There's something about Chris Pine that says Hollywood hero.

Even the name: his short two-syllable moniker trips off the tongue. Today, he walks into a boardroom in a white T-shirt and brown leather jacket - a look Tom Cruise might have rocked back in his Top Gun days. He's got the impossibly white teeth, blue eyes that light up like crystals and a toned torso that virtually bulged out of his uniform in his two outings as Captain James T Kirk, in J.J Abrams' reboot of the Star Trek franchise.

Dubbed "Mr Square Jaw Saturday Night" by one critic, Pine slipped into the role that was made sacred by William Shatner in the Star Trek television series almost nonchalantly. In an era where Hollywood's leading men - such as Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale - are so often tortured souls, there's something refreshingly straight-forward about what the 33-year-old offers: old-fashioned movie star charisma. Perhaps it's no surprise that he's already rebooting another all-American hero, Jack Ryan.

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Author Tom Clancy's CIA analyst-turned-operative, Ryan made his debut in the 1984 novel The Hunt For Red October, which later became the first of four action films based on his adventures. Played in that movie by Alec Baldwin, Ryan reappeared in Patriot Games and Clear And Present Danger - played by Harrison Ford - before returning in 2002's The Sum Of All Fears, with Ben Affleck as the character in his earlier years. Arriving in the wake of 9/11, the film took $193 million, but didn't spark a new franchise in the way the studio hoped.

Now it's Pine's turn to take up the mantle in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Directed by Kenneth Branagh - who proved he's more than capable of handling big-budget spectacle, with Marvel superhero movie Thor - it's also the first Jack Ryan movie not to come directly from a Clancy novel. "It's about the birth of the character," Pine says, noting that the story sees how the rookie Ryan reluctantly goes out into the field for the first time, after stumbling across a terrorist plot against the global economy.

"I've always loved the spy genre," he says. "One of my favourite authors right now is Daniel Silva, who writes this great spy series." Pine may never get to play Silva's hero Gabriel Allon, an Israeli art restorer cum assassin, but it's no surprise he jumped at the chance to play Ryan. "It was right after [shooting 2013's] Star Trek: Into Darkness, and it was an exciting time. I had Star Trek and I was blown away that I was offered this, and just jumped in - not having a script and not knowing anything about it."

You have to admire his chutzpah, from boldly going where Shatner went before to stepping into a role vacated by such alpha-males as Baldwin, Ford and Affleck. How has he coped with the pressure? He answers without blinking. "I think I can't be Harrison Ford, I can't be Alec Baldwin, I can't be Ben Affleck. I can't be William Shatner. I can only do my thing." Needless to say, he's in full admiration of those who went before him. "I've always loved Harrison Ford. And I love Alec Baldwin."

He got to work with the latter, briefly, on the animated 2012 children's film Rise Of The Guardians - in which he voiced the character of Jack Frost. So did he talk to Baldwin about taking on the role? "Yeah, I talked to Alec. We ran into each other in New York, doing voiceover. He just grabbed me and said [in a Baldwin-like gruff voice]: 'Do it! Do it!'" (In a curious irony, Affleck got the call that he'd be playing Ryan in The Sum Of All Fears when he was shooting a scene in Pearl Harbor with Baldwin, who also gave him his blessing.)

While he brought a bruising, glint-in-the-eye quality to Kirk, is Pine planning the same for Jack Ryan? He shakes his head. "There is to Kirk a certain showboat-iness. Jack is a different species. He likes to be alone and he's way more comfortable in his mind. From Kirk to Jack, what I enjoy is that as much as they follow the classic hero journey that all these films do - the hero who doesn't want to be a hero - Jack does it in a different way. He has to be pushed, forced, thrown into it. As much as he enjoys the challenge, it is not his comfort zone."

Ask Pine why he's playing yet another origin story, after plotting Kirk's early years in Star Trek, and he takes umbrage. "What's so special? You'd have to ask the executives who want to make these movies. What do I like in particular? It's a difficult question. I'm an actor that likes to work, and the jobs I've been offered have been these things that have been done before. It's not like I have a plan of attack with the people around me about only doing origin stories."

If Pine is playing the hero, it'll be rough around the edges - not quite the clean-cut chaps that Kevin Costner (who here plays Ryan's CIA mentor) played in his heyday. For Branagh, Pine is perfect in this way. "It goes back to someone like Paul Newman," he says. "The character actor in the leading man's body - Chris has that." While that might be generous - Pine isn't quite a character actor in the way as, say, Steve Buscemi - he's still young. There's time yet for those rugged features to get dirtied up.

Whatever his future, his past pointed directly to a life on screen. "My folks were in the business," he says, casually, and how. A third-generation actor, until he started performing in college Pine was the only one in his family who didn't act. His grandmother, Anne Gwynne, was a B-movie scream queen and Second World War pin-up girl. His grandfather Max Gilford was an entertainment lawyer. His mother Gwynne Gilford also acted, before becoming a therapist, while older sister Katie also had a brief spell on screen.

As for his father, Robert, the only other member of the clan still acting, he's a journeyman actor with more than 40 years of screen experience and hundreds of credits to his name. Most famously, he played the police chief in CHiPs, the popular eighties show about two motorcycle patrolmen. Occasionally, Pine's mother would guest star on the show - playing the wife of his father's character - which oddly led to Pine's screen debut of sorts. She once appeared when she was eight months pregnant with Pine.

Raised in North Hollywood, while he went to a progressive private school where the likes of Denzel Washington and Samuel L Jackson sent their children, Pine didn't immediately veer towards acting. "I wanted to be a garbage truck driver until I was about six," he smiles. "I think because I was so close to it, I never thought about it, and it was not a romantic thing. I never thought I would be sitting here talking about the movies I've done."

The way he sees it, for most working in Hollywood, it's just a job with a pay cheque at the end of the week, like anything else. "It's like a steel mill town … people work at it, go to auditions, and they have good days and bad days like anyone else." Still, theirs was an existence that might seem exotic to most; his family were friends with Henry Winkler's family, which meant regular trips to the Fonz's house. Not that Pine tries to come over all cool. "I was a gawky little boy."

It wasn't until he reached high school that he turned towards acting, after an English teacher put him in a production of Waiting For Godot. He carried on when he went to college to read literature at the University of California at Berkeley, though he was also harbouring dreams of becoming an athletics star before he started hanging out with the theatre kids.

Fortunately he had the support of his mother and father, both less concerned about the ups and downs of the acting profession than parents outside the business might be. Not that they didn't worry a little. Pine smiles when he remembers his mother coming to see his first college play. "I saw her backstage and she looked at me and she was like: 'Are you sure you don't want to be a lawyer?'" After spending two summers at a theatre festival in Massachusetts, his mind was made up. He started auditioning for pilots, while working in a French bistro to make ends meet. "I hated it," he reflects. "I don't like serving. I don't like getting people ketchup." But encouraged by a Vanity Fair article he read about Dustin Hoffman, Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman sharing an apartment in New York in the sixties, Pine decided to move to Manhattan, where a friend had offered him a bed for two months.

Set to leave Los Angeles, he'd given up his apartment - although his agent clearly hadn't given up on him. In the final fortnight before he was due to leave, he sent Pine on numerous auditions; by the end, he'd booked two TV guest spots and, more significantly, his first movie, 2004's The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, opposite Anne Hathaway. He was relieved, although early reviews weren't kind. "He's a Rob Lowe lookalike with the charisma of a David Hasselhoff," said one.

The next couple of years, the roles that came his way were hardly groundbreaking. He played a gay man in TV movie Surrender, Dorothy, alongside Diane Keaton (his first on-screen love scene was with a man). He was a neo-Nazi hitman in Joe Carnahan's Smokin' Aces and he got to see the car crash that is Lindsay Lohan close up, co-starring with her in the Manhattan rom-com Just My Luck (an experience he dubbed "a cyclone of insanity, like being around The Beatles").

In his mid-twenties, it was a dream time for Pine. Earning enough to pay his bills, he was young, handsome and successful - but not so much that he couldn't go to the grocery store. Temptations - maybe on account of seeing Lohan up close - just weren't that tempting. "Drugs were never interesting to me," he says. And the booze? "With drinking, you slowly learn how much you can handle."

As for the ladies, he once told Details magazine that he wanted to be a permanent bachelor like George Clooney - "a dumb quote" he regrets. There have been hook-ups with actors Audrina Partridge and Olivia Munn, and South African model Dominique Piek - but nothing long lasting. More recently, the gossip pages snapped him with swimsuit model Amanda Frances. But to his credit, he's kept his private life largely on the down-low.

It was in 2008 when he was hit by one of those life-changing moments. Set to take a supporting role as Clooney's partner in White Jazz, a long-gestating James Ellroy adaptation to be directed by Carnahan, JJ Abrams came along and offered him Star Trek. Rather than bite his hand off, Pine almost turned it down, so desperate was he to take the meaty Ellroy part. "I wasn't a fan of Star Trek," he says. "It didn't excite me."

For the sake of meeting Abrams (the brains behind Lost), he did so - and eventually relented when the role of Kirk was offered. The film was a smash, taking $385m around the globe, shifting Pine's career to warp speed. The late Tony Scott picked him to star alongside Washington for runaway train drama Unstoppable, while McG cast him in This Means War, a glossy, empty-headed romantic thriller in which he and Tom Hardy's BFF spies fight for Reese Witherspoon's affections.

Like everyone else, McG had seen him in Star Trek, but also in a post-Kirk stage production of Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant Of Inishmore, playing Irish terrorist Padraic. "He was very charming and wonderful as Kirk - those are some serious boots to fill," says the director. "But he was great [in Inishmore] and really had command, and had to channel an accent that was foreign to his American tongue." The Los Angeles Drama Critics certainly agreed, awarding Pine in the Lead Performance category.

Since making last year's Star Trek sequel, he's relaxed into the role of playing Kirk. "I love it. It's no hyperbole, but we have a great group," he says. "It's just a tight community of people to work for. I met Scarlett Johansson the other day, and we talked about her experience on The Avengers. It sounds similar. It's so nice on such a huge film that at least with the people you get to work with every day, you have a sense of family. It makes the time pass much easier."

Whether he will return to play Ryan remains to be seen. He's signed on for two more, but refuses to look into the Hollywood crystal ball. "You can only do so much planning ahead and then you drive yourself nuts," he says. "It's hard enough making one film, so I'm trying to paint a good enough picture of who this guy is - and hopefully if we do a good job we can take it further."

Not that he's resting on his laurels. He's already shot the fairy-tale spin Into The Woods - playing the Prince to Anna Kendrick's Cinderella. And, just to ensure he doesn't get pigeonholed, he's got two further films in the can: comedy sequel Horrible Bosses 2 (he's one of the titular men) and a reunion (finally) with Carnahan in action-thriller Stretch.

More intriguingly, he's signed on for Z For Zachariah, an adaptation of the 1974 sci-fi novel about a 16-year-old girl who survives a nuclear war.

If he wants to live up to Branagh's billing - the character actor in the leading man's body - he knows it's films like this that will help. For the moment, though, he can relax. He has the Hollywood studios at his feet, a bachelor lifestyle and a luxurious apartment in LA's Silverlake Hills.

"Life could be worse," he grins. "I'm not complaining." n

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (12a) is in cinemas now.