Four years after he cast Kitsch on Friday Night Lights, Berg flew to the set of John Carter in London to pitch the actor the lead role in Battleship: a ne'er-do-well naval officer named Alex Hopper who's thrust into the middle of an alien invasion in the Pacific Ocean. The movie, of course, is based on the Hasbro board game, which means it has the kind of name recognition that Hollywood craves. It also means that audiences will need to suspend all disbelief, in true summer-movie fashion. ''It's absurd,'' Kitsch chuckles. ''Alex Hopper [goes] from being this drunk living on his brother's couch to saving the f---ing planet.''
Kitsch signed on to Battleship mostly to work with Berg again, but it was also the culmination of a careful strategy, starting with supporting roles in big-studio tentpoles (like Gambit in 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and lead roles in small indies (like real-life photojournalist Kevin Carter in 2011's The Bang Bang Club). He just didn't plan for his two biggest movies to date Battleship cost about $200 million to open right on top of each other. ''I guess we could think, 'Oh, no, all these movies within five months,''' says Kitsch's manager, Stephanie Simon. ''But he's so different in every movie at least people get to see how good he is in everything.''
Battleship has gotten some flak for looking like Transformers at Sea. But Universal knows there are worse things than being likened to a multibillion-dollar-grossing franchise. ''Both Transformers and Battleship are Hasbro properties it's understandable that people would compare them,'' says Universal Pictures chairman Adam Fogelson. ''I think the comparison is a compliment and benefit to the movie, not a detriment.'' Adds Kitsch: ''I think it's going to surprise a lot of people. I mean, if you can't go in there with an open mind to enjoy it, I don't know what to tell you. Go watch Schindler's List.''
Before Oliver Stone felt comfortable casting Kitsch in his adaptation of Don Winslow's 2010 crime novel, he asked Peter Berg to show him 30 minutes of Kitsch's work in Battleship. Stone's verdict? ''Taylor looked good,'' he says. ''Comfortable as a leading man. Obviously he's frontlining two big movies he's got more than enough experience right now. What intrigued me was his experience on the other side of the coin as well, which is absolute poverty.''
Kitsch plays Chon, a jaded Navy SEAL-turned-pot entrepreneur who takes on a Mexican drug cartel after they kidnap the girlfriend (Blake Lively) he shares with his business partner (Aaron Johnson). The actor loved that the film was modest in scale it cost less than $50 million as well as the fact that it told a gritty tale. ''My body's covered in scars and tattoos,'' Kitsch says with relish. ''I shadowed a Navy SEAL. I mean, this one kill I have in the movie is literally how the SEALs do it. It's an unapologetic film.''
Universal's recent decision to move the movie's release from fall to summer suggests they have real confidence in it. ''We saw Oliver's first cut of the film and were completely blown away,'' says Fogelson. Whatever becomes of John Carter and Battleship, Savages should prove to Hollywood that Kitsch is a damn fine actor, which neither of those effects-heavy films was ever likely to do. ''I was excited just to get back to something with no greenscreen in sight,'' he says. ''Yeah. I'm going to go that way now.''
And for how long? Who knows. The actor, who's currently building himself a house in Austin, seems intent on keeping audiences, and Hollywood, guessing. ''I just want people to enjoy the ride,'' he says. ''I've put everything I had into these films. I love f---ing taking these risks. I'm going to continue to do it if people keep allowing me to.''