Despite that you might think of his movies--big or small--Australian-born Sam Worthington is an actor whose primary goal is to entertain the people in the world who shell out their hard-earned money to see his movies. He's painfully aware that not all of his movies have ended up the way he envisioned them when he signed on to do them, but that's not always his fault. But if ever there were a rising star that I'd like to see other rising stars emulate in terms of their behavior around fans and the complete absence of pretense, it's Worthington, a man still very much aware that he both worked very hard to get where he is and he won the lottery when he was cast as the lead in James Cameron's AVATAR.
I first remember seeing Worthington in two great Australian films: the dark comedy DIRTY DEEDS and the drama SOMERSAULT, opposite Abbie Cornish. I know he was in HART'S WAR and THE GREAT RAID, but I don't remember him in those, and after doing quite well in TV and film in Australia, along came Cameron. But people still forget that seven months before AVATAR hit screens, Worthington was first notice by American audiences for playing Marcus Wright in TERMINATOR SALVATION, shot after he made AVATAR. And not long after that, he appeared in the CLASH OF THE TITANS remake that even Worthington admits gave him a headache watching in 3D.
The three films I saw him in last year were all smaller-scale project that I thought he excelled in: THE DEBT and TEXAS KILLING FIELDS, both opposite Jessica Chastain; and the little-seen LAST NIGHT, with Keira Knightley. This year, however, Worthington seems back on track with bigger-scale works including March's WRATH OF THE TITANS, the Australian film DRIFT, and director Simon West's Iraq War-set, capture-of-Baghdad story THUNDER RUN. But first up is the flawed but completely watchable audience pleaser MAN ON A LEDGE, starring Worthington as the titular character, sporting a LETHAL WEAPON-era Mel Gibson mullet (deliberately) and leading suicide negotiator Elizabeth Banks through the paces while he stalls for time to prove his innocence for a crime he says he didn't commit.
Two things you should know. I arrived just early enough and Worthington was just late enough from shooting a live TV news spot that I actually watched him on TV from the hotel room where I was waiting for him to arrive. The station was just a few blocks from the hotel, but it was a first for me, and we talk about it briefly at the beginning of the interview. Second, Worthington told me that one of his best friends was a huge Ain't It Cool reader, and wanted to know what I looked like. Just look at the drawing below, buddy; that's all you need to know about me.
A few hours after this interview, I did a post-screening Q&A with Worthington, where he admitted that he found it weird how ruthless some online people were about him slipping in and out of his Australian accent in different films. In a moment of rare honesty from any actor, he admitted sometimes he gets so caught up on a scene that he forgets the (usually) American accent. Combine that with his usual semi-confessional style, and it made for one of the best Q&As I've ever been a part of. Okay, enough preamble, let's get to my exceedingly fun conversation with Sam Worthington. Enjoy…
Capone: I just saw you on TV.
Sam Worthington: That’s very bizarre.
Capone: I walked in, and the TV was on and there you were. I asked the publicist, “Is this live or do you just have this running continuously?”
SW: It’s very weird. [Laughs] It’s like the quickest three minutes of my life. It’s very fast, man; it's very fast.
Capone: It's TV; that's all they need. First of all, good on you for rocking the mullet in this movie, because I think it’s an extraordinary look on you.
SW: It was done on purpose. To me it’s like an old '80s movie or early '90s movie and I don’t know it’s my little throwback to Martin Riggs or someone like that.
Capone: I was going to say “It looks a little Mel Gibson.” It definitely is.
SW: I know the producer kind of went “What’s going on?” I said, “I don’t know…” It just always reminded me of that, and even the palette and the tone of the posters have that kind of feel, so it was my way of remembering that it was just like an old '80s movie.
Capone: Were you a big movie fan as a kid? Did you watch everything you could?
SW: Yeah, pretty much. That’s the thing, when people ask you what your favorite movie is, I think it’s kind of a hard question to answer.
Capone: It’s impossible.
SW: Yeah, it is. It’s like “What’s your favorite song?” Because you get a vast majority, and with my dad, there was only a video store where we grew up, and they came in very late, there was never a cinema. You would rent a lot of videos at like ten for two bucks, so I just watched everything I could. Without knowing where my career would go, I was just a fan of movies, you know?
Capone: What films do you remember going “Wow, I have never seen anything like that before” and got you excited about movies and maybe even acting?
SW: Back then you’re not even thinking like that, you’re just enjoying the ride of the movie, which is a good thing. Look, I’m a DIE HARD boy and things like that and that kind of genre. BEVERLY HILLS COP, which when most actors say things about older movies, they have like “Well I saw E.T. or 2001,” but I’m more of a genre boy. That’s what it was. That’s what we grew up with, and to go into an action part of the video store was a treat for me and my sister.
Capone: Being a fan of genre films growing up , when you then get cast in a James Cameron film or a TERMINATOR film, are you just like “Oh my God, this is a film or franchise that I worship”?
SW: Jim [Cameron] always asked me what was one of my favorite movies of his, and you’re immediately going to go to TERMINATOR. But I went TRUE LIES. I said, “You put a fucking horse in an elevator with Arnold on it Are you kidding me? That’s a special effect in itself,” and it is. I do movies that I would go and see; that’s just how I pick them. It just happens to be that it's, as you said, a genre that I like. That’s why when people ask me about the choices, I go, “Well I grew up watching these movies. I grew up watching LETHAL WEAPON.” I love those films. I’m a fan of those type of movies.
Capone: I’ve heard you talk many times, but let's talk about how this film was actually shot up something like 20-some stories up. What are the long-term effects of spending weeks on end at that elevation? Do you ever forget how dangerous it is some times?
SW: No man, you never forget that. [Laughs] And you’re petrified everyday you step out. It gets easier as the day goes on, but you get like “ledge legs,” which are like sea legs, because your adrenaline is so high.
Capone: And you’re muscles are probably tense too, yeah.
SW: Yeah, that's what it is. So you would come off the ledge and you would need time to calm down, because otherwise the scenes would run double the speed that they should. But I don’t know, after a while you do get used to it. It’s a weird one, because the director is not out there with you; he was just in the earpiece, and so I would get the occasional comment from him, but most of the time you’re out there by yourself.
Capone: I know the director [Asger Leth] has a background in documentaries. Was there something different about the way he shot it to make it seem a little more authentic?
SW: Just let the cameras run man. His way of thinking was just “Run it and we will see what happens,” which is a very bizarre thing to do in a fiction movie and then by giving that freedom, it gave us freedom as actors to just keep going. We’d reset ourselves in scenes, and and then we worked closely with people like Paul Cameron, the DoP. Me and him got along real well, because the more I would go “I’m just going to do another couple while we’re up here, Paul” and the director would let us. Paul would then figure out a more ambitious camera move, so it became by him being more hands off, it allowed us a bit more freedom and creativity.
Capone: And shooting above New York might be a little easier in terms of crowd control than shooting on the streets.
SW: For crowd control, he just got the cameras out and went out himself. He shot them.
Capone: Those crowd scenes are made up of real people?
SW: It’s 50/50. Yeah, I think fifty extras obviously to contain certain scenes, but you can’t shut down New York. They were going to walk through the shot and yell “Jump!” or “Hurry up and move on!”
Capone: Were the people who weren’t part of the extras crowd yelling “jump,” too?
SW: They might have liked the idea that there was this weird, sick YouTube feel to it.
Capone: That does seem to be the ultimate New York stereotype.
SW: And that was an honest thing. You would be up there, and they would be setting up a camera shot, and you saw people taking YouTube footage of me not knowing it was a film half the time, because the camera hadn’t moved out yet. That’s where his documentary background came into play very well.
Capone: Talk about Elizabeth Banks a little bit. I’ve interviewed her a couple of times, and she is so much fun to talk to. What was your relationship with her?
SW: I had seen all of the comedies she had done. I saw her in NEXT THREE DAYS with Russell Crowe.
Capone: Very good movie, yeah.
SW: That’s what made me go, “That’s the girl we should get.” She’s like a Zoe Saldana in that sense where she can hold her own against the boys. But she’s the Bruce Willis character in this movie. She wakes up hungover. She’s the one that has to get the police force back on her side. I’m the damsel in distress, so you need a foil that is like Bruce with that sarcastic wit you can bounce ideas off and play withm and you know she can hold her own amongst this group of boys and still have that femininity, but she had to be Bruno.
Capone: And the other way the film kind of turns things upside down is that, and it’s because of the way the story is set up, is that you step out on that ledge about as cool as you could be, and as the day goes on you get more and more desperate.
SW: Yeah, the plans unraveling. Initially that wasn’t in the draft; it was originally that he was playing desperate and playing panicked and then got cooler as the movie went on. I literally said, “If your plan’s unraveling, that’s when you’re desperate. That’s real fear.” I said, “You’re nervous going out, but he’s the one playing the game and it’s all going according to plan.” It’s different to other kinds of fake suicide situations.
Capone: Right, it’s going according to plan, until its not.
SW: Yeah, once the SWAT team comes flying down, you can be at your most desperate. That’s when I start falling off the ledge and things like that.
Capone: How many times did you actually slip?
SW: Quite a few.
Capone: Yeah? What is that feeling like? (Laughs)
SW: You shit yourself! [laughs] It’s as simple as that. You hope and pray that that seatbelt kind of hook that you're on just clicks in, and then you’re just dangling like a marionette and it's embarrassing, because they are pulling your sorry ass up. It’s embarrassing more than anything hanging off there.
Capone: Is it one of those situations where you don’t really feel the harness until it’s saving your life?
SW: Yeah, I didn’t want to feel the harness, that was the whole thing, and you forget about it completely. Even [Anthony] Mackie jumped out one time, and I said, “Mackie, I’m harnessed, you’re not. Stay in the fucking room!” His instinct was to grab me, but that was good.
Capone: The interesting thing that your character and Elizabeth’s character shares is that they both are in need of redemption. You’re trying to prove your innocent and she's trying to get her groove back as a negotiator after this very high-profile screw up.
SW: Yeah, that’s the affinity he’s got with her. I think you needed something quite simple that they had in common and they're both being pushed into the cold, and by doing this, yeah, he gets his innocence and gets his family back, but she gets her family back, which is the police force. It’s trust, that’s all their relationship is about, just trust and playing on that.
Capone: The film doesn’t really fit into a genre. It’s a little mystery, there’s some heist film, psychological thriller. Was that something you liked about it, that you couldn’t pigeonhole it easily?
SW: It’s weird, because to me it started off being pigeonholed. It is a simple concept. It’s a simple action movie and fits neatly next to THE NEGOTIATOR and PHONE BOOTH and that was the plan that me and [producer] Lorenzo [Di Bonaventura] looked at and used them as kind of templates in a way. Lorenzo worked on THE NEGOTIATOR. But out of that simple idea, you can spin into the mini-MISSION IMPOSSIBLE section with Jamie [Bell]. That is a lot of fun; it’s very rudimentary how to go about it. We didn’t want it to be OCEAN’S ELEVEN or something high tech, and I think that sets the tone of that side of the film. The film is extremely high concept, but there’s a simplicity to it that keeps it human.
Capone: Was it kind of a bummer that there was this whole other movie being made that you weren’t a part of?
SW: He got to make it with Genesis Rodriguez! Yeah.
SW: I mean, he got to be squeezed in with her. In that respect, he had the better part [Laughs], and I’m out there with the pigeons in the cold. So I threw my mate a bone there, but look there was an appeal… I know when Elizabeth joined on, she liked the fact that she got to have not only those situations with me, but another movie going on inside with Ed Burns. That’s an appeal sometimes.
Capone: And actually Ed was just here this past weekend. He was asking me what I thought of the movie. You guys seem like you’re kind of cut form the same cloth a little bit. Did you get along with him pretty well?
SW: I’ve seen these movies that he’s directed, and as he’s said, he struggles to get his movies made. Doing something like this keeps him in the spotlight and gets him some funding to make movies that he likes to do and he’s a down-to-earth guy. Everyone on it, we made a conscious decision, because of Asger and it being his first movie, you need actors that have a confidence in themselves and aren’t going to be prima donnas and bust his balls all the time, because he was nervous enough, obviously. So if you look at the people, Ed Harris comes in and does his job, Ed Burns comes in and does the job. No one is wearing red chinchillas and not coming out of their trailer, because it’s cold. Do you know what I mean?
Capone: You’re actually working with a living legend in this movie, William Sadler. He’s a hero in my book.
SW: Here’s a guy that did SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and gets more kudos for playing the villain in DIE HARD 2, and I said to him, “Yeah, but you were Death in BILL AND TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY!” When he’d slap me down a bit every now and then, I’d bring that up. [Laughs] He was great fun, and that’s the thing. I’m working with guys I’ve grown up watching. Not only Ed Harris, but yeah William as well.
Capone: When he flashes on screen near the beginning, I’m like “Wait a minute, why is he in the background? Something’s going on here.”
SW: It’s that weird nod though where you go, “Is he really an extra?” (Laughs)
Capone: For certain people, it’s going to be a tell, and you’re going to know “Wait, something’s going on here.” I actually had it figured out pretty early who he was supposed to be, but it didn’t matter.
SW: I feel like that’s the thing. I think that was Lorenzo’s thing. Part of my argument was “But you’re going to know that he’s going to be part of it, because he’s a well-known face,” and Lorenzo said, “I don’t care. I love the guy. He’s a solid actor, get him in there.”
Capone: It certainly doesn’t ruin anything. I saw you in three films last year, and they were all fairly small, character-driven dramas. Was it kind of nice to step back from the big-money productions ?
SW: I don’t really pick a film based on the size or even on the scale of the budget. It always comes down to “Do I like the story?” They just happen to be on more intimate pieces, and I’ve done a lot of intimate movies in Australia. So it’s always kind of nice to feel you’re not under the pressure, under the spotlight, which the blockbusters put you into. I can’t pick on the scale or the scope like that. You can’t do that. Once you’ve been in AVATAR, it’s impossible to do that, you’ve just got to pick on what the story is.
Capone: Everything after AVATAR…
SW: Yeah, it’s like “WRATH isn’t a big movie.” [Laughs]
Capone: That’s true.
SW: AVATAR is the juggernaut, and the rest are just stories.
Capone: You’ve got to work twice with Jessica Chastain recently. You clearly hate working with her.
SW: On THE DEBT, I loved working with her, and I didn’t know her. I got to know her real well, and then for TEXAS KILLING FIELDS I said, “Let’s get her. We’ve already had a relationship, so we can play a marriage broken up,” because we already did the courtship. That’s where the idea came from, plus she makes you better. That’s what Jess does, and she’s got the enviable position with the seven or eight movies she had done before anyone knew her, they're all different. So now I find what happens in this industry is when you come out like she’s done, now her career is chameleonic if that’s even a word. She’s not going to get pigeonholed. My three movies are action movies, so I get pigeonholed. [Laughs] When you get to work in her movies, you know they are going to be something a bit different.
Capone: And maybe that’s what I should have said before. The three movies that you did that came out last year, I wasn't so much wanting to know about the budget or the size of them, but they were not action films. They were different than what you'd been doing in the last couple of years.
SW: Yeah, it wasn’t conscious, mate. I’m telling you, I think it was maybe what I was going through in my head, and you subconsciously pick them. I wasn’t consciously going “I have to now do a small one. I have to now do something like this” I.t never works that way with me.
Capone: Yeah, because the first couple of things I remember seeing you in were DIRTY DEEDS and SOMERSAULT, which still is an incredible film.
SW: Thanks. That was great.
Capone: So when I heard you were in AVATAR I’m like “I wonder what James Cameron saw him in to put him in this.”
SW: It’s weird. I think because that was just such a long process with Jim. It took us six to eight months of getting to know each other. So it’s not just, “Get that guy, because of this movie.” We got to know each other.
Capone: I saw you on "The Tonight Show" last night talking about the plan to shoot the next two AVATAR films back to back, and I know you can’t talk about anything, but have you had conversations with Jim about the stories?
SW: Yeah, Jim’s told me the whole story.
Capone: Across both films?
SW: Yeah, and it’s massive, and the thing is also Jim is very collaborative. It’s always his world, but you can throw an idea at him for a character, and that will make him go, “That’s interesting, I didn’t think of that” and that’s just because his stories are so detailed they make you think more about where you want to head with them, so we had great discussions about it and also discussed “How are you going to do it?”
That’s the other thing: [Laughs] the technology he’s having to create to do it, it’s far beyond me. I keep going, “How are you going to do it?” and I know Jim’s answer is often “Well that’s the fun, not knowing. That’s the fun, diving in and trying to do it.” How do you top TERMINATOR? TERMINATOR 2 comes out, and it’s like “How do we make a liquid man?” He wanted to make one in the first one, but didn’t have the technology, so he put the liquid man in the second one and forced himself to kind of create new technology to do that. I can only imagine what he’s doing with AVATAR 2 and 3.
Capone: I literally can’t.
SW: Well halfway through him telling me, we had to stop and go for a beer, because I said, “I’m exhausted, mate. I need something.”
Capone: “My brain hurts.”
SW: Yeah! “I need a reprieve.” Then you get back into it and go, “You’re out there, dog. You’re out there.”
Capone: So has he given you any ideas about things you have to do to prepare? Do you have to do any more training for certain things?
SW: You always do.
Capone: Can you tell me what sort of things you have to prep for?
SW: I can’t, because it gives away certain things.
Capone: I did hear you say last night that there was an underwater component.
SW: He wants to go underwater. He hasn’t been in there, and if you’re trying to make mo-cap as real as possible, you can only imagine where he might try to take it.
Capone: And he’s a big fan of underwater things. I’ve seen the documentaries and THE ABYSS.
SW: That’s his place. He loves it there. I think it gives him a freedom as well. By him having a planet the size of Pandora, but choosing underwater… What’s in those Hallelujah Mountains?
Capone: We’ve only seen a very small segment of Pandora.
SW: Pandora is a moon; we haven’t even seen the planet! You’re only confined by your imagination.
Capone: Maybe later we’ll get a few drinks in you, and you’ll tell us some more. You were talking about WRATH OF THE TITANS last night, and I’ve heard you say this before that you weren’t really happy with what you did in CLASH OF THE TITANS. What didn’t you like about what you did in that?
SW: I don’t think I created a character. I think basically what I did could have been played by any generic action young dude. Looking back, it’s a bland conduit for an audience to follow. It wasn’t the plan at the time obviously, but obviously there was something going on, because when I look back at it that’s what I see. That’s how I feel. I don’t feel an audience can connect with that character, because there isn’t one, and by doing that you don’t have anything that follows you into this story. I think also we were beholden a lot to the first movie. On a bigger scale, that held us back, but personally, yeah I think I dropped the ball.
Capone: So what did you do to adjust the performance?
SW: Initially, I sat down with [director] Jonathan Liebesman, and we just nutted out what character we wanted to create. If you look at DIE HARD, John McClane is a character regardless of who Bruce is, he is. Martin Riggs is a character. Axel Foley is a character. Clint Eastwood created characters in all of his westerns. The Man with No Name is still a character, essentially So we thought, “What hero would I want to see at 35 years of age? What faults and traits would our hero of Perseus have after 10 years being out of whack?” One of the main things was, “We’ll give him a kid. What does that do? Now he has a bigger responsibility.” He’s also out of practice. He hasn’t been sword fighting for 10 years, so he’s not very good. He hasn’t ridden a horse in 10 years.
Capone: I wasn’t aware that was part of the plot was that he was semi-retired.
SW: [Laughs] He wasn’t; that’s what I put in. I wanted him to be that. To me, that’s something that lends itself to more humor and lends itself to more stakes, because when he’s being beaten up, he hasn’t had a fight in 10 years, so it hurts now, and it hurts to get hit and it doesn’t matter how half-godlike you are, it hurts to take a punishment, plus you’ve got to get back to your son. Plus, I have a lot more fun. I get off the horse, and my ass hurts, and then they're all yelling, “Hey, mighty Perseus,” and I’m all out of breath. [Laughs] Therefore now we are creating a role. We're creating something where you can kind of go, “I like this kind of guy. What adventure is he going on?”
Capone: And you’ve seen the finished film then?
Capone: Did you accomplish what you set out to do?
SW: I think it’s funny. I like the character now. I empathize with the character. I understand why I want to go on a journey with him, and even though you’ve got all big-ass monsters and the world is our take on Greek mythology--it’s not a history lesson, we just take from it what we want. The movie is about fathers and sons. It’s about Zeus’ relationship and my character and my relationship with my son. Therefore, now we have a fucking heart that I don’t think I helped give the story in the first movie.
Capone: Was it also freeing to not be confined to the template of the original movie?
SW: Yeah. They wrote a script. They gave us the script, and me and Liebesman just kind of dived in and said, “Can we improve on this? Can we push this character more? Can we change this action scene and flip it on its head a bit more?” We had a lot more freedom because of it, and therefore you have a lot more fun. I think that hopefully translates to an audience. It’s different now, because we're the underdog, man. WRATH is the underdog. I read your blogs and a lot of those Talkbacks go, “Why the fuck do we want another one of them for?”
Capone: Not to deny you your self-loating, but you know that the post-convertion 3D was the biggest problem with that movie, right? A few people actually liked the movie.
SW: I don’t mind being the underdog. [Laughs] Sometime, being the underdog is good.
Capone: I’m not trying to kiss your ass.
SW: No, no. But sometimes it’s good coming from… I think that puts us in a different position as well. That made us a bit more confident, because we're going “Everyone’s focus is on DARK KNIGHT RISES or AVENGERS. No one is watching us, so we can do whatever the hell we want.”
Capone: Plus, you’re coming out in March and not in the summer.
SW: Yeah, and we’ll figure out what the hell we want to do.
Capone: Well, I’ll see you in a couple hours then.