Geek Interview: Sam Worthington & Cliff Curtis Tread New Waters In ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’, Where Work Feels Like Play

As explorers on land, there’s always a sort of fascination, and at times, fear, that comes with leaving behind the familiar comfort of hard, solid ground. Air travel, when it was first introduced, sparked intrigue and curious excitement, and there continue to be many who feel queasy or anxious about the idea and the experience itself. 

The same can be said for underwater activities, especially when there’s depth and vastness involved. This fear of the unknown is why deep-diving isn’t the most appealing prospect for most, even if doing so would satisfy the curiosity that one has of the kind of life and organisms only found in the sea.

For actors Sam Worthington and Cliff Curtis, the pressure of starring in the follow-up to the biggest movie in the world, Avatar, also came with the actual physical one, as Avatar: The Way of Water, takes place in the oceans, which meant filming around, above, in and deep underwater. 

Luckily, underwater filming proved to be a pleasant experience, and in place of distress and unease was tranquility on the set for Worthington, who reprises his role as Jake Sully, and describes the whole affair as “very calming”.

“It’s very calming when you are in the water tanks, when you are 30 feet deep,” Worthington said in an interview with Geek Culture. “There’s a calmness to it – you have to be relaxed in order to get your job done even though it’s a risky situation and has never been attempted [by the cast].” 

Where the original 2009 sci-fi epic took audiences to the forests and skies of Pandora, its follow-up will explore subterranean life. The Way of Water, set more than a decade after the events of the first movie, now sees Jake as a proud father of three, as he, together with his mate Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), goes to great lengths to keep their family safe. Later, the family ends up at the reefs that house the Metkayina clan, where everyone is born and raised in water. 

It’s nothing short of apt, then, that Curtis, who plays the newly-introduced leader Tonowari, found joy in the, well, way of the water, despite the gruel of free-dive training that saw the actors learning how to hold their breath for many minutes at a time. Comparing his stint to “the kind of experience that you’d pay to get into a fun theme park,” the Kiwi actor shared that work felt a lot like play during these underwater scenes. 

“I’ve never worked a day on this movie, [I was] just having the best time, going to have fun, and play in this world. I loved working in water – whether it’s on top of the water or underneath the water – anything to do with water was just a gift for me, I just enjoyed every moment of it.”

Part of the fun also stems from being able to breathe life into the magical creatures of Pandora. The first Avatar film dazzled with its stunning tapestry of flora and fauna, and Way of the Water will expand the list with new species, including the large aquatic predator Skimwing, and the lithe, long-necked reptile Ilu. 

“At the end of the day we get to ride crazy creatures inside a big pool – we’re grown men and that’s our job – it’s insane and a lot of fun,” Worthington quipped, lips pulled into a small smile. 

All of that wildlife, like in the real world, is an element of a larger ecosystem at play: nature. The inhabitants of Pandora share a respectful, symbiotic relationship with the natural world, and it’s a dynamic that the sequel will continue to explore by blending real-world influences into the fictional setting. 

Tonowari is an example of this collision between both worlds. In the movie, the character sports tattoos that are inspired by the Melanesian culture, and like every member of the Metkayina clan, shares the same religion as the tulkun, a sea creature that takes after the whales of earth.  

“[The story is] very inspired by the Polynesian, the Micronesian, and Oceanic cultures, so a lot of the art and the way of life – the living in the ocean, the relationship with nature – is very inspired by a traditional way of life,” Curtis shared. 

“I think it’s a beautiful part of the movie that’s most meaningful to me: that [the] way of life has been lost by most of humanity, and that we recreate this on Pandora to show how life used to be on this planet.” 

For Jake, the themes of loss and preservation also serve as a powerful driving force. Far from the straggler in the first movie, he’s now determined to protect the culture that has given him a place to call home. “He’s embraced the culture, and he’s created and built the family that he was potentially missing in the first Avatar,” Worthington said of his on-screen character. 

“The first movie says that [Pandora] opens your eyes, and I think Jake opened his eyes to a different environment, a different culture, and a different way of being – to me, this movie’s protecting that.”

And it’s going to be an emotional ride. The Clash of the Titan star revealed that it was “very challenging to do emotions underwater, [and] to do it authentically and truthfully,” so expect an intense, stirring journey back to Pandora.

Avatar: The Way of Water opens in theatres on 16 December.