NEW ORLEANS – Six weeks in the Crescent City and Chris Pratt has not let one drop of gumbo, one morsel of po’boy, or one crumb of beignet pass his lips.
In itself, this admission would be enough to raise the pitying eyebrow of anyone who has been bewitched by New Orleans cuisine.
But coming from Pratt, an actor who has physically oscillated from puffy to shredded and back again, it also packs surprise. As anyone familiar with Pratt, best known for his role as the meatheady Andy Dwyer on the NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” can attest, he is not a man who readily avoids food.
But in the last year, Pratt, 35, has risen beyond Andydom to leading-men roles – the first in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” based on the Marvel comic and released Friday, and the second in “Jurassic World,” which was in production this summer in New Orleans. “Guardians” required that he get into action-figure shape, and “Jurassic” meant he had to more or less keep it, which in turn meant swearing off rich local fare.
“I would love to eat it,” Pratt said mournfully, speaking in the cool shadows of the Roosevelt Hotel, at the edge of the French Quarter, one recent steaming day. “I personally can’t allow myself to eat it. I know what it translates to. I would see a plate of food, and, if I spin my eyes, I see a treadmill. And a clock.”
Not, Pratt rushed to note, that he feels remotely deprived. Of late, his life has seemed especially charmed. He is starring in two potential summer blockbusters, one this year, one next. From a studio perspective, “Guardians” is the bigger gamble – because of its little-known source material and untested star. Still, he played the lead role, or lead voice, in another blockbuster, “The Lego Movie,” as Emmet Brickowski, the normcore dullard with a heart of glee. He is also happily married to the platinum-haired comic actress Anna Faris; their firstborn, Jack, whom Pratt describes as “a wonderful golden child who makes everyone laugh,” turns 2 next month.
It’s a long way to come for a college dropout and failed door-to-door coupon salesman from Lake Stevens, Wash.
Then again, could any career trajectory be considered predictable when it is kicked off by none other than Rae Dawn Chong?
Yes, Rae Dawn Chong, daughter of Tommy, ex-wife of ’80s heartthrob C. Thomas Howell, and star, with Arnold Schwarzenegger, of “Commando,” which Pratt guesses he has seen “about 4,000 times.”
Pratt was 19, living in Maui, Hawaii, sleeping between a van and a tent on a beach, and working as a waiter at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. when he spotted Chong and a friend dining there. “Hey, you’re a movie star!” he recalls saying. After some banter, he remembers Chong telling him that she was directing a movie, and asking, did he act?
To which Pratt replied, mostly truthfully, yes.
Born in Minnesota, he grew up the youngest of three in Lake Stevens, a small town north of Seattle. Family life, he said, was cheery but hardscrabble. Pratt’s father, Dan, mined for gold in Alaska and taconite in Minnesota before getting into remodeling houses; a former high school football star, he also coached Pratt in the game. Pratt’s mother, Kathy, worked the checkout at the local Safeway.
Consistently named the class clown, Pratt performed in school assemblies, fished and sometimes accompanied his mom to the bingo hall, a simple life he credits for his wide-eyed brand of comedy, which is almost entirely devoid of cynicism.
“I definitely benefited from growing up in a household that lacked any critical thinking skills,” he said. “Really.”
Such was the writer-director James Gunn’s vision for Peter Quill, also known as Star-Lord, the lead character in his “Guardians of the Galaxy” screenplay and the part he had the hardest time casting. Based on a little-known comic book, “Guardians” tells of the battle between an irreverent band of misfit Marvel heroes – among them Star-Lord, a cocky talking raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and a sentient warrior tree (Vin Diesel) – and the villainous Ronan the Accuser.
The comic’s relative obscurity and the quirkiness of its characters led some prognosticators to predict that “Guardians” would mark a rare misstep from Marvel Studios, which has reaped gold with its “Iron Man,” “Captain America” and “Thor” franchises. But early positive buzz has others now forecasting a smash.
One of the remaining risks is the audience reaction to heretofore second-fiddle, mostly TV guy Pratt in a leading role that even the director felt, at least at first, he was ill-suited for (and in a genre both Ryan Reynolds and Seth Rogen had little success in).
Early on, some 20 actors screen-tested for the part of Peter Quill – big stars, no-names – and none were quite right. The casting director, Sarah Finn, kept suggesting Pratt.
“The chubby guy from ‘Parks and Rec’?” Gunn remembers replying, “No.”
Meanwhile, across town, Pratt was having what he describes as “an identity crisis as an actor,” vacillating between what he calls “fat charactery guy and in-shape charactery guy.”
Having landed continuing television work, first in “Everwood,” then “The O.C.” and eventually “Parks and Recreation,” Pratt had also been cast in assorted supporting roles in “Moneyball,” “The Five-Year Engagement” and “Delivery Man.” As ostensibly different as each character was, they shared a naïve amiability and slightly daffy charm.
Then he saw Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” in which he played an amiable but plainly lethal member of the Navy SEALs.
“Before ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ I had played a different version of kind of the same person in every movie,” he said. “It’s been a bit of a survival mechanism my whole life to kind of play the dummy, and get laughs, and goof around.” But seeing himself in that role broadened his sense of possibilities. “It was another element to myself,” he said, “that I just hadn’t seen.”
Pratt realized he wanted to merge playing an action character with his innate comic streak. Up to that point, he had turned down his agent’s prodding to audition for “Guardians,” but then he changed his mind.
Gunn said he knew “within 20 seconds” that Pratt was the guy for the role. “He’s like Gary Cooper, he’s like John Wayne,” he said, “He’s got all the classic movie star things and the ability to do humor.”
Still, it was Pratt’s first lead, and he said he initially struggled mightily to get out of his head, set down his eagerness to please and entrust himself to Gunn’s direction. “He had to learn the potency of just being,” Gunn said. “It was very difficult to get him to trust that.”
By the end of production, Pratt said, he found “the willingness to not make a joke, the willingness to not have to charm,” something Colin Trevorrow, who is directing “Jurassic World,” said has added heft to his presence as a lead. “If someone is strong enough to play the lead in a movie like this, you need to know it at first sight,” he wrote in an email. “In this film, you know Chris Pratt is the leading man the moment you see him on screen.”