The question was about goals: At this stage in his young and highly successful movie career, what is there that Chris Pratt still wants desperately to do?
The answers, which came as he smoked cigars on a Hollywood Hills patio, were part personal, part professional, and then, well, weird.
"I want to do a comedy," says Pratt, speaking during a 72-hour furlough in Los Angeles from filming in London. "I want to flex my muscles as a collaborator, so that I have more creative control."
The 37-year old actor, who mixes Midwestern good looks with the physique of a tight end, takes a puff of his cigar, a Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2. "I want to catch a world-record large-mouth bass—a 25-pounder. I'd love it if my son became a professional bass fisherman and I was his sponsor and we could go fishing together everyday. That would be awesome." Then Pratt turns on the comedic charm that has made him a star. "Oh, and I'd like to fight an animal in self-defense."
This answer catches the attention of his smoking companion James Gunn, the writer and director of Guardians of the Galaxy, which earned more than $770 million worldwide and made Pratt an A-lister. The sequel reaches theaters May 5, and it's expected to be one of the biggest moneymakers of the year. "I think an ostrich-human battle might be good," jokes Gunn. "And a badger would make a good match."
"A badger could definitely kill you," Pratt observes.
Gunn drops his voice to a comic sotto voce: "You can't just go waltzing into the ring against a badger. You've got to do your research."
Then the pair, who have turned an underdog entry in the Marvel Universe into an unexpectedly successful comic book movie franchise, burst out laughing. Which is business as usual for when the two get together, whether over cigars or while on the set of a movie. Despite the fact that Gunn initially resisted the idea of casting Pratt in the original Guardians of the Galaxy, which came out in 2014, the pair have become fast friends and enthusiastic collaborators.
"I remember that he saw a lot of people—and he wasn't interested in seeing Chris, who he thought of as just the funny guy on ‘Parks and Recreation,' " says Sean Gunn, James' brother and lifelong collaborator. "But when he heard Chris read, he knew within seconds that this was the guy....A lot of the comedy in these movies comes from James and Chris just trying to crack each other up. The cast in general has a nice, familial feel, but James and Chris set the tone. And they're both very funny."
Gunn still cannot quite believe his luck, as he and Pratt relax and smoke on a patio that offers a panoramic view of downtown Los Angeles and everything west to the Pacific Ocean. Gunn is puffing one of his favorites, a Trinidad Topes Edición Limitada 2016.
Gunn is 46, an emphatic sort with spiky reddish-brown hair and horn-rimmed glasses to match. "You're the greatest actor collaboration I've ever had," he says to Pratt. "You come in with ideas that I'm able to reshape. Then you take it and we toss it back and forth and work on it. Now, for this second film, I knew your voice—all your voices—and could hear them as I wrote the script."
Pratt offers Gunn praise of his own: "When you've got someone writing for your voice, it's like trying on clothes that were tailored for you."
Millions await the release of any film about Spider-Man, Captain America or the Avengers. But the Guardians of the Galaxy comic books were a fringe hit of the Marvel Universe, a cult favorite at best, and the movie had zero buzz. Beyond the Marvel label, there was little that would call attention to the first film: a minor comic book franchise, a little-known director with two (little-seen) films to his credit, and a leading man who was a featured player (and not the star) on a network sitcom. Sure, the cast list featured the names of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel—but they wouldn't actually be seen in the movie. Instead, they voiced digitally animated characters: a talking raccoon named Rocket (Cooper) and a sentient tree named Groot whose vocabulary was limited to the words "I am Groot" (Diesel). With a release date in August, often a summer dumping ground, it was anything but an obvious blockbuster.
Instead, the dark horse exploded out of the gate into the summer of 2014, taking in more than $330 million in the United States (making it the third biggest movie of the year) and $770 million in worldwide grosses. The film turned Gunn into a filmmaking force and made Pratt a known commodity. Coming a few months after the $469 million take for The Lego Movie (for which Pratt voiced the lead character), Guardians completely transformed Pratt's status. The following year he starred in the Jurassic Park reboot Jurassic World, and it reaped $1.67 billion worldwide-No. 4 all time. Pratt was now a seismic box-office force, which carried over to his 2016 roles in The Magnificent Seven and Passengers.
By the time he reunited with Gunn and castmates Cooper, Diesel, Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista to make Guardians Vol. 2, Pratt had become a full-fledged movie star.
"There was this moment when I was at a party and Barbra Streisand and Jim Carrey both came up to me to tell me they loved what I'd done," says Pratt. "Streisand asked me, ‘How does it feel? You're this year's big thing.' Jim Carrey told me the same thing. That was when those people stopped being my icons and became my peers."
"As we've gotten more money and more success, he's become this movie star simultaneously," Gunn says. "But he also made huge strides as an actor. Hopefully, he'll get more attention for that because he may be a star, but he's also an actor. There was a huge shift from the first film to the second, in terms of his knowledge of the craft. He was more confident and thoughtful."
Pratt wasn't seeking stardom so much as a steady paycheck as an actor when he arrived in California. A native of Virginia, Minnesota, who grew up in Washington State, he was a 20-year-old college drop-out, working in a restaurant in Hawaii. One day he waited on actress Rae Dawn Chong, who was directing a low-budget horror film. She cast him and brought him to Los Angeles and, within a couple of years, he had a featured role on the long-running TV series "Everwood," transitioning from that to a recurring part for a season of "The O.C."
"To me, success meant not having to have another job besides acting," Pratt says. "It meant having enough money to pay the bills and feed yourself and survive, really. A roof over your head, food on the table, gas in the car and the ability to create opportunities: If I was just a working actor without having to wait tables, I considered myself living the dream."
He was getting small movie roles and, on one, Take Me Home Tonight, he met his future wife, actress Anna Faris. After they married, he worked steadily, though he was still relatively unknown, while Faris' career took off. Before he landed the role in "Parks and Recreation," Pratt had worked himself up to a level where he was being considered for starring roles—as Jake Sully in Avatar and as the new James T. Kirk in the Star Trek reboot—but those roles went to other actors.
Nick Offerman, who costarred with Pratt in "Parks and Recreation," remembers meeting Pratt at a party a couple of years before the series.
"I knew his wife, who had a reputation for being smart and funny, and I was talking to her, when this Adonis sat down next to her," Offerman recalls. "And I thought, ‘Of course, this lovely young woman has got some big meathead for a boyfriend.' But Chris almost immediately established himself as hilarious, smart and a real sweetheart. These are not qualities you often see in people as physically attractive as Chris."
Pratt has a blend of boyish good looks and athleticism, quick wit, smart-aleck charm and small-town humility. His sunny good humor is reminiscent of the young Kevin Costner or Jeff Bridges; at other times, he brings to mind Harrison Ford. Pratt has been mentioned often (and, so far, without basis) as a contender to play younger versions of two of Ford's most iconic characters—Han Solo (a role that actually went to actor Alden Ehrenreich) and Indiana Jones.
His costars certainly admire him. "On a movie set, the star sets an atmosphere and I've never seen Chris in a bad mood," says Dave Bautista, the professional wrestler who plays Drax the Destroyer in the Guardian films. "He's aware of that; he knows there are going to be some long, uncomfortable days. That turned us into a family."
Pratt is a genuinely funny actor, after seven seasons playing the not-quite-bright Andy Dwyer weekly on "Parks and Recreation," a show loaded with comedic talent, including Amy Poehler, Rob Lowe, Aziz Ansari and Offerman. The character wasn't even supposed to survive the first season, but Pratt was so winning in the role that his character wound up as a regular for the show's seven seasons.
"Watching him refine his comic skills in the middle of that A-team of comedy talent was a true joy," Offerman says.
Back in those days, Pratt's weight tended to yo-yo. He'd let himself go for "Parks and Recreation," then shed weight and get in shape for movie roles, like Moneyball. When he had to sweat off pounds and bulk up to play a member of Seal Team 6 in Zero Dark Thirty he decided to keep the weight off for good.
"I've learned not to overestimate how deep the audience is—that, as an actor, a big part of it is looking as good as you can," Pratt says.
"There was a point in his early 30s where he looked more husky," Offerman notes. "But then he got into amazing shape. At one point, I looked at him and said, ‘You ought to be playing a superhero.' I have a pretty open man-crush on him."
Along with the look of a hero, Pratt also brings real emotional depth to his roles. While Guardians' Peter Quill is quick with a quip, Pratt can tap into obviously deep feelings in a moment of silence. Gunn is convinced that Pratt's access to those emotions and the Guardian films' willingness to reach for them is one the movies' greatest strengths.
"I want it to be deeper and more emotional," Gunn says. "We want to give people what they liked about the first one—and something more. The second film has to fulfill the promise of the first. You have to continue to give people the unexpected, to take them to new worlds they haven't imagined."
Adds Pratt, "It's that sweet spot where you give people what they want but not what they're expecting. Comedy, emotion and action form this triangle. And it's about bringing it to an even better level."
The original Guardians introduced audiences to Pratt's Peter Quill, a rakish half-Earthling space-scavenger who has christened himself Star-Lord. Quill was kidnapped and raised by a group of intergalactic pirates shortly after his mother's death when he was 12, and the first film's plot centered on Quill's search for something called an Infinity Stone, a source of cosmic power. By the end of the film, Star-Lord had banded with a group of his former competitors, aliens all, to save the universe from being destroyed.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 will pick up a few months later and will include Peter's search for his long-lost father. It will also delve into the backgrounds of the other members of the still-nascent Guardians of the Galaxy—Cooper's Rocket Raccoon, Diesel's Groot, Bautista as the blue-skinned Drax and Zoe Saldana as green-skinned Gamora—in their quest to protect the universe. And that's as much as Gunn, Pratt or Marvel will say.
There is one fact they've let out: Peter does find his father, and he's named Ego the Living Planet, a talking planet whose human form will be embodied by Kurt Russell. That casting choice was suggested to Gunn by Pratt, a long-time admirer of Russell's.
"I didn't know anything about it, really, so when I started talking to them, I had to see the first movie—and I really liked it," says Russell, who appeared on the cover of Cigar Aficionado in 2006. "It was an exciting opportunity to play a character I'd never done before—or will probably play again."
Pratt's Quill character reminds Russell of one of his own roles, as trucker Jack Burton, battling kung-fu ghosts in Big Trouble in Little China, John Carpenter's mid-1980s action-comedy. "Jack was a guy who thought he was on top of things when he wasn't really on top of things," Russell says. "I could feel some of those same things that James was drawing from for Chris."
Russell and Pratt connected over a shared love of the outdoors, including hunting and fishing. Russell chuckles at reports in the press that Pratt wants Russell to adopt him: "We had a good rapport—I could easily see Chris folding into our clan," Russell says. "I definitely could have had a boy like that."
Friends and collaborators today, Pratt and Gunn barely knew each other when they started the first film. They bonded over cigars during filming the original Guardians movie in London, getting together at least weekly to enjoy a cigar together.
"I found a shop in London, run by Ajay Patel, where I would go every Thursday night and smoke," Gunn says, talking about the Casa del Habano in Teddington, United Kingdom. "I met Ajay about 15 years ago; he's sort of the Cigar Whisperer. He can meet you for two seconds and tell you what cigar would be best for you. I felt like I'd reached some new cigar-smoker's nirvana. When you're making a movie, you're surrounded by film-industry people. This was a time where we could sit and smoke that would get us out of talking about the industry."
Gunn introduced Pratt to Patel: "I hung with Ajay and found these breakfast cigars, La Flor de Cano, that I just loved," Pratt says. "I started smoking them on the set."
Pratt laughs and gets a mischievous gleam: "The Brits are so polite. There I am, smoking these little cigars on the set and it is, in fact, illegal. But they were so reluctant to finally say, ‘I'm very sorry, but I'm afraid it's against the law.' And I said, ‘No, no, that's cool—just tell me when the cops come.' Hey, I show up on time, I know my stuff. It's like, my one diva thing."
Gunn chuckles: "I've worked with diva actors. He's no diva."
Their evenings together in London helped Pratt hone his taste for cigars, Cuban and non-Cuban. Pratt still enjoys the Flor de Canos, as well as Rocky Patel Vintage 1990. Pratt has a humidor at his Hollywood Hills home, and at a place he has in Washington State.
"I like a cigar I can smoke in the middle of the day," says Pratt, who is a former cigarette smoker. "I'm a little quantity over quality, I'm afraid. But I like that smoking a cigar takes so long. You light it and it's a social thing. We're smoking cigars, let's sit and talk. In a way, it's like fishing."
Still, Pratt is conscious of not smoking around his young son, Jack, 4: "My rule is I don't let my son smell it on me," he says. "So I only smoke when I'm on the set or after he goes to bed."
Gunn, a true aficionado, has a standing humidor at his office and a walk-in humidor at home: "His humidor is so huge and great," Pratt says admiringly.
"My go-to cigar over the years has been a Partagás D4—or a Lusitania, depending on how much time I have," Gunn says. "Aside from Ajay, I'm a bit of an autodidact about cigars. I started out with full-bodied cigars and very quickly that became all I smoked. But over time I found an appreciation for a blend of medium and lighter cigars.
"I smoke a cigar almost every night. I kick back and relax; I think that's a healthy thing. I have an active brain and this is a high-stress occupation. So I'm allowed to smoke a cigar, relax and do nothing for a little while each day. I have a smoking room at home with proper ventilation. I rarely smoke the same cigar two nights in a row. I try to strike a balance between Cubans and non-Cubans.
"I don't drink. I don't do drugs," says Gunn. "I hang out with the guys and smoke cigars."
Gunn, 46, has been making movies since he was a 12-year-old in his native St. Louis, says brother Sean, who plays one of the galactic pirates in the Guardians films and stands in for the digital character, Rocket Raccoon, during filming. "He made his first one in Super-8. I was always in them, usually killing someone—or getting killed."
After getting an MFA in writing at Columbia, Gunn went to work for schlock-horror purveyor Troma Films, creator of the Toxic Avenger films: "I was paid $150 to write a script and I got to make a movie. I learned every single practical thing there is to know about making a movie, including choreographing sex scenes. It gave me much more pragmatic approach than going to film school."
Says Sean Gunn, "My brother always had a great imagination for building worlds and a storyteller's eye. Everything in his life and career led him to direct Guardians. He's perfectly suited to that story and those characters. That's one of the reasons I was less nervous that the movie would be a success."
"For me, the important thing is the conversation with the culture," James Gunn says. "It doesn't need to be permanent. Everything we do is sand castles. So what can I create in the here-and-now that's interesting, that will affect people's lives in a positive way? Hopefully, people walk out of Guardians of the Galaxy loving someone a little more; I want to make the world a better place for an hour or two."
But making a better world comes with a price. Pratt, open and funny in conversation, with manners that would make a mother proud, has had to ratchet down his natural accessibility, because his visibility as a mass-market movie star makes it almost impossible to go out in public otherwise.
"It's tough sometimes, the amount of management you need to do on things you used to do spontaneously," Pratt says. "I miss that but, in a healthy way, I'm able to unpack it. What I really miss is sitting down and talking to strangers who don't know me, so we can discover each other. I'd say the majority of the people I meet have an idea about me before they meet me. There's something nice to being able to surprise somebody."
Gunn puts in, "I miss being able to go out to dinner with you. Do you remember that dinner in Atlanta [where they shot Vol. 2] where a woman came and sat down at our table? Neither of us knew her and we were having a conversation, but she just started having a conversation with you."
Pratt nods, noting, "Obviously, it's not as bad as having to worry about paying the bills. I've always been a pretty deferential, go-with-the-flow guy. But now I have to be economical with my time. If I go out and want to do normal things, I have to be comfortable disappointing people. So I just don't take pictures with people. Because that's not about enjoying the moment; it's about stealing the moment to brag about later. So I say, ‘Would you settle for a handshake?' And then they take the picture anyway."
Gunn is convinced that the new Guardians will be a turning point for Pratt: "He's very vulnerable in this film. The more vulnerable and real that Chris Pratt is in the film, the better it will be."
Pratt sees himself at a cusp. Having reached a commercial pinnacle, he understands that the next phase of his career offers more and better choices. It's also given him the financial freedom to take time off, instead of worrying about whether the next job might be the last, the actor's perpetual fear. He makes a point of using that freedom to focus on family and to give something back.
"I'm determined to take three or four months off each year so I can be home and just be present," he says. "The money thing gets rid of a lot of anxiety that's a lot of stress for a lot of people. But fans, success, accolades—what's really fulfilling is if I go to a Ronald McDonald House and spend some time there. I can give a kid 15 minutes when he's not thinking about the fact that he's terminally ill, or take a sibling aside and spend a few minutes with them and give them a bit of a distraction from what's going on in their family. Those are hard things to deal with. I walk out after that and I feel great. To me, that's what feels good about the fame and success. The rest of it feels just north of exciting."
Contributing editor Marshall Fine is critic-in-residence at The Picture House Regional Film Center in Pelham, N.Y.