Forget the flying dragons and giant blue aliens: Sam Worthington is in search of human life amid all that extraterrestrial spectacle in "Avatar." Director James Cameron's sci-fi epic arrives Dec. 18 amid intense discussion of its state-of-the-art performance capture and 3-D innovations, but for Worthington, the 33-year-old Australian star of the film, none of that is as important as locating the human heart in the story.
"I don't believe there's a certain way to act in an action blockbuster, and I think it's a mistake to approach it that way," Worthington said. "It still has drama, romance, suspense; it's only a blockbuster because of the scale and the money they throw in and maybe the time of year it comes out. If you bring in the subtleties of proper human emotion, then an audience can relate to a character. That character isn't just a cartoon. I don't want to be a cartoon."
It was that mix of adventure and relatable human emotion that Cameron, whose last leading man was Leonardo DiCaprio in "Titanic," was going for. For "Avatar," he said, he needed a star who could handle the action but also pull the audience along over a lot of emotional ground - as well as exotic alien-jungle terrain. The director said, in aspiration, "Avatar" has more in common with Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad and Edgar Rice Burroughs than with modern Michael Bay cinema.
"I'll go to a 'Transformers' film for the fun of seeing the spectacle," Cameron said, "but, personally, my soul craves a little more story, a little more meat on the bone and characters and that sort of thing."
In the futuristic tale of "Avatar," Worthington portrays Jake Sully, a Marine who comes home from combat in a wheelchair. He gets a chance to walk, run and fight again, though, through a strange off-world mission. Scientists will place his consciousness in an avatar, a towering blue body grown in a laboratory melding alien genetic material with Sully's own DNA. This new body is sent to a jungle planet to help plunder a valuable mineral but, in a sort of intergalactic "Dances With Wolves" scenario, Sully goes native.
Cameron wrote the script for "Avatar" before he made his Oscar-winning 1997 film "Titanic." He's been waiting for the technology to catch up to his vision to make it, he says. A key concern has been the motion-capture process, which, with its "dead" eye look has been the bane of motion-capture films - leaving characters looking somehow off, not fully alive. Cameron believes that's now a thing of the past.
That's why some observers are referring to "Avatar" as a "game-changer" for special-effects films - yet there are skeptics who are calling it the most over-hyped Hollywood release of 2009.
And at the center of this massive machinery is the brawny Worthington, a former bricklayer and high-school dropout from west Australia. His life path changed at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney; a girl he knew planned to submit an application for the program, so he joined her as a lark.
"To have these opportunities now, I'm extremely humble about it, to be honest with you," Worthington said. "I feel lucky to do these kinds of films. I always said I wanted to make movies that I would go see. I would pay 12 bucks to go see 'Avatar.' Just to be part of it all, I pinch myself."
In person, Worthington comes off as coolly confident and wildly straightforward; he seems about as ironic as a rugby tackle. He said, for instance, that one of his goals as an actor is to portray men who prove that "a man's fate isn't written, that he decides his own fate," a lesson he wants to impart to his 9-year-old nephew. Worthington's screen career began with an episode of "JAG" in 2000, and he caught the eye of Hollywood with performances in smaller films, such as his lead role in Geoffrey Wright's gritty 2006 "Macbeth," which reframed the Shakespeare play in the criminal underworld of Melbourne.
But there was a big one that got away. Worthington was one of three finalists in the search for the new James Bond but lost out to Daniel Craig, whose screen aura is a more cynical menace. Instead, Worthington is getting a reputation as an action hero with soulful eyes; in "Terminator Salvation," opposite Christian Bale, the relative newcomer was the most memorable part of the film for many reviewers.
"Wearing his conflicted humanity like Clint Eastwood in his Sergio Leone days," film critic Betsy Sharkey wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "Worthington overtakes every scene that he's in."
And that kind of attention is growing in Hollywood.
He will star with Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes in "Clash of the Titans," which hits theaters in March, and he has completed two other films, John Madden's "The Debt," a war-crimes thriller with Helen Mirren, and "Last Night," a New York romance with Keira Knightley, which was shot in 2008.
He was slated to star with Charlize Theron in another thriller, "The Tourist," as well, but that project might be in flux. There is talk, too, that Worthington will reunite with his "Terminator Salvation" director McG for Disney's major revival of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."
For the actor, though, the bigger the franchise, the tighter his focus on the people living and breathing between the explosions. "If you're going to do blockbusters," he said, "you have to find the human in them or else you're just making a video game."