Taylor Kitsch’s previous best known work has been as the hard-living Tim Riggins on NBC’s much beloved – if under-seen – Friday Night Lights, and he got his major introduction to a wider audience as Gambit in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. But he’s going to be making a big impact in 2012 with two major action movies. Battleship, coming out this summer, will reunite Kitsch with Friday Night Lights creator Peter Berg. And he’ll be bringing Edgar Rice Burrough’s century-old science-fiction creation to life, playing the title role in John Carter.

Kitsch said that after taking on the role, he tried to immerse himself in the world Burrough’s created in his Barsoom series, which is the basis of the film. Carter, a veteran of the Confederate army, is transported to Mars, and has to take up arms in a conflict between the inhabitants of the planet. Kitsch said he wanted to try to bring some real emotional heft to the role.

“If that journey with Carter is not there emotionally, this movie is forgettable,” Kitsch explained. “It can be run of the mill, you know, with anything else. And with (Andrew) Stanton, that is priority number one…that beaten down guy, that cause is completely stripped from him in the beginning of the film. And that’s everything to me, so I latched on to the Civil War. I studied with historians at the University of Texas. I studied the Civil War and immersed myself with books and letters of Civil War soldiers. And it’s funny because you just got to – with prep, if it’s bang-bang or whatever, you’re prepping and prepping and immersing, and you don’t really know how it’s gonna affect it, truly. You can’t – there’s no measuring stick of like, ‘Yeah, I’m ready, or yeah, I’m emotionally attached now.’”

Kitsch said he was excited to take on the challenge of playing a lead after playing supporting parts in his previous film roles and on Friday Night Lights, saying he was hopeful that those who’d seen him in previous work would like to see him in a different light.

“I am comfortable with it. It’s really the character. It just comes down to me surrounding myself with great people, being better for it. I have no problem doing a one-two scene in a film as well. It’s just a matter of the work and being better for it at the end of the day. I mean if anyone knows me from FNL to Bang-Bang Club, I love that.”

Kitsch, who grew up playing hockey in British Columbia, Canada, and began his career as a model, said he embraced the physicality of the role, even if it meant the occasional injury on set. But, he added, he felt it was important to be more than just a pretty face or a good body.

“I think you got to look at any other actor, for the most part, from Brando to Dean to all these guys, you use it to your benefit. You just got to make sure that’s not all you got because you will not last. So I take more pride in the emotional scheme of John Carter than the aesthetic part of it, and I always will. And I wouldn’t sign up to that movie, or to John Carter if it didn’t have the heartbeat it had.”

Kitsch said he very much enjoyed being able to work with Stanton, who’s background had previously been entirely in animation, including his ability to bring in top-notch supporting actors like Willem Dafoe and Brian Cranston.

“(It’s) Story first, story second, story third, that’s everything to him. I mean that script is incredible. For all these lines – these lines that are thrown away at the beginning, and for them to come full circle like that, at the end, that twist and again, going back to that emotional toll. I think it says a lot when you can get these guys that can carry their own film in their own right, to sign up and come in and support the (film) – Brian Cranston coming in for a four-scener, Mark Strong coming in, Willem Dafoe playing this guy and Sam Morten –it says a lot to what he’s done and created, that all these people want to come and be a part of. It’s pretty great. I’m pretty lucky to go to work.”

John Carter opens in theaters on March 9, 2012.