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‘Avatar: Way of Water’ cast talks family, underwater acting, and revisiting Pandora

Manolo Soliven
‘Avatar: Way of Water’ cast talks family, underwater acting, and revisiting Pandora
The blockbuster sequel is 'a lot deeper, in terms of the heart and the emotions' than the first one, according to director James Cameron

MANILA, Philippines – Before the Avatar: The Way of Water’s premiered around the world, James Cameron and the cast sat down with the press to share more about the film and its production.

In roundtable interviews with stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Bailey Bass, and Jamie Flatters, they revealed to us the sheer magnitude of the film’s scope, the fond memories they’ve had on set, as well as what this movie means to the cast. 

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Avatar: The Way of Water serves as a sequel to the record-breaking, award-winning 2009 film, Avatar, with James Cameron returning as director. As the first of four promised sequels to the original, this long-awaited film follow-up has Jake Sully and Neytiri navigate dangerous waters on the vast oceans of Pandora in order to both protect their family, as well as defend their new allies, the Metkayina clan, from outside forces. 

Lead actors Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldaña reprise their roles as Jake Sully and Neytiri, respectively. In our interview with the two, they shared their initial reactions to an Avatar sequel, as well as their thoughts on the upcoming film’s overarching themes of familial love and support.

Importance of family in the film
(L-R): Tsireya (Bailey Bass), Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in 20th Century Studios’ AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2022 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

“It was about 2013 when James Cameron reached out to me and Zoe and said, ‘I think I know how to extend the story about family and extend Pandora.’ We were both very excited because it felt like a different journey, it didn’t feel like a carbon copy of the first movie, which is great,” Worthington said. 

The two then talked about their new Na’vi family, and how their on-screen parenting isn’t wholly dissimilar to their own experiences as real life parents. 

“This movie is about protecting your family, protecting who you love – be it the family that you have or the family that you choose,” Worthington explained. The 46-year-old actor shared that his parental instincts and fears as a dad helped him convey Jake Sully’s protective nature towards his children.

“I do believe that Neytiri and Jake are no different [from us]. If anything I think that the stakes are much higher for them. They’re raising a family in a time of war and turmoil, so they have much to worry about,” Saldaña added.

When it came to conveying that love to each other on screen, the two went into detail about learning the uniquely nuanced ways their characters show affection to each other in the film. 

“We can be tactile with our tails, we can respond to each other’s familiarity with smells… You’re seeing ears move between the family. You’re seeing a loving bond created through limbs that we as humans don’t have. I know that Jim wanted a [family] unit that was tight, that was connected, that was always kind of pulling each other together as the world is trying to pull them apart,” Worthington explained. 

According to Worthington and Saldaña, both their characters employ entirely different parenting styles, with Neytiri communicating at a “sensational level” with smells and sounds in contrast to Jake who does so at an “intellectual level” through conversations and active listening.

Underwater acting, working with Cameron
Director James Cameron on set of 20th Century Studios’ AVATAR 2. Photo by Mark Fellman. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

When it came to their experiences working with film director James Cameron, both Worthington and Saldaña expressed their admiration for the 68-year-old’s passion for filmmaking and the ocean. 

“He’s a scientist at heart, so when you work with someone like that you are compelled to do the same. It’s quite extraordinary how the demand he has on himself compels each and every one of us to have that same demand on ourselves, but never on each other,” Saldaña shared. 

Cameron famously required the film’s cast to act underwater, which necessitated that the actors learn how to freedive, as well as hold their breaths for extended periods of time. 

“He knew there was a challenge of putting us in his first love: water. We all got trained for months on end. We all felt perfectly safe even though it was extremely risky. [We] were doing things that have never been tried before. I love being part of trailblazing,” Worthington shared. 

Bailey Bass, who plays the Metkayina clan leaders’ daughter Tsireya, and Jamie Flatters, who plays the Sullys’ eldest son Neteyam, had more to say on their relationship with the acclaimed director and their overall production experiences. 

“What I love about Jim is that whenever I’m doing an emotional scene, he’ll come in and whisper — he understands the tone, which made me feel very protected,” Bass shared. 

“Sometimes he would want something extremely specific and precise, like a microdetail, and that’s always an interesting thing to react to,” Flatters added.

This film serves as a debut for Bass and Flatters into the Avatar franchise, as both play newly introduced characters. More importantly, this is the first time both have been part of a film production.

“We did three months of training before we even stepped foot into starting a scene. That included freediving, dialect, and archery. I got scuba certified and we went to Hawaii to understand what it would be like to be in the ocean, touch sand, and be in the forests. [We also had] intense gym sessions…they were the most grueling out of all the training we had to do,” Bass explained.

“I just remember vomiting so much,” Flatters jokingly added.

Cast bonding, revisiting Pandora
Director James Cameron and actor Sam Worthington behind the scenes of 20th Century Studios’ AVATAR 2. Photo by Mark Fellman. © 2022 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Having spent years with the team, both Bass and Flatters fondly remember the frequent movie nights the crew had with Cameron and the film’s producer, Jon Landau. 

“The movies we saw in Jim and Jon’s theater were amazing. We had Call Me by Your Name, Phantom Thread, 1917, Dunkirk, etc. It’s amazing to watch those films with Jim and the other crew. It’s just cool to talk about it with them afterwards,” Flatters said.

In a press conference with Cameron and the main cast, the team also shared an exciting moment between the cast when franchise newcomer Kate Winslet beat Tom Cruise’s record of longest underwater breath-holding on a film set. The veteran actress held her breath for seven minutes and fifteen seconds in comparison to Tom Cruise’s six minutes during the filming of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

“I’m still pissed off, because I’ve been a freediver for fifty years and you smoked past me and everybody else,” Cameron amusingly claimed.

At the same conference, Cameron also opened up about his initial concerns with making a sequel to the 2009 blockbuster hit. “It seems obvious to everyone, ‘oh, you just made a bunch of money, do a sequel,’ right? It’s not a no-brainer, do you want to call down the lightning strike again in the same spot? You know, it’s a lot to live up to,” he explained.

Cameron then shared his desire to evolve the sequel’s story past the original’s themes, all while providing a familiar yet authentic experience of Pandora to the audience. “I think it’s important for a sequel to honor what the audience loved about the experience the first time. But also to, you know, get them off-balance, you know, do things that they don’t expect,” he added.

Cameron stresses that the film is “a lot deeper, in terms of the heart and the emotions” than the first one, claiming that the first had “much simpler” stories and characters. 

Jon Landau agreed with Cameron’s sentiment, explaining that the true excitement in watching the upcoming film is to engage with the themes Cameron has written into the story. “You know, themes are what you leave the theater with, and this movie has heart, has emotion, and it also has… a message about our world, not just the environment, about people, about accepting people for their differences,” he shared.

Avatar: The Way of Water‘ Philippines release is on December 14. The long-awaited film recently premiered in London, and is predicted to rack up at least $150 million on its opening weekend. Cameron claimed that the response to the film has been “overwhelmingly good” so far, with critics praising it as a “visual spectacle.” – Rappler.com

Manolo Soliven is a Rappler intern.

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