It began, like so many great American success stories, with a selfie. While Chris Pratt was training to play a member of SEAL Team Six in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, his brother convinced him to take a picture of his chiseled bod and unveil it on Ellen. For years, the breezy Minnesotan had been pigeonholed as the dim-witted-but-lovable sitcom schlub on shows like Everwood, The O.C., and Parks and Recreation, and struggled to gain a foothold in Hollywood. He’d auditioned for the roles of Jake Sully in Avatar, Capt. James T. Kirk in Star Trek, Duke in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Sam Flynn in TRON: Legacy, and countless others to no avail.
“I mean, shit, if there was a big movie coming out, I auditioned for it,” says Pratt. “I auditioned for movies both good and bad. I was willing to do anything.”
James Gunn, the director Marvel handpicked to helm the sci-fi opera Guardians of the Galaxy, was facing a similar quandary. He’d auditioned, he says, well over 100 actors and screen-tested in excess of 20 for the role of Peter Quill/Star-Lord, his wisecracking lead. And these weren’t no-name guys. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eddie Redmayne, Jon Krasinski, Aaron Paul, Lee Pace, and James Marsden were all rumored to have read for Quill, but none of them clicked.
“Truly, I wanted to be blown away and feel like this guy would be just like Robert Downey Jr. was in Iron Man,” says Gunn.
Guardians’ casting director, Sarah Finn—who’s cast virtually every Marvel film since Iron Man—kept suggesting Chris Pratt for the role. Gunn was confused, and unimpressed. “I said, ‘The fat guy from Parks and Rec? That’s insane! What are you talking about?!’” he recalls. “I was actually getting kind of upset with her because she kept bringing it up.”
Gunn was so turned off by the suggestion that he refused to see him read for the part. But one day, he’d just read another actor for it when Finn said, “OK, now Chris Pratt’s here.”
“I’m pretty sure she tricked me into seeing him because I don’t ever remember agreeing to see him,” says Gunn. “Chris came in, and he was still chubby at that point, and within 20 seconds of him auditioning I just knew that he was the guy. I just knew it immediately. I turned around and looked to Sarah and I almost had tears in my eyes, because we’d gone through so many people.”
But Pratt and Gunn still had to convince Marvel brass that he’d look the part. They were soon directed to that infamous selfie he’d snapped for Zero Dark Thirty.
“They brought out the picture in our final meeting and said, ‘Can you get there?’” says Pratt. “And I said, ‘Dude, hell yeah. Definitely.’” He pauses. “It’s like the universe—or God—had a plan for me to do this one.”
Then came the actual work. Pratt had ballooned up to an all-time high of 295 pounds for his role as Vince Vaughn’s pal in Delivery Man. He was at about 285 when he met with Gunn, and once he was cast, had seven months to train until the movie’s big shirtless scene. He ended up losing 60 pounds thanks to cutting out beer and engaging in an insane fitness regimen that included weight training, yoga, high-intensity interval training, sprints, jogging, the Navy SEAL “grinder” workout, and P90X. “Everything but the Shake Weight man,” jokes Pratt.
When asked if his wife, actress Anna Faris, is digging the new bod, he chuckles. “Oh, yeah, man. She loves me either way, though!”
And the hard work paid off. In Guardians, Quill is a child who’s abducted from his Midwest home by space pirates, and grows to become one of the more renowned “ravagers” in the galaxy. One day, he stumbles across a mysterious orb whose very existence threatens the future of the universe. Once it falls into the clutches of the villainous Ronan (Lee Pace), he assembles a gaggle of misfits—green alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a genetically engineered talking raccoon by the name of Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a talking tree-like humanoid, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and Drax the Destroyer, a giant vengeance-seeking warrior played by Dave Bautista—to retrieve it. And Pratt is at once macho, charming, and droll; a Han Solo for the Facebook generation.
Pratt’s journey, meanwhile, began in Lake Stevens, Washington. He was the star of the high school wrestling team, and after graduating in 1997, worked a series of odd jobs. He took orders at The Viking Drive-In, read numbers at the local bingo hall, did construction, mowed lawns, worked door-to-door selling blackberries—not the phones, the fruit—and then later, coupons, worked the overnight shift as a janitor at a distribution company, and painted murals on people’s walls. He even moonlighted briefly as a stripper, performing three gigs and raking in about $40 a pop. After rattling off the list of jobs, Pratt begins singing the lyrics to Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” in falsetto: I’m a sur-vi-vor, I’m not gon’ give up…
Then, while he was waiting tables at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company restaurant in Maui, Hawaii, he was discovered by Rae Dawn Chong—the daughter of legendary stoner/activist Tommy Chong—who cast him as the lead in her 2000 comedy/horror short Cursed Part 3.
“She was just a guardian angel, man,” he says. “It was a mutually beneficial situation—she was four days away from production and needed an actor, and I needed somebody to be willing to open the door for me. My world changed in a major way.”
After that came supporting roles on the WB series Everwood, followed by a memorable nine-episode arc as a college hippie on the taste-making Fox show The O.C.
“The kids were checked out,” Pratt says of The O.C.’s four young leads. “It was a huge smash success and I don’t know where it started, but there was a bad attitude that seemed to get contagious on that show. I was brought in for the fourth season and had just gone through that on Everwood where a couple of people were ready for the show to end—but I certainly wasn’t—and I saw the fault in that.”
Supporting roles in films like Wanted and Jennifer’s Body followed, but serious filmmakers took notice when Pratt dropped 30 pounds to portray Oakland A’s first basemen Scott Hatteberg in Moneyball opposite Brad Pitt and Philip Seymour Hoffman. It was Pratt’s first big dramatic turn, and he did a commendable job as a father and thirtysomething ballplayer who’s determined to prove his critics wrong. Parts in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and Spike Jonze’s Her came next.
But with his first big leading role in Guardians of the Galaxy, Pratt is poised to become an outright star. He’s currently filming Jurassic World, the blockbuster sequel to 2001’s Jurassic Park III. Pratt will be playing the lead role of Owen, a member of the on-site staff at Jurassic World, a theme park on Isla Nubar featuring real-life dinosaurs. The shit, naturally, hits the fan. He’s also rumored to be in the running for the lead in Knight Rider, a film adaptation of the celebrated ’80s TV series.
“Nothing is official about it,” says Pratt. “I loved Knight Rider growing up, and it sounds super funny, but I don’t think it’s a thing. I’m being vague because I know someone is making it and I’d like to be considered for it.” But for now, he’ll bask in the glow of Guardians. Pratt, like so many Marvel stars, reportedly signed a multi-picture deal with the studio to appear in various sequels and crossovers.
“It’s the perfect role best suited to my talents, and it happened right when it was supposed to,” he says. “It makes me believe a lot in destiny.”