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November 06, 2010

So Captain Kirk was a lit nerd at Cal.

Chris Pine, all dreamy intensity and blue, blue eyes, certainly sounds the part while discussing the links between “Star Trek,” in which he starred last year, and “Unstoppable,” his new film with Denzel Washington and Rosario Dawson. ”

“The stories couldn’t be any more different and any more alike,” he says at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles. “The reluctant hero is a story that’s been told for ages and ages, and the reason why we always come back to it is we see reflected in the reluctant hero the worst and best parts of us. They’re faced with that great challenge and the question is: Are they going to take it on or not? Are they going to become the best versions of themselves or not?”

The heroism in question in director Tony Scott’s fifth collaboration with Washington involves a runaway train loaded with tons of hazardous chemicals. Pine’s Will Colson is a rookie conductor on his first day, bristling under the tutelage of three-decade veteran Frank Barnes (Washington) when the pending disaster becomes clear. Frank immediately decides to pursue the runaway with their engine. Will, carrying a freight train’s worth of his own issues, is not sold on the plan.

“Kirk is a selfish little (jerk) in the beginning of ‘Star Trek,’ and he ends up leading men into battle,” Pine says. “It’s a humongous arc from one version to the next, and he’s still growing because we have more films. Will is a selfish, angry, rageful (jerk) and he has to shed that and his foil is Frank, who lets him swing his arms like a tantrum to get it out and become the best version of himself. Those are very similar journeys.”

The Los Angeles native is increasingly becoming known for action roles – he’s signed to play Jack Ryan in that series’ reboot. His next project is the action-comedy “This Means War” with Reese Witherspoon and Tom Hardy.

“Unstoppable” co-star Dawson says people called Pine “Kirk” on the set of their movie. But he asserts with conviction that he was a serious student while pursuing his English degree at UC Berkeley. Perhaps too serious.

“I studied a lot. If I could do college over again, I would probably try to have more fun,” he says, quick to dispel the myth that he walked on to the Cal baseball team. “I played sports all my life, and in a pipe dream, I thought, ‘Yeah, it would be cool to play sports at Berkeley.’ I was a rail-thin, gangly kid; there was no way I was going to be playing sports there.”

He comes from a family of actors, among them his father Robert Pine (a very familiar face with more than 180 credits, including a run on “CHiPs”), and served as a production assistant on Roger Corman’s “Black Scorpion” in his teens.

“I gripped and I gaffed, I was all over the place,” he says. “I locked up sets when we were shooting on location, prevented people from walking into the set. I was awful at that because I was a really nice guy, saying, ‘Please don’t walk …’ People steamrolled right ahead and did whatever they wanted.”

It seems funny for Pine to describe himself as a gangly kid and really nice guy who got blown by, because if people were trying to walk on a set past Will or Captain Kirk …

“Correct. That’s the magic of filmmaking and the greatest part of being an actor and probably why I chose it: You get to be people that you’re not. I’m definitely more interested in those hard-headed, everyday courageous guys – in many ways I’m a more than privileged kid who’s not all that working class. I’ve been very blessed in my life,” he admits.

Will is very much working class, as is the world of the railroads. But it wasn’t the jargon or protocols that stayed with Pine among the things he learned about the job.

“The one thing that every person who worked in a train yard said is, they’ve pretty much all had an experience with death or near-death,” he says. “These are thousands of tons of metal hurtling down the track. Conductors and engineers see people killing themselves all the time: Putting themselves across the tracks, bums who’ve fallen asleep or people who screw up and try to get across the train crossing … it happens a lot. So much so that they have counselors help them get through it.

“It was a shock that seemingly such an innocuous job – you’re transporting grain or coal or cars – that you’d have to deal with that whole other thing that’s traumatic.”

The kid who did not walk on at Cal was blown away to be picked for this team, though, as Washington has said he recommended Pine for the part.

“I heard about that recently. Denzel’s a very gracious guy, keeps things close to his vest and there’s a reason he didn’t tell me, I guess. But it’s so flattering, I can’t even begin to describe it to you. It’s a huge honor,” says Pine, who quickly names as his favorite scene the verbal confrontation between Will and Frank after the rookie makes a major mistake.

“He calls me on my s- and I get really angry about it. I go off on him and he laughs me off, which pisses me off more. I’m all coiled. I can’t land a shot because I have no traction in the scene: I screwed up, period. That was a lot of fun, because that’s sparring with one of the masters, with Bruce Lee or whatever.” {sbox}

Unstoppable (PG-13) opens Friday at Bay Area theaters.

To see a trailer for “Unstoppable,” go to www.unstoppablemovie.com.
Chris Pine
Born: Aug. 26, 1980, Los Angeles

Why we care: He’s Captain Kirk. That “Star Trek” reboot by J.J. Abrams was so great that expectations for the sequel in 2012 are somewhere beyond the Delta Quadrant. He’s going to be the next Jack Ryan, following Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck into the Tom Clancy franchise.

Resume builders: Apart from blockbusters and the forthcoming “This Means War,” Pine has appeared in “Bottle Shock,” “Smokin’ Aces,” “Just My Luck” and “The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement.” He got his start on a 2003 episode of “E.R.”

Quotable: On picking up leads in storied franchises: “I don’t know why it’s happened this way, but it just seems to be my journey. … It’s given me great opportunities and the ability to travel and explore and learn. Life is good.”

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