Sam Worthington: a man on a mission

We talk to the Avatar star about taking on the heist film Man on a Ledge, opening in UAE cinemas today.

Sam Worthington stars in Man on a Ledge, in UAE cinemas today. Kristian Dowling / AP Photo
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James Mottram talks to Sam Worthington about his latest film Man on a Ledge and reprising his role as Perseus in Wrath of the Titans

In these days of sensitive "new men", Sam Worthington is that rare Hollywood commodity. Like Russell Crowe and Mel Gibson, the star of Avatar and Terminator: Salvation oozes Aussie machismo. Even his endorsements suggest he's a man's man. You won't find Worthington advertising skin creams, designer suits or aftershave, living the GQ lifestyle. No. His major commercial outing was in the (admittedly brilliant) ad for the computer game sensation Call of Duty, in which he played a soldier tutoring Jonah Hill in combat manoeuvres.

Famously, he spent time living in a beat-up old Toyota Corona car when he was broke. Now, since Avatar became the biggest film of all time, he can afford a life of luxury - although you sense it doesn't impress him. "Well, I like living in hotels because they make your bed, they put a chocolate on your pillow and you can phone them up and get food anytime." he grins. "But you try to keep yourself rooted and down to earth. I'm Australian - that kinda helps." Born in Surrey in England, before his family emigrated, there's evidently very little Briton left in him.

With his weathered features, the 35 year old is not the most handsome devil (even if he did convince in the romantic drama Last Night, with Keira Knightley and Eva Mendes) and knows it could all end tomorrow. "My mate said a really cool thing to me once. He said, 'You can always go back to your own country'." Having started his career there in "intimate kitchen sink dramas", they'd gladly have him back if he flopped in Hollywood. "At the moment I can take a few hits. So I'll give it a crack. That's how Harrison [Ford] and Mel [Gibson] did it."

His latest film, Man on a Ledge, puts a new spin on that old Hollywood sell, the "high-concept" movie. "It's about a dude on a ledge," laughs Worthington, who plays Nick Cassidy. A disgraced cop, on the run after a hair-raising jailbreak, his venture to the 21st-floor ledge of a plush Manhattan hotel is no suicide bid. Rather, he's a decoy, so his brother (Jamie Bell) can pull off a heist nearby and gather evidence to prove his innocence. "It's like Phone Booth meets The Negotiator," notes Worthington, who clearly has the movie's pitch down pat.

While the negotiating is left to Elizabeth Banks, who plays the cop entrusted with the job of safely talking Cassidy down, the comparisons to Joel Schumacher's Phone Booth make complete sense, too. Like that thriller, which saw Colin Farrell at the mercy of a sniper, similarly the character is confined to a small, but very exposed, public space. Still, Farrell was just left to sweat it out in a phone box; Worthington actually stepped on to that ledge for real.

Shot at New York's Roosevelt Hotel, he spent three weeks standing on a 14-inch ledge more than 200 feet above Madison Avenue. So does he have an insane head for heights? "I do now. I didn't back then." he grunts. "It's a different kind of vertigo. It's just different. It's unbelievable. What's harder is that you get used to it, so acting nervous is a lot harder than actually running around. Your brain can't comprehend it. And the director is in your ear, [talking over an earpiece], so he can give you the directions. He's not going to come out on the ledge with you."

Such bravado is typical of Worthington, though it seems there's no harsher critic of his work than himself. Take Clash of the Titans. Never mind that the 2010 remake took almost half a billion dollars. "I wasn't happy with what I delivered, personally," he says. "It wasn't the movie that I would have liked it to be." Certainly, this offers explanation for why he wanted to reprise his troubled demigod Perseus for the forthcoming sequel Wrath of the Titans. "There were mistakes that I wanted to rectify. Basically, we just wanted to make something a bit bigger and bolder, and hopefully better."

He certainly left his co-star Rosamund Pike, who plays Andromeda in Wrath, impressed. "Sam is not a 'yes man'. He's inquisitive, and interrogative and challenging," she says. "I think he cares very deeply." Worthington nods in agreement. "I [do] care about it, man. I spend five months of my life filming it, I spend another two months promoting it, then the rest of my life living with it. So you better give the audience what they deserve. I'm only here because some dude wants to pay $12 to go and see me in a film. And if I'm not up to the calibre he expects … I should be working a lot harder for him."

There's a rough-hewn work ethic to Worthington, doubtless stemming from his Perth upbringing. Living in Warnbro, a suburb of Rockingham, just south of the city, near to where his father worked in a power plant, Worthington dropped out of school when he was 17 and took a job in construction. "I was never really trying to get into the [film] industry. I was a bricklayer. I wanted to build houses. That was my job." He only "fell" into it after he started dating a girl who was trying out for the Sydney-based drama school, NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art).

Auditioning alongside her "out of moral support", he got in - and she didn't. Graduating in 1998, he immediately found work, initially in a production of David Hare's play The Judas Kiss. Australian films and TV shows followed - most notably, 2004's romantic drama Somersault, which won him the Australian Film Institute award for Best Actor. He likens it to his own builder's apprenticeship. "One brick at a time is the cliché. But that's exactly what it is. One brick at a time builds a house. One movie at a time builds a career, whether by chance or design."

A surfer in Drift (a low-budget Aussie movie made by his mates), a soldier in the Iraq war drama Thunder Run and, of course, that much-anticipated return to Pandora in Avatar 2, his next roles look set to continue this winning formula. Yet there's no cool-headed career calculation here. "You can't really plan it," he says. "I pick a movie that I would like to go and see, whether it's a $200 million epic or a $20 million Australian movie." If he sticks with this, he'll have - as they say in his nation - no worries.

Man on a Ledge opens in UAE cinemas on Thursday