Chris Evans Always Reads Between the Lines

On-camera and off, the actor is studying the human condition: “The empathy for a person’s process is such a beautiful thing”

Before Chris Evans became Chris Evans, superhero and superstar, he made a habit of asking scene partners the question every starry-eyed artist wants to ask: “What’s your process?”

“I’ve met some actors who are wildly self-aware, wildly self-possessed, incredibly intelligent people,” he says. “I’ve also met actors who have no idea what’s going on around them at any given moment. And both can turn in phenomenal performances. It really begs the question: What is going on in your head when you see a piece of paper with a bunch of words?”

Somewhere on the journey from acting in school plays just outside Boston to a blockbuster career in indie flicks, on Broadway, and almost a dozen appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Captain America, and on to his recent impressive turn on the Apple TV+ limited series “Defending Jacob,” Evans stopped asking the question—but not because he’d settled on an answer.

“The only conclusion I can draw is that there is no formula,” he says. “I think it’s meant to be in a constant state of rebirth. It’s this organic, living thing that you have to re-examine with every character.

“Sorry if that made me sound pretentious; I’m hearing myself right now,” he adds with a groan.

Evans is too articulate about his 20-year love affair with acting and, frankly, too charming to ever come off as pretentious. In his conversation with Backstage, conducted remotely from his home in Los Angeles, he overflows with practical advice for his peers and fellow students of the craft.

Actors at the beginning of their careers could take a leaf out of Evans’ book: During the summer before his senior year of high school, he wrote to New York City casting offices about interning. “I figured I should probably have a job that brought me into contact with agents,” he remembers. While he was assisting with casting bit parts on the Michael J. Fox sitcom “Spin City,” he ended up “talking to agents every day and keeping a little book of the agents who were nice.” He then asked to read monologues for the agent who, after Evans finished school early to audition for pilot season, got him a role on 2000’s short-lived Fox comedy “Opposite Sex”—plus plenty of other auditions he did not book.

“The most useful tool I could say to an actor or to anybody is cultivate the active participation of silence in your mind, cultivate the ability to surrender to the moment.”

“Oh, god,” he says when the subject of auditioning comes up. “Ninety-five percent of the work is rejection. Those first 10 years, you’ve got to put the gloves on for every job and you’ve got to get in the ring.” For the first half of his career, Evans emerged from most auditions convinced he not only wasn’t getting the part, but that he wasn’t getting any part ever again. “When all you hear in your head is that high-pitched buzzing sound and your palms are sweating and you feel like you can’t catch your breath,” he deadpans, “that’s the opposite of trying to drop into a moment.”

But around the time that he began making a name for himself in comic book adaptations (“Fantastic Four,” “TMNT,” “The Losers,” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” all of which groomed him for his Marvel franchise debut in 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger”), Evans discovered his favorite actorly trick.

“You pull up a script,” he says, of any favorite film or series. “You read the first scene and you make your choices as if you were going to perform this next scene. Try and map it out. Then, immediately afterward, watch the scene.

“There is nothing more eye-opening that you can possibly do as an actor than to watch the way an actor you respect dissects a scene and makes their choices,” he continues. “To stretch your acting muscle, go compare your choices to some other actors’ choices. If nothing else, you’ll be reminded of the dizziness of choice that’s available on any page of dialogue.”

It was while analyzing Jim Caviezel’s performance in the film “Angel Eyes” that Evans began relishing that kind of creative freedom. “Moments that I made a meal out of, he threw away. Moments that I threw away, he sank into the power of the pause. It was such a different dance that he created that had absolutely nothing to do with the words, but the words still fit flawlessly.”

In fact, the dialogue felt almost beside the point. “Words are really not indicative of who you are. If you, in your daily life, set up a camera and filmed a conversation with maybe you and one of your buddies, and then someone else printed it out, made a script out of it, and you revisited it in six months—A) I doubt you would be able to even play yourself properly, and B) I doubt that the words on the page would accurately encompass all the shades of who you are. I think one of the mistakes actors tend to do is believe that the words are their breadcrumbs. [But] it’s the characters and the spaces between.

“You have to start in a much more macro sense, in terms of [asking,] What story are we trying to tell? How does my character fit into that theme?” That brings us to a topic Evans is distinctly qualified to address: taking a well-known character in literature and bringing them to life on the screen. Fans of Joe Simon’s and Stan Lee’s comics, for example, had been reading about the square-jawed, shield-wielding Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) for decades. Should moviegoers’ hopes and perceptions be an element in the actor’s adaptation process?

“To stretch your acting muscle, go compare your choices to some other actors’ choices. If nothing else, you’ll be reminded of the dizziness of choice that’s available on any page of dialogue. ”

“There was this enormous expectation that these people already had in their minds, this idea of who this character was, and you have to respect that,” says Evans, who in 2010 hesitated in the face of those expectations before signing his multimovie deal. “Audiences are part of what will make [these films] work, and I owe that group my understanding of what they see.” Again starting with context rather than dialogue, he took the macro approach, reading the nearly endless litany of material featuring the Captain.

The next step in adapting such a character, however, should be to focus inward. “At a certain point, you do have to say, ‘OK, I have to approach this the way I would anything else,’ and connect to it on a personal level without every single day being preoccupied with how it’s going to be perceived,” he explains. Whether it’s navigating the artistic process, a career in Hollywood, or just life, “trying to cut your cloth according to the way you’re seen is a risky approach.”

That’s why Evans is so enthusiastic about this most recent post-Cap phase of his career. “I absolutely loved my time with Marvel; I already miss it,” he says, “but there’s no denying that it is very exciting to just have complete freedom to pursue whatever my creative appetite wants.” Whereas his franchise commitments afforded Evans the occasional passion project, like 2013’s “Snowpiercer” or 2014’s “Before We Go,” his directorial debut, he’s now ready to push himself as an artist—and subvert audience expectations—full-time. It’s what led him back to the stage for the 2018 Broadway revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s “Lobby Hero,” to 2019’s starry murder mystery “Knives Out,” and now to the role of Andy Barber on Apple TV+’s buzzy “Defending Jacob.”

Adapted by Mark Bomback from William Landay’s novel and directed by Morten Tyldum, the eight installments of “Defending Jacob” track the dissolution of Andy’s family in the wake of a murder accusation against his teenage son Jacob (played by Jaeden Martell). While Jacob maintains his innocence, mounting evidence and a series of revelations force his father to confront his own deceptions, and cause his mother, Laurie (Michelle Dockery), to have unthinkable doubts.

“Andy had a very challenging childhood,” says Evans of the character. “Most people who have traumatic experiences when they’re young, they build walls and coping mechanisms very early; they bury things deep down.” Asked whether Andy doubts his son’s innocence, he replies carefully. “Part of the process of leaving those demons from his past came from reidentifying with himself as a family man, a husband, a father. When all of a sudden, this family becomes in jeopardy—when this belief system, this identity that’s been truly his saving grace, is jeopardized—I think Andy cannot cope with the possibility of doing a deep dive and dumping this mess out and really examining it.”

And, Evans points out, a lot of people do indeed live that way. What makes “Defending Jacob” such a notable chapter in his acting journey is not only that it harnesses his page-to-screen adaptation process, albeit on a smaller scale (“You want to make sure you respect the author more than anything else,” he says), it enables him to play with context and obfuscation, those thrilling “spaces between.” How well can we really know our loved ones? What is the nature of guilt, both in a court of law and in our psyche? So much is unsaid between Andy and Laurie, or Andy and Jacob, or Andy and his father, Billy (J.K. Simmons)—as family members and as humans experiencing collective trauma—that Evans and his co-stars can plumb seemingly endless depths of subtext in their dynamics.

It’s the exact kind of specific-yet-universal subtext that audiences can relate to, and with which great actors love to play. Evans brings up a Julianne Moore quote about craft: “ ‘The audience doesn’t come to see you, they come to see themselves.’ Even when you’re playing an intimate, reserved, taciturn character, you still have to be open enough to let people in.”

Which brings us to Evans’ biggest tip for actors, both on camera and off: Cultivate the practice of stillness.

“Sometimes, the choices that I find most powerful and moving, the choices that make you lean into an actor, the choices that make you want more, are found in those moments in between,” he says, “when an actor knows how to have restraint and ride the power of silence, of listening.... Acting is the empathy for the human condition. Whether you play a hero or a villain, the empathy for a person’s process—empathy for recognizing that you don’t know how other people experience things, and the curiosity about trying to draw parallels between their experience and your own—is such a beautiful thing.”

It’s further proof that approaching a story or character requires much more than memorizing lines. Case in point: the ambiguous final scene of “Defending Jacob,” in which Andy is alone in his house. Evans sits wordlessly; instead of a conclusive action or symbolic gesture, there’s only stillness. With that choice, he’s inviting us in; he’s showing us ourselves.

“This extends well beyond the realms of acting, to life in general: We are all victims of our own brain noise,” Evans says. “The most useful tool I could [recommend] to an actor or to anybody is cultivate the active participation of silence in your mind, cultivate the ability to surrender to the moment.

“I guess it sounds a little pretentious, but that really is all acting is, isn’t it?”

This story originally appeared in the July 2 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Photos courtesy of Apple TV+

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