Shipwrecked and starving: Chris Hemsworth on In the Heart of the Sea

Hemsworth stars in Ron Howard’s adaptation of the true story that inspired Moby-Dick, a tale of disaster, cannibalism and survival in the South Pacific in the 19th century

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 November, 2015, 10:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 November, 2015, 10:00am

Most people have heard of Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby-Dick, the tale of a vengeful whale-boat captain’s search for the giant creature that sank his ship. But few know that Melville’s story, written in 1851, was based on the true story of a whaling ship, the Essex, that was sunk by a 26-metre sperm whale in the South Pacific in 1821.

The story, as written by the ship’s first mate Owen Chase, was well-known in the 19th century, but had been forgotten over the years. In 2000 Nathaniel Philbrick, a historian based on Nantucket, an island off the east coast of America that once served as the country’s whaling centre, authored a detailed account of the destruction of the Essex, using Chase’s work and a newly found manuscript written by Thomas Nickerson, the boat’s cabin boy.

That book, In the Heart of the Sea, has now been made into film, directed by Ron Howard and starring Chris Hemsworth, better known for playing Thor in the blockbuster Marvel movies, as Chase.

The film is relatively faithful to the main events in the historian’s account. But Howard, a director who’s comfortable making any kind of movie – Splash, Cocoon, Apollo 13 and Frost/Nixon are a few of works on his resumé – has voiced the film as an action film with drama, rather than a period piece. This, Howard says, was an attempt to avoid the stuffiness that often overwhelms period films.

In the Heart of the Sea spent 10 years in development, as it was difficult to work out how to compress the long and winding narrative into a traditional movie format. “It was when [scriptwriter] Charles Leavitt had the idea of using a meeting between Herman Melville and an ageing Thomas Nickerson, the Essex’s cabin boy, as a framing device, that it all started to come together,” says Philbrick, the historian.

This device, which is completely fictional, involves a young Melville questioning the survivor about his experiences on board the Essex; Melville then decides to use Nickerson’s tale as the basis for Moby-Dick.

Leavitt’s script made its way to Hemsworth, who showed it to Howard while the two were making the Formula One racing drama Rush.

“I fell in love with the script the first time I read it,” says Hemsworth. “It read more like a book than a script. I usually analyse scripts when I go through them, but this time I was so much into it, I just read it. It had a very pure feel to it, and that impressed me. At that time, I didn’t even know it was a true story, I just thought it was a great read.”

The potential for both action and drama made Hemsworth think that he could get the film made, he says: “It was epic and expansive. It was set in the past, but I realised that we could use today’s technology to make it more than a dusty period piece. I felt we could make a really stunning action-packed, adrenaline-driven drama. I remember thinking ‘Wow, this could be cool and different’.”

The subject of whaling proved an initial hurdle. Apart from in Japan and Norway, where whaling still continues as an industry, most audiences would be repulsed by the idea of killing whales. “I worried that this would be considered a pro-whaling picture,” says 32-year-old Hemsworth.

Although the filmmakers do not apologise for the brutality that is depicted, they do take great pains to set the whaling industry in the context of the early 19th century. One scene explains how whale oil was the primary fuel for lighting in America and Europe.

Philbrick also points to a scene that shows that the Nantucket whalers, who were Quakers, felt no responsibility to the animal kingdom – as God’s chosen species, they thought that mankind had been granted dominion over the earth, and could treat its inhabitants as they wished.

“We talked about this a lot – we discussed the reasons why we were making the film, and the best way to make it. We finally decided to try and capture a moment in history, and not hold anything back,” says Hemsworth. “We also decided to make the character of the whale a focus, and make the humans almost seem like villains at the start.”

Howard, Leavitt and Hemsworth also found a way to put whaling in the context of modern times: “We added the line about ripping the oil from under the earth at the end. What they were doing is barbaric to us, but we’re still wrecking the earth now, doing similar things in different ways,” says Hemsworth.

That would not seem to have been enough, as Howard also sets Chase on a redemptive path that he did not take in real life. When faced with an opportunity to kill the giant whale, the whaler holds back, seemingly experiencing a kind of eco-epiphany about the whale’s place in nature.

Hemsworth says that the fictionalised Chase’s experience gave the sailor “a respect for the earth and started a new philosophical journey for him”. In Chase’s account, he also held back – but only because the whale was too close to the rudder, and he was worried about the beast destroying it in its death throes.

The film also states that Chase gave up whaling and became a merchant seaman, but that is untrue – he remained a whaler, and years later, took command of the Charles Carrol, one of the biggest whaling ships ever built on Nantucket.

Some big-screen action scenes, including a murderous storm, propel the story along at a rate of knots, and there’s only pause for the explanatory conversations between Melville and the old Nickerson. Sailing ships were the hi-tech machinery of their times, and Howard’s depiction of the nifty technology behind the rigging and sails of the Essex is fascinating.

Hemsworth, an Australian who had surfed but never sailed, says he made of point of learning as much as he could about the art and craft of crewmanship. “I realised pretty soon that I couldn’t fake being a sailor, and I had to put the work in and observe closely how to do it,” he says.

“I spent some time in a ship in a water tank, and then I spent two months on a ship in the Canary Islands. That is where it all came together for me. But it was a constant updating of information, as some of the crew had been doing it for 30 or 40 years. There was a lot to learn.”

The tale focuses heavily on the physical endurance of the castaways who survived the sinking of the Essex, and Howard instituted a diet so that the actors could start out looking fit and healthy and end up looking starved. The scenes were shot in chronological order to accommodate this. By the end of the shoot, the diet consisted of boiled eggs and celery sticks. Hemsworth got his weight down to 80kg, light for a man who stands 190cm.

“Each week we reduced the amount of calories we were taking in. We were right down to 500 or 600 calories a day at the end of the film,” says Hemsworth, who’s now sporting his usual muscular physique. “I was getting skinnier and skinnier, and that made a natural bodily change that helped me play those scenes at the end. I felt exhausted and desperate, and everything slowed down. I became far more sensitive to trivial things. I can’t really recommend it.”

Enduring just a small sample of the deprivations the shipwrecked Chase suffered gave Hemsworth an important key to unlocking the character he was playing. He empathised with Chase’s desire to get back to see his family, and thought of his own wife, Elsa, and their three children.

“I thought of Chase being determined to do whatever he had to do to survive so he could get back home to Nantucket. I realised that if it was me, I’d have the same determination to get home to my family. That was an important part of me understanding what drove Chase to do the things that he did.”

In the Heart of the Sea opens on December 3