If you only know Pratt from Parks and Rec, you might think he's an odd choice to front two big-budget action sci-fi movies (three, if you count his role as Emmet Brickowski in The LEGO Movie). Not so long ago, he would have agreed. In fact, when he was first asked to meet about playing Peter Quill, he turned it down. ''I was probably scared,'' he says, ''and thought I was too fat to play a superhero.''
The teenage Pratt, on the other hand, would not have been surprised at all by his professional rise, which also includes a trio of Best Picture nominees over the past three years: 2011's Moneyball, 2012's Zero Dark Thirty, and last year's Her. ''My high school wrestling coach reminds me about this time I came into his office and he said, 'Chris, what do you want to do with yourself?''' Pratt says. ''I was like, 'I don't know, but I know I'll be famous and I know I'll make a s--- ton of money.' I had no idea how. I'd done nothing proactive. It was as dumb as someone saying, 'I'll probably be an astronaut. I'm sure I'll stumble into an astronaut suit and end up in space one day.'''
Pratt was raised in Lake Stevens, Wash., by blue-collar parents his mother still works at the Safeway grocery store; his father, who died last month, was a gold miner who then worked in construction. After high school, Pratt studied acting at a local community college for half a semester, then made a move you won't find in the Handbook for Ambitious Young Actors: He relocated to Hawaii and lived in a van. ''I had a friend who was like, 'Dude, you've got to come out here,''' Pratt says. ''We set up camp on the beach and lived the dream.'' He got a job at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., which suited his personality. ''I don't know if you've ever had a dining experience at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., but they love a gregarious waiter who will get in your face and sing you birthday songs and do trivia,'' he says. One day, the 19-year-old Pratt waited on actress Rae Dawn Chong (Commando) and decided to carpe the hell out of the diem. ''I was like, 'You're in the movies, right? I always wanted to be in the movies,''' he recalls. ''She said, 'You're cute. Do you act?' I was like, f--- it, 'Goddamn right I act! Put me in a movie!'''
Chong was prepping her directorial debut, a horror comedy called Cursed Part III that she shot in L.A., and gave Pratt a shot. ''He was a joy on set,'' she says. ''My movie sucked, but he was awesome.'' Although Cursed Part III was never released, Pratt had found his calling. ''The moment she told me she was bringing me to L.A., I knew,'' he says. ''I was like, 'This is what I'm going to do with the rest of my life.'''
TV networks seemed to agree. In 2002, Pratt, then 23, scored the part of high school jock Bright Abbott on the WB drama Everwood, and after that show's four-year run, he was cast on Fox's The O.C. as lefty activist Winchester ''Che'' Cook. ''It was the final season of The O.C. and the kids were checked out,'' he says.