Okay, there was one on-set panic attack—while Evans was shooting Puncture. "We were getting ready to do a court scene in front of a bunch of people, and I don't know what happened," he says. "It's just your brain playing games with you. 'Hey, you know how we sometimes freak out? What if we did it right now?'"

One of the people who advised Evans to take the Captain America role was his eventual Avengers costar Robert Downey Jr. "I'd seen him around," Downey says. "We share an agent. I like to spend a lot of my free time talking to my agent about his other clients—I just had a feeling about him."

What he told Evans was: This puppy is going to be big, and when it is you're going to get to make the movies you want to make. "In the marathon obstacle course of a career," Downey says, "it's just good to have all the stats on paper for why you're not only a team player but also why it makes sense to support you in the projects you want to do—because you've made so much damned money for the studio."

There's also the fact that Evans had a chance to sign on for something likely to be a kind of watershed moment in the comic-book fascination of our time. "I do think The Avengers is the crescendo of this superhero phase in entertainment—except of course for Iron Man 3," Downey says. "It'll take a lot of innovation to keep it alive after this."

Captain America is the only person left who was truly close to Howard Stark, father of Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man), which meant that Evans' and Downey's story lines are closely linked, and in the course of doing a lot of scenes together, they got to be pals. Downey diagnoses his friend with what he terms "low-grade red-carpet anxiety disorder."

"He just hates the game-show aspect of doing PR," Downey says. "Obviously there's pressure for anyone in this transition he's in. But he will easily triple that pressure to make sure he's not being lazy. That's why I respect the guy. I wouldn't necessarily want to be in his skin. But his motives are pure. He just needs to drink some red-carpet chamomile."

•••


"The majority of the world is empty space," Chris Evans says, watching me as if my brain might explode on hearing this news—or like he might have to fight me if I try to contradict him. We're back at his apartment after a cigarette run through the Combat Zone.

"Empty space!" he says again, slapping the table and sort of yelling. Then, in a slow, breathy whisper, he repeats: "Empty space, empty space. All that we see in the world, the life, the animals, plants, people, it's all empty space. That's amazing!" He slaps the table again. "You want another beer? Gotta be Bud Light. Get dirty—you're in Boston. Okay, organize your thoughts. I gotta take a piss . . ."

My thoughts are this: That this guy who is hugging his dog and talking to me about space and mortality and the trouble with Boston girls who believe crazy gossip about him—this is not the guy I expected to meet. I figured he'd be a meatball. Though, truthfully, I'd never called anyone a meatball until Evans turned me on to the put-down. As in: "My sister Shanna dates meatballs." And, more to the point: "When I do interviews, I'd rather just be the beer-drinking dude from Boston and not get into the complex shit, because I don't want every meatball saying, 'So hey, whaddyathink about Buddhism?'"

At 17, Evans came across a copy of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha and began his spiritual questing. It's a path of study and struggle that, he says, defines his true purpose in life. "I love acting. It's my playground, it lets me explore. But my happiness in this world, my level of peace, is never going to be dictated by acting," he says. "My goal in life is to detach from the egoic mind. Do you know anything about Eastern philosophy?"

I sip some Bud Light and shake my head sheepishly. "They talk about the egoic mind, the part of you that's self-aware, the watcher, the person you think is driving this machine," he says. "And that separation from self and mind is the root of suffering. There are ways of retraining the way you think. This isn't really supported in Western society, which is focused on 'Go get it, earn it, win it, marry it.'"

Scarlett Johansson says that one of the things she appreciates about Evans is how he steers clear of industry chat when they see each other. "Basically every actor," she says, "including myself, when we finish a job we're like, 'Well, that's it for me. Had a good run. Put me out to pasture.' But Chris doesn't strike me as someone who frets about the next job." The two met on the set of The Perfect Score when they were teenagers and have stayed close; The Avengers is their third movie together. "He has this obviously masculine presence—a dude's dude—and we're used to seeing him play heroic characters," Johansson says, "but he's also surprisingly sensitive. He has close female friends, and you can talk to him about anything. Plus there's that secret song-and-dance, jazz-hands side of Chris. I feel like he grew up with the Partridge Family. He'd be just as happy doing Guys and Dolls as he would Captain America 2."