"Should we just kill him and bury his body?" Chris Evans is stage whispering into the impassive blinking light of my digital recorder.
"Chris!" shouts his mother, her tone a familiar-to-anyone-with-a-mother mix of coddling and concern. "Don't say that! What if something happened?"
We're at Evans' apartment, an expansive but not overly tricked-out bachelor-pad-ish loft in a semi-industrial nowheresville part of Boston, hard by Chinatown, near an area sometimes called the Combat Zone. Evans has a fuzzy, floppy, slept-in-his-clothes aspect that'd be nearly unrecognizable if you knew him only by the upright, spit-polished bearing of the onscreen hero. His dog, East, a sweet and slobbery American bulldog, is spread out on a couch in front of the TV. The shelves of his fridge are neatly stacked with much of the world's supply of Bud Light in cans and little else.
On the counter sit a few buckets of muscle-making whey-protein powder that belong to Evans' roommate, Zach Jarvis, an old pal who sometimes tags along on set as a paid "assistant" and a personal trainer who bulked Evans up for his role as the super-ripped patriot in last summer's blockbuster Captain America: The First Avenger. A giant clock on the exposed-brick wall says it's early evening, but Evans operates on his own sense of time. Between gigs, his schedule's all his, which usually translates into long stretches of alone time during the day and longer social nights for the 30-year-old.
"I could just make this . . . disappear," says Josh Peck, another old pal and occasional on-set assistant, in a deadpan mumble, poking at the voice recorder I'd left on the table while I was in the bathroom.
Evans' mom, Lisa, now speaks directly into the microphone: "Don't listen to them—I'm trying to get them not to say these things!"
But not saying things isn't in the Evans DNA. They're an infectiously gregarious clan. Irish-Italians, proud Bostoners, close-knit, and innately theatrical. "We all act, we sing," Evans says. "It was like the fucking von Trapps." Mom was a dancer and now runs a children's theater. First-born Carly directed the family puppet shows and studied theater at NYU. Younger brother Scott has parts on One Life to Live and Law & Order under his belt and lives in Los Angeles full-time—something Evans stopped doing several years back. Rounding out the circle are baby sister Shanna and a pair of "strays" the family brought into their Sudbury, Massachusetts, home: Josh, who went from mowing the lawn to moving in when his folks relocated during his senior year in high school; and Demery, who was Evans' roommate until recently.
"Our house was like a hotel," Evans says. "It was a loony-tunes household. If you got arrested in high school, everyone knew: 'Call Mrs. Evans, she'll bail you out.'"
Growing up, they had a special floor put in the basement where all the kids practiced tap-dancing. The party-ready rec room also had a Ping-Pong table and a separate entrance. This was the house kids in the neighborhood wanted to hang at, and this was the kind of family you wanted to be adopted by. Spend an afternoon listening to them dish old dirt and talk over each other and it's easy to see why. Now they're worried they've said too much, laid bare the tender soul of the actor behind the star-spangled superhero outfit, so there's talk of offing the interviewer. I can hear all this from the bathroom, which, of course, is the point of a good stage whisper.
To be sure, no one's said too much, and the more you're brought into the embrace of this boisterous, funny, shit-slinging, demonstrably loving extended family, the more likable and enviable the whole dynamic is.
Sample exchange from today's lunch of baked ziti at a family-style Italian restaurant:
*Mom: When he was a kid, he asked me, 'Mom, will I ever think farting isn't funny?'
Chris: You're throwing me under the bus, Ma! Thank you.
Mom: Well, if a dog farts you still find it funny.*
Then, back at the apartment, where Mrs. Evans tries to give me good-natured dirt on her son without freaking him out:
*Mom: You always tell me when you think a girl is attractive. You'll call me up so excited. Is that okay to say?
Chris: Nothing wrong with that.
Mom: And can I say all the girls you've brought to the house have been very sweet and wonderful? Of course, those are the ones that make it to the house. It's been a long time, hasn't it?
Chris: Looooong time.
Mom: The last one at our house? Was it six years ago?
Chris: No names, Ma!
Mom: But she knocked it out of the park.
Chris: She got drunk and puked at Auntie Pam's house! And she puked on the way home and she puked at our place.
Mom: And that's when I fell in love with her. Because she was real.*
We're operating under a no-names rule, so I'm not asking if it's Jessica Biel who made this memorable first impression. She and Evans were serious for a couple of years. But I don't want to picture lovely Jessica Biel getting sick at Auntie Pam's or in the car or, really, anywhere.
East the bulldog ambles over to the table, begging for food. "That dog is the love of his life," Mrs. Evans says. "Which tells me he'll be an unbelievable parent, but I don't want him to get married right now." She turns to Chris. "The way you are, I just don't think you're ready."
Some other things I learn about Evans from his mom: He hates going to the gym; he was so wound-up as a kid she'd let him stand during dinner, his legs shaking like caged greyhounds; he suffered weekly "Sunday-night meltdowns" over schoolwork and the angst of the sensitive middle-schooler; after she and his father split and he was making money from acting, he bought her the Sudbury family homestead rather than let her leave it.
Eventually his mom and Josh depart, and Evans and I go to work depleting his stash of Bud Light. It feels like we drink Bud Light and talk for days, because we basically do. I arrived early Friday evening; it's Saturday night now and it'll be sunup Sunday before I sleeplessly make my way to catch a train back to New York City. Somewhere in between we slip free of the gravitational pull of the bachelor pad and there's bottle service at a club and a long walk with entourage in tow back to Evans' apartment, where there is some earnest-yet-surreal group singing, piano playing, and chitchat. Evans is fun to talk to, partly because he's an open, self-mocking guy with an explosive laugh and no apparent need to sleep, and partly because when you cut just below the surface, it's clear he's not quite the dude's dude he sometimes plays onscreen and in TV appearances.
From a distance, Chris Evans the movie star seems a predictable, nearly inevitable piece of successful Hollywood packaging come to market. There's his major-release debut as the dorkily unaware jock Jake in the guilty pleasure Not Another Teen Movie (in one memorable scene, Evans has whipped cream on his chest and a banana up his ass). The female-friendly hunk appeal—his character in The Nanny Diaries is named simply Harvard Hottie—is balanced by a kind of casual-Friday, I'm-from-Boston regular-dudeness. Following the siren song of comic-book cash, he was the Human Torch in two Fantastic Four films. As with scrawny Steve Rogers, the Captain America suit beefed up his stature as a formidable screen presence, a bankable leading man, all of which leads us to The Avengers, this season's megabudget, megawatt ensemble in which he stars alongside Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., and Chris Hemsworth.
It all feels inevitable—and yet it nearly didn't happen. Evans repeatedly turned down the Captain America role, fearing he'd be locked into what was originally a nine-picture deal. He was shooting Puncture, about a drug-addicted lawyer, at the time. Most actors doing small-budget legal dramas would jump at the chance to play the lead in a Marvel franchise, but Evans saw a decade of his life flash before his eyes.
What he remembers thinking is this: "What if the movie comes out and it's a success and I just reject all of this? What if I want to move to the fucking woods?"
By "the woods," he doesn't mean a quiet life away from the spotlight, some general metaphorical life escape route. He means the actual woods. "For a long time all I wanted for Christmas were books about outdoor survival," he says. "I was convinced that I was going to move to the woods. I camped a lot, I took classes. At 18, I told myself if I don't live in the woods by the time I'm 25, I have failed."
Evans has described his hesitation at signing on for Captain America. Usually he talks about the time commitment, the loss of what remained of his relative anonymity. On the junkets for the movie, he was open about needing therapy after the studio reduced the deal to six movies and he took the leap. What he doesn't usually mention is that he was racked with anxiety before the job came up.
"I get very nervous," Evans explains. "I shit the bed if I have to present something on stage or if I'm doing press. Because it's just you." He's been known to walk out of press conferences, to freeze up and go silent during the kind of relaxed-yet-high-stakes meetings an actor of his stature is expected to attend: "Do you know how badly I audition? Fifty percent of the time I have to walk out of the room. I'm naturally very pale, so I turn red and sweat. And I have to literally walk out. Sometimes mid-audition. You start having these conversations in your brain. 'Chris, don't do this. Chris, take it easy. You're just sitting in a room with a person saying some words, this isn't life. And you're letting this affect you? Shame on you.'"
Shades of "Sunday-night meltdowns." Luckily the nerves never follow him to the set. "You do your neuroses beforehand, so when they yell 'Action' you can be present," he says.
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."
East needs to do his business, so Evans and I take him up to the roof deck. Evans bought this apartment in 2010 when living in L.A. full-time no longer appealed to him. He came back to stay close to his extended family and the intimate circle of Boston pals he's maintained since high school. The move also seems like a pretty clear keep-it-real hedge against the manic ego-stroking distractions of Hollywood.
"I think my daytime person is different than my nighttime person," Evans says. "With my high-school buddies, we drink beer and talk sports and it's great. The kids in my Buddhism class in L.A., they're wildly intelligent, and I love being around them, but they're not talking about the Celtics. And that's part of me. It's a strange dichotomy. I don't mind being a certain way with some people and having this other piece of me that's just for me."
I asked Downey about Evans' outward regular-Joe persona. "It's complete horseshit," Downey says. "There's an inherent street-smart intelligence there. I don't think he tries to hide it. But he's much more evolved and much more culturally aware than he lets on."
Perhaps the meatball and the meditation can coexist. We argue about our egoic brains and the tao of Boston girls. "I love wet hair and sweatpants," he says in their defense. "I like sneakers and ponytails. I like girls who aren't so la-di-da. L.A. is so la-di-da. I like Boston girls who shit on me. Not literally. Girls who give me a hard time, bust my chops a little."
The chief buster of Evans' chops is, of course, Evans himself. "The problem is, the brain I'm using to dissect this world is a brain formed by it," he says. "We're born into confusion, and we get the blessing of letting go of it." Then he adds: "I think this shit by day. And then night comes and it's like, 'Fuck it, let's drink.'"
And so we do. It's getting late. Again. We should have eaten dinner, but Evans sometimes forgets to eat: "If I could just take a pill to make me full forever, I wouldn't think twice."
We talk about his dog and camping with his dog and why he loves being alone more than almost anything except maybe not being alone. "I swear to God, if you saw me when I am by myself in the woods, I'm a lunatic," he says. "I sing, I dance. I do crazy shit."
Evans' unflagging, all-encompassing enthusiasm is impressive, itself a kind of social intelligence. "If you want to have a good conversation with him, don't talk about the fact that he's famous" was the advice I got from Mark Kassen, who codirected Puncture. "He's a blast, a guy who can hang. For quite a long time. Many hours in a row."
I've stopped looking at the clock. We've stopped talking philosophy and moved into more emotional territory. He asks questions about my 9-month-old son, and then Captain America gets teary when I talk about the wonder of his birth. "I weep at everything," he says. "I emote. I love things so much—I just never want to dilute that."
He talks about how close he feels to his family, how open they all are with each other. About everything. All the time. "The first time I had sex," he says, "I raced home and was like, 'Mom, I just had sex! Where's the clit?'"
Wait, I ask—did she ever tell you?
"Still don't know where it is, man," he says, then breaks into a smile composed of equal parts shit-eating grin and inner peace. "I just don't know. Make some movies, you don't have to know…"
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