Chris Hemsworth calls ‘Extraction’ the ‘most exhausting’ shoot of his career

April 23, 2020, 8:00 PM UTC

Extraction reunites Chris Hemsworth with two of his close Marvel collaborators, but the high-stakes, higher-octane action-thriller—streaming on Netflix this Friday—won’t be easily mistaken for a Thor follow-up.

In the Sam Hargrave–directed film, Hemsworth plays soldier-turned-mercenary Tyler Rake, a lethal weapon of a man who’s been psychologically blunted since a past tragedy. With nothing left to lose, he accepts a suicide mission to rescue a kidnapped boy (Rudhraksh Jaiswal), the son of an imprisoned crime boss, from the drug lord holding him captive in Bangladesh. But even as Rake wages a one-man war against a criminal underworld’s worth of corrupt cops and killers, he senses that getting the boy out alive may be his last shot at redemption.

Between its haunted protagonist and a triple-digit body count (not to mention a distinct lack of capes), Extraction finds Hemsworth operating in a grittier, more grounded vein, alongside longtime Marvel stunt coordinator Hargrave and Avengers: Endgame director Joe Russo (who wrote the script and produced). Dirt-caked, blood-soaked, and punishingly intense, it’s a particularly far cry from the sprawling, CGI-enabled spectacle of later, larger Avengers movies.

For Hemsworth, part of Extraction’s original appeal was to bring him back down to human size after years of playing a nigh invincible superhero on-screen, demanding a grueling physicality that more special effects–driven pictures had not.

“I didn’t want to just do a straight-up action film,” Hemsworth tells Fortune, speaking alongside Hargrave via a joint Zoom call last week. “I wanted to do action unlike anything I’d ever done before, which this required. It was a level of complexity and exhaustion that was very new.”

The actor, 36, speaks from his native Australia, where he’s enjoying some unexpected downtime while quarantined at home with his wife and three children. “It’s been a busy last 10 years for me,” he says, chuckling slightly at his own understatement. “To be able to stay in one place and have some quality family time has been extremely positive.”

Hemsworth as Tyler Rake in “Extraction,” which lands on Netflix April 24.
Jasin Boland—via Netflix

Particularly after Extraction, one can’t fault him for taking it easy. Though Hargrave has described it as “an art-house action film,” rooted in character as much as carnage, Extraction hits its marks harder than any other genre exercise you’re likely to see this year, owing in part to the director’s background in stunt work.

From its opening cliff dive to an extended shootout on a bridge that gives Extraction its heart-in-mouth finale, the film is a kinetic blur of action overload, inclined toward long takes and minimal editing. “The way Sam shoots, [we had] continuous shots where we were unable to cut to another angle or camera,” says Hemsworth. “If there was a mistake, we had to do it all again. That was incredible.”

From an action standpoint, Extraction’s pièce de résistance comes in the form of a bravura, nearly 12-minute “oner”—a series of long shots subtly stitched together so as to appear seamless—at the film’s halfway mark. As Rake struggles to escape heavily armed pursuers in Dhaka, he and the boy flee—first by car, then on foot—down densely crowded city roads, gradually battling up to the roof of one apartment building, then leaping to another, before making their way back down to street level. Throughout this sequence—as their escape vehicle charges under bridges, as masked mercenaries kick down doors, and as Rake lays waste to scores of opponents using every weapon at his disposal—the camera fastidiously tracks Rake, even following him after he jumps off a building. Think Birdman, with biceps.

“Sam’s there, holding the camera, strapped to the front of a car, rolling down stairs, or jumping off buildings with us,” explains Hemsworth. “That has a unique quality I haven’t seen on-screen before.”

On set, Hargrave would often rely on his extensive training as a stunt performer to execute camera stunts he wouldn’t have felt comfortable putting others at risk to pull off. But none of the stunts that audiences see in Extraction were extraneous. The director says his main focus was on plotting action that would authentically heighten his film’s drama.

“We’re not the first people to do long takes, but the point of it is to transport the audience in real time through this interaction,” explains Hargrave, speaking from Los Angeles. “You’re seeing the decision-making, the struggles that happen moment to moment, and you’re seeing Chris react in real time to the situation.”

Later, he adds: “As crazy and fun as these action set pieces could be, we wanted to make sure we weren’t losing the story or character. You always have to have action driven by or moving forward the story and character. That was of high importance to us throughout the process.”

Hargrave (left), on set with Hemsworth, relies on his own stunt training when directing.
Jasin Boland—via Netflix

Before Hargrave, there was certainly Hollywood precedent for stunt coordinators vaulting above the line into the director’s chair. Just look at the John Wick franchise, now held up as a watershed moment for American action cinema; the first film’s directors, David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, had previously choreographed fight sequences and pulled off difficult stunts on everything from 300 to Captain America: Civil War.

For filmmakers less versed in action, shooting fight scenes can prove tricky and time-consuming; in one interview, Stahelski called it an exercise in “hiding imperfections” for those who don’t know the terrain. Circa 2014, what stood out most in John Wick—and certainly across its increasingly ambitious sequels (helmed solely by Stahelski)—was the clean and balletic fight choreography, bullets and fists flying with rhythm and purpose, every movement perfectly timed and placed. To audiences overly accustomed to shaky, frenetically edited action, John Wick’s visual elegance—especially paired with its dazzling, neon-hued cinematography—proved enthralling.

With Extraction, Hargrave hoped to similarly harness his background in stunt coordination to deliver a superior class of action movie. He has previously collaborated with Stahelski and Leitch, frequently through their 87eleven action design company, and spent years honing his craft on the sets of Marvel movies. After first starting out as Chris Evans’s stunt double in The Avengers and two Captain America sequels, The Winter Soldier and Civil War, Hargrave rose through the ranks at Marvel, beginning to design stunts himself and taking on a senior leadership position by the time filming commenced in 2017 on Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, both of which he directed some second-unit for.

Russo adapted Extraction, previously known under the name Dhaka, from his own graphic novel, Ciudad, coauthored with comic-book scribe Ande Parks a decade ago. At that point, it had been set in Paraguay, but a subsequent draft shifted the setting to Bangladesh. Hargrave first read the script back when Stahelski was primed to direct it, but he was approached by Russo years later, as cameras rolled on Infinity War.

In his work on the Marvel movies, Hargrave had earned a reputation for always grasping why a certain action beat was happening, in addition to knowing exactly how to execute it. “Even just off-set and in between setup, just talking to Sam, I got to understand him as a really intelligent individual with a real sensitivity to story,” says Hemsworth. “It’s a real fascination with Sam, to dig into any topic. That, when making a film, is so essential.”

“You’re seeing the decision-making, the struggles that happen moment to moment, and you’re seeing Chris react in real time to the situation,” says Hargrave of the action in “Extraction.”
Jasin Boland—via Netflix

For his part, Hargrave felt confident he could make the jump to directing. “I’ve been very fortunate to come up under some great mentors, like Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, as well as [Joe and Anthony Russo],” he says. “It’s always been hammered home how important it is to have character-driven action, and never just action for the sake of action.”

In fact, Hargrave says, he was so focused on isolating the emotional truth of Extraction that his star sometimes had to gently guide him back to the stunts. “I was so excited about the new challenge of directing actors on this massive scale, during dramatic scenes,” admits Hargrave. “And Chris said, ‘Don’t forget why you’re here. Action is your background, so let’s remember that, through all these action sequences, that’s where we can infuse the story and keep the momentum going, so the dramatic sequences then have more weight.’”

Hemsworth interjects to explain further: “I’d worked with [directors] before who’d come from different backgrounds—visual effects, editing, writing—and I felt like there was always an attempt to say, ‘I know I can do that, so I need to prove these other elements.’ And that was the discussion, because we wanted to make sure we were focusing on those elements while making sure we filled it with the most insane action that no one else on the planet could do except him.”

Shooting on location across India and Thailand helped everyone acclimate to Extraction’s authentic aesthetic. “So often, in action scenes, it’s a green screen,” says Hemsworth. “You’re having to imagine everything going on around you, someone has a big fan for the wind, and so on. The vast majority of your imagination goes, ‘Eh, you know, I’m phoning this in, because this is fake.’”

Across Extraction’s three-month shoot, as temperatures soared and Hemsworth pushed himself to complete the most ambitious stunts of his career, failure of imagination didn’t exactly pose a problem. “We were running and fighting in 45 degrees Celsius,” recalls the actor. “The exhaustion you talk about was as honest and real as I’ve ever felt. It was the most exhausting shoot I’ve ever done.”

Hemsworth and Hargrave had worked closely together for years on Marvel productions, and they’ve developed an easy camaraderie that’s palpable even across the estranged gallery view of a continent-spanning Zoom call.

“We were both babies, just cutting our teeth on these characters at that point in the Marvel universe, me from the stunt side and him from the action side,” reflects Hargrave on when the pair first connected, back in 2011. “We hit it off [filming The Avengers] and then came back together on Infinity War and Endgame; and seeing the growth in him in that time period as a person and an actor was just amazing.”

Even in the relatively bloodless, family-friendly arena of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Hemsworth’s Thor had a tougher time of it than most. Across his own trilogy and four Avengers outings (almost a decade of Hemsworth’s life), the God of Thunder saw both his parents die, witnessed the long-prophesied destruction of his home-world, and shortly thereafter failed to stop big bad Thanos from wiping out half his people, a close ally, and his brother—this followed a few days later by half of all life in the universe, after Thor’s botched effort to kill the megalomaniacal titan.

Hemsworth’s growth as an actor “was very clear upon seeing his handling of the character of this new Thor, as introduced in Thor: Ragnarok,” says Hargrave. “There was a vulnerability and a dark humor he brought that was very much in the DNA of Tyler Rake.”

That Hargrave and Hemsworth have become friends, sharing among other interests a no-nonsense approach to film production, only elevated their collaboration on Extraction. “He’s just a great human being,” says Hargrave. “You spend so much time on a film set with these people, 15 hours a day plus rehearsals, so such a big part of it for me is that you need to surround yourself with positive people with a good outlook on the world.”

Adds Hemsworth: “You can chew up so much real estate with people trying to lead and take the film in different directions, and I find sometimes the majority of the time gets wasted trying to realign everyone and have them go in the same direction. Everyone was excited about what we were making, and we were able to each day get there, get to work, shoot through 12- to 15-hour days, and do that for three months while still having a good time.”  

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