“Top Gun: Maverick” director Joseph Kosinski once again had a plane in the air, only this time Chris Hemsworth was at the wheel.
They were filming “Spiderhead,” a sci-fi prison thriller based on a story by George Saunders, along the coast of Australia. The film is set almost entirely in a remote concrete fortress jutting out over the sea, but begins with the arrival of a seaplane piloted by Hemsworth with Kosinski lying in the back. The slow-moving propeller engine plan was a far cry from Kosinski’s blockbuster F-18 jets.
“Initially it was going to be the plane that Tom Cruise did his job on,” jokes Hemsworth.
“Spiderhead,” which opens Friday on Netflix, is in many ways the opposite of “Top Gun: Maverick.” It’s a talking indoor movie made during the pandemic that will be broadcast in homes, not on IMAX screens. But chief among its extravagant pleasures is Hemsworth’s lead performance as the presiding investigator as a benevolent, yacht-rocking, 1980s tyrant at the Spiderhead Penitentiary and Research Facility, gleefully conducting experiments in which he drugs prisoners to chemically increase or decrease their moods, appetites, and verbal acuity.
For an actor who has only occasionally displayed his comedic ability (hosting “Saturday Night Live,” as the secretary in “Ghostbusters”), Hemsworth’s deft balancing act in “Spiderhead” shows a range far beyond the MCU. Hemsworth, who recently began filming George Miller’s “Furiosa,” returns as Thor again in “Thor: Love and Thunder” next month, a franchise that has gradually relaxed to accommodate its star’s comedic agility. And there are more action movies (“Extraction 2”) on the way.
But without a fight scene or special effect, “Spiderhead” can convey Hemsworth’s powers better than anything before.
“This was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had,” Hemsworth said in a recent video conference interview from Australia. “Normally, these movies, you drag them out for three or four months. In this case, because of my schedule, because of COVID restrictions and whatnot, it was compressed into a four week period. Initially, we didn’t think it was possible.”
Pandemic factors aside, “Spiderhead” is exceptionally unlikely considering its source material. Few have ever read a Saunders story and thought she would translate perfectly into film. But screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick developed the auteur’s 2010 story “Escape From Spiderhead,” a ridiculous but poignant first-person account of a prisoner (played by Miles Teller in the film) who undergoes laboratory tests. They greatly expanded the role played by Hemsworth, Dr. Steve Abnesti, who enthusiastically runs the facility with few rules and mysterious intentions. He’s kind of the best Bond villain you’ve ever met.
Kosinski sent the script to Hemsworth in the hope that he would respond to the role.
“In his performances, I always saw glimpses of a wide range of availability that is perhaps sometimes masked by action movies and his leading man looks,” says Kosinski.
“There’s a precision to his physicality that really lends itself to this role,” adds the director. “He also has this ability that I’ve seen in Tom (Cruise), to really understand the frame and the lens and where to be in it. That’s something that not everyone has. He’s really aware of the medium and how to use it effectively.”
In “Spiderhead,” Hemsworth uses the exactness and charisma he normally relies on in more conventional performances of a lead actor to darker, more manipulative ends.
“There was a kind of nervous energy underneath, bubbling up, even in the quietest moments,” says Hemsworth. “I was trying to tap into that feeling when you’re about to break down and you laugh or cry, but you’re right on the tightrope. Whatever that feeling is, I wanted the character to be in it and hopefully give a sense of: What path is he going to take next? What will be the next reaction?
“Spiderhead” was largely shot in sequence on a soundstage, and Hemsworth seems visibly liberated by the production’s lack of constraints (costume or otherwise).
“I’m very grateful for the movies I’ve played, but they didn’t give me the scope or opportunity to explore in this way,” says Hemsworth.
Hemsworth, 38, relied in part on CEOs and technocrats who exude a hyper-intelligent, obsessive approach but who might, in their certainty of technology’s potential, lack empathy. Still, the character’s high-functioning narcissism isn’t completely alien to Hemsworth, either.
“There was a cheekiness to the character that reminded me of myself in school, letting my thoughts get ahead of each other, not really caring about what I’m doing or what I’m saying,” he says. “That enthusiasm and excitement are my most inventive and creative. Catch me one day when I’m exhausted and not in that space, then that’s not the character. But that part of me that wanted to be prominent.”
“Spiderhead” comes amid major box office hits for both its director and star, hot on the heels of “Top Gun: Maverick,” a movie that has been the savior of theaters, and the apex of “Thor: Love and Thunder.” . Both are likely to rank among the biggest ticket sellers of the year. Kosinski, speaking as “Maverick’s” grosses continued to rise, is still thinking about the film’s success and, as he puts it, “how many people are responding to a movie that was shot in a very traditional way, live.” action, on camera.”
“This is the kind of movie I grew up with,” says Kosinski.
But for both Hemsworth and Kosinski, the variance between projects and the ability to go out and make a bizarre, hard-to-describe sci-fi movie for a mass audience is part of “Spiderhead’s” particular charm. Last week, Kosinski prepped his next project, a Formula One racing movie starring Brad Pitt and Apple TV+, with plans for a wide exclusive theatrical release before broadcast.
“It is a very interesting hybrid. It sort of encompasses these two movies that I just did,” says Kosinski. “Everyone is trying to figure out: What does the future of cinema look like? We thought this was an interesting model to test.”
For Hemsworth, whose “Extraction” ranks as one of Netflix’s most-watched movies, “Spiderhead” was a departure that only buoyed him when it was realigned to bigger movies.
“Both serve the other,” says Hemsworth. “Every time I venture out and do something different and then go back to, say, Thor, I find I have a different appreciation for the character and a different opinion of him as well.”
Follow AP film writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP