Avatar: Characters and Actors

“Avatar” explores the journey of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a wounded former Marine confined to a wheelchair, whose bravery and destiny help define a world he didn’t even know existed. When Jake is recruited to travel to the moon Pandora to take on an enormous challenge–the details of which he is initially unaware–he barely hesitates.
“Jake had joined the Marines for the hardship, to test himself,” says James Cameron. “So when he’s asked to travel to Pandora, he picks up his pack and, as the Marines would say, ‘grunts on.'”  Jake’s disability, hard-headedness and courage make him an immediately recognizable and relatable figure. “He’s an everyman with an emotional resonance to which audiences can relate,” says Cameron.
Jake has been recruited to travel to Pandora by the RDA, to replace his genetically identical twin brother, a young scientist who trained for the mission but died just before shipping out from Earth. Jake is no scientist, but his DNA makes him uniquely qualified, since his brother’s DNA was combined with that of Pandora’s indigenous Na’vi to create a human-Na’vi hybrid…or avatar. Now only Jake can “drive,” or telepathically operate, what was once his brother’s avatar. Through his avatar body, Jake is given a new purpose, new challenges, and an adventure that will take him to his limits – and beyond. Says actor Sam Worthington: “Pandora gives Jake the opportunity to find himself, realize his potential, and understand that through his choices, he can become a better man.”
Jake is a rich and complex character with a rare combination of passion, strength, street smarts and soul. It’s a role requiring a lot from an actor, a fact that Cameron acknowledged when he, Landau and casting director Margery Simkin began their search to fill the part. “The trick about Jake was not writing the character,” says Cameron. “The trick was finding the guy to play him.”
After spending months looking at actors in the U.S. and Europe, Simkin reported to Cameron that she found a candidate, in  Australia. Sam Worthington, Simkin told the filmmaker, had a “visceral quality and would make audiences believe that people would follow him. There was an intelligence and intensity in his eyes that never wavered.”
Intrigued, the filmmakers offered Worthington an audition, but he was initially skeptical due to the secrecy surrounding the project and the scant details about the character of Jake being offered to Worthington at that time. “I got a phone call to do this audition, but they wouldn’t tell me anything about the script or even who the director was,” Worthington recalls. “And I thought, ‘Well, here’s another waste of my time.’ Then, a week later, I got another phone call…’Look, Jim Cameron wants to fly you to L.A. to audition for him.’ And I said, ‘Yes, but for what?'”
The audition was for “Avatar” and a role Worthington would come to embrace. But even after Cameron filled him in on the story and on the character of Jake, adding an intriguing question to complete his pitch to the actor–“Are you ready to start the adventure?”–Worthington had one earthbound priority to fulfill before beginning his journey to Pandora. “I told Jim, yes, of course I’ll join him on the adventure – but first I’ve got to get the brakes fixed on my car.”
For Cameron and Landau, Worthington was worth the wait. “I think one of the hardest things to find in an actor of Sam’s age is a combination of sensitivity, vulnerability and strength, and Sam has all of that,” says Landau.
Worthington’s innate fearlessness not only helped him capture Jake’s spirit and courage, it stood him in good stead with his director, a bigger-than-life figure in his own right. “I take my work seriously, just like Jim takes his work seriously,” says Worthington. “We both come at the work wanting to give it everything we’ve got.”
While many of the actors, including Worthington, received special physical and weapons training, Worthington was more interested in the mental preparation to portray Jake. “I didn’t want my prep to be like boot camp,” he says. “Anyone can do push-ups. I hung out with Jim’s brother, John David, a former Marine. To me it was more about capturing the way these Marines see the world – and how their training can make them think they’re unstoppable.”
Jake’s first encounter with Pandora’s indigenous Na’vi is a fateful one, leading to unexpected emotional resonance, as well as high-stakes action and adventure. While exploring the moon’s lush rainforest, Jake is attacked by some of its deadliest animals. As he faces certain death, Jake is rescued by Neytiri, a fearless and beautiful huntress, and a member of the nearby Omaticaya Clan. Their meeting is charged with strong emotions, both negative and positive, and ultimately a connection that neither could have anticipated. “The first thing Jake notices about Neytiri is that she’s really hot,” laughs Sam Worthington. “Then he starts to realize she’s a strong, independent woman who can help him become a better person.”
Neytiri’s initial impression of Jake is not a favorable one; in fact, it’s contemptuous. Even as an avatar, Jake represents to Neytiri the humans’ slash-and-burn mentality, which threatens the Na’vi’s very existence. To save Jake’s life, she has had to kill viperwolves, whose viciousness makes them no less an integral part of the planet’s ecosystem, to which the Na’vi have a strong connection. “Neytiri, like all her people, doesn’t understand the ways of the humans and their methods and mission of human cruelty,” says Zoë Saldana, who portrays Neytiri. “The Na’vi also can’t understand how the humans mistreat the environment, which is holy to the Na’vi.”
“In my mind, Neytiri and her people represent our better selves in how they live in their world – in symbiosis, empathy and harmony,” adds Cameron. “This is something to which we should all aspire. To that end, I think the story celebrates a connection to the environment, maybe at a time when we’ve lost touch with it.”
Neytiri’s instinctual gifts allow her to see beyond Jake’s coarseness. “She sees something about Jake to which she is attracted,” says Saldana. “Sure, at first, she absolutely hates him, but her feelings become more complex, confusing her and forcing her to make the most important decisions of her life.”
The character of Neytiri points to Cameron’s interest in creating strong female characters, and Neytiri joins such previous Cameron iconic heroines as “Aliens’s” Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver, whose performance became a template for action heroines – and who reunites with Cameron on AVATAR after over twenty years since their landmark collaboration), “The Terminator’s” (and “T2’s”) Sarah Connor, “Titanic’s” Rose DeWitt Bukater, “The Abyss’s” Lindsay Brigman, and “True Lies’s” Helen Tasker. None of these characters can be reduced to being simply a love interest, and Neytiri follows that rich tradition, combining strength, grace, athleticism, beauty, sexuality, vulnerability and emotional clarity. “Zoë captured every aspect of the character I envisioned,” notes Cameron, who especially admired her “combination of delicacy and fierceness and incredible physicality,” developed through years of professional dancing.
“Neytiri was the most physically demanding role I’ve ever done, and I trained for months before production to capture the character’s grace and power,” says Saldana. “I wanted to incorporate my body into a character, and AVATAR was an amazing opportunity to do that.” Saldana’s reaction to the CG renderings of Neytiri? “I thanked Jim. Neytiri is sexy and cut, long and lean. And the performance was all me!”
Saldana’s pre-production training regimen included riding, martial arts, archery, and movement study and practice. In addition, she and other principal cast members traveled with Cameron to Hawaii, which substituted for the environment he had envisioned for Pandora. “We had to live without sophisticated technology, tools and comforts,” Saldana recalls. “I was almost naked for three days, digging and climbing and muddy like a dead rat,” she laughs. “I was missing creature comforts, and I was like, ‘I can’t deal with this.’ And Jim said, ‘Oh come on, Neytiri, suck it up!'”
Once the cast and filmmakers arrived at the Los Angeles performance capture stage, Saldana was thankful to have experienced the Hawaii adventure. “On this bare stage, which had no sets, we had to act as if we were in Pandora’s mud, water, humidity, trees, elevation – everything,” Saldana says. “Being in Hawaii gave us a mental imprint on which we could draw when we had to simulate an action on the virtual stage.”
Another female in Jake’s new life on Pandora is Grace Augustine, a scientist who runs the Avatar Program. A trained botanist, Grace has lived on Pandora for fifteen years, having long departed Earth because the overcrowded, ecologically devastated planet no longer has biodiversity worthy of study. On Pandora, Grace moves back and forth between her scientific work on the human base, Hell’s Gate, and her fieldwork as an avatar in the Pandoran rainforest. “Grace is trying to create a bridge of trust with the Na’vi but she keeps getting sabotaged by the soldiers on the base,” says Sigourney Weaver, who portrays Grace. “Grace loves Pandora and the Na’vi with all her heart, and hopes she can somehow protect them from the forces of industrial Earth.”
Grace is not pleased by Jake’s arrival on Pandora to join the Avatar Program. She sees him as ill prepared, if not totally unqualified to become part of an elite scientific team. “Grace is livid about Jake becoming an avatar,” says Weaver. “She’s thinking, ‘He’s here because he fits the suit?!'” referring to his DNA match with the avatar’s former “driver,” Jake’s deceased scientist brother.
Grace comes to have a change of heart about Jake, who impresses his new boss with his burgeoning affection for and respect of the Na’vi. Weaver enjoyed playing the Jake-Grace dynamic opposite Sam Worthington, whom she sees as a new action hero – and more. And, Weaver – forever beloved for her role as Ellen Ripley from the “Alien” film series – obviously knows a thing or two about action movie icons. “It’s hard to play action heroes,” she explains. “You have to be very specific about your approach. People think that action movies are all about physicality; they are not. You have to have the other ‘lives’ going on at the same time. You have to endow the character with so much specificity. I saw Sam do all of that on Avatar.”
Augustine’s bete noir is Col. Miles Quaritch, head of security for the human base on Pandora. Quaritch’s mission is to facilitate the RDA’s goal to mine Pandora – and not to win the hearts and minds of the Na’vi. He has contempt for the Avatar Program because it runs counter to his mission, which is to protect the humans who live and work on Pandora.
Quaritch has qualities that are less than admirable, but actor Stephen Lang says he found much to admire – and even pity – in the character. “Quaritch has a sense of mission and discipline and that appealed to me,” says Lang, who earlier this year starred as a Depression-era FBI agent in “Public Enemies.” “He’s an able frontline leader; no one doubts his abilities.” But is he a villain? “Well, he’s certainly not a hypocrite. With Quaritch, what you see is what you get.
“I found Quaritch to be very moving for what he lacked – that his soul was in such a state of chaos and decrepitude. It’s a sad thing for him to be in a veritable Eden and yet be incapable of understanding it. I think he’s relatable to many people who’ve experienced the trials and anguish of war.”
Another capable and tough human at Hell’s Gate is Trudy Chacon, a tilt-rotor pilot who’s tasked with shuttling both humans and avatars from the base to science sites out in the wilderness. But unlike Quaritch, Trudy is cool, laid back and definitely not like the other soldiers. “Basically, Trudy takes care of the scientists in the Avatar Program, flying them back and forth from the lab to their duties in country,” explains Michelle Rodriguez, who takes on the role – another great James Cameron action heroine.
Rodriguez, who drew attention for her film-starring debut, the acclaimed independent drama “Girlfight,” appreciates Cameron’s ability to write great female characters, as well as his perceptions about acting and actors. “I think Jim really has the ability see through people,” says Rodriguez. “He really understands people for what and who they really are.”
Norm Spellman, another scientist/avatar in the Program, was the project’s golden boy, having worked and studied for his journey to Pandora for five years. But that changes when Jake arrives. “Norm is book-smart but he is no match for Jake’s innate leadership skills,” says Joel David Moore, who plays Norm and whose many credits include the comedy smash “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.” “Norm is resentful and jealous of Jake, but like so many on Pandora, he comes to admire Jake and be inspired by him.” Indeed, Jake’s arrival triggers a dramatic new journey for Norm.
Keeping a watchful eye on the mining operation, the scientists and all the activities at Hell’s Gate is Parker Selfridge, the smart, forceful, charismatic station administrator who is focused on the success of RDA’s operations on Pandora. Giovanni Ribisi (“Public Enemies,” “Lost in Translation”) says that Selfridge is “calm and ruthless in pursuit of his goals. He’s an administrator but has a lot of hubris and considers himself more of a CEO or corporate president.” But even a hardened corporate type like Selfridge, who notes that the “one thing the RDA stockholders hate worse than bad press, is a bad quarterly statement,” can undergo life altering changes on Pandora.
Other key roles in “Avatar” are taken by CCH Pounder (“The Shield”) as the Na’vi matriarch Mo’at, whose command and dignity holds the respect of her people; Wes Studi (“Last of the Mohicans”) as Na’vi clan leader Eytukan, a stern, commanding presence who provides for the Na’vi and protects them from harm; Laz Alonso as Tsu’tey, the clan’s most accomplished hunter, who constantly challenges Jake throughout the latter’s journey on Pandora; Dileep Rao (“Drag Me to Hell”) as Dr. Max Patel, a scientist in the Avatar Program; and Matt Gerald (“Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”) as Corp. Lyle Wainfleet, a cruel Secops trooper who typifies the humans’ contempt for the Na’vi.
Providing added dimensions to specific aspects of the actors’ performances are noted linguist Paul Frommer, Ph.D., who worked with Cameron to devise an entire language for the Na’vi; as well as Terry Notary, a former Cirque du Soleil performer, and celebrated choreographer Lula Washington, who respectively helped the create Na’vi movements and the choreography for the Na’vi dancers.
As with so many aspects of “Avatar,” the Na’vi language brings together the completely original with the familiar and relatable. Frommer, a professor at USC, explains: “The Na’vi have similar sound limitations as humans, enabling the Avatar scientists to actually learn and speak the Na’vi tongue.”
Early in the process, Cameron provided Frommer with the kinds of sounds the filmmaker had in mind for the Na’vi. Frommer then designed a linguistic palette. “It was all about giving Jim possibilities and options,” says Frommer. “Some sounds he liked; some not. Then we locked in the language’s structural properties, pronunciation rules, and how the words were built.”
This complex work resulted in the creation of a vocabulary of over a thousand words, as well as a specific structure and grammar, all of which the actors learned with skill and speed. The cast also worked closely with dialect coach Carla Meyer to fine-tune the dialect for the invented tongue.
Sam Worthington’s linguistic challenges were heightened by the fact that the Australian native had to learn to speak not only a new language; he had to acquire an American accent. “It was like learning two languages,” says Worthington. “And let me tell you: the Na’vi [language] was easier than the American accent!”
“I spent at least two hours a day working on the American accent and learning the Na’vi language,” Worthington continues. “I worked to phonetically break the language down, so it didn’t sound like I’m acting through gauze.” Worthington notes that Jake’s grasp of the Na’vi language is a work-in-progress throughout the story, which allowed or even necessitated the occasional linguistic slip-up.
Zoë Saldana and Laz Alonso, both fluent in Spanish, found it easier to learn the Na’vi language, walking away from the AVATAR shoot as probably the only actor/ tri-linguists in the world fluent in….Na’vi. But perhaps the most fun with the invented patois was had by the film’s crew, which adopted specific Na’vi words – skowng, meaning “moron,” was a particular favorite – to playfully tease one another.
Dance and movement studies also enabled the actors to delve further into their characters. Na’vi dance choreographer Lula Washington, artistic director of the Lula Washington Dance Theater, notes that the Pandora natives celebrate themselves through dance. “They’re an elegant, proud people who love their land. In that respect they’re close to our aboriginal cultures.” The dancers from Lula’s troupe became part of the cast, as members of the Omaticaya clan, and their graceful, feral movement can be seen throughout the film.
Terry Notary created movements inspired by indigenous cultures as well as animals like big cats and primates. Notary explains: “We worked to answer questions like, How would the Na’vi touch? How would they reach? How would they move when they’re happy? And how would they use their tail?”