Actor Sam Worthington wants to be much more than the quiet action hero
LOS ANGELES - Here’s the thing. Sam Worthington may play the clean-cut, silent-type stoic, but in person he’s not. He’s chatty and freckly and, well, hairy. Wildly hairy. Chin-length shag. Thick reddish beard. Neck, chest, forearms, hands, all covered in hair.
The beaded bracelet a friend gave him says it all: CHEWY, a misspelled reference to the Chewbacca (Chewie) character in the “Star Wars’’ franchise. Worthington wears it proudly, and perhaps a bit ironically. Forget the CGI special effects that turned him into a long-limbed blue Na’vi in “Avatar.’’ It’s clearly a razor that helped this Aussie actor transform from unknown to action hero (“Terminator Salvation’’) with a soulful side in just a few years time.
Worthington, 35, does it again in “The Debt,’’ which opens Wednesday in the Boston area. The film is adapted from the 2007 Israeli thriller “Ha-Hov.’’ Worthington plays David, another close-shaven quiet guy, who is part of a triumvirate of young Mossad secret agents charged with capturing a Nazi war criminal in mid-1960s East Berlin. But the trap goes awry. A lie is told. Decades later, the now-retired agents - recast as Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and a weighty, worry-eyed Ciarán Hinds as Worthington - must confront the unraveling of their secret.
“It was never about the thrill of hunting down a war criminal,’’ Worthington said. “We always talked about it like holding water in your hand. It’s kind of a hard task to do, something so simple, but it just keeps dripping, dripping. That’s what’s happening with these guys. They’re trying to keep their lives together but this simple act of not being totally honest ripples through their whole lives. . .
“I like that idea,’’ he continued, “that we all have secrets that we harbor, baggage we don’t want to let out, and the more you don’t confront those demons, the bigger and more intrusive they get.’’
Worthington liked it so much that he bought into the plot, script unseen. Director John Madden pitched it to him that convincingly in person in Albuquerque, where Worthington was shooting the latest “Terminator’’ in relative anonymity since “Avatar’’ had not yet been released and “Clash of the Titans’’ wasn’t even in the can. Madden (“Shakespeare in Love,’’ “Proof’’) says he wanted Worthington based solely on his work as Joe in the acclaimed 2004 Australian film “Somersault.’’
“I saw him and remembered him in it, and when I first read this material he popped into my head,’’ Madden said. “I had no idea where he was or what he’d done since. They said, ‘Oh, he’s in “Avatar.’’ ’ I said, ‘Really, that James Cameron film? . . .’ I went to meet him and I thought, if I don’t think he’s right for the movie, I won’t pitch him too well. But I thought he was really interesting, so I pitched really well . . . and I’m really glad I did.’’
Madden also rode the cast about their onscreen accents, which are mainly German. Worthington admits he had a tough time, slipping into an Australian accent every so often, as happened in “Avatar.’’ But Worthington seems fairly self-aware. He actually admits he gave away lines to costar Marton Csokas (“Lord of the Rings’’) “because I just couldn’t do it’’ with a German accent. Next he puts on a twang for “Texas Killing Fields,’’ which also costars Jessica Chastain (“The Help’’), who plays the third Mossad agent.
Worthington says he never practiced accents, American or otherwise, in drama school because it never occurred to him that he would be in a position to make movies anywhere other than Australia. Now he’s breaking them down phonetically. But Worthington also says he was never one to sit by and let a career just happen to him. He had notes and charts and arrows pointing him not so much where he wanted to go but, more practically, where he thought he might be able to go.
“It wasn’t necessarily career planning; it was just trying to figure out my place in this world,’’ he said. “It’s kind of silly to think, ‘I look like this, I’m 30, and I don’t give a damn where I fit in.’
“It was, ‘This is the type of actor I don’t want to be, this is the type I admire, this is the type of work ethic I admire.’ Then you find your place in the pie.’’
Worthington, who’s wearing a scruffy blue T-shirt and downright ratty blue jeans, wants to be more than just the obvious hero. He says the good news is that his newfound fame can help get a relatively small Australian film such as the upcoming “Drift’’ made. But the same newfound fame also finds him being offered the same roles under different movie titles.
Worthington insists he has no intention of being stuck playing a stoic, shaggy or shorn. Citing his “Terminator’’ costar Christian Bale’s career in general and Bale’s Oscar-winning role in “The Fighter’’ in particular, he says he wants to change it up as often as he can. He also says he sees funny in his future, even if it’s not necessarily in an outright comedy.
“It gets harder, I think, to figure out what people will allow you. . . .,’’ he said. “You do two movies or whatever and people go, ‘You’re good at this, you’re crap at this, you do stoic well, you’re not fun. . . .’ Well, your character is stoic in ‘Terminator’ because that’s what your character demands. You have to find people in the industry who are smart enough to see beyond that two-dimensional box that people put you in.’’
Worthington’s role in “The Debt’’ might seem vaguely familiar - although he does joke that “I’m a lover; I’m a scaredy cat’’ and that his tightly choreographed fight scenes mostly involve being thrown to the floor by Chastain. (“I get my [mild expletive deleted] beat,’’ is how he puts it.)
But he’s long since moved on from “The Debt,’’ for which the younger actors filmed their scenes first, allowing their older film selves to study the essence of their characterizations. Plus “The Debt’’ was supposed to be released a year ago, meaning for Worthington it wrapped three or four movies back.
Since then he’s wandered the world, working and feeling “pretty lucky.’’ He is the first to admit that the mega-hit “Avatar’’ opened up opportunities that he couldn’t have predicted for all of his charting, and he says even now he’s trying to stay focused not just on what he’d enjoy filming, but on what he’d want to see as a fan.
“I’m not going to do a movie just because it fits my career plan,’’ said Worthington, who doesn’t hesitate to make fun of himself or someone else by calling a question silly. In this case the question is whether he imagines himself looking anything like Hinds in 20 years. The answer: He doesn’t. “I don’t care about that. I care about the audience. I care if that person is going to get their money’s worth seeing my movie. . . . I have to ask myself, ‘Would I go and pay 16 dollars to see this movie regardless if it’s a blockbuster or a small movie or a thriller set in [post] Nazi Germany?’ ’’
The answer in this case, obviously, is that he would.
Lynda Gorov can be reached at LGorov@aol.com.