Chris Evans Danielle Levitt Captain America
Danielle Levitt for Variety

Actor committed to fulfilling Marvel contract then wants to focus on directing

There’s no escaping Captain America — especially for the actor behind the blue mask. That’s not just a career assessment. It’s a physical reality. To gear up as the iconic Marvel superhero, Chris Evans, the star of the upcoming “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” once again dons his trademark patriotic suit, which requires the actor to wear a snug latex undergarment that keeps the uniform from clinging to his sculpted muscles.

Given the confines of the zip-from-the-back costume, Evans jokes that there’s one thing audiences won’t see Captain America do — head to the bathroom. “Not to get too graphic,” he says, “but you’d better hope you’re on a nice schedule in that thing. There are all these zippers and buttons.” And he only sheds the suit with the help of a wardrobe entourage. “You could fight all day; you’re not getting out of it.”

Q&A: Robert Downey Jr. Talks ‘Avengers 2,’ Chris Evans

The same could be said of the ironclad six-movie deal Evans signed when he joined the Marvel universe in 2010 as mild-mannered Steve Rogers, who becomes the supernatural shielded crusader — the original Avenger. He’s completed three films as the character, including the 2011 “Captain America” origins story and last summer’s blockbuster hit “The Avengers,” which grossed $1.5 billion worldwide. Evans heads to London to shoot “Avengers 2” alongside superhero pals Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) and Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye) after his press tour for the April 4 release of “The Winter Soldier,” in which Johansson also appears.

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As Evans prepares for another spin in the superhero stratosphere, he admits to feeling somewhat ambivalent about being typecast as a comicbook star. The 32-year-old actor spent his winter hiatus from the Marvel universe directing his debut feature, an intimate $3 million love story tentatively called “1:30 Train,” which focuses on a young woman (Alice Eve) who misses her ride home at Grand Central Terminal and spends the night talking to a street musician (played by Evans). He shot the film on Manhattan’s Lower East side over the course of just 19 days, and recently finished editing a rough cut.

“I’ve known for a while I wanted to direct,” Evans says. “But (time) never really opens up. There’s another movie to do, there’s another acting job. It just got to a point where I was like, you know what — I have to do this.”

REVIEW: ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’

Evans recently made news when he said he plans a short break from acting after his Marvel run ends, but now, he tells Variety, he wants to retire from being in front of the camera. “If I’m acting at all, it’s going to be under Marvel contract, or I’m going to be directing,” he says. “I can’t see myself pursuing acting strictly outside of what I’m contractually obligated to do.”

That still leaves him some time on the bigscreen: Over the next several years, he will clock at least three more appearances as the red-white-and-blue-clad superhero in “Avengers” and “Captain America” sequels.

Evans is part of a new generation of actors who came of age in a Hollywood where box office is dictated less by movie stars and more by superheroes and mega-franchises such as “Harry Potter,” “The Hunger Games,” “Twilight,” “Batman” “Spider-Man,” “Superman,” “X-Men” and “Fantastic Four” — the latter of which afforded Evans his first major break, playing another superhero: flamethrower Johnny Storm. It was a milestone for Evans because it marked the first time he went on an international press tour and was offered a personal trainer by a studio.

Traditionally, superhero roles are both a blessing and a curse for up-and-coming actors. They can confer recognition on unknowns (like a young Hugh Jackman, cast as Wolverine in 2000’s “X-Men”), but they also can restrict career options due to typecasting. But with the onset of Hollywood’s mega-franchise mania, potential drawbacks to playing a superhero have become less of an issue as actors regularly dabble in other artistic ventures, whether they be independent films (as in the case of “Harry Potter’s” Daniel Radcliffe), Broadway (“Spider-Man’s” Andrew Garfield) or directing, the career Evans is chasing.

Downey, who gave his own career a major boost when he donned the “Iron Man” suit in 2008, compares the new superhero studio model of signing actors to multiple films with the old studio system of the 1940s and ’50s. “Obviously, it’s much less of a taboo,” says the star, who has headlined four Marvel films as well as continuing to work on other projects.

Yet new hit superhero franchises still carry baggage for many of their stars. “It can feel like a gilded cage at times,” admits Johansson. The actress, who has so far played the Black Widow in three films that feature “Avengers” characters, including “Winter Soldier,” notes: “It’s something that obviously allows you the opportunity to do things like go and direct your first feature and have a built-in audience for that. At the same time, at the end of the job, there’s always a super suit in your future.”

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Johansson cites several concerns. “The movies take at least five or six months to release. Are you going to top the last one? Is your performance going to be as enigmatic? It’s a big risk.”

For Evans, the “Captain America” experience has been mostly positive. He credits the series with enabling him to land his dream job. “Without these movies, I wouldn’t be directing,” he reckons. “They gave me enough overseas recognition to greenlight a movie. And if I’m speaking extremely candidly, it’s going to continue to do that for as long as the Marvel contract runs.”

After wrapping “Avengers” at the end of the summer, Evans plans to helm another feature later this year, and he’s looking for scripts. “I put everything in ‘1:30 Train,’ ” he says. But whether that film succeeds or not, he feels confident he’ll get another shot at directing. “That’s not a luxury that most people are afforded,” he points out.

Evans grew up in Sudbury, Mass., a Boston suburb, where all three of his siblings were theater kids. His adolescence sounds like a real-life version of “High School Musical,” where he juggled sports (lacrosse and wrestling) with productions of “West Side Story.” He says he wanted to be a painter or animator (and only started reading Marvel comics after getting the role in the films.)

He got his start in showbiz at 17, when he interned at a New York casting agency and convinced a client to sign him. His first break was in short-lived 2000 Fox TV series, “Opposite Sex,” followed by 2001 spoof “Not Another Teen Movie” and 2004 thriller “Cellular.” “It didn’t really go anywhere,” Evans says of the latter film. “That’s when you start to realize just because you’re the lead in a movie, that doesn’t mean you have a career.”

Among his tentpole action turns, Evans has taken risks with smaller, gritty indie films, including Danny Boyle’s 2007 astronaut drama “Sunshine,” which grossed less than $4 million domestically. His other favorite performance was in 2011 legal thriller “Puncture,” which registered negligible grosses. “No one sees my good little movies, man,” Evans laments.

In 2008, he appeared in the Tennessee Williams-scripted “The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond,” which persuaded Marvel execs he could handle the period setting of the first “Captain America.”

Unlike that 2011 origins movie, set against the backdrop of World War II Germany — the comic came into being in 1941 — “Winter Soldier” features a contemporary story. Evans says that in previous incarnations, his options in portraying Steve Rogers felt limited. “It’s tricky, because he’s a Boy Scout,” Evans says. “His main goal in life is to put his own interests last. He doesn’t have a brooding side. He’s not Bruce Wayne or Wolverine.”

To train for the new film, directed by the Russo Brothers, which pits the Avengers against a mysterious statesman played by Robert Redford, Evans took gymnastics and parkour classes. “They make him much more bad-ass in terms of his fighting style,” says Evans, who was eager to inject the character with an edge. “I always wanted to see why Captain America was on this team of Avengers. He’s got to have a reason — he can’t just be really fast and punch really hard. Now, he’s much more aggressive, and he looks more lethal.”

When Marvel approached him with the part four years ago, Evans turned it down — several times. “The problem was initially, it was a nine-movie contract. And they said, if these movies take off and do very well, and my life changes and I don’t respond well, I don’t have the opportunity to say, listen, I need a fucking break. That just scared me.”

After testing a handful of other actors, Marvel made another attempt to woo Evans. “They called back and they tweaked the deal,” he recalls. “It went from nine (films) to six. I said no again.” Marvel tried once more, and that’s when Evans’ reps started giving him a hard time, the actor admits. “My family was even going, ‘Are you sure you’re making the right decisions?’ It started to feel like maybe this is what I’m supposed to do.”

REVIEW: ‘

As part of the courting process, Evans received a ring from Iron Man himself. “I remember getting on the phone with him and strongly suggesting that he not shrink away from the offer,” Downey says. “I said, ‘Look man, you might not like the fact that you’ve played one of these guys before (in “Fantastic Four”), but you know, the thing is this can afford you all sorts of other freedoms,’ ” Downey, who, thanks to “Iron Man” and “Sherlock Holmes,” recently topped the Forbes list of highest-paid actors, with estimated earnings of $75 million last year, adds, “I also thought he was the perfect guy for the job.”

Kevin Feige, president of Marvel studios (Walt Disney Co. bought parent Marvel Entertainment for approximately $4 billion in 2009), says that the first requirement for the actor who would play the patriotic character was simple: “We were looking for an American, which is not a given,” he says. Evans originally didn’t appear on Marvel’s wish list, ironically, because he had played a superhero before — a reminder that these movies can close as many doors as they open. “We cast a fairly wide net and did a series of very detailed screen tests,” Feige says. “We didn’t find the guy. We probably consciously or unconsciously skipped over Evans, maybe because of the Johnny Storm connection in ‘Fantastic Four,’ to be very honest with you. And then we said, ‘What are we doing?’ He’s great.”

Evans, dressed casually in a stretchy gray T-shirt and jeans as he lounges on the patio of his Hollywood Hills home, says his laid-back personality is more similar to Johnny Storm than Steve Rogers. His pal Hemsworth remembers how on the “Avengers” shoot in New Mexico, Evans “rallied the troops and made us assemble at certain bars and nightclubs when we could. He loves going out and being sociable.” Admits Evans: “Steve Rogers is a little out of my comfort zone. The Captain’s a little more straightlaced than I am. Probably a little more mature too,” he deadpans.

Still, Captain America isn’t that comfortable with the interview process, in large part because he can’t stand the pat nature of his responses. His least favorite activity might be press conferences. “You’re standing in a room with hundreds of people looking at you, waiting for you to slip up. It’s an awkward sensation,” Evans maintains.

He says another challenge of being a Marvel star is the loss of anonymity. “Fame is a funny thing,” he explains. “I like doing normal things. I like going to fairs, I like going to ball games, I like going to Disney World, or a big field on the Fourth of July and having picnics with friends. The problem is, you’re either worried you’re going to be recognized or you’re thankful you’re not. It’s always there. I miss that not being in my head.”

Evans might have been born with the superhero gene. He says that he doesn’t need to train excessively hard to stay in shape — about an hour a day in the gym maintains his superhero physique — and adds that he can eat what he wants, an assertion that elicits groans from his “Avengers” colleagues.

“That’s the most irritating quote I’ve ever heard; I’m sure it’s true, and I’d like to rewrite it,” says Downey, who adds that he personally often follows a long production day with a visit to the gym. Johansson recalls nibbling on kale chips and dry popcorn on the set of “Avengers,” and turning around and spotting Evans with a handful of gummy bears and Skittles. “And that’s the fate I’ve been dealt,” she says. “I’m a girl trying to keep up with these guys.” Hemsworth would sometimes see Evans at a local gym in Albuquerque. “I have to say that for the integrity of the character, Thor could lift more than Captain America,” he quips.

Between productions, the cast is a tight-knit group, appearing in cameos and traveling for press. “We’re definitely a “Bad News Bears” team,” Renner says. If Evans is the “pied piper of gathering troops,” according to Renner (or as Johansson calls him, the “captain of team spirit”), Downey is the group leader, keeping the cast intact after tough renegotiations with Marvel last year following the global success of “Avengers.” “Some actors get a backend,” Evans says. But not him.

Evans says Marvel will often send him pictures of “Captain America” action figures that are molded after his likeness, but that he doesn’t profit from the merchandising. “I see my nephew wearing underwear with my face on it,” says Evans. “I’m like ‘what’s going on?’ But for some reason, (no money comes) my way.” Adds Downey: “Nobody gets anything from the toys, and nobody ever will.” Then he promises: “I’m working on it.”

When will Evans finally hang up the character’s shield? “That’s a good question,” he says. “We can do this out loud. (‘Avengers 2’) will shoot till August. I wouldn’t be surprised if for all of 2015, we didn’t do a movie. I bet by 2017, I’ll be done.”

He lets out a grunt. “That sounds so far away.” Meanwhile, he hopes to balance his Marvel acting gigs with directing until he no longer has to carry the shield.

Evans admits he could change his mind in the future about his career trajectory. “For all I know, in five years, I might say, ‘Shit, I miss acting.’ Right now, I just want to get behind the camera and make movies.” He recently had a candid conversation with his team about it. One of his agents even tried to twist his arm, asking, “What if, hypothetically, some role came along and it was great?” Evans wouldn’t budge. “We are turning a corner,” he told his rep.

And once Captain America lays down the law, there’s really no turning back.

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