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Interview: Actor Sam Worthington on Life as ‘Man on a Ledge’

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CHICAGO – Sam Worthington is instantly recognizable for his break out role in “Avatar,” playing the Marine turned blue citizen of Na’vi. His follow-up was as Perseus in “Clash of the Titans,” and he will repeat that role in the upcoming “Wrath of the Titans.” Opening this week, he is the title character in “Man on a Ledge.”

The busy action star was born in England, but his family moved to Australia when he was six months old. His acting training came mostly from Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Arts, which he attended on scholarship. After schooling he worked on a number of Australian TV shows and movies, at the same time doing bit parts in American TV shows like “JAG” and films like “Hart’s War” (2002). His banner year was 2009, when he was cast in “Avatar” after a worldwide search for the right actor to play Jake Sully by director James Cameron, and followed up with a key role in “Terminator: Salvation.”

Sam Worthington with Elizabeth Banks in ‘Man on a Ledge’
Sam Worthington with Elizabeth Banks in ‘Man on a Ledge’
Photo credit: Myles Aronowitz Summit Entertainment

Sam Worthington plays the title role of Nick Cassidy in “Man on a Ledge,” which features a large ensemble cast, including Elizabeth Banks and Ed Harris. The in-demand actor was in Chicago on a promotional tour last week, and HollywoodChicago.com got the opportunity to talk to him about his new film and sizzling career.

HollywoodChicago.com: Of all the scripts you’ve had to consider in stepping up in your career after Avatar, what were the elements of ‘Man on a Ledge’ that attracted you to the story and character?

Sam Worthington: It was mainly the producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, I’ve known him for years. We always looked to work together. And in the movies he makes, like the ‘Transformers’ series and ‘Red,’ his primary goal is to always entertain an audience, that’s what he sets out to do. My job exists to entertain an audience, so we just tried to find something that is quick, simple and entertaining. You know what you’re going to get on a Friday night.

HollywoodChicago.com: This is obviously a film about trusting the right people at the right time. What character trait did you want to express about Nick Cassidy that allows him to instinctively trust the right people?

Worthington: It’s a leap a faith to walk out on that ledge, and it’s a leap of faith to call in the character Elizabeth Banks plays, and at the start he thinks the plan is going on accordingly, so that trait in believing in things straight off is what I liked. It’s just when the plan unravels that it gets desperate and it gets harder, but he trusts in people from the get-go.

HollywoodChicago.com: This was the feature debut of director Asger Leth. What of his own personal stamp did you note about him, that separated him from other directors you’ve worked with, either during the actual shoot or in the finished product?

Worthington: The only other film he made was a documentary, and so when he directs he just lets the camera roll, he doesn’t mollycoddle you, he just lets the camera play and lets you play. It’s a free form way of shooting, but I kind of liked it.

HollywoodChicago.com: This film was a mix of up and coming performers, established veterans and Oscar nominees. Do you learn more about performing and the film business from your co-stars, and if you do, what did you learn from them on the set of ‘Man on a Ledge’?

Worthington: Always, you’re only as good as the person you’re acting opposite with, because they raise the game and therefore you have to as well. There are people like Anthony [Mackie] and Jamie [Bell], I’ve known them awhile and like their work, they’re not coming in to muck around, they’re coming in to get the job done. With Elizabeth, she’s the ‘Bruce Willis’ of the movie and I’m the damsel-in-distress, [laughs] so I needed her to play around with and to bounce off of her.

With Ed Harris – it’s John Glenn, Beethoven, Pollock, so many memorable performances that he has put on film – I was more nervous about meeting him than going on the ledge. And then when you act with him, it’s like going up against any top actor, part of you is observing and being astonished by their talent, and the level of ease that they do it with, and on the other side it you’ve got to step up your performance or it’s going to be a joke. It’s like with sports teams, you want to play at the top of the ladder, because that will always improve you. I look at this film as the same thing.

HollywoodChicago.com: You brought it up, so let’s talk about the technical aspects of acting on a ledge. Did they build it out or do any type of special tricks to make it easier for you?

Worthington: It was actually the top of the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City, and we built an extra room there, it’s called a skybox, so they could move the room around to get different angles. The ledge itself was always 14 inches wide, and my feet always hung over the edge of it.

HollywoodChicago.com: The film makes some statements about modern society, especially the voyeurism of the crowd wanting the character to jump. What element of the larger American culture and society was present for you, when you first read the script?

Worthington: It wasn’t in the script, but it was something we talked about. You can’t shut down New York City, no matter how many blocks are closed off. So having a documentary director, he was going to get another character no matter what crowd formed. Some are extras, obviously, but other times it was just people walking by and shouting out their opinions. He just let the camera roll on them, and from that you get a balanced point-of-view between the extras and actual pedestrians. That’s what he set out to do, but it wasn’t on the page.

Sam Worthington with His Alter Ego in ‘Avatar’
Sam Worthington with His Alter Ego in ‘Avatar’
Photo credit: Twentieth Century Fox

HollywoodChicago.com: You were part of cutting edge technology during the filming of Avatar. What part of that journey most amazed you, and did you ever personally feel separated from the character that you played, as if he were a different person from you, even though you brought him to life?

Worthington: The part that amazed me was how the character was embraced, because when you’re making something like that, even though it’s James Cameron, you don’t know how it’s going to turn out, it could have been a bomb. Who knows how the marketplace was going to react? These were big blue cats on another planet, with this insane story. But when I was doing it, I was living it, so there wasn’t any separation. Jake Sully was the essence of my nephew, he was a kid, going through a playpen. A rebellious kid in a new school. And the kids he’s been told to pick on, he ends up standing up for. Jim liked that idea, which gave me a sense of play, and it was a lot more fun.

HollywoodChicago.com: There was so much technical maneuverings in doing the Avatar role. What kind of imagination did you and your fellow performers tap into when emoting the roles, while in the midst of all the light bulb suits and empty warehouses of the technology?

Worthington: You fall into it. Acting is truth in imaginary circumstances, anyway. I’m not really a cop in ‘Man on a Ledge,’ it’s all pretend. The Avatar situation was absolute truth in absolute imaginary circumstances. There was nothing there except your imagination. Jim was trying to create the world as much as possible, but when there was a big-ass monster in front of you, and it was some guy yelling and growling at you, you just go with it. The more you dive in and be fearless, the easier it is. It’s just kids in a sandbox, that’s what it is.

HollywoodChicago.com: ‘The Debt’ was one of the most fascinating and underrated films of 2011. What do you think the morality of the characters in ‘The Debt’ can teach us about the lionizing so-called heroes during that type of war?

Worthington: The great thing about the situation is that the characters were naive, they were naive Mossad agents, which we hadn’t seen on film before. If you compare it to the film ‘Munich,’ where the agents were killers, and whatever else you read it is like that. In reality, they were kids, naive kids who were trying to do something for their country. The last in the pecking order, thrown into a situation that was so intense, with emotional baggage that kept weighing them down. What we wanted to say was whatever their choices or mistakes were, the essence was always good.

HollywoodChicago.com: Ciarán Hinds played you as an older man. Did you get to interact with him?

Sam Worthington in Chicago, January 18th, 2012
Sam Worthington in Chicago, January 18th, 2012
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for HollywoodChicago.com

Worthington: No. Marton [Csokas] met with Tom Wilkinson, his older character, but Ciarán and I never had cause to get together. I just told him here was where I thought the character ended, and what I thought he did for the thirty years afterward.

HollywoodChicago.com: It was interesting to see what your co-star on ‘The Debt,’ Jessica Chastain, has done in the last year…

Worthington: She had done seven or eight movies at once, when we did ‘Texas Killing Fields’ she was in the middle of it. She was going for the record. [laughs] I think only Colin Farrell had made more films before he was known. Jess went for the record, and I think she blitzed it. I think when you’re not known by an audience, you can diversify yourself a lot more. I come out and do three action movies, you kind of get an idea of who your audience is. [laughs]

HollywoodChicago.com: What was fulfilling to you about taking on a modern interpretation of MacBeth in one of your early Australian film roles, and what did you appreciate more about Shakespeare’s original work after it was completed?

Worthington: I had done a lot of Shakespeare in drama school, and you don’t get to play roles like MacBeth and Hamlet when you’re young, so that was the appeal to me for that movie. I think we failed gloriously with that film, but that’s okay because we gave it a good go. What I got out of that is you have to be fearless with Shakespeare, and it is still relevant. It is the themes of his work that is still prevalent in this society. He deals with the human essence, what it is to be human.

HollywoodChicago.com: What do you think is within the Australian show business culture and imagination that has that makes it so successful in importing actors to mainstream and worldwide entertainment?

Worthington: In Australia, you have to do everything. If you come out of drama school and want to be an actor there, you do everything from a play to TV, to a film if you’re lucky, back to a play, just the whole gamut. By doing that, your skills and work ethic increases, you can’t fool around.

So by the time you’re with the big boys, you’ve done so much, that when I sat in a room with James Cameron, I wasn’t a greenhorn. I had done ten years in my own country. I had done 15 movies, two TV series and four plays by the time I met with Jim. I may had been fresh to the world, but I wasn’t in terms of my profession and where I thought I could take it. Hugh Jackman and Cate Blanchett also had massive careers in Australia before they came here as well.

HollywoodChicago.com: What do know so far about ‘Avatar 2’ that you can share with the audience that anticipates it?

Worthington: I know the story of Part Two and Three, Jim sat me down and told me recently, and it is monumental, that is all I can say. He is also pushing the technology of how we do it. Motion Capture has gone farther, look at ‘Planet of the Apes’ and ‘The Adventures of TinTin.’ Jim is going to raise the bar again. I don’t know how he’s going to do it, but he’s going to give it a good crack. [laughs]

“Man on a Ledge” opens everywhere on January 27th. Featuring Sam Worthington, Elizabeth Banks, Jamie Bell, Anthony Mackie, Ed Harris, Edward Burns, Kyra Sedgwick and Génesis Rodríguez. Screenplay by Pablo Fenjves, directed by Asger Leth. Rated “PG-13”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2012 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

lejla gehlert's picture

Sam Worthington is and will

Sam Worthington is and will always be my favorite movie star because of his voice and his talent.

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