Avatar made Sam Worthington a household name overnight. The James Cameron blockbuster was to him what Star Wars was to Harrison Ford: a moment after which life would never be the same again.
The actress Jessica Chastain is his co-star in The Debt, a film shot before Avatar’s box-office success and dealing with an attempt by agents of the Israeli secret service Mossad to hide a guilty secret. She also appeared alongside Worthington in Texas Killing Fields, which was filmed after the James Cameron movie’s triumph at the Oscars and which had its premiere in Venice recently, and she describes how on the set of The Debt, Worthington was just another actor, but by the time of the production of Texas Killing Fields, every time the Australian star entered a room, people would whisper.
In The Debt, Worthington plays an agent who in 1965 goes to East Germany in pursuit of a Nazi war criminal. The mission is littered with difficulties, not least his character’s jealousy of his colleagues’ trysts. It’s a classic “two guys and a girl” scenario, with Worthington’s David the man on the outside wanting in.
The juxtaposition between being macho on the outside and emotionally estranged on the inside is one that Worthington is adept at playing. He says of the part: “David is trying to fill a hole because his parents are dead, his family has been wiped out and he is trying to fill a void. He believes Rachel [played by Chastain] can do that. But it’s just a bit too soon.”
The Debt, directed by Britain’s John Madden, is a remake of the 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov. It starts in 1997, when the three agents are in their sixties and played by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hands. Rachel Singer is about to be honoured for her role in catching a Nazi known as The Surgeon, but the celebrations are cut short by the news that David has committed suicide. The why and what of his actions are told in flashback.
It’s only when the action moves back in time that the film gets going. The interactions and problems with the characters are explained and the tension ramped up as Vogel, the Nazi (Jesper Christensen), starts playing mind games with his captors. He seems to be more attuned to their emotional states than they are themselves.
For Worthington, it’s a role that establishes him as more than just an action figure in family entertainment movies, a rut he could have fallen into after both Avatar and Clash of the Titans. These big franchise movies will tie him to action figures for years to come, so having the chance to show a more adult side to his personality was grabbed with both hands. It’s a choice that he also made in the intriguing relationship drama Last Night and in Texas Killing Fields, says the 35-year-old actor.
“I always say you have to do movies that you want to see, otherwise it’s going to be a horrible six weeks or two months; something has to viscerally appeal to you in the script for you to commit. Also, you have to have a director that you can trust, whether it’s a $200 million movie or a $2 million movie, it doesn’t really bother me, the job is exactly the same. I’m in a privileged position to be offered stuff and be able to say I like this part and work with these people and then do it.”
It’s a pretty amazing change for the graduate of Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art. After graduating in 1998, the actor admits that he struggled and was forced to sleep in his car at times. Now, however, after the success of Avatar, he’s staying in the world’s best hotels and can afford the best houses.
The hard times, he says, have made him appreciate his Hollywood success. “My movies for 10 years never got a chance to play to international audiences. I was never asked to promote them or speak to journalists. The downside of doing a film like Avatar is that you lose your anonymity. Your workload increases but that is something you want. I take my job seriously, you have one chance in this big ball of mud and you have to grab it.”
With Avatar 2 still waiting to go into production while the creator and director Cameron finishes the script, Worthington has decided to make a sequel to Clash of the Titans, which is something of a surprise, given the critical mauling the remake received.
But, as the actor points out: “There is a sense of surprise because it got criticised but there is no surprise when you think that it made half a billion dollars. I don’t really care. I like the first movie. If other people have criticisms of it, then fine. You listen to the criticism and then you learn from it. The good thing is that now we are not beholden to any original story and so we have a free range. So I’m going to get the sandals, put on the dress and show my pecs again.”
Worthington is forthright. He knows what he wants and sticks to his guns to try to get it. He does, however, seem wary of the attention that has been bestowed upon him. He is aware that having been the star of the highest-grossing film ever, it’s nearly impossible to keep his private life separate from his public persona: “I think you have to be careful all the time, it depends on what you do.”
Grabbing opportunities is something he seems to be good at. He’s completed filming Man on a Ledge, directed by Asger Leth, about a former policeman threatening to jump off a rooftop of a hotel in Manhattan. His Australian upbringing will be coming to the forefront in Drift, a tale set in the 1970s about two brothers who kickstarted the modern surfing industry. The actor himself is on a wave, and as yet, there are no signs that he will be upended any time soon.
The Debt opens in UAE cinemas today.
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