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Interview with Sam Worthington, co-star of “The Debt”

Sam Worthington in "The Debt"

Sam Worthington in "The Debt"

Best known as the human star of Avatar, Sam Worthington co-stars with The Debt as David, one of three Mossad agents who in the early 1960s are sent to Berlin to “retrieve” Dieter Vogel, a doctor known as the Surgeon of Birkenau for his criminal research on prisoners during World War II. On the mission, he develops an emotional bond with Rachel (Jessica Chastain). Scenes set in the 1990s reveal that they do not develop a lasting relationship—Rachel instead married (unhappily) the third member of their trio (Marton Csokas)—and as the film interweaves past and present, we understand the secrets of what had been hailed as a successful mission.

Looking rather shaggier than he does in the film (he resembles Zach Galifianakis; with an open tshirt its impossible to tell where his beard ands and his chest hair begins) and swearing with astonishing frequency (I’ve trimmed a lot of it from this transcript), Worthington spoke with journalists at the Beverly Hills press junket for The Debt.

This interview is Part 2 of a two-part film feature this week. Click here to read Part 1, an interview with Jessica Chastain, who also co-stars in “The Debt.”

Artvoice: What got you interested in this role?
Worthington: I was in Albuquerque filming Terminator Salvation and (director) John Madden flew in. I was wondering why this bloke wanted to fly to fucking Albuquerque, and I figured it was to sign me on, since there’s not much there, besides green chilies and weaving, so we hung out. He’s a very sensitive man, very eloquent. And, after hearing his take on the script and what he wanted me to do with the part, I really liked it and I felt safe. That’s why I chose to work with him. I always choose my projects based on the director.

Did you watch Ha-Hov [the 2007 Israeli film of which this is a remake]?
I’d seen it, way before the movie had come up, but I didn’t go back to invest in it or use it. There are a lot of differences. The characters are a bit more stereotyped and there were these little holes that needed to be filled in.

How did Krav Maga [Israeli martial arts] training compare to other kinds of training that you’ve done in the past?
I get my ass kicked in the Krav Maga sequence. I quite enjoyed that. Krav Maga is an aggressive form of defense. It’s all about attack. If someone is coming at you with a knife, you might get four stabs, but that’s the price you pay for taking your opponent down. No matter what the sacrifice, you keep going forward. I think that really helped with the character. David wants to get that mission done, no matter the cost to his own sanity, his own demons, or anything.

A substantial part of the film takes place in a safe house, where the three of you are in hiding along with Vogel after you’ve captured him. How were those scenes to film?
It was designed [chronological] order, so you were in the house playing happy family, and then in the course of four weeks, you started to unravel. We ended up like rats in a cage, and want to get the hell out of there, which parallels the story of the characters. I liked it. Me, Marton [Csokas], Jessica [Chastain] and John [Madden] all have a background in theatre. It felt like you were on the stage, every day, being in your own confined, little place. I wanted to get the hell out of there, every day. The last day, I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

These characters all wrestle with the line between justice and vengeance. How did you feel about where your character was coming from?
David is an idealist, to start with. He has to be, in order for him to end up where he does. Because of what happened in his past, he’s got a lot of baggage and things he has to lay to rest, and this mission will lay them to rest. When the mission starts unraveling, that’s when things start coming out. I tried to keep this man contained and strong, but you can see that he’s leaking. It’s the demons that are leaking, and the fact that he’s let down his dead family.

Do you prefer working with other actors to being in special-effects laden films like Avatar, Terminator or Clash of the Titans?
It doesn’t bother me, either way. Each job you have has it’s own challenges. One of the great things about my job, is that each film is a different journey. Whether you’re stuck in a house doing it in order, or out on location doing it out of order, or on a green screen stage, each one poses its own problems, but each one is just problem solving and trying to find the truth, in imaginary circumstances.

How do you prepare to play a character?
It depends on the job. With some characters, you’ve got to find the key in. The Debt was about how I was going to balance with Jessica and Marton. It was like, “How is Marton going to play the part?” I couldn’t play it the same way because then there would be no balance in the trio. So, Marton told me that he wanted to be the out-there one. John said, “Yeah, let him be the extrovert, so you can be the introvert. You do stoic better than anyone, so now get commended for it, for once. Don’t just stand there looking pretty.” That was good for me, especially because it gave Marton the chance to be bigger. I knew Marton from Australia, so I knew he could handle it.

The story opens with the three of you meeting for the first time. Did you have any rehearsal time?
We hung out a bit and talked. The three of us are smart enough to know that you don’t have to be so method. It’s not like I didn’t want to talk to Marton, or Jessica. There are different types of method. It’s more about mapping it out with your fellow actors, and talking about where you think you’re going, or what your ideas are. It’s like a runaway train, and you just get on the train and see where it takes you. When you’re working with the caliber of actors like these, that’s the fun of it.

Is it different working with actors that have trained on stage?
I think so, especially in this process because it was [chronological]. It’s a deeper way of thinking. That’s why, when Texas Killing Fields [which will be released next month] came along, I said, “Get Jessica.” We’d already had a relationship in The Debt and, in Texas Killing Fields, we’re a couple that has gone through a break up. We’d already had the courting, so I thought it would be easier for us.

Ciaran Hinds plays David 35 years after the main part of the story. Did the two of you meet to discuss the character?
We had about a half of a conversation. I said to him, “Here is how I am looking at [David]—he’s a powder keg of a man. I’m trying to hold him in. He’s an idealist that is unraveling. This is the moment where it flips. This is the moment where it hurts him. This is the moment where there’s a challenge. See you later.” Ciaran ended up creating his own character because there is a 30-year span—it’s not necessarily the next day. It’s a man with 30 years worth of waiting and guilt on his shoulders. The great thing is that he picked up on little head movements that I made, which I thought was interesting when I watched it because I have distinctive head movements. And, there is a distance in his character later on, which to be honest, is how I envisioned David to be. He’s a very distant soul, who had been searching the world, trying to make things right, but knowing full well that he’s holding water in his hands.

How much improvisation was there?
Not much. Compared to most scripts, what you see in the film is pretty word perfect to the script, which is pretty unusual. I can’t talk for Helen Mirren, obviously, but for us, it just read right. You just know, if it sits with you and doesn’t sound bogus or bullshit. This was one of the only films where maybe we changed one line. That was the strength of the script.

Of all the big films you’ve been a part of, are you surprised that Clash of the Titans is getting a sequel first?
Not necessarily because it made a shitload of money. I just finished Clash 2. I loved it. I loved that experience. It was a different experience for me because I had learned a lot on Clash 1, and I learned a lot from other movies. I can’t wait for it to come out. I’m not surprised at all.

How about Avatar 2 and 3?
Jim [Cameron] talked to me on my birthday. He’s writing the bible at the moment, which is a precursor to Avatar 1. I think it’s just to get Jim’s mind back into the characters and back into the world. He’s told me where he wants to take Avatar 2 and 3, and it’s monumental. It’s just huge! But, you’d expect nothing less from him. He’s not going to start it until he’s 100%. I know they’re setting up shop down in Manhattan Beach, and when he says jump, I jump.

How do you feel about doing both sequels back to back?
I love it! I’d do 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 with Jim. I love working with him. He raises the bar and gives you the courage to jump over it, and he keeps pushing. He changes your life. He hasn’t just changed my life, career wise. He’s changed my life as a man.

In what way?
He makes you stronger, in the sense of being more focused and committed. He’s told me that, if I’m doing this job, I’ve got to challenge myself more, and not listen to anybody else, and not listen to any media or bloggers, but just listen to myself. I’ve got to push myself, or there’s no point in me doing this. If I don’t believe I’m growing then I’ve got to get off the train. If I feel I’m growing, I have to keep going. It’s a long marathon.

How are you dealing with fame now that you’ve gone from being a working actor to being recognized everywhere?
You try to handle it with some sense of sensitivity. It doesn’t really bother me, if people want autographs and stuff like that because, fuck it, they’re the ones seeing your movies. It’s actually quite nice and humbling. It’s not that hard to write your name; I can’t see why you would get grumpy about it. I go under the radar quite well, though, especially when I look like Zach Galifianakis.

What if people ask you for Zach’s autograph?
I actually got a photo with him. I saw him in a bar and I asked him for a photo, and he was like, “Who the fuck are you?”

What did you take away from doing The Debt?
Apart from a great relationship with Jess? It’s a movie that is not necessarily about the Holocaust and Nazi hunters, but it’s about harboring a secret for so long, that you know is wrong, and the ripple effect it has, not only on you, but everyone close to you. It made me question everything. I used to hold a lot in, especially with loved ones. Now, I’m pretty damn honest, whether it hurts them or not. I would rather it hurt them straight up than 30 years down the road because then it can actually kill them, which it does in this movie. So, it makes you more honest.

You really do take movies into your real life, don’t you?
Yeah, I think it permeates your system. In Clash 2, I’m playing a dad, so I’m obviously dealing with some issues there, to suggest I could be a father. But, whether it’s Perseus or David, the character is in your fiber. You’re bringing stuff out of your own personality to infuse into a character. Sometimes it doesn’t work and you end up with a two-dimensional, wooden character, which I’ve been accused of. That’s fine. It makes me go, “I’ll work harder to get the personality out.” That’s fair enough. That, I like. I hate it because it’s hard to scrub off the character sometimes, but I like that sense of self-exploration.

Are the people in your life are supportive of that?
My friends think I’m fucking nuts, and relationships are hard, but that’s my job. That’s the part of my job that I love.

What part of you do we see in David?
I’ve got no idea. I wanted him to be a sensitive Molotov. It’s a bit difficult because no one in my family has been slaughtered, but there is a sensitivity to the way he looks at the job. If anything, the fact that he wants to achieve that mission is like me. I want a movie to be satisfying for an audience. That sense of having to get it done, no matter what cost, is what I like. Like what Jim Cameron says, “A movie is a war. You’re gonna have causalities within yourself and you’re going to have causalities when you make it, but essentially you want to come out the other side victorious and have everyone go, “Man, that was an experience.”

This interview is Part 2 of a two-part film feature this week. Click here to read Part 1, an interview with Jessica Chastain, who also co-stars in “The Debt.”