Sam I Am

Sam Worthington in Avatar. The Big Issue Magazine

Sam Worthington in The Big Issue

First published in The Big Issue Magazine

Sam Worthington and Avatar (1.3 MB)

Sam Worthington, aged 33, will soon have starred in five Hollywood blockbusters. Terminator Salvation came out earlier this year; and others, including The Debt and Last Night with Keira Knightley are due out in 2010. This is a far cry from his situation a few years ago when he sold everything in his flat, lived in his car, and endured ‘hundreds’ of unsuccessful American auditions.

At 30 years of age it was crisis time: “[I was thinking] I’ve got a successful career, but is this what it’s meant to be? Whose life am I living here?” Worthington recalls. To get through, a personal creed of physical action was developed. “I call it: ‘control delete your own life’. That’s what I wanted to do.” Worthington pared back his process. “Go to this meeting. Talk about what you want to talk about. Say it your way,” became Worthington’s method. “That helps me get through whatever huge wall in work, in life, in love that poses itself. … Personal power is about one step at a time.”

Amazingly, a breakthrough came soon after, during an audition for Avatar, directed by James Cameron (Titanic, The Terminator, Aliens). Worthington had nothing to lose, so he “gave it everything” he had for the next six months. That’s how long it took Cameron and Worthington to convince the studio to take him on.

Now, after three and a half years of nonstop filming, he is six weeks into his break. But while he’s on his ‘break’ back in Australia, he’s doing publicity for his upcoming film Avatar, presenting at the Inside Film Awards, and generally keeping busy.

When asked whether he’s spent any of that huge bank balance. Worthington bursts into laughter, before responding: “How do you know that? My bank manager wonders why I don’t buy anything either!” It seems this former bricklayer is keeping grounded; either that, or reality hasn’t hit.

After graduating NIDA in 1998, he appeared in Bootmen (2000), Dirty Deeds (2002) and Gettin’ Square (2003). His role in Somersault (2004), as Abbie Cornish’s love interest, earned him an AFI Best Actor Award. But now in Avatar, his performance has reached a new level: “Experience makes you more proficient. This makes you more confident in yourself. Then you can take bigger risks,” Worthington reflects. It wasn’t always the case: “There was a time when I doubted everything. I cared more about what other people thought I was doing. ….”

The fact Worthington was cast in Avatar shows how far he has come. The film,breathtaking in its technological wizardry, epic nature and other-worldliness is reminiscent of Star Wars.

It tells the tale of a planet named Pandora, an exotic yet dangerous paradise with fantastic flora and fauna. The Na’vi, the ruling race, has a sacred Gaia-like connection with their world, but this is being destroyed by Earthling companies harvesting Pandora’s precious resources. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-marine, has been recruited for a mission to infiltrate the Na’vi. He ‘becomes’ a Na’vi by entering his mind into an engineered hybrid (avatar) purpose-built for him. Separated from his crew, he is attacked by animals, but the beautiful Neytiri (Zoё Saldana) rescues him and recognising his true heart decides to befriend him. Clueless to the ways of this world Neytiri puts Jake through many initiations. He eventually bonds with his new tribe and emerges, due to his absolute fearlessness, as the one leader who can fight the battle of a lifetime: to fight the humans and save Pandora.

The Worthington we see in this role is both real and simulated. His features are perceptible but completely transformed by computer generated imagery. Does that mean Worthington only provided the voice for his character? Not at all. Using new performance technology, which is a step beyond the current motion capture technology, everything, even the tonal changes and dilation of the actor’s pupils are digitally transferred to the Na’vi animation.

Cameron created the Na’vi with a similar build to humans and this made the transfer of information easy. A body suit with sensors, hundreds of green dots on the face, and a helmet with a tiny camera capture the actor’s performance. The Na’vi’s eyes, just like in real life, become windows to the soul when watching it on the big screen. These animated characters have an eerie believability. This, combined with two other ground-breaking technologies, and a 3D viewing experience (seeing it in 2D won’t be nearly the same), makes for a spectacular and engrossing viewing experience. Welcome to the new world of filmmaking.

And with fame emerging for Worthington, he is clear about one thing: “I can’t tell you if the world is going to change. All I can tell you is I won’t. It’s as simple as that.” He’ll be doing it his way, one step at a time.

Monique Hohnberg is a film journalist, whose works encompasses all aspects of the film industry. She is also writing a book on how to overcome tragedy.

 First published in The Big Issue Magazine