2012 is shaping up to be a good year for Sam Worthington who is best known for his performance in “Avatar,” the enormously successful 3D hit directed by James Cameron. The 35-year-old actor is off to a good start with promising roles in “Man on a Ledge,” “Drift,” and “Wrath of the Titans.” On the horizon, there’s even the possibility of him reprising his role in the highly anticipated “Avatar” sequel.
We sat down at a roundtable interview with Worthington to talk about his death-defying turn in the suspense thriller “Man on a Ledge” and what the experience was like for him shooting on location on a ledge hundreds of feet up in the air overlooking New York City. He also shared his thoughts on the Australian film industry, his interest in developing an Australian biopic, and his plans to meet with James Cameron next week, which suggests the director’s passion project, “Avatar 2,” may be moving forward.
Q: Are you over your fear of heights?
SW: I don’t think I had a fear of heights. I think I had a fear of falling and hitting the ground. I think anyone with half a mind would be scared when you’re at 200 odd feet. I think I had a bit of fear. Actually trepidation is more the word.
Q: How do you deal with that when you’re making this movie on a ledge?
SW: I’m one of those actors who reads the story, gets lost in it, and goes “Oh yeah, this is a real good title,” and then forgets he has to do it. As my mates said, “It’s called ‘Man on a Ledge,’ dickhead! You have to get out there.” So, the first time I got on the ledge, I just said roll the camera. Let’s see what we get. That’s the first bit you see me doing in the movie. It’s the first time I ever did it. I was lucky I didn’t burst into tears and go into a fetal position. (laughs) It would have been a bit different for the film. She would have lured me in with lollipops.
Q: Slightly less heroic?
SW: (laughs) Slightly, just a tad!
Q: Does it get easier when you know you have a good stunt team working with you?
SW: Yes. I always put trust in a stunt coordinator. Always. That’s without question. I had a safety line on me. My only thing was I said I don’t want to feel it. I don’t want to ever know that I’ve got it on, because otherwise I’m just going to be thinking about the line all the time. And every now and then when I did slip, or fall over, or trip off, it did click into place. But, for that brief second, you go, “Uh oh, there we go!” Your whole life flashes before your eyes before it clicks and you go, “That was it?” But it improved my life a bit. (laughs) I had it real slack. I told them I just don’t want to know it’s there. I don’t want to feel it. It was just for a precaution, because in the end you do get a bit comfortable up there. It was just when you got cocky, you really needed to rely on that.
Q: How much was actually shot on that ledge?
SW: Quite a bit, man. I think the idea was to do a lot in the studio because we had no idea how much we could actually film on the ledge. When I got out there, suddenly I was getting a bit more confident and the camera crew is therefore getting a bit more confident. So, suddenly, before you know it, you’re going “Let’s do another scene” or “Let’s try this stunt” or “What else can we do?” Suddenly, the camera movements are getting a bit crazier and we’re going “Hey, man, we’ve shot most of the movie now. This is great!” You didn’t know that really until you got up there and got out there. It was quite surprising how much we shot.
Q: Physically, where were the cameramen?
SW: The camera crew was swinging on ropes next to you. They had a job worse than me. That’s the thing. If you watch this movie, don’t worry about me. Worry about the dude who’s shooting it. (laughs) Those guys are hanging off. They’re flying. They’re on the ledge with me. They’re all harnessed up, but they’re flying next to you. They’re trying to jump out with you. You sit back and they’re the ones going “This is a cool job!”
Q: They were using camera guys off the roof and then also from cranes?
SW: They were on flying cranes. But those guys, the guys we had, the main DOP is a guy called Paul Cameron who does a lot of Tony Scott’s movies. He’s fearless, that guy. He would come out on the ledge. He’s doing stuff on the ledge when the storm is picking up. I’m going “I don’t think the lighting’s right now, Paul. Shouldn’t we go in?” And he’s going, “It’s fucking amazing!”
Q: How was the scene with the helicopter?
SW: We couldn’t actually get a helicopter in there. By law, you couldn’t get a helicopter that close. The helicopter itself is CG but they just blew a lot of wind at me. I kept saying “Ramp it up, ramp it up, try to blow me off.” The more realistic it was, the more I have to hold on.
Q: After “Avatar” and “Clash of the Titans,” are you looking for more performance focused roles like this and “The Debt” rather than effects focused with CG and green screen?
SW: I’d pick a movie that I would go and see, to be honest. But I don’t think like that. I read it and go “Would I pay $16 to go and see it?” because my responsibility to an audience is to give them their money’s worth. If I think that this is worth going to see, and if we can do the job correctly, then hopefully you’ve done your job correctly.
Q: So when you’re reading the script, you’re not thinking about that?
SW: Not particularly. There might be some subconscious thing in the back of your head but not really. I look at it and go “Yeah, I’d go see that. Cool!”
Q: Did you shoot some of the prison scenes on location in Sing Sing?
SW: In an old section, yes. Scary place that is. I’d seen it on “Law & Order” and things like that, but to be there, you can feel the ghosts.
Q: How much time did you spend there?
SW: It was a couple of days. I think it was. I didn’t really need to go and meet prisoners. I’ve done that on other movies. It’s just when you’re in there, I don’t really like prisons. Most people don’t (laughs), especially prisoners.
Q: We’ve seen you as a Special Forces agent in “The Debt” and a cop in “Texas Killing Fields,” is there a trend developing here?
SW: I think it’s just what I get offered. I think more and more I’d love to do a comedy. I think me, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, that’d be a great comedy I’d love to see. It’d be like Curly, Larry and Moe.
Q: You could throw in Anthony Mackie as your sidekick.
SW: That would give you a great comedy. But I don’t get offered them. I get offered movies that I actually like to go and pay my own money to see. They just happen to be action-thriller genres with roles like a Special Forces guy or a cop. It’d be different if Nick Cassidy was a ballet dancer. I suppose there’d be a different “Man on a Ledge,” wouldn’t there?
Q: There is action in this, but a lot of the film is you on the ledge and it’s more of a drama. Did that appeal to you?
SW: I looked at “The Negotiator” with Samuel Jackson and I looked at “Phone Booth” with Colin Farrell. I liked those movies. I said I want to do that. Let’s just steal it from them and make an exciting version of that. Lorenzo (di Bonaventura) had this script and that’s what we talked about. I thought it’s a nice idea to have an action movie where the action guy is rooted to the one spot. And how do you keep that dynamic? In the case of this, it’s the pacing. It’s cutting to the other guys doing their stuff. But that was definitely an appeal to me.
Q: It’s definitely a very clever set-up having you as the diversionary tactic while Jamie Bell and Genesis Rodriguez do the heist.
SW: Jamie is the one doing all the hard work. I’m not going to feel too sorry for him because he got to spend time with Genesis Rodriguez while I’m out with the fucking pigeons. But yeah, it’s a clever idea. I like the fact that it’s low brow as well. It’s not all this whiz bang high technology. Sometimes that can be a bit too clever and this isn’t that type of movie. It is a kind of fun movie. That’s what it is. They’ve got a skateboard and firecrackers and a fire extinguisher. To me, that was the funny aspect of it. I’m throwing wads of money off the ledge to slow down the crowd. You’d look at it and go it’s almost farcical, but that’s what keeps it light and popcorny I think.
Q: It’s almost like “MacGyver.”
SW: There was something about it that I liked. It wasn’t as high extreme as “Ocean’s Eleven.” This is something you could go on the internet and get the plans. I liked the old cliché of sticking the thing in front of the camera. In a genre like this, we’ve seen these movies. So my idea was why don’t we embrace it then? Rather than saying, yeah, we’re trying fresh things, and we are doing that, we’re also embracing the clichés of it. When an audience goes to see it, it’s called “Man on a Ledge” and they know what the fuck they’re getting. It’s a movie about a man getting on a ledge and getting off the ledge. So they go, alright, cool, because they like this and they know where this is going. “Oh that’s a nice little trick. I’ve seen that before.” They feel comfortable and confident and they’re getting their money’s worth.
Q: You and Jamie are not in a lot of scenes together, but you still form a strong bond. How did you accomplish that?
SW: I’ve known Jamie a while so it was quite easy, and when he came on set, he butched up a bit. I said “What are you doing?” He goes “You’re a tough guy. I’ve got to be like a tough guy too.” I said “I’m acting as well, mate. I’m a pussycat.” I said “We’re both pretending here.” (laughs) It’s good to know someone. You have a freedom with them. And then, when you’re doing scenes with him, I like the fact that the brothers have a go at each other all the time. That’s real. It wasn’t written that way. It kind of developed over the course.
Q: When you were publicizing “Macbeth” back home and everyone was asking you if you were on your way to conquering Hollywood, you said you’d rather Hollywood come to you. Mission accomplished?
SW: I don’t know if I should use the word “conquering” anymore. I was a bit arrogant back then. I’m a very lucky boy to be able to do the job that I love to do.
Q: Anthony complained bitterly over the fact that here you are, a nice Australian boy, and he thought he was going to take you out to all the bars and party, and instead you kept going home every night after shooting to hit the couch and TV.
SW: I’m a softy. I’m exhausted. That’s all I do is go home and watch TV and do my washing. In my job, I’ve got to battle aliens. I stand on the ledge of a building. I drive fast cars. But that’s my job. I go home, I’m exhausted. I just want to do normal stuff.
Q: Where is home now?
SW: I spend a lot of time in Hawaii. I love Hawaii. I love the culture. I love the people.
Q: You went home to Australia a few months ago to do “Drift.”
SW: Yeah, I did a movie back home. It was great.
Q: Are you conscious of wanting to support the Australian film industry?
SW: Yeah, it’s a hard thing to do with what’s available, to be honest. There’s not as many options as there are in America. So when there is one and it fits, you grab it. But yeah, I’m extremely conscious of always trying to go back home. That “Drift” was made by my mates. The only way they got their money was if bugalugs (Australian slang for idiot) put his hand up and said I’d be in it. But I said I’d only do a small part. I don’t want to do the big part because that’s not fair. Let’s give another Australian actor his opportunity to showcase.
Q: Is there a bit of an ex-pats club over here with you and Hugh (Jackman) and Nicole (Kidman) and all the others hanging out in LA?
SW: I don’t really hang out in L.A. I only come here to do stuff like this. As I’ve said, I spend most of the time in Hawaii. I hang out with a lot of big Hawaiian boys who like to surf and protect me. I just like getting out of the world.
Q: Do you get home very much?
SW: Not as much as I’d like.
Q: Are some Australian directors afraid to even ask you to do something now because you’re the guy from “Avatar”?
SW: You never know. I’ve approached some of them about ideas. It’s just we have a different system in Australia. It’s a lot to get the movie up. You’re relying on money from the government. It’s very hard for even an idea that I have to be fully embraced. It’s weird. But you keep plugging away. I get a lot of first time Australian directors that say to me, “Hey mate, if you can be in my movie, you’ll help me get famous.” And I go, “Well fuck you, I don’t want to help you get famous. I want to help you make a great movie.” So I have to pick wisely too.
Q: What kind of projects do you have in mind that you’d like to do in Australia?
SW: I’ve been trying to get a biopic of some Australian icons that I like. I’ve been trying to do something like that. I mentioned one to one guy, I won’t say what the idea was, but he said no one knows that guy outside of Australia. I said, but I didn’t know who Mickey Ward was when I went and watched “The Fighter.” I said it doesn’t matter. If it’s done correctly, the global market accepts it. It’s like “Chopper.” That’s how “Chopper” traveled. No one knew who the hell Mark Chopper Reid was and then it started Eric Bana’s career in America. But that’s what I’ve been looking at.
Q: Do you ever see yourself stepping behind the camera to direct?
SW: I think you need a certain set of skills that maybe I haven’t grown into yet. The director is the leader. He’s the boss. My job is to facilitate his vision. You’ve got to be strong and calm. You’ve got to be forceful and work it with ease. So there’s a kind of dichotomy there that maybe I haven’t yet stumbled into.
Q: Is there anyone in particular that you really want to work with?
SW: It’s a hard question because you haven’t met them and when you meet them, they could be a jerk. So, it’s people that I’ve worked with that I wouldn’t mind working with again.
Q: And you will soon.
SW: James Cameron. Jonathan Liebesman I liked who I worked with on “Wrath of the Titans.” I love him. Me and him get along real well. And actors that I’ve worked with that I’d like to work with again.
Q: Now I know you can’t talk about plot, but are you pumped now to start meeting with Cameron and discuss “Avatar 2”?
SW: I see him next week. I’ll bump into him. Jim’s told me quite a bit. It’s just he’s doing other things. He’s living his life.
Q: What does that mean for you to see that on the horizon?
SW: I’d love to get back into it because I like working with Jim. It’s a war, it’s a circus. It makes you better as an actor. You go into the motion capture world, there’s no hiding. I mean, you work with Jim Cameron and he pushes you that much so that all the cobwebs and bad habits I’ve picked up since then [will be blown away]. He’s going to fuckin’ destroy me. (laughs) There’s a part of me that’s scared.
Q: Is it a little easier when you’re standing on a ledge and there’s a real city and real people and everything around you is real?
SW: Oh, it helps, man. It definitely helps. As I said, we just didn’t know how much we could do. And then, you find the more we’re up there, the more authentic the movie gets and Lorenzo is happy.
Q: What did you think about the way New Yorkers are portrayed in that movie because they’re cheering your character on to jump?
SW: I think a lot of those guys who were saying “Jump!” might have been just disgruntled fans of my last movie. (laugh) Asger (Leth) put the camera down there and did a cinema verite on some people. New Yorkers don’t care if it’s a camera crew blocking their way. They just want to get to work. So a lot of them just went “Fuck this! Jump! Stop blocking my path!” That’s typical New York. I love it.
Q: Was some of that real?
SW: Oh sure it was. Yeah. Asger did a documentary before this. He likes to let the camera just run. So he would take the camera down there himself and just roll on people. People were pushing him out of the way and yelling up. I’m sure a lot of it wasn’t just extras. That’s for sure.
Q: Was there anything new that you learned about yourself by undertaking this project?
SW: You’re learning all the time in my profession. You have to be. What the audience demands is that you keep improving. Before “Man on a Ledge,” I did the voiceover for a computer game called “Call of Duty.” It was just me stuck in a room. I’d come off “Clash” and I didn’t have a very good time personally for myself on that. I wasn’t happy with what I did on that movie. And then, just being in that room, yelling and doing whatever you wanted, freed me up. So by the time I got to do “Man on a Ledge,” I just said “Why can’t I keep that freedom?” It’s the freedom I had when I first started out so I’m going to keep going. Every now and then your insecurities in this industry start blocking you and that’s when your performances get watered down I find personally. So I kept trying to free it up a bit more in this movie and with “Wrath” the next level on. You’ve always got to keep pushing yourself, otherwise you let your audience down.
Q: Does that mean you feel better about the second “Titans”?
SW: Oh, I love it. It’s absolutely awesome. It rocks! I felt in the first one that I kind of let the audience down a bit by not delivering a character. I was a fucking generic, bland action dude. That was it. I was like a Barbie doll. I didn’t like myself for doing that. I dropped the ball, man. I’ll admit it. And [in “Wrath of the Titans”], I wanted to pick it up and create something that was a unique character that a kid can go “I like this guy. I want to go on a journey with that character.” Thanks to Jonathan Liebesman I reckon we cracked it.
“Man on a Ledge” opens in theaters on January 27th.