Interview: Sam Worthington, actor

He plays the tough guy in all-action movies but, at heart, Sam Worthington is a bit of a pussycat. He certainly has a healthy fear of heights that, finds Claire Black, wasn’t ideal for his latest role

‘I WAS one of these actors who reads the story, gets lost in the tale and forgets he has to actually do it,” says Sam Worthington, explaining how a man with a healthy fear of heights ended up shooting a movie which required that he spend most of his time standing on a 17-inch ledge, 255 feet above the streets of Manhattan. “My mate said ‘it’s called Man on a Ledge, d***head, you have to get out there.’” He laughs.

His mate was right. He did have to get out there. A lot.

Worthington plays Nick Cassidy, an ex-cop who’s been convicted and jailed for stealing a $40 million diamond, although he maintains he’s innocent. To prove it, he takes to the ledge of the Roosevelt Hotel from where he orchestrates a heist which he believes will clear his name. As for how much of the movie was actually shot on the ledge, Worthington says it was more than anyone expected. A studio set was built, but he says shooting out among the pigeons worked better than anyone expected, even him.

“The first time I went out on the ledge I just said, ‘Roll the camera and let’s see what you get.’ And that’s the first bit you see in the movie, it’s the first time I ever did it. I was just lucky I didn’t burst into tears and go into a foetal position.” He laughs.

Worthington was wearing a safety line but he had insisted that it be set loose enough so that he couldn’t feel it, otherwise he reckons he would have been preoccupied with it.

“But every now and then, when I did slip or fall over or trip off, it clicked into place and for that brief second before it did you’re like,” he opens his eyes wide, “your life does flash before your eyes.”

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Worthington’s life, in career terms anyway, goes like this. He was born in Surrey before his parents upped sticks and moved to Perth, Australia, where he grew up with his sister, Lucinda. His dad, Ronald, worked in a power plant and his mum, Jeanne, cleaned houses and looked after elderly people. When he was 18, encouraged by his dad, Worthington travelled round Australia with his then-girlfriend. They ended up in Sydney where she had an audition for Nida (the National Institute of Dramatic Art). She didn’t get in, but he did. After a three-year degree there were roles on stage, on TV and in film. It was small-scale stuff but he was working. And then he followed in the footsteps of plenty of other Aussie actors and went to the US. His career there didn’t happen instantly but it was dramatic when it did. It only took a two-minute audition tape to land him the part of Jake Sully in James Cameron’s motion capture mega-blockbuster Avatar. Since then there’s been Terminator Salvation (2009), and in 2010 alone, The Debt, Clash of the Titans and Last Night before this year’s Texas Killing Fields and now Man on a Ledge.

You can see why people talk about Worthington’s work ethic, he’s certainly been busy, but it’s not all been as he’d hoped.

Worthington doesn’t really do the Hollywood thing. He doesn’t look like a movie star in his Hawaii T-shirt (he lives there) and jeans, sporting a stubbly chin. He looks healthy and rugged, not like a buffed gym bunny, but like a real person. He doesn’t carry a mobile phone, he doesn’t really do small talk; he’s not going to try to convince you that a popcorn movie which is about entertainment is anything other than just that and he’s not going to pretend he’s pleased with everything he’s ever done. In fact, Worthington is his own harshest critic. He regrets how he behaved on the set of the romantic drama Last Night with Keira Knightley, deciding to be “method” and keep his co-star at a distance but instead acting like “a jerk”, and he pulls no punches when it comes to Titans.

“I f***ed up,” he says. “In the first one I let the audience down by not delivering a character. I was a f***in’ generic bland action dude. That was it. I was like a Barbie doll and I didn’t like myself for doing that. I dropped the ball, man. I’ll admit it.”

The second instalment, due out in the summer, he says is a different story and he’s glad to have the opportunity to make it up to his audience. Audience is a word that crops up a lot. He wants to please the punters who pay their money and sit down to be entertained. He wants them to respond to the characters he plays. It’s the same with Man on a Ledge – I get the impression he’s pleased with it because it’s the kind of movie he likes to go and see.

“I read a script and think, ‘Would I pay 16 bucks to go and see it?’ because my responsibility to an audience is to give them their money’s worth. I like the fact that Man on a Ledge is lowbrow, it’s not all this whizz-bang technology. They’ve got a skateboard and fire crackers and a fire extinguisher. To me that’s the funny stuff.

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“In a genre like this – we’ve seen these movies, we’ve seen all the gadgets – so why don’t we just embrace not doing that? It’s called Man on a Ledge, the audience knows what they’re f***in’ getting: it’s about the man getting on the ledge and getting off the ledge.”

It’s probably not quite what the marketing department had in mind, but you can’t fault him for being straightforward. He’s the same when it comes to assessing his career. The parts have been action roles – cops, special forces agents and the like – because that’s what he gets offered. He’s a tough guy, even if he says that off screen he’s a “pussycat” hanging out at home in Hawaii, watching TV, doing his laundry and walking his King Charles spaniel, Bacon.

“When Jamie [Bell] came on set he’d butched up a bit and I was like what’s this? And he said, ‘Well you’re a tough guy so I’ve got to look like a tough guy.’ I was like, ‘I’m acting, I’m a big softy. We’re both pretending here.’” He laughs, but he knows the type he fits and even if he’s not frustrated by it now, there’s just the hint that he might become so.

“If Nick Cassidy had been a ballet dancer, I think it would’ve been a different man on the ledge,” he says wryly, before explaining that he’d love to make a comedy. For a moment I’m pretty sure he’s being serious and then he up-ends it. “Me, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, that’d be the comedy I’d love to do. We’d be like Curly, Larry and Mo.”

Choosing projects is probably a moot point at the moment anyway, given that looming on the horizon for Worthington is the sequel to Avatar. He says he knows quite a bit about it, not that he’s telling, other than to sing the praises of James Cameron who, he says, is a mate.

“I like working with Jim. It’s a war, it’s a circus. It makes you better as an actor. You go into the motion-capture world and there’s no hiding. You work with Jim Cameron, he pushes you that much, that all the cobwebs and bad habits that I’ve picked up since the last time,” he shakes his head and smiles, “he’s going to f***ing destroy me. There’s a part of me that’s scared.” He laughs.

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• Man on a Ledge is on general release