“AVATAR” COUNTDOWN: 5 DAYS
It’s. Almost. Here! Now we delve into a bit of the process: casting the actors who would take on the now epic journey to make “Avatar” come to life. Hero Complex contributor Yvonne Villarreal spoke with veteran casting director Margery Simkin — who’s done everything from “Top Gun” to “Marley & Me” — about scouring the thespian world for people who could convincingly express emotion through motion-capture suits and a yet-to-be-created language. Oh, and having to do it in secret.
YV: Let’s start with the casting of Sam Worthington. He was this construction worker with not a lot of screen time outside of Australia.
MS: How about none? None! No screen time outside of Australia. Obviously we looked at millions of people. When I felt that we had pretty thoroughly explored the U.S. people, I went to Jim (Cameron) and suggested we expand the search to England, Ireland and Australia because they’re native English speakers and I think that historically, in recent years, we’ve found a lot of manly leading men in those places.
YV: So you just weren’t finding those manly leading men out here?
MS: We found some really wonderful people here. But nobody quite nailed it. It was an embarrassment of riches job. Lots of people wanted to do it. Lots of people came in — people who normally wouldn’t — came in for all kinds of roles in this movie. That, in it of itself, was an amazing and humbling experience. The thing is … As much as the technology is wondrous in this picture, it’s ultimately about telling a story. I know that’s corny to say, but it’s true… And we were seeing wonderful people come in for the role of Sam, but we hadn’t yet seen somebody who riveted us in that way.
And Christine King, a casting director in Australia who I’ve worked with before, I called her up and asked her to put all the guys she thought were great on tape. We saw probably 20 or 30 guys from down there. One day my coworker came in and said, ‘You gotta see this.’ Honestly, Sam just popped. I believe there are sort of marriages of actors to roles. He definitely popped. There were these two young girls who worked at the front desk. And we dragged them in to look at his audition. And it was kind of like they were weak in the knees.
It took us six months until it finally happened. One of the many things I’m proud of is my part in keeping Sam alive for six months. He was the guy to beat. [But] we’ve all seen these movies where favorite actors don’t have chemistry with each other and the movie just doesn’t work. Jim did this thing — it was the most brilliant thing — he, one night, took all the final auditions for the girls and edited them so you could see
them reading “opposite” Sam. Once you saw that pairing of him with Zoe [Saldana], it was like, ‘That’s it.’ You knew film-ically, there was chemistry.
YV: And was it hard to convince them to go with an unknown? Was the goal to get a big-name star?
MS: I think that Jim wanted the best person. I think that he understood that he was making a really big movie. He was comfortable because — I mean, Leo wasn’t a big star when he made “Titanic,” so [Cameron] was comfortable with the idea. I think the powers that be would have liked the idea of a big-name. They always do. Let’s face it: Big-names sell the movie. It took a while and took exploring other things and continually reminding them why Sam was the best choice.
YV: How did you know he was the right choice?
MS: You know. That’s the hardest thing to explain about my job. Great is easy to see. The perfect match is easy to see. The bigger casting challenges are when things are very good but not exact. And then it’s a leap of faith to some extent. That’s what I do. I don’t know how actors act. It amazes me every day. And I don’t know how to tell you I know what I know. But I know when people come in a room, and do a scene, even if it’s not perfectly done, you can see the promise in there. That’s the art of what I do, is seeing that. We can see that. That’s my talent.
YV: What were some of the challenges in casting for this movie?
MS: Well, there were a lot. Obviously, the Sam situation was a challenge. Here was the most unusual challenge. It was a very secret project; no one was allowed to leave the building with the script. All the actors who came in to audition would have to sign scripts in and out. There were a number of roles that had key scenes in Na’vi and, again, you have to put this in historical perspective: The language was not written when we were — Paul [Frommer] was writing the language while we were doing the audition. So those scenes did not exist in that language. Plus, it wasn’t fair to ask those actors to audition in a language they’ve never heard before. So how to address that and be able to assess that became one of the most interesting challenges of the casting process.
I realized it didn’t matter whether or not the actors spoke the language, but I had to see whether or not they could do the scene not in English. So I let the actors prepare — I didn’t tell them in advance; this is where the bravery of the acting population comes into play – because I felt if I told them in advance, they’d be sitting in the waiting room trying to figure out a language and they weren’t going to be working on their performance, which is what they needed to be focused on. So they would come in the room. They would do it in this sort of limited English, and then I would ask them to do the scene and make up a language, even if they ended up just doing ‘A B C D, A B C D.’ It was like an acting exercise to play the scene without English words. People were amazing. What you saw — and I think it’s true for the whole process for actors in this movie — there’s a purity of performance. It’s not about the technology for them and that’s what made it work. I needed to find actors that could focus that way and were free in that way.
I will never forget those actors who came in that room and just threw themselves into it — verbally and physically. It was a scary thing for them to do. The people that ended up with those roles — Laz [Alonso], CCH [Pounder], Wes [Studi]–they were amazing. They were just amazing.
YV: There’s a lot of performance capture, what kind of actors do best in that?
MS: Everybody thought there’d be animation or whatever. I think actors were afraid of what would happen to their performance. But the essence of this technology is about capturing the performance. I would say to the actors, ‘It’s like performance will be recorded and then for the stuff that took place on the planet — with the Avatars and the Na’vi– your makeup will be put on after. So they were in performance-capture suits and they had head gear on and they had all kinds of stuff. It was like the purity of acting on an empty stage. Almost like theater performances. And, for me, watching the 3-D, is like watching live theater.
YV: Yeah. I heard Stephen Lang said theater actors do great in it.
MS: He’s right! Except Stephen didn’t have to do it! You know, I’ve been a huge fan of his for a long time. The last time I saw him, he was very out of shape. I don’t know if you’ve seen him recently, but that’s not the case. There was this poster [online] — I mean, he should be very grateful to the photographer of that poster. I looked at that and went, ‘OK, that’s the guy.’ Because I knew he could do the role. I knew he would be able to act. And he read for Jim. There’s times when you have numerous phenomenal choices. But every once in a while someone walks in and walks out and you say, ‘That’s the guy.’ He was [Col. Miles] Quaritch.
YV: And what was it like to not have any restrictions, as far as casting the Na’vi?
MS: People often talk about non-traditional casting. In my life, I probably will never have an opportunity to do something that is this colorblind. I mean, the three finalists for the role that Zoe got — she’s Hispanic; there was an Asian woman and a Caucasian woman. And those were the three finalists for that role. I can’t imagine another opportunity to cast for something that is that race neutral. We didn’t have to worry about who looked like they were related to who.
YV: So now that everything’s complete and people are just a few days from seeing the film, how do you feel about your casting decisions? To see it all come together?
MS: I still haven’t seen the whole film. But the scenes I have seen … the actors hit my heart. Earlier, you asked how I know when I’ve found the right person … when you see something that’s right, it touches your heart. Even though, you’ve seen it hundreds of times before, when the right person does it, it’s magic. When I saw the completed stuff, I had no regrets. I envy people the surprise of seeing it for the first time.
Photo: (top) Sam Worthington. Credit: Chris Carlson / Associated Press. (middle) James Cameron directing on the set of “Avatar.” Credit: 20th Century Fox. (bottom) The character Neytiri, voiced by Zoe Saldana, and the character Jake, voiced by Sam Worthington, in a scene from “Avatar.” Credit: 20th Century Fox.
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