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Journey to the Star-Lord: How Chris Pratt Became a Movie Star

August 2, 2014

Marvel has been known for surprises when it comes to casting its lead actors. There was the fallen ’80s idol (Robert Downey Jr.), the virtually unknown Australian (Chris Hemsworth), and the guy who’d already played another superhero (Chris Evans). But they all seem like safe choices compared to the decision to give the main role in this week’s Guardians Of the Galaxy to Chris Pratt.

The 35-year-old actor has won plenty of fans thanks to his TV work (most notably on Parks and Recreation), but has basically never led a movie before, let alone one of this size. As Guardians director James Gunn admitted on SiriusXM, when the idea of Pratt was first floated his reaction was, “The chubby guy from Parks and Rec?! That’s stupid!” But Pratt won Gunn over, and looks to be winning over plenty more too: He’s had stellar reviews for Guardians Of The Galaxy so far, and he’s still enjoying the afterglow from this year’s animated blockbuster The Lego Movie in which he voiced the hapless hero. With his lead role in next year’s Jurassic World, many are tipping him to be Hollywood’s next superstar. But how on earth (or even on Xandar) did he go from schlubby character actor to buff leading man? We took a look at his career so far for some clues.

The Early Years

Raised in Lake Stevens, Washington, Pratt dropped out of college a semester in, and after making a living as a coupon salesman and even a stripper, ended up happily homeless in Maui, sleeping in a tent on the beach. (“It’s a pretty awesome place to be homeless,” he told The Independent. “We just drank and smoked weed and worked minimal hours, just enough to cover gas, food, and fishing supplies.”) But when he served Commando star Rae Dawn Chong while working as a waiter in a branch of Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, she cast him in a short horror movie she was directing called Cursed Part 3, flying him to L.A. for filming.

TV Breakthrough

Pratt stayed in California, and within two years, had landed a regular TV gig on The WB’s teen soap Everwood, playing the older brother of Emily VanCamp’s character. It came to an end after four seasons, but Pratt didn’t skip a beat, joining the final season of The O.C. as a bohemian activist unimaginatively named Che. Both shows were inherently dramatic, but Pratt knew he had comedic instincts, tellling The AV Club “I always thought when I was doing more melodramatic stuff like Everwood that the directors were constantly reeling me in and stopping me from being funny.” His first few movie roles scratched that itch a little more: He appeared in Amy Sedaris’ Strangers With Candy (2005) and was Anne Hathaway’s fiancé in the rom-com Bride Wars (2009). In the same year as the latter, he also took his only lead role prior to Guardians, in the sex comedy Deep In The Valley, co-starring — of all people — Kim Kardashian.

The Parks and Recreation peak

Fortunately, TV rescued him from having to do anything like that again. In 2009, Pratt was featured in the cast of NBC’s new comedy Parks and Recreation playing Andy Dwyer, the deadbeat, Dave Matthews-loving boyfriend of Rashida Jones’ character. Like the show in general, Andy wasn’t yet fully formed in the first season. In fact, he wasn’t even meant to stick around: Co-creator Mike Schur revealed in an interview with the Star-Ledger that “we originally conceived of Andy as a character who would fade away after the first six or so, but Chris was so great we had to make him full-time.” As the show grew, so did Pratt’s performance, turning the character from useless slacker to an irrepressibly cheerful golden retriever of a man, with his unlikely romance with Aubrey Plaza’s April giving both characters additional depth. The show has never been a huge ratings hit, but clearly the right people were paying attention.

The Movies Wise Up To Him

Once Parks and Recreation hit its stride, Pratt became increasingly in-demand on the big screen. Not everything hit. Two collaborations in 2011 with wife Anna Faris, Take Me Home Tonight and What’s Your Number?, disappeared quickly. But he stole the show even in the flops: He’s particularly good as Jason Segel’s sidekick in the romantic comedy The Five-Year Engagement (2012). He also moved credibly back into drama, with a memorable turn as a washed-up baseball player discovered by Brad Pitt in Moneyball (2011), as a Navy SEAL in Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and as Joaquin Phoenix’s co-worker in Her (2013). All three were nominated for Best Picture in consecutive years. He told Movieline of his Moneyball experience” that “the whole process was really different. That excited me. The possibility of maybe being able to do more serious turns in respected films as well.”

Enter the Star-Lord

Pratt had gone up for big gigs in the past: He’d auditioned to play the leads in both Avatar and Star Trek, but lost out in both cases, so his hopes weren’t high when the idea of a Marvel movie came up. (“I get excited and I start imagining what it’s going to be like to be on set… and they’re like ‘Oh they went in a different direction’” he recently told the Huffington Post.) It didn’t help that he weighed nearly 300 pounds after bulking up for a role in Vince Vaughn comedy Delivery Man. Gunn, who reportedly considered actors including Joel Edgerton and Eddie Redmayne for the gig, initially resisted, but once Pratt auditioned, he knew he had his man — “within 20 seconds, I was like “That’s the guy! That’s who we’ve been looking for!,” he told Collider. Pratt spent months cultivating the washboard abs that are all over Guardians’ marketing campaign. Next year’s Jurassic World looks to complete a one-two punch that could make Pratt one of the biggest stars in the galaxy. 

Want to see Guardians of the Galaxy? Visit our Showtimes page to get tickets.