There's a beach on Bali called Dreamland.
That's the actual name. High above it, on the glass-fronted terrace of a cliff-side villa cantilevered over the postcard-blue eternity of the Indian Ocean, Chris Hemsworth and I are picking at a platter of cut melon and pineapple, talking about how we got here.
Playing the part of Thor—the Norse God of Thunder and Really Good Hair—Hemsworth appears charmingly oversize, cartoonishly beefy. Offscreen, it isn't hammer time and the Australian actor is approachably human-scaled. Hair pulled back, tank-topped, offering fruit.
"Sorry you had to come all this way, dude," Hemsworth says, squinting into paradise.
I arrived in Jakarta some unknown number of days ago, demented by jet lag and 10,000 miles in coach, steeped in Korean lager, and suffering from the lingering insanity brought on by repeated viewings of Gentleman's Agreement subtitled in Chinese.
A message was waiting for me on arrival: Hemsworth wasn't in Jakarta anymore. He had been here the previous day, shooting a Michael Mann thriller about cybercrime. But it's Hemsworth's birthday, his 30th, and he's unexpectedly—though sensibly enough, it seems to me—decamped to Bali for a surfing holiday with his wife, the Spanish actress Elsa Pataky, their young daughter, and some old pals.
In the blessed days of yore, the Writer might have taken this as an opportunity for an exotic and unscheduled furlough. He would have hired a shamanic guide, befriended unseemly consorts, commandeered an exhaust-belching tuk-tuk, and set out into the Indonesian night in search of deep truths and expense-accountable adventure. But the industry's more donezo than gonzo these days, and no one has the stomach (or the budgets) for writerly waiting around. So I did what you do: I placed a call to someone who complained to someone, and before very long, I was on an Air Garuda flight to crash the actor's Balinese birthday party in Dreamland.
Hemsworth's journey, by contrast, seems somehow more direct—and all the more remarkable for the abrupt and frictionless speed of his arrival on the scene.
Six years ago, the guy was treading water, playing waiter-slash-lifeguard Kim Hyde on the venerable Aussie soap opera Home and Away. "We shot 20 scenes a day, five shows a week," Hemsworth says of the series that would serve as his lucky break, his acting school, and his personal crucible of endurance.
"Three and a half years playing the same character can be sort of mind-numbing," Hemsworth says with a wincing grin. "My character was in a fire, a cyclone, a helicopter crash, a plane crash. I was hoping for a big, dramatic death."
No such luck. Finally, Hemsworth decided he'd had enough. When his contract was up, he left the show and, in mid-2007, headed to Los Angeles to write the first chapter of his unlikely ascent. It didn't take long. He landed a small but highly visible role as Captain Kirk's father in J.J. Abrams' 2009 Star Trek reboot. A brief and brooding sophomore slump followed, during which Hemsworth feared he'd peaked early and would be forced to move back home. He didn't have to worry for long. He soon caught the eye of Joss Whedon and was cast in The Cabin in the Woods, which Whedon produced and cowrote. During that shoot, Whedon put in a good word with Kenneth Branagh, who was then searching for a Thor to carry his big-budget-action-movie debut. Hemsworth beat out the competition, including his younger brother (and onetime Miley Cyrus fiancé) Liam, and the rest is Asgardian history. He joined the superhero menagerie in Disney/Marvel's megaprofitable (and Whedon-helmed) Avengers series. This month Hemsworth returns in Thor: The Dark World, alongside Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, and Anthony Hopkins.
Portman, reprising her role as the God of Thunder's love interest, says "there's no pretension" when it comes to Hemsworth. "He's like a person you actually want to hang out with," she says. "A full human."
She isn't buying my theory that we know too little about Hemsworth, that the relative ease of his success demands some deeper explanation. "There's no scoop, except he's rad," Portman says. "The scoop is he's just great at everything."
(Portman adds that she'd like to see him stretch out and do a comedy: "When we were doing the first Thor, we would joke that we should remake The Way We Were. Little Jewish girl, a smoking-hot Gentile. If we work together again, that's clearly our project.")
Hemsworth's once and future costar Chris Evans says that he loves the guy but hasn't seen much of his buddy lately: "He's a father now, and I don't think he's stopped working for more than a weekend since we wrapped Avengers."
So the guy is likable, hardworking, talented, and lucky: That's his friends' and coworkers' theory, and they're sticking to it.
Still, Hemsworth admits that there's something a little jarring about this jump cut—from unknown hunky surfer kid to lead of sequel-spawning Hollywood franchises, from a freewheeling youth spent ranging shoeless across a buffalo station in remotest Northern Territory to lounging on the terrace of this rented luxury villa, the bona fide, bankable movie star in repose.
"I paid my way in," the actor deadpans. "My family's in the Mafia. A couple of threats and bunch of cash goes a long way."
All joking aside, he's sympathetic to the line of inquiry. Six years is not exactly overnight, but neither is it anybody's idea of a protracted apprenticeship.
"Maybe I'm asking myself the same question you're asking," Hemsworth offers a little hesitantly. "I've worked my ass off over the years, but I can't help but see that, relatively speaking, it all has been rather quick."
For all his time spent riding the mirthless merry-go-round of press conferences, red-carpet interviews, and the TV chat circuit, Hemsworth is refreshingly allergic to self-analysis. "It's funny," he says on the subject of himself as subject. "No other job forces you to think about yourself this much. That's a scary thing, because before you know it, it's all pointed inward. You're taught to think, 'Okay, what do I want out of this scene? How am I feeling here?' Then it's like, 'Awww, fuck off, I.' You start to hate I!"