Thor: Making of (Part Two)

Part Two

It took a handful of talented performers (who met a well-established set of criteria for everything from stature to physicality) to breathe life into the inhabitants of the three worlds that comprise Marvel’s tale of the god of thunder and his family, fellow warriors and mortal enemies.

“Chris Hemsworth looks like a super hero,” says executive producer and Marvel originator Stan Lee. “Out of make-up and wardrobe, he’s a really strong, soulful, emotional guy. Dressed as Thor, he looks like he has the maturity and wisdom to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders.”

Veteran stunt coordinator Andy Armstrong agrees: “Chris is the real deal. He’s in that rare category where all the women find him very attractive, and yet every guy relates to him, too. Once I saw him work, I made a lot of the action heavier and much more full-contact. He’s as tough and full-throttle as any stunt man, a modern version of a 1950s film star like Robert Mitchum.”

As it would prove to be with the sets and costumes, 50 years of comic book runs had yielded many different interpretations of the iconic character. “He’s been drawn with more muscles than any human could possibly have,” says producer Kevin Feige. “But we knew early on that we didn’t want to cast a body builder or wrestler.

“We decided to go for the actor who fit the part best, whether or not anyone knew him, because the character itself is a marquee name,” he continues. “We read dozens and dozens of people, and did screen tests with four or five. At the end, there was no question, it was Chris. He has a presence, he has humor, and he can deliver these lines in a way that you believe. You care about him, and that is what makes somebody watchable.”

Size also mattered. “There are other characters—Volstagg, and the Frost Giants—who are bigger than Thor, but he’s an imposing figure without any manipulation, and that’s a bonus,” closes Feige.

Branagh recalls the early days of the casting process. “We waited and watched and searched for a long time, until we felt in our bones that we had exactly the right person. Chris is very impressive, with a physique that looked as if it could take the kind of intense physical build-up we had to put him through. He has an acting intelligence that is very special, and an ability to tap into his primal side. At his screen test, he told a story about one of Thor’s exploits with such relish, fun, power and sense of danger that we knew he was our Thor.”

Branagh was also pleased to cast Tom Hiddleston as Thor’s brother, Loki. After acting with Hiddleston on stage, in a radio play and in the award-winning television series “Wallander,” he was well aware of Hiddleston’s range. “We needed someone with terrific versatility and an utter lack of fear about being the many different kinds of personalities that Loki becomes. Tom is also a wonderful blend with Chris. Both big lads, they feel like brothers, with the right kind of contrasting and complimentary qualities.”

Once Thor falls to Earth, he lands square in the path of Jane Foster—who’s made of equal parts smarts and looks. Feige tells, “We wanted Jane, the most famous early love interest of Thor, to be part of his origin story. In the original comics, she’s a nurse—we wanted to update her, and make her a doctor who, while at school, became far more interested in astrophysics than she was in anatomy. But clearly, we needed someone beautiful who could also fit the mould of being the love interest of a super hero—who also needed to be fully believable as a clearly intelligent and powerful woman. So early on, as we were compiling lists of people to audition, we just kept describing her as having that Natalie Portman quality. And then, at some point, some genius just said, ‘Well, why don’t we ask her?'”

As it turns out, the project had many draws for the newly Oscar®-anointed Portman—being not only a fan of the genre and of the Marvel universe, but also, keenly interested in working with director Kenneth Branagh. Several meetings took place between actress and director—where it was stressed that Jane was not a ‘tied to the train tracks type of damsel-in-distress,’ but in fact a key motivator in the transformation of Thor over the course of the entire film. Portman was sent away with a cartload of science books and biographies (“that she probably read that night,” muses Feige), and returned with the character of Jane Foster, ready to shoot and eager to dive into the larger-than-life goings-on.

Indeed, the key for Portman was the laser-sharp focus aimed at the fine-tuning of characters amidst the towering landscape of action set pieces. She says, “I think Ken’s leadership really made this a very, very unique project. I’ve worked on several large-scale productions, and this is the first one that I’ve really felt this level of intensity and focus on performance from a director. I find it unique to have so much emphasis on performance, story and detail, and I feel that all of that only makes the big, entertaining moments more real—and, in a way, more entertaining.”

Portman had just wrapped on perhaps one of the most challenging roles of her adult career—as the ballerina poised on the brink of both greatness and madness in Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan”—and she had little intention of going right into another project, especially not one as large in scale as “Thor.” She explains, “I had just spent a year in training, and working with Darren, en pointe, every day. I had been sleeping about four or five hours a night—I was just spent. I probably should have signed on for some sort of rehab!, but working with Ken was just too great an opportunity to pass up. And I was very glad that I signed on.”

As Jane’s mentor, Dr. Erik Selvig, Portman was joined by a fellow cast member from a previous project, Milos Forman’s dark period piece, “Goya’s Ghosts.” Stellan Skarsgård (who played the titular artist, Goya) admits, “It’s not a gigantic part—but the project, for me, was attractive for several reasons. First of all, it was working with Ken that really brought me to the project. Then I heard that I would mainly be working with Natalie, with whom I fell in love as an actress and a human being during ‘Goya’s Ghosts.’ Aside from any great, huge psychological weight to my character or massive amounts of screen time, these were fantastic reasons to sign on.”

As the wry and observant intern working alongside Jane and Dr. Selvig, Kat Dennings was able to turn her early experience with Thor comics to her advantage. Dennings explains, “I have an older brother who was a huge comic book collector. Growing up, I would sneak peeks at his collection and his action figures, and I have to say, Thor always attracted me. I was always into mythology and Thor is the god of thunder, he comes from Norse mythology, and he was such a vivid character that I felt that he was imprinted into kids’ consciousness – and certainly mine. So you can imagine, landing a part on ‘Thor’ the movie is like a dream come true for me. And it’s always great to get to work with friends like Natalie.”

With acting legend Sir Anthony Hopkins cast as Odin, the aging king and Thor’s father, the stakes were heightened for the young cast, particularly Hemsworth—most specifically in the pivotal scene where Thor is cast out to Earth. Chris remembers, “The film had been shooting for about a month and I was starting to feel pretty good, like I had the character down. So the day comes for the big father/son confrontation. It’s very angry, with yelling back and forth between the two of us. Then Ken comes over to Anthony and says, ‘Let it affect you. Be upset. I dare you.’ And Anthony stands for a second and then responds, ‘Okay, good idea.’ So, I’m wondering, ‘Oh my gosh, what is he going to do now?’

“And we start the scene again,” continues Hemsworth, “and I make my entrance. I come in, start doing my thing, and he’s just silent. His eyes start to well up. He’s the father who’s hurt and disappointed that his son has disrespected him, and dishonored the family, the kingdom and everything they’ve stood for. And you realize it’s tearing his heart out.

“When they called ‘Cut!’, people were crying. Then the crew started applauding and I remember thinking, ‘That’s amazing…and I’m useless. I may as well drop this hammer and leave.’ But those are the moments you live for in this business,” concludes Hemsworth. “I called my parents back home in Australia that night to tell all about it and how much they had to look forward to.”

Tom Hiddleston (cast as Thor’s brother, Loki), is also part of the banishment scene. Hiddleston concurs with his co-star and observes, “Something happened in that take. It was as if the air changed in the room. In the middle of the take, I was suddenly very emotional, which was okay, thank goodness, because the camera wasn’t on me. But everyone in the room was feeling it. Afterwards, I went over to him and said, ‘Tony, I just have to tell you, that was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen as an actor.’ And he said, ‘He’s good, isn’t he, that Branagh?'”

The humility of a great king—something that great actors can also possess. Hopkins admits that he was not, perhaps, a big fan of the Thor comic books (“I read Captain Marvel, sort of the post-War comics,”), but he was of its director: “My agent phoned and asked if I wanted to play Odin, and so I met with Ken, whom I’d met a few times before. He’s such an engaging personality, brilliant man. A great actor and a great director. He’s one of those unstoppable guys who believes that if you put your mind to it, you can do virtually anything. And he puts himself out there—that’s his personality. I think this has been one of the better times of my life in working on this film. I kind of wish I had more to do in it, in fact!”

Rene Russo

As Odin’s wife, Frigga, the calm and cool Rene Russo signed on—and just like every other “Thor” cast member, the actress had her own combination of reasons for participating. Russo smiles, “Well, I hadn’t really done anything in about three years, and this project came to me. I’ve been told that I’m a ‘contemporary’ actress, whatever that means, so to pull off this Queen, with an accent, opposite Anthony, with whom I had most of my scenes…well, I thought it would be a bit of a challenge, but I also thought it would be a blast. In the end, I thought, ‘Okay, I’m a Queen, and it’s working with Kenneth Branagh—how cool is that?’ It was a challenge, but it was fun. Sounds like a great day at work for me!”

Hemsworth tips his hat to his director as well: “He pushes you in every single direction your character might go. Six or seven takes, each a different version of what could be done with that scene—’Try this and smile through the whole thing. Okay, now give me vicious.’ It’s like forging metal. He would keep working it until it became as strong as it could be.”

The veteran Hopkins was as invigorated as the actors playing his sons. “Ken Branagh gave me back my chops,” he admits. “Working with Ken and these young actors has been an injection of new energy into my life.”

Although all in the cast were ecstatic to be working with the venerable Hopkins, one “Thor” cast member actually found it an impediment to creating his character: Canadian actor Colm Feore, cast as Laufey, the leader of the Frost Giants. Feore jokes, “When I got cast, I was still trying to figure out who my character was…who really was this guy? And then, when Ken cast Tony, I told him that he had ruined it for me, because by then, I had decided I was going to play Laufey like Anthony Hopkins. So what was I supposed to do, now? Ken said, ‘Well, I suppose we could film you first.’ So I did some revising, and he became more of Tony Hopkins, filtered through Max von Sydow, with a little bit of Paul Scofield thrown in for good measure!”

Hopkins himself actually participated in a little joking of his own. “I sometimes called Ken ‘Governor,'” Hopkins picks back up. “You watch him walking about the set and he’s so authoritative, but not in a pompous way. He’s got a great sense of humor, great compassion, great drive and a philosophical insight into life. It takes a lot of courage to do a big movie like this, and that’s what he’s got. Not just talent, but courage and tenacity, and it’s inspiring.”

On a king-to-king basis, the recognition of courage is a tacit sign of the ultimate respect. At its very core, the story of “Thor” is about the relationship of father Odin to son and heir Thor—and about the earning and giving of respect.