Are We Emotionally Ready For An Underwater ‘Avatar’?

Junkee's Lia Kim sat down with actors Sam Worthington and Kiwi actor Cliff Curtis about the new 'Avatar' sequel, due in Australian cinemas in 2023.

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It’s finally happening. More than a decade after Avatar smashed box office records and became the highest-grossing film worldwide, its sequel Avatar: The Way Of Water is finally upon us.

And if the pressure wasn’t already on, it apparently needs to be the fourth or fifth highest-grossing film in history just to break even.

Avatar: The Way Of Water moves the story from the rainforest biome of the first film to a glimmering ocean habitat, reflecting director James Cameron’s own zeal for maritime exploration. There, our familiar blue lovebirds Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and their new family seek refuge with the ocean tribe of Na’vi, led by the imposing Tonowari (Cliff Curtis).

Water signs rejoice, because the markedly improved visual effects of this sequel truly bring out the mesmerising beauty of oceans and marine life. Seriously, parts of the 3D footage feel like a fantasy David Attenborough doco, and in the best possible way.

And it’s not just the visual effects — the actors themselves went through extensive freediving training during production in order to act underwater. So any time their Na’vi alter-egos are in the water during the movie, the actors are right there with them.

We sat down with Sam Worthington and Cliff Curtis about what it’s like to work with James Cameron (or as they call him, Jim), the difficulties of underwater acting, and managed to get the barest of hints for the next three (!) Avatar films.

Junkee: James’ Cameron’s movies tend to go bigger than the genre itself. . How much responsibility do you think that films and filmmakers have when it comes to talking about those big ideas?

Cliff Curtis: It’s up to the filmmaker. There are no rules in terms of what we do, there’s no shoulds. It’s like, well, how do you want to express yourself through film?

Thankfully, Jim’s somebody who wants to take on big themes; he wants to talk about what’s important for humanity. And it connects with audiences. I think that’s a part of the secret sauce of what he does as a storyteller.

What was the hardest part about acting underwater?

Sam Worthington: I did a scene with one of the kids called Britain, who plays my son Lo’ak. And the scene that we were doing, the stakes couldn’t be much higher between father and son. It’s about them trying to emotionally connect with each other.

We’re in the middle of it and halfway through I went, ‘I’m 30 feet underwater, my oxygen’s running out’. My brain started wigging out, my heart rate is going through the roof, so I’m burning more oxygen. And I was panicking. This young kid brought me back and reconnected.

These scenes are hard enough to do on dry land — we’re crazy to put ’em underwater. The whole movie is like that.

Cliff: It’s a peak experience for me. I just loved all of that. I loved being in the water. I found it like a real home for me that I was very, very comfortable with.

Could you tell us about some of the techniques you learned?

Sam: There’s the free diving technique. The simplest [explanation] is you’re trying to put more oxygen into your blood cells than you normally have. You’re trying to get reserves. It’s not about, say, lung capacity. It’s literally about what’s in your blood, because that’s what’s burning.

You calm your brain and you calm your heart rate down – slow everything down – because any thought, any movement, will burn those supplies. You’ll deplete, like in a video game.

So the technique is a calming technique. And some people who are experts at it can push it to minutes, you know, seven minutes. Some people are like, half-fish. Like Sigourney [Weaver], Kate [Winslet]. These people, they’ve got gills.

There are lots of points of view explored in the film. Who in the movie do you think gives off the most main character energy?

Sam: Oh, that’s too tough. I don’t think there is one because the whole idea that Jim wanted was that the first movie, obviously, was Jake’s journey. But the idea is that this saga’s gonna continue and get bigger and bigger.

Cliff: It’s about building up the universe and building up the themes of family. So you, [Sam], discover yourself as wanting love and finding love in the first one. And then the result of that love is having a family and trying to figure out how to contain that and grow that.

So this second one is building out that world. Any hints as to what future Avatar movies will be doing?

Sam: We’re not allowed to say.

Cliff: Oh, we can say that, just like we’ve gone —

Sam: You’re not allowed to say. Trust me, you’re new to this.

Cliff: Like we’ve gone from the forest —

Sam: We’re not allowed to say anything.

Cliff: But I’ve heard you say this!

Sam: About the second, but we can’t say about the rest of it.

Cliff: But we’ve gone from the forest to the sea, the ocean. Well, perhaps there’s more of Pandora to discover.

Sam: (laughs) Arrows are gonna come flying at you, I’m telling you. The boss is gonna drop in. But look, he’s right. Jim’s trying to give you a whole universe. That’s what he’s eventually gonna give you.

Avatar: The Way Of Water hits Australian cinemas on December 15.