Captain America is Irish at heart
The last time I met Chris Evans, he was more than a little hungover. It was the morning after his 26th birthday, and Evans had spent the night before having as good a time as London could offer a rising young Hollywood hunk. Which, it would seem, was a very good time indeed. Evans was three hours late for our London Eye rendezvous.
"That's right!" exclaims the 30-year-old actor. "For some reason, they thought the Fantastic Four would look good floating over the Thames in their interviews. That was a little rough, given the night I'd just had -- being twirled again and again over a large body of water. They really should put toilets on those things."
Assuring me that he has "grown up just a little bit since then", Evans is on time today. Then again, he is the bona fide leading man this time out, and Marvel have a lot riding on Captain America: The First Avenger, being the latest in a line of blockbusters that all lead to next year's superhero ensemble mothership blockbuster, The Avengers.
We've already had the hugely successful Iron Man outings with Robert Downey, Jr, and Thor hammered a fair dint in the summer box-office. Also due to fight the good fight next year in the superhero hoedown are Samuel L Jackson's Nick Fury, Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye, Mark Ruffalo's Hulk and Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Ramanoff.
"It felt kinda strange, being one part of a much bigger picture," says Evans. "Literally. We had our own movie to worry about, and our strongest desire was to get this right, but you can't help but feel you're part of a big jigsaw, and you'd better not let the side down. Gotta hit a home run, no question . . ."
Luckily for Evans and director Joe Johnston, that's just what Captain America: The First Avenger did at the US box-office last weekend, knocking Harry Potter off his perch to hit the No 1 spot. And when it came to the movie itself, the critics were all in agreement -- a mediocre outing was lifted considerably by the charms of leading man Chris Evans. The Hollywood Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt said, "Chris Evans' no-nonsense yet engaging portrayal of a man who doesn't know how to back away from a fight may cause young women to swoon and young men to join a gym", while the New York Times' AO Scott said "Evans is genial and easy on the eyes".
"That was all gratifying to read, yeah," says the man himself, "but I think you can only look good in any film if the people around you are doing a great job. And Joe does a great job here, as does the rest of the cast -- the great Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Stanley Tucci, everyone. We knew we had something to prove here, because Captain America doesn't have the same kind of resonance and immediate impact as some of the other Marvel heroes. We felt that we had to sell this as a wholly fresh idea."
Having made his debut in March 1941, back when Marvel was Timely Comics, Captain America creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby would go on to see their latest creation sell an estimated 210 million copies in a total of 75 countries. The idea of America saving the day during the Second World War struck a chord with many a patriotic comic book fan, and not only in the US.
The idea of America saving the day during the current cocktail of cock-eyed wars on terror around the world is not so clear. Tellingly, the big-screen outing is set during a retro-futuristic and cartoonishly oversized US as the Second World War rages, giving the filmmakers room to turn a moment of triumph into a true comic-book superhero story.
"Definitely a different time now," nods Evans. "And that was something we had to address while making this film. Everyone still wants a hero, but being called Captain America comes with a certain amount of baggage today . . ."
So much so, that Marvel has dubbed the film simply The First Avenger in South Korea, Russian and Ukraine.
"That's partly because the comic books aren't that well known there," says Evans, "whereas the Avengers brand has gotten some traction, largely through the other characters and the earlier films. We were very aware of the title sounding a little old-fashioned in a time when America is engaged in such complicated, messy wars. I think there's still a need in people to have hero fantasies played out on screen, and I don't think anyone could accuse us of anything approaching realism here."
When it came to transforming from 90lb weakling soldier Steve Rogers into the incredible bulk of Captain America, the CGI had to subtract rather than add with the real-life Evans. The muscles are real; the skinny legs and arms, and flat chest, are not.
"I wasn't about to go Christian Bale on the role," smiles Evans. "I was happy to bulk up. It would have taken me out of the movie completely if I also had to strip all that muscle away and hit 90lb of coward. I could have done it, but, hey, then the movie mightn't be out until sometime in 2014 . . ."
When Evans committed to the role, he enlisted to a strict gym regime, as well as weapon training and the basic military training. It was getting the commitment in the first place that was the problem. Evans turned down the role twice before finally saying "I do".
"Well, I'm like any guy," he laughs. "I've got serious commitment issues. I just wanted to be sure that I could do this role justice, basically, and I took some convincing.
"This just isn't like any other role though. It'd be like if someone asked you to play Captain Ireland, and then go out there around the world promoting it . . ."
I'm ready, willing and just about able. And what about the fame that comes with being a superhero?
"Hollywood is a fickle mistress," says Evans. "I'll enjoy whatever success comes along, but it doesn't change the fact that you have to keep coming up with the goods."
Upcoming goods for Evans include the Anna Faris-led romantic comedy What's Your Number?, out in September, followed by The Avengers on May 4 next year. And, possibly, Doug Liman's Luna, alongside Bradley Cooper.
More important than all that though is Evans' Irish heritage.
"Yep, I'm a good Catholic Irish boy at heart," he nods. "Born and raised. I think a lot of my attitude comes from there. And it's all good, you know. There's an honesty to the Irish that tends to take people by surprise, but, given that it's the best policy, it tends to cut through a lot of the crap.
"And that's important in Hollywood. So, I'm very thankful to that Irish blood pulsing through my veins . . ."
Captain America: The First Avenger opens on Friday