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Evans makes (Captain) America great again

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Chris Evans, pictured at the Toronto Film Fesival in 2014.
Chris Evans, pictured at the Toronto Film Fesival in 2014.(Contour by Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES

Captain America is not hip. In the 1940s, he was an Army corporal who only turned into Captain America once he got off KP duty. Then he'd go fight Nazis, dragging a child mascot along, seemingly untroubled that while he had a shield, young Bucky faced German machine guns with only a winsome smile.

When Cap was reintroduced in Marvel comics in 1964, he'd been frozen in the Arctic for two decades, and seemed it. Marvel's new generation of atomic-age superheroes were relatable — they had everyday problems and anxieties, and more often than not had a wisecracking worldview. They fought super villains and hung out in Greenwich Village or at campus protests.

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Meanwhile, Cap still ran around in stars-and-stripes pajamas looking for remaindered Nazis to punch. He didn't have much of a back story, aside from being comicdom's oldest frozen entrée.

It's no great wonder that when 1960s parents ordered kids to pare the comic book heap, Cap's comics often were not the keepers. Even the Submariner — a guy with winged ankles who lived at the bottom of the sea — was hipper than Captain America.

"I collected comics as a kid, and Cap was not one of my favorite characters, for that reason," says Joe Russo, who co-directs the new "Captain America: Civil War" along with his brother Anthony. "In my head, I used to imagine Steve McQueen playing him, just to give him a little more bite."

Instead that role has, for at least the last five years, belonged to Boston native Chris Evans. Expanding on the franchise established in Marvel's previous Cap and Avengers movies, "Civil War" opens nationwide on May 6.

"I had concerns about the character," says Evans, interviewed recently in a Los Angeles hotel. "When I first played him, my biggest concern was that there is no part of him that has some deep, dark conflict that he wrestles against. He just wants to be a good man, wants to do what's right. He's willing to put himself last, to bury his interests for the betterment of the mass. That's tough to portray nonstop.

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"Thankfully, the guys at Marvel found ways to give him some personal struggle."

Evans may be understating things a bit, since "Civil War" is practically the "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" of the Marvel cinematic universe, given the roiling animosity and more palpable things hurled by Cap and his fellow Avengers in the film. Every time the Avengers save the world, it seems, they inadvertently destroy a metropolis or two in the process, leading to government oversight being imposed on the group. Some Avengers, led by Iron Man, submit to that, while Cap and his faction rebel against being leashed.

The rift widens due to the actions, real or perceived, of Cap's WWII partner Bucky, who reemerged in the previous Captain America film as the Winter Soldier, brainwashed by Russians and turned into a killing machine. Iron Man wants revenge on Bucky, as does the Black Panther (an African king in costume, the first black superhero when introduced in Marvel Comics in 1966, and portrayed here by Chadwick Boseman), while Cap tries to protect and redeem his old friend. The white-hot fury that Evans's Cap and Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man bring to their violent clash can be disquieting to even hardened action film fans.

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Evans — appearing bright-eyed and bearded in the midst of several days spent promoting the film — gave his interpretation of why it's so jarring: "This is the first time Cap has prioritized his personal desire over the group's needs, and it's like watching a family torn apart.

"It's easy to watch a film with clear-cut villains. This film is more akin to the struggles we have in life, where instead of good guys fighting bad guys, you have family members fighting family members. . . . There's so much more at stake to lose than if you're fighting a villain."

The actor says he "wasn't cool enough" to be a comic book fan as a kid. "If I'd had an older brother, maybe he would have introduced me to that, but having an older sister, I was destined to do whatever she was doing. So I was playing with Strawberry Shortcake characters and doing theater and puppet shows in her room."

Evans studied acting at the Lee Strasberg Institute, and initially devoted himself to stage work before heading into television and film. He was pulled into the Marvel universe to play the Human Torch in 2005's "Fantastic Four" and a sequel, then was tapped to play his current character in 2011's "Captain America: the First Avenger."

"The Winter Soldier" and Evans's other Marvel efforts are a far cry from "The Winter's Tale" — which he assayed onstage as a teenager — but he says the approach is the same.

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"I don't think stepping into a comic book world means all of a sudden you detach from your training as an actor. You're still playing a character, someone who has a history and conflicts. He may have superhuman abilities and wear a silly costume half the time, but that doesn't change your approach. You still have to ground it in something truthful."

While Evans didn't receive any particular training on reacting to green-screened characters and events that aren't there, he says, "That begins when you're a child. Most kids run around the yard with a bedsheet tied around their neck, talking to nothing and playing make believe. The most fun thing about the Marvel universe is a lot of the time the landscape doesn't provide you a tangible environment to bounce off of. You are in front of a screen and you talk to tennis balls. So you tap into your child, the part that knew how to let go and make believe a little bit.

"That's part of the joy of acting. How much of your consciousness can you let go of? What percentage of your brain do you have to leave in reality so you remember you have a line to say and a mark to hit? Then let's get the other 90 percent of your brain to let go of that, to be listening, reacting, and believing that these things are happening. I tell you, there is nothing more fun than trying to untether yourself in a superhero world."

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Even during a press slog, Evans seems considerably more open and at ease than his Cap persona. In a separate interview Joe Russo maintains, "Chris is very different from the character he plays. He has a very big personality. He's a lot of fun. He laughs a lot. "

"And he's much more devious than Captain America is," Anthony Russo adds, without elaborating.

Evans says he does try to carry a bit of Captain America around with him. Marvel Comics mastermind Stan Lee, now 93, makes a cameo appearance in every Marvel film, "and I always go hang out with Stan in his trailer. He's the sweetest, nicest, most life-loving spirit. One day he said to me, 'Don't forget, who you are off-camera reflects who you are on-camera.' That's important, given how people view Captain America as a beacon: He represents something pure and good that we all aspire to. So, in a way I do carry the responsibility of striving to be that way off-camera, which is terrifying."

He intentionally spends more time off-camera than many actors, explaining, "I may look back in 10 years and say I should have done more when the iron was hot, but I don't live to make movies. I make movies to live. I love acting, but when I'm done with a film, I take the time to just live. I love to go home to Massachusetts.

"To me, Boston is friends, family, and home. My mother lives in Sudbury. I have a house in Concord, and I have relatives all over. I've thought a lot about what 'home' means. For me, it's where my brain stops asking so many questions. You can go to a lot of beautiful places, but even in those places my brain is a very active animal. By no means do I look down on the activity of the mind, but I also think the healthiest thing you can do for yourself is silencing that noise. . . . If you're able to take a breath, to be still and be present, that's living life. That's bliss. Massachusetts is the place where my brain feels the most calm."


Jim Washburn can be reached at washburned@lostinoc.com.