This article was a finalist for LA Press Club's National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards 2015.
Wind howls through the open door of the aircraft as we climb through the sky. California’s drought-ridden landscape recedes into blobs of burnt-toast brown, concrete grey, and pale green at 5,000 feet, then 12,500. It hasn’t rained in months, but today, the one day I’m about to go skydiving with actor Liam Hemsworth, there are thick, black mashed potato clouds stacked on the horizon, encircling us in a dark halo. Our plane-mates and fellow skydivers look only the slightest bit nervous; they’re the low-altitude jumpers, the adrenaline junkies for whom five minutes of floating to the ground is too boring. They want to do it in three. They shrug, high-five, and one by one leap out the door, into the gunmetal grey mist.
Just two hours earlier, torrential rain almost grounded us, pouring over the small town of Perris in Southern California’s mostly desolate Riverside County. When the clouds broke for a few minutes, the crew of Skydive Perris jumped into action. Waivers were signed, jumpsuits zipped, and nametags affixed (Hemsworth’s read “Bob”). Then, it was time to meet the skydivers whose crotches we’d be strapped to. “Bob,” the administrator said with a chuckle, “You’ll be jumping with Adrian. He has trained military jumpers and has done more than 2,000 jumps and hundreds of tandems, so you’re in great hands.”
He turned to me...said nothing...back to Bob: “Have fun, guys!”
Hemsworth nodded. Adrian was a stocky man, a good match for his tall, lanky frame. “Wait, who are you jumping with?” he asked.
My partner, Angie, sidled over. She exuded nothing but confidence in very pro-looking aviators and a matching jumpsuit. But it was hard not to notice one troubling fact.
“Shouldn’t your tandem partner be bigger than you?” I whisper as Hemsworth and I wait in line to be hurled from the aircraft. Angie straps onto my back and we edge toward the door. I look back at Hemsworth. He cracks a smile. It’s his first time, too. Behind his goggles, his blue eyes match the Pacific, curving just over the horizon, but they don’t seem afraid, just excited.
Then we jump.
The plane’s engines roar, then silence. The free fall.
Thirty seconds with wind rushing in your face, a roller coaster that never ends. From here, it seems the whole world is visible. The Palm Desert to the east, the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles to the west, the arterial freeways pumping cars onto asphalt. Then, the chute catches, noise returns, and we start the gradual descent back to earth. I look for Hemsworth among the multicolored parachutes floating around us, but he’s nowhere to be found. My tandem partner begins making small talk in the gentle tones of a therapist or a kindergarten teacher. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she asks.
We land softly and detach. My legs wobble, newborn-wildebeest-style. But I’m alive. Hemsworth is alive, too. He runs over, his mussed-up hair reaching toward the heavens. “That. Was. Awesome!”
We post up at a picnic bench to debrief. “The bit coming down, when you’re actually hanging, was almost more scary than the freefall,” he says, “You’re able to think then. When you’re free falling, you can’t gauge anything, you can’t think about anything. You’re just like, ‘Holy shit.’” As we tally the best skydiving scenes in film—Point Break is deemed the winner, no contest—onlookers stop by with requests for autographs and selfies with Hemsworth. He talks with everyone, shakes hands, and snaps pictures, still a little juiced up on adrenaline.
Five weeks ago he was finishing up the third and fourth installments of The Hunger Games (Mockingjay - Part 1 hits theaters November 21), which meant spending eight months in Atlanta, a few weeks in Paris, and a month in Berlin. Thankfully, he had good company to make up for any feelings of displacement. “I’ve been friends with all these people for so many years now that when we come back together it’s kind of the only time we’re all in the same place,” he says. “I’m so lucky to have Jennifer [Lawrence] and Josh [Hutcherson] and Woody [Harrelson] and all these other great people. We’ve created really strong bonds.”
Some Mockingjay scenes were almost impossible to shoot because of the inevitable bursts of laughter that would erupt, especially in the most inappropriate moments. “It’s like high school because we’ll mess around for half the day and then we’ll do a little bit of work. Everyone’s goofing around and trying to mess each other up.” Director Francis Lawrence was probably the closest thing the crew had to a principal-type authority figure, but even he couldn’t resist: “The joking was basically nonstop,” Lawrence says. “These movies have definitely been the most fun on-set experience that I’ve ever had. Jen was hands-down the biggest joker, but any time you had Liam in a scene with some combination of Jen, Josh, or Woody, there were going to be a lot of laughs.”
Working with Harrelson left an especially strong impact on Hemsworth.
“Woody’s like a little kid,” he says. “Me and Jen always call him a Labrador because you throw something and he’ll fetch it. When he does turn it on, he’s got the most intense, crazy look in his eyes. He’s such a great actor, yet he can be so free and just have fun with the whole thing.”
On the phone from Hawaii, Harrelson mentions his first impression of Hemsworth: “He seemed kind of serious, you know,” he says. “My rapport with Jen and Josh: We got on like a house-fire. It was a longer process to get to know Liam. But it was only a matter of time before we were cracking each other up in scenes. We had to not look at each other or we’d mess up the shot.”
At 24, Hemsworth has already worked with an enviable group of A-list vets.
“When we were on set [of Paranoia], I asked Harrison Ford if he ever doubted what he was doing or why he was doing it. He kind of stopped for a second and was like, ‘No. Not for a second. This is the best job in the world.’” In the upcoming indie crime drama Cut Bank, he stars alongside Billy Bob Thornton.
Bad Santa was one of Hemsworth’s favorite movies growing up, but meeting the actor revealed a very different person that he saw onscreen. “Billy Bob’s the nicest guy in the world,” he says. “We became really good friends. We had this one scene where he was yelling at me. I could see he was kind of having a hard time. He comes over, and he’s like [affecting Billy Bob’s drawl], ‘Man, I really just have a tough time doing scenes like this with people I feel, you know, brotherly with. It’s really tough to yell at you.’ I’m like ‘Billy Bob, just yell at me. Don’t worry about it.’ He’s like, ‘It’s tough for me, man. I don’t want to yell at you.’”
He also had a memorable first meeting with John Malkovich while shooting Cut Bank. “The first night we went out for dinner, he told us this story about an older man who was walking across the street with his wife. He tripped and slit his throat open on some scaffolding. John was wearing one of the scarves that he makes. He went across the street, took his scarf off, and put pressure on this guy’s neck, keeping him calm and saving his life before the ambulance got there. That’s John for you. He wears these very interesting scarves and he saved this guy’s life.”
Hemsworth smiles. Leaving his homeland of Australia behind to start a career in the United States was a huge risk, but he credits his work ethic with helping him break through. “If you put the work in, and you show that you’re willing to work hard, you’ll succeed. I feel that I often put in more work, and that is what separates me from other people.”
Hemsworth grew up the youngest of three boys on Phillip Island (pop: fewer than 10,000) about an hour or two outside of Melbourne. The family lived in a forested area, where the Brothers Hemsworth rode dirt bikes, swung from eucalyptus trees, and played with air rifles and bow and arrows handmade by their grandfather. “For some reason, my grandpa thought they would be good to give to us—we would just do stupid shit out in the bush.”
Luke and Chris had some years on him, but little Liam was the hell-raiser of the bunch. “I think everyone agrees that I was the naughtiest as a kid,” he says. “My uncles used to call me ‘Devil Child,’ or ‘Triple’ for triple six. They used to tell my brother Chris that they were going to get the demons out of him because he was also a little crazy. But to me, they’d just be like, ‘You’re too far gone. There’s no exorcising you anymore.’”
Hemsworth mellowed out in high school, where his mother taught. After graduating, he worked construction jobs, laying floors with his oldest brother, Luke. Where he grew up, most of the young men went on to work a trade like plumbing or building. But the Hemsworth brothers had their eyes on Hollywood. Liam landed recurring roles on Australian television at age 17. At 19, he followed Luke and Chris to L.A.
His first audition in the States was for the title role of Thor: God of Thunder, a job that wound up going to his brother Chris. There were no hard feelings.
Whereas Chris’s performances, and physical stature, are maximalist, Liam is a minimalist, tall and lean, conjuring subtle characters that are emotionally complex. He didn’t let the setback get him down. “I would read all the scripts and audition three to five days a week and then hang out in my manager’s guesthouse and look after my manager’s kids,” he says. “After a while, it started sinking in that I might not get anything, and that I’d have to go back to Australia and be back at square one. It was pretty upsetting at the time, but then this job on The Last Song came up. That was a big relief getting that. Huge relief.” Two years later, landing a major role in the Hunger Games franchise propelled his career into overdrive.
"The Last Song" wasn’t just a game-changer for his career—it was also where he met Miley Cyrus, his love interest in the film. Although they weren’t even 20 yet, their relationship became gossip blog and paparazzi fodder. After a year-and-a-half engagement, their relationship dissolved. “There’s not much to say; there’s no bad blood there,” he says about Cyrus.
It’s been nearly a year since the breakup, and Hemsworth recently moved into a $6.8 million estate in the Malibu hills. Still, the attention and tabloid narratives haven’t abated, he says. “You never get used to it because you get followed and you get chased and it’s never a fun experience. I think when people see photos of you out and about in your personal life, they assume that you’ve asked for it or that you want that attention, but I don’t think anyone in their right mind asks for that kind of thing.”
Like Hemsworth, his characters are capable of weathering any storm. In The Hunger Games, a dystopian world where the old literally sacrifice the young, he plays Gale Hawthorne, Katniss Everdeen’s best friend, who finds hope behind barbed wire fences. In Empire State, he tries to scam money to help his out-of-work father who has run into trouble with the mob. He’s the youngest member of the Expendables 2 team of AARP-card-carrying former action stars. Shortly into the film, he gets a knife kicked into his heart by Jean-Claude Van Damme. In Paranoia, Hemsworth plays a young start-up entrepreneur trying to break into the tech world, only to be used by a nefarious mega-corporation.
When it comes to choosing roles, Hemsworth says that he’s drawn to stories that delve deeper into the hardships faced by his generation. “Hunger Games is the story of a young girl being able to create such a big change and instill so much hope in people,” he says. “I think a lot of young people look up to that girl and that idea of someone prevailing against it all. I think a lot of older people also look at it from a political point of view with things that are happening in our world now.”
Next up for Hemsworth is By Way of Helena, a Western, again alongside Harrelson. “I’ve been reading a lot of books about the Comanche and Texas Rangers, and just how amazingly brutal that time was,” Hemsworth says. “A lot of my stuff that I do is not historical. But something like this is a totally different project where all this crazy stuff happened, so it’s really interesting learning about it.”
It’s not difficult to recognize a kind of kinship between the American frontier and the Australian outback: both desolate landscapes populated by ancient cultures being encroached upon by modernity and colonial settlement. Hemsworth’s family lived on a cattle station in the Northern Territory when he was very young. The memories are still fresh to him, the strange sensations of being a child in an alien environment. “We were out in the middle of nowhere—it’s still untouched to this day” he says. “I remember finding green tree frogs in the toilet. I remember eating turtle.” At that time, Hemsworth’s father worked as a buffalo catcher. “He would go out in a Jeep, drive up next to a buffalo, and basically knock them over. Then he’d jump out, tie them up, and put them on the back of a truck.”
Harrelson will be heading to Mississippi soon for preproduction on the film and says he’s “psyched” to work with Hemsworth again. He laughs when I mention having gone sky-diving with Hemsworth. “Did you go to that place in Perris?” he asks. He’d been too. When Harrelson’s jump culminated with his boots back on the ground, an idea popped into his head: “I looked at the instructor and said, ‘Let’s do it one more time!’ So they took us right back up!”
The Labrador strikes again.
Harrelson is also convinced that Hemsworth is on an upward trajectory: “He’s a very heroic character in this movie, a deep, complex character. That’s what I like about Liam—he’s not just a pretty boy. He has depth.”