Chris Hemsworth Finds a Rich Groove in ‘Spiderhead’

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NEW YORK – Joseph Kosinski, director of “Top Gun: Maverick” had a plane in the air again, but this time Chris Hemsworth was behind the wheel.

They were shooting “Spider Head”, a sci-fi prison thriller based on a story by George Saunders, set along the Australian coast. The film takes place almost entirely in a secluded concrete fortress overlooking the sea, but it opens with the arrival of a seaplane piloted by Hemsworth with Kosinski lying in the back. The slow propeller engine plan was a far cry from the F-18 jets of Kosinski’s box office success.

“Originally, this was supposed to be the plane that Tom Cruise was working in,” jokes Hemsworth.

“Spiderhead,” which debuts Friday on Netflix, is in many ways the opposite of “Top Gun: Maverick.” It’s a talkative indoor film made during the pandemic that will be shown in homes, not filling IMAX screens. But chief among his quirky pleasures is Hemsworth’s leading performance as a researcher who presides as a benevolent, 80s yacht-rock-dancing tyrant on the Spiderhead Penitentiary and Research Center, gleefully conducting experiments in which he drugs prisoners to chemically increase or decrease their moods, appetites and verbal acuity.

For a performer who has only occasionally shown his comedic ability (hosting “Saturday Night Live”, as a secretary in “Ghostbusters”), Hemsworth’s deft balancing act in “Spiderhead” presents a range well beyond the MCU. Hemsworth, who recently started filming George Miller’s ‘Furiosa’, returns as Thor next month “Thor: Love and Thunder”, a franchise that gradually slackened to accommodate its star’s comedic agility. And there are more action movies (“Extraction 2”) on the way.

But without a fight scene or special effects, “Spiderhead” can convey Hemsworth’s powers better than anything that’s come before it.

“It was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had,” Hemsworth said in a recent video conference interview from Australia. “Normally, these films, you chain them over three or four months. In this case, due to my schedule, due to COVID restrictions, etc., it was compressed into a four week period. At first, we didn’t think it was possible.

Pandemic factors aside, “Spiderhead” is especially unlikely given its source material. Few have ever read a Saunders story and thought it would flow seamlessly into a movie. But screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick expanded on the author’s story in 2010. “Escape from Spiderhead”, a wacky but moving first-person account of a prisoner (played by Miles Teller in the film) undergoing lab tests. They greatly expanded the role played by Hemsworth, Dr. Steve Abnesti, who runs the establishment enthusiastically with few rules and mysterious intentions. He’s kind of like the nicest Bond villain you’ve ever met.

Kosinski sent the script to Hemsworth hoping he would respond to the role.

“In his performances, I’ve always seen glimpses of a wide range of availability that is perhaps sometimes masked by the action movies and his leading looks,” Kosinski explains.

“There’s a precision to his physique that really lends itself to this role,” adds the director. “He’s got that ability that I’ve seen in Tom (Cruise), too, to really understand the setting and the purpose and where to be in it. It’s something not everyone has. He’s just very aware of the medium and how to use it effectively.

In “Spiderhead”, Hemsworth uses the accuracy and charisma he normally relies on in more conventional lead performances for darker manipulation purposes.

“There was a kind of nervous energy underneath, bubbling up, even in the quieter moments,” Hemsworth says. “I was trying to tap into that feeling when you’re about to break down and you’re laughing or crying, but you’re on a tightrope. Whatever that feeling was, I wanted the character to be in it and hopefully give some idea of: which direction is he going to turn next? What will be the next reaction? »

“Spiderhead” was shot largely in sequence on a soundstage, and Hemsworth seems visibly liberated by the production’s lack of constraints — costume or otherwise.

“I’m so grateful for the movies I’ve played, but they haven’t given me the range and the opportunity to explore in that way,” Hemsworth says.

Hemsworth, 38, was partly inspired by CEOs and technocrats who exude a hyper-intelligent and obsessive focus, but who might, in their certainty of technology’s potential, lack empathy. Still, the character’s high-level narcissism isn’t entirely alien to Hemsworth, either.

“There was a cheekiness to the character that reminded me of myself in school, allowing my thoughts to race past each other, not really caring what I’m doing or what I’m saying,” he said. “That enthusiasm and excitement is me at my most inventive and creative. Catch me on a day when I’m exhausted and not in that space, then that’s not the character. But that part of me, I wanted to be prominent.

‘Spiderhead’ arrives between its director and star’s biggest blockbusters, on the heels of ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ – a film that played the savior in theaters – and on the cusp of ” Thor: Love and Thunder”. Both are likely to rank among the biggest ticket sellers of the year. Kosinski, speaking as “Maverick” receipts continued to pour in, still appreciates the film’s success and, as he puts it, “how many people react to a film that was shot in a very traditional way, in direct action, behind closed doors.

“It’s the kind of movie I grew up with,” Kosinski says.

But for Hemsworth and Kosinski, the variation between projects and the ability to make a weird, hard-to-describe sci-fi movie for mass audiences is part of “Spiderhead’s” special charm. Last week, Kosinski set up his next project, a Formula 1 racing movie starring Brad Pitt and Apple TV+, with plans for a wide exclusive theatrical release before airing.

“It’s a very interesting hybrid. It kind of covers those two movies that I just did,” Kosinski says. “Everyone is trying to figure out: what does the future of cinema look like? We thought it was an interesting model to try.

For Hemsworth, whose “Extraction” is one of Netflix’s most-watched movies, “Spiderhead” was a diversion that only buoyed him up as he readjusted to bigger films.

“The two serve each other,” Hemsworth says. “Every time I venture out and do something different and then come back to, say, Thor, I find I have a different appreciation of the character and also a different opinion about him.”

Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP