day for four months. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

“The hardest part was eating,’’ he says. “The rule of thumb was, if you weren’t eating, go get something. And I had to do it because there are a lot of scenes with my shirt off so I had to make sure I looked right.’’

He will once again play Captain America in “The Avengers,’’ which also stars Robert Downey Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, and Scarlett Johansson. The film will be completed in the fall. In September, Evans will also star in “Puncture,’’ the true story of a drug-addicted lawyer who battles a health-care company, and in “What’s Your Number?,’’ a romantic comedy with Anna Faris.

When he’s done filming “The Avengers,’’ Evans says he’s headed straight for his home in Boston, where he plans to spend time with family and friends. In fact, the more famous he becomes, the more time he wants to spend there, believing his Boston crew will be a hedge against temptations of stardom.

“My parents did a really good job of instilling in me a sense of what kind of person I should be,’’ he says. “Plus, I have a laundry list of insecurities, so I could never really become arrogant.’’

Judy Abel can be reached at Judyabel22@gmail.com.

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