Chris Pine was well aware of his action-hero options.
Accepting the lead role in "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" — the $60-million thriller that hits theaters Friday — the actor became the fourth man to portray novelist Tom Clancy's iconic CIA super-spy character over the course of a five-film franchise that has spanned nearly a quarter of a century and generated more than $787 million at the box office.
As such, Pine's performance could have paid implicit homage to those who came before him. He might have channeled the brisk efficiency of Alec Baldwin's submarine-bound Ryan in "The Hunt for Red October," Harrison Ford's reluctant (and frequently grimacing) hero in "Clear and Present Danger" and "Patriot Games," or Ben Affleck's rookie Langley dispatch from "The Sum of All Fears."
Instead, in "Shadow Recruit," the first film in the franchise not to be directly adapted from one of Clancy's potboiler novels, Pine seized on the character's academic pedigree and Wall Street earning potential — which he shelves to serve his country, enlisting in the Marine Corps after the 9/11 attacks — to conjure an altogether different kind of patriot-hero.
"He's an American capitalist who was getting his PhD at the London School of Economics and was probably going to make a fortune in the private sector," Pine noted. "In a moment, he chose to do away with all that and do something entirely different. That spoke to me."
And it reminded Pine of another American hero: "Look at Pat Tillman, who gave up a huge football contract — what many people would characterize as the American dream — to fight in Afghanistan after 9/11. I talked about him all the time."
Not just any Hollywood hunk would have done that kind of moral calculus in pursuit of portraying an international man of intrigue in a splashy action movie. Or would have bothered trying to update the psychological profile of American spy fiction's foremost Cold Warrior for a new generation raised on WikiLeaks and NSA spying revelations. But then, Pine is not just any Hollywood hunk.
Now, after inhabiting the iconic role of Captain Kirk in two blockbuster installments of J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" reboot, Pine, 33, is balancing two studio franchises. With furrowed brow, and exuding a kind of unbearable heaviness of being fundamentally at odds with his lot as a marquee movie star, he acknowledged the push-pull of his enviable status.
"I get tired of myself talking about how reluctant I am to take on roles like this," Pine said, seated in a roof-top pool cabana at a Beverly Hills hotel. "It must sound like, 'Boo-hoo, poor actor.' That being said, I never had any clarity about this path. By which I mean, I never wanted this, never strove for it consciously. So to be here sometimes feels like some kind of bizarre cosmic accident. Like, where? Why? How?"
"Shadow Recruit" provides a kind of creation myth for the character, detailing Ryan's conscription as a CIA analyst-turned-operative (under the tutelage of a veteran agency handler, played by Kevin Costner) leading up to the first major test of Ryan's mettle. After uncovering evidence of an impending terrorist attack, the agent travels to Moscow, where he must face off against a mysterious Russian oligarch (Kenneth Branagh) with plans to cripple the American economy.
Branagh, the Irish-born filmmaker-actor whose resume is littered with adaptations of Shakespeare plays in which he has both performed and directed, also directed "Shadow Recruit." And the multiple-Oscar nominee says refocusing the franchise around his leading man was a priority.
"In the classical world, I never do 'Hamlet' unless I have the Hamlet. The personality of the actor is so key," Branagh said. "I did this because I wanted to build Jack Ryan around Chris Pine. To reinvigorate the whole thing, you needed somebody who was going to feel ownership of the role."
Not that Pine made it easy for him. By his own admission, the actor had "argument upon argument upon discussion upon conversation upon debate" with Branagh, trying to find the "center point" of his character, who is dismissively described in "Clear and Present Danger" as a "boy scout."
Specifically, Pine got hung up on a plot point where Ryan withholds the fact that he's a CIA agent from his fiancee, played by Keira Knightley.
" 'I couldn't tell you I was in the CIA because I gave a man my word' — I told Ken so many times, 'Doesn't that sound dumb?'" recalled Pine, who tends to avoid viewing the world in terms of absolutes. "If you were in the CIA, you'd be like, 'Listen babe, I'm not coming home because I'm an analyst.' And he said, 'That's the great thing about Jack Ryan.' This old-fashioned Norman Rockwell quality, this integrity. He's just such a good guy!"
To hear it from Mace Neufeld, the 85-year-old producer behind all the Jack Ryan movies dating to 1990's "Hunt for Red October," Pine's casting was something of a no-brainer.
"He's about the right age and he's an extremely attractive young man," Neufeld said. "I saw him in 'Star Trek' and was extremely blown away. Then I happened to see him on stage. I saw him do 'Farragut North' and then I saw him do a very bloody show called The Lieutenant of Inishmore,' which he did with an Irish brogue. Then I found out that his mother and father were working actors. I said, 'This is the guy. He knows how to act. And he's serious about acting.'"
Pine is a third-generation actor whose father famously portrayed Sgt. Getraer on the '70s TV police procedural "CHiPs"; he grew up in Los Angeles, attending private school in the San Fernando Valley.
But even with all the institutional goodwill toward Pine — he earned a reported $4-million payday for "Shadow Recruit" with back-end profit participation built into his contract, which extends to at least two more sequels — the future of the franchise is far from certain. According to pre-release audience awareness surveys, "Shadow Recruit" is on track to earn a lackluster $20 million over its opening four days in theaters, coming in a distant second to "Ride Along," an urban comedy starring Ice Cube and Kevin Hart.
In Los Angeles these days to film the raunch comedy "Horrible Bosses 2," having recently wrapped a small part in director Rob Marshall's star-studded adaptation of the musical "Into the Woods" in London, and with a third "Star Trek" installment already in the works, however, Pine shows no sign of falling off the A-list anytime soon.
And in describing his secret agent character's hesitant conversion from introspection to action, the actor may as well have been talking about his self-acceptance as a movie star.
"His journey is coming to terms with the kind of fateful responsibility it is to serve on the front lines," Pine said. "He better get comfortable with it because that's where he is."