Sam Worthington searches for humanity in ‘Avatar’: ‘I don’t want to be a cartoon’

Oct. 28, 2009 | 2:29 p.m.

There is no film this year that has been anticipated, discussed or debated as much as “Avatar,” the sci-fi epic from director James Cameron that reaches theaters Dec. 18. We’re going to start a monthlong countdown to the film here at Hero Complex in mid-November, but here’s an early bite at the apple. This is a longer version of a feature I’ve written about Sam Worthington for the big movie sneaks issue that runs next weekend in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar section.

James Cameron and Sam Worthington on Avatar

Forget the flying dragons and giant blue aliens, Sam Worthington is in search of human life amid all that extraterrestrial spectacle of “Avatar.”

Director James Cameron’s sci-fi epic arrives Dec. 18 amid intense discussion of its state-of-the-art performance capture and 3-D innovations, but for Worthington, the 33-year-old Australian star of the film, none of that is as important as locating the human heart in the story.

Avatar poster “I don’t believe there’s a certain way to act in an action blockbuster and I think it’s a mistake to approach it that way,” Worthington said. “It’s still has drama, romance, suspense; it’s only a blockbuster because of the size of scale and the money they throw in and maybe the time of year it comes out. If you bring in the subtleties of proper human emotion, then an audience can relate to a character. That character isn’t just a cartoon. I don’t want to be a cartoon.”

Cartoon or “dead” faces are the bane of motion-capture films and exactly what Cameron hopes to avoid with “Avatar.” The filmmaker wrote the script for “Avatar” before he made his Oscar-winning 1997 film “Titanic” and has been waiting, he says, for the technology needed to pull off his vision. That’s why some observers are referring to “Avatar” as a “game-changer” for special effects films — and others are calling it the most over-hyped Hollywood release of 2009.

And at the center of this massive machinery is the brawny Worthington, a former bricklayer and high school dropout from west Australia. His life path changed at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney. A girl he knew planned to submit an application for the program, and he joined her as a lark.

“To have these opportunities now, I’m extremely humble about it, to be honest with you,” Worthington said. “I feel lucky to do these kinds of films. I always said I wanted to make movies that I would go see. I would pay 12 bucks to go see ‘Avatar.’ Just to be part of it all — I pinch myself.”

Macbeth In person, Worthington comes off as coolly confident and wildly straightforward; he seems about as ironic as a rugby tackle. He said, for instance, that one of his goals as an actor is to portray men who prove that “a man’s fate isn’t written, that he decides his own fate,” a lesson he himself wants to impart to his 9-year-old nephew. Worthington’s screen career began with an episode of “JAG” in 2000 and he caught the eye of Hollywood with performances in smaller films, such as his lead role in Geoffrey Wright’s gritty 2006 “Macbeth,” which reframed the Shakespeare play in the criminal underworld of Melbourne, Australia.

But there was a big one that got away: Worthington was one of three finalists in the search for the new James Bond but lost out to Daniel Craig, whose screen aura is a more cynical menace. Instead, Worthington is getting a reputation as an action hero with soulful eyes; in “Terminator Salvation,” opposite Christian Bale, the relative newcomer was the most memorable part of the film for many reviewers.

“Wearing his conflicted humanity like Clint Eastwood in his Sergio Leone days … Worthington overtakes every scene that he is in,” film critic Betsy Sharkey wrote in The Times.

Cameron, whose last leading man was Leonardo DiCaprio in “Titanic,” said that for “Avatar” he needed a star who could handle the action but also pull the audience along on an adventure that covers a lot of emotional ground as well as exotic alien-jungle terrain. Cameron said that, in aspiration, “Avatar” has more in common with Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad and Edgar Rice Burroughs than with modern Michael Bay cinema.

Sam Worthington in  

“I’ll go to a ‘Transformers’ film for the fun of seeing the spectacle,” Cameron said, “but, personally, my soul craves a little more story, a little more meat on the bone and characters and that sort of thing.”

In the futuristic tale of “Avatar,” Worthington portrays Jake Sully, a Marine who comes home from combat in a wheelchair. He gets a chance to walk, run and fight again, though, through a strange off-world mission. Scientists will place his consciousness in an avatar, a towering blue body grown in a laboratory melding of alien genetic material with Sully’s DNA. This new body is sent to a jungle planet to help plunder a valuable mineral but, in a sort of intergalactic “Dances With Wolves” scenario, Sully goes native.

In “Terminator Salvation,” Worthington presented the mash-up of man and machine; this time it’s the hybrid of earthling and alien. He chuckled when asked whether there were themes that pull him toward certain roles.
“I just want to work with people of high caliber, whatever kind of genre,” the actor said. “I don’t basically go, ‘I want to make a movie of this type’ or ‘I want this genre.’ I look at who’s making it and who’s in it. With ‘Avatar,’ they tell me Jim Cameron is directing and Sigourney Weaver is in it? Sign me up.”


There’s considerable interest in Hollywood to signing up Worthington. He will star with Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes in “Clash of the Titans,” which hits theaters in March, and he has completed two other films, John Madden’s “The Debt,” a war-crimes thriller with Helen Mirren, and “Last Night,” a New York romance with Keira Knightley, which was shot in 2008.

He was slated to star with Charlize Theron in another thriller, “The Tourist,” but that project may be in flux. There is talk, too, that Worthington will reunite with “Terminator Salvation” director McG for Disney’s major revival of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

For the actor, though, the bigger the franchise, the tighter his focus on the people living and breathing between the explosions.

“If you’re going to do blockbusters, you have to find the human in them or else you’re just making a video game,” he said. “I’ve always said if I’m going to make these things, I’m going to do the thing I can do in a $4-million Australian film — a dramatic piece — and bring that into the action film. If you do that, the audience feels it and then they’ve got a way in. They see themselves up there on the screen.”

— Geoff Boucher


Avatar “Avatar,” “Gamer” and Surrogates” as second-life cinema

James Cameron on “Avatar”: Like “Matrix,” it opens doorways

Is “Avatar” just “Dances With Wolves” in space?

Welcome to the jungle: Mixed reaction to “Avatar” trailer

VIDEO: “Avatar” interviews with Sigourney Weaver and Jon Landau

Will “Terminator” franchise be back?

McG: We’re bringing credibility back to “Terminator”

Sam Worthington, man or machine?

Christian Bale’s tantrum, the remix

For “Terminator” and “Trek” star Anton Yelchin, the future is now

Peter Jackson: Movie fans are fed up with the lack of original ideas

The late Stan Winston and the tricky business of Legacy

Photos: At top, “Avatar” director James Cameron, left, and lead actor Sam Worthington on the set. Credit: Mark Fellman. Middle: Worthington in “Terminator Salvation.” Credit: Warner Bros.

More in: Uncategorized, Avatar, James Cameron, Sam Worthington


8 Responses to Sam Worthington searches for humanity in ‘Avatar’: ‘I don’t want to be a cartoon’

  1. juepucta says:

    Any reason why i shouldn't fear this being an over-CGI'd "live-action" Ferngully?

  2. Steve says:

    Why must actors fudge their pasts and how they got to where they got?
    It is said Sam dropped out of high school: He did not. he graduated at 17 in 1993 like the rest of his class.
    It is said Sam worked as a bricklayer: He did, for about 5 minutes and only as an assistant to a qualifed bricklayer. he did not complete the 4 years of apprenticeship required to become one in Australia.
    It is said Sam only applied to NIDA as a lark and to give moral support to a girlfreind: Wrong. Sam always intended to go to NIDA or WAAPA and had already completed a drama scholarship at another Perth drama college and was already living in Sydney when he was accepted to NIDA in 1995.
    This may appear pedantic but incorrect facts are still incorrect facts.
    Please get the facts right first time out.

  3. Michel Aniel says:

    The figure(s)in Avatar are genetically illogical. You cannot have a species with divergence in morphology and phylogeny! Genetic sequence data demonstrates that all organisms on (Earth) are genetically related, and the genealogical relationships of living things on other planets can be represented by there own respective evolution tree (i.e. resemblance). Additionally, it is illogical to have such a dramatic divergence between the physicality of an entity (skin color=blue) which is based on its respective environment and the entity's physiological adaptations and capabilities (eye color =green). I suggest some investigative genetic, morphological, embryological and developmental capabilities ought to be undertaken to legitimize realistic physical evolutionary development and related mutations. I'm up to the task of bringing some sense of realism to the entities represented in this movie based on my experience in the evolutionary sciences. Blue skin and green eyes are incongruous and incompatible to an efficacious organism or entity's development and success in its specific environment.
    Michel Aniel (949)365-1005 Plexus

  4. Knox says:

    It's a movie. A make-believe story. It's not real.
    Does it really matter if blue skin and green eyes are genetically incompatible in a science fiction movie? If you can't get past that – then surely you can just ignore the movie and move on to the next one where things are less incongruous – if it's possible to find one.

  5. Juan Manuel Gutierre says:

    That was an interesting exchange between Michael Aniel and Knox… This is not related: If we see this movie and find something redeeming, I hope it's that the blind and indiscriminate plunder of our Planet is quickly catching up to us. Aside from the North American Indians, I don't believe there has ever been a recorded History of a People who looked at our Planet from an ecological point of view… In this way, the Navii in Cameron's story resemble the Choctaw, the Sioux and the Lakota People. In that sense, having this movie right about the time when the World meets in Copenhagen to discuss yet once again Climate Change, it's in my Opinion an interesting coincidence. So Cameron may not have had this mind when he concocted the plans for Avatar, but I for one applaud the effort. I hope it moves forward the conversation of raising consciousness about our tiny, precious Blue Planet.

  6. Richard Blaine says:

    The vacant-looking Worthington must be the first Aussie actor who is incapable of doing a convincing American accent. It was all over the place in Terminator and now in Avatar, it's even worse. You would think an actor who says he wants to put more meat on the bones of his character would make an effort to at least get said character's accent right. Truth is, Worthington's sudden popularity with casting directors has more to do with his look (and luck) and less with his average acting skills. Like the Schwarzeneggers, Stallones and Van Dammes before him, he's essentially an action picture hunk and, until the next flavor of the month comes along, that's where his film career lies. Rake in those big bucks while you can, Sam.

  7. dexter says:

    Jeez, people here really need to lighten up. IT'S A MOVIE.

  8. swscifi says:

    I agree with Dexter…it's just a movie! If it's convincing enough and entertaining; the actors and directors have done their jobs.
    I think Sam Worthington does a great job as an actor, playing a blue creature and a guy on a wheelchair. I thought he's an American. I could hardly tell he was Australian with his accent. I've noticed guys like to knock him down…HE MUST HAVE THE "IT" FACTOR!
    Just saw Clash of the Titans and although the dialogue didn't do Sam justice; he played the character well. He plays his characters well and doesn't try very hard to be tough and sexy; he just IS. He might have played half of something characters but I think he'll be very successful…

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