By Duane Wells
When Aussie actor Sam Worthington enters a room, an almost palpable cloud of testosterone trails him. He is both every man and guy next door yet a heroic and action figure-like spirit also lurks behind his scruffy demeanour.
Dressed casually for our interview in a faded black T-shirt, black jeans and a worn black jacket, Sam is the antithesis of many in the current crop of well-coiffed Hollywood ‘It’ boys. From the absence of hair gel in his buzz cut, to his unfussy, basic, low-key apparel to his apparent shunning of any designer endorsed accessories Worthington is, for lack of a better comparison, as handsomely rugged and unadorned in person as the outback that serves as the clichéd backdrop of his birthplace.
Worthington streamed into the global consciousness this past summer in the role of Marcus Wright opposite Christian Bale in the big-budget action entry Terminator Salvation. His upcoming film is Avatar, the latest epic offering from Oscar-winning Titanic director James Cameron.
In the film, Sam plays the story’s hero, Jake Sully, an ex-marine confined to a wheel chair who discovers a new life as an avatar when he is recruited to join an expedition to the moon Pandora, where corporate interests are strip-mining for a mineral worth $20 million per kilogram on Earth.
“He’s a man who’s stuck between two worlds and that to me is Jake’s general journey and biggest dilemma,” Worthington says of his character. “He’s stuck between his loyalty to humanity here [on Pandora] and his loyalty to humanity as a whole.”
Asked if there were inherent challenges for him in the role of Sully, Sam admits that there were some but says that in the final analysis his answer to those challenges was to “keep it truthful” and to try to “keep the heart involved” in his portrayal.
“The greatest challenge is that you’ve got two different journeys,” the actor says.
“You’ve got the journey of Jake when he’s in his avatar mode [where] he’s got legs but they don’t work because he’s paralyzed from the waist down and his journey when he’s got his legs as an avatar. As an actor you’re playing a guy who infiltrates a clan, they test him and he has to prove his merit and his life is opening up and getting a bit more exciting. Then when he’s back in this sack of bones here [as a human,] his life is getting more depressing. So as an actor you’re playing two different sides of the same character and trying to balance them and trying not to make them clichéd and melodramatic, which sometimes can happen in big movies.”
Speaking of ‘big movies,’ director James Cameron is known not only for helming some of the biggest of all time (Titanic alone grossed a staggering $1.8 billion), but also for employing revolutionary technology in the making of those films. And Avatar is no different.
Shot in 3D and taking advantage of cinematic advancements that didn’t even exist when the film was conceived, Avatar pushes the envelope beyond anything that has been seen before in cinemas, which according to Sam provided him and his fellow actors with the opportunity to really show what they could do with their craft.
“I found it very liberating to be honest, because if acting is truth in imaginary circumstance, you have to get absolute truth in absolute imaginary circumstance,” Worthington says of his interaction with Avatar’s cutting-edge technology. “When you’re in the motion capture world…and you’re stuck in world where there’s nothing… the only real tangible thing to start with is the other actor and in acting I basically…need to get something from the other person. So it’s like a stage production. It’s just you and the other actor dealing with the complexities of the scene.”
Listening to Worthington talk these days, you’d think he had set his sights on the stage at an early age and had been honing his craft ever since, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In actuality however, Sam’s entry into the world of showbiz was rooted more in lust than in a hunger to be seen on the big screen.
“It came because of a girl as most actors can tell you,” Sam says with a chuckle in response to how he got his start as a thespian. “I was 19 and I met a girl who wanted to go the premiere drama school in Australia, where Mel Gibson, Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving went. She auditioned and I auditioned to cheer her along as you do out of moral support. I got up balldusted my way through it and they basically went ‘keep going…keep going’ and the auditions kept going and sooner or later they asked me if I’d like a position and if I’d like to spend three years there. So basically I got in and [my girlfriend] didn’t and that was about it. She dumped me a week later.”
Not only was there no grand plan in Worthington’s designs on a career in acting, he says such things weren’t even considered in the corner of Australia where he was raised.
“I was a bricklayer,” Sam says of his life before drama school. “Where I grew up, you barely had a movie house or video stores, let alone thought that you could have your head on a poster. It was a pipe dream, so you don’t even go there. Your dream is to get out of town and maybe work at a local power station. That’s your dream.”
Which is why when presented with the opportunity to do something outside the narrow range of possibility that he felt had been dictated to him from the day he was born, Sam says he jumped at it.
“It beat mixing cement. It beat digging a hole. I was young, dumb and full of it. During the audition I was thinking ‘Thank fuck, I don’t have to go to work today and damn there are some beautiful girls here apart from my own beautiful girlfriend,’” Worthington says with a conspiratorial laugh about the fateful decision that led him to where he sits today on the brink of superstardom.
Sam’s continued nonchalance about his profession is, in fact, what actually helped him land his current leading man role in Avatar.
“I auditioned in Australia. I didn’t really know what the movie was because no one would tell us who it was for,” Worthington offers in explanation of how he ultimately got James Cameron’s attention back in 2007. “I just put two minutes down on the tape and the attitude I had was kind of ‘fuck this” because I was like ‘How come you won’t tell us what this is for?’ So when we started the audition there was this kind of rebellious streak to it. Two weeks later I got a phone call asking if I’d like to come meet with Jim Cameron. And I was like, ‘What for?’ And they said that was what the audition was for.”
Apparently, James Cameron was very interested in Worthington even though he had only seen the two minutes of audition tape that Sam had recorded and nothing more from his previous body of work over the past decade, which had earned the actor some degree of notoriety and kudos in his native Australia.
“He said there was something in it…some kind of sparkle in my eye and rebellious nature that led him to wonder if this guy was for real,” Sam says of Cameron’s response to his audition tape. “I think the first line in [the audition] was ‘Are you Jake Sully?’ and I think the [response] is ‘Yes sir I am’ and I went ‘uh-huh, yeah” and Jim’s always said I had him at ‘Uh-huh.”
Though he seems almost cavalier about some of the most pivotal moments in his career, don’t mistake Worthington’s attitude as anything but professional or consummately committed to what he does.
“I love this profession. People say I’m intense and they say that has a negative connotation, but I call it passionate. Everyone should be passionate about something. I’m passionate about going to work and my work is extraordinary so I lead an ordinary life,”
Despite his almost meteoric rise to the top of the food chain in Hollywood, Worthington eschews the notion that he is the hottest thing in Hollywood at the moment even though he’ll soon be seen in two more mega pics. Including the upcoming remake of Clash of the Titans, and potentially in the next sequel in the Mad Max catalogue, which made Mel Gibson an international star.
On the subject of his rising cache at the box office, Worthington says “I think there’s always a hot thing. I think at the moment I might be lukewarm. I think there’s some others out there.”
Moreover, the unpretentious Aussie seems resolute in his determination not to be negatively affected by his newfound success.
“I think the world changes. You don’t change,” he says. “ I think the world gets a bit more crazy and everyone keeps going ‘you’re the next hot thing’ and things like that, which they wouldn’t have said 10 years ago and you wouldn’t say if you saw me waking up in the morning. There’s nothing hot about that.’
On that subject we politely beg to differ.
Avatar opens worldwide on 18th December and also stars Sigourney Weaver and Zoe Saldana. For more information, visit: www.avatarmovie.com