When Sam Worthington (“Avatar,” “Terminator Salvation”) walks into an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel, he looks nothing like the tormented Holocaust survivor and Mossad agent he plays so soulfully in the spy thriller “The Debt,” opening Aug. 31. His short-cropped hair and clean-shaven mug has given way to long, scruffy locks and a wild reddish beard he’s grown to shoot “Drift,” a surfer drama set in the 1970s in Australia. When asked about the bracelet he’s wearing, embossed with the letters “C-H-E-W-Y,” the Aussie actor laughs and explains, “It’s because I’m hairy, like Chewbacca [in “Star Wars].”
He adds of the “Drift” filmmakers: “They said to grow everything out. So I look like Zach Galifianakis at the moment.”
In “The Debt,” 35-year-old Worthington plays David, one of three Mossad agents sent to East Berlin in the 1960s to kidnap and bring to Israel for trial an infamous Nazi doctor, dubbed the “surgeon of Birkenau” (Jesper Christensen). His comrades are Rachel (Jessica Chastain) and Stephan (Marton Csokas), an ambitious agent who hopes the mission will boost his career.
David, who lost his entire family in the Holocaust, is motivated by the debt to the 6 million; he is determined to bring the war criminal to trial, in a civilized fashion, so that the entire world can learn of his deeds. But when the plan to kidnap Doktor Dieter Vogel goes wrong, the repercussions haunt and threaten to destroy David. When a lie the agents tell about the mission threatens to emerge in Tel Aviv in 1997, another kind of debt must be paid.
Each character is played by two sets of actors: Worthington, Chastain and Csokas are the agents in the ‘60s, while the older thespians Ciarán Hinds, Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson, respectively, portray the characters three decades later.
Worthington is best known in this country as an action star, but “The Debt’s” director, John Madden, saw the actor differently when he flew to the “Terminator” set in Albuquerque to convince him to play David. “James Cameron’s ’Avatar’ had not yet come out, nor had ‘Terminator Salvation,’ although the Cameron film was breaking a lot of ground and bringing Sam a lot of attention,” Madden recalls of the time. “But I had seen Sam in this little Australian film called ‘Somersault’ , and he popped into my head for ‘The Debt’ because he has this unusual quality that you don’t see very much in the movies he’s made since. He is very masculine; he’s got a very powerful, heroic presence, but he’s also got a hidden kind of emotional fragility about him, which he is not noted for, particularly, but it’s definitely there. That was what I noticed immediately about him in ‘Somersault,’ and I thought you needed both sides of that coin for the character of David.
Worthington was impressed that the British director had traveled all the way to New Mexico to pitch his film: “I thought, ‘Any man who’s willing to fly to f——-g Albuquerque, how could I not sign on?’ John is an eloquent man and a great storyteller; his work is quite diverse, from ‘Shakespeare in Love’ to ‘The Debt,’ which I found interesting. So it was quite an easy sell, to be honest. And so I said, ‘Why not?’”
When I asked Worthington about the so-called “Holocaust fatigue” experienced by moviegoers, given the plethora of such films, he said he doesn’t view “The Debt” as a Holocaust movie. “It’s about guilt,” he said, “and carrying a weight and a burden, and the ramifications of your actions when you harbor something like this secret and live off that secret for the rest of your life. Can you get away with it? And when it does bite you in the butt, how do you handle it?
“You can read a mountain of books on the themes of the Holocaust and tracking down war criminals,” he added, “but the movie is much broader and bigger than that. It’s a taut thriller that delves into the repercussions of one’s actions, whether it’s a Nazi war criminal or a brilliant African drug lord. It’s about any kind of event that ripples throughout your life.”
Here are more excerpts from the interview:
Q: How did you prepare to play the role of David?
A: I tend to do my research off the scripts; everyone’s process is different. Me and Ciaran [Hinds, who plays David as an older man] met, and I said, ‘Here’s how I’m looking at the character: He’s a ticking time bomb; he’s the quiet one of the group, he holds his losses inside of him, but he has the most passion. Therefore when he lets Vogel get to him, and they can’t finish the mission, that starts him on a downward spiral.’”
Q: You rehearsed and shot the scenes in which the agents hold Vogel hostage in an East Berlin apartment on a set inspired by the paintings of Francis Bacon.
A: We had a very intense rehearsal period and then actually shot those scenes in order, like on a stage, so it felt like a little play. But by the time we finished we felt like rats kind of crawling to get out of the house. We all wanted to knock the whole place down, which kind of helped, because the characters are supposed to feel claustrophobic. We’d been in there for five weeks; we’d gone from playing happy family to this guy is sh—ing and peeing on the floor. So the reactions are true, and that’s what I liked about it. I wanted out; I didn’t like being there.
Q: What was your approach to the scenes in which the Nazi doctor taunts your character as a Jew?
A: John [the director] said, “Just keep it really contained, don’t do f—k all. Whatever you’re feeling, whenever this guy’s attacking you, don’t move a muscle; just sit still. You do stoic better than any other f—ing actor, so we might as well exploit it instead of you getting burned for it for once—we’ll try and get you commended (laughs).
Q: You learned the Israeli martial art, Krav Maga, for the role.
A: They trained us a lot but I find any physical action quite easy, to be honest. I found it interesting that Krav Maga is an attack form of defense. You fight people who are going at you; you might get struck in the head four times but it doesn’t matter. If you are taking on a guy with a knife, the chances are you’re going to get knifed. Krav Maga is a forward-thinking action, and that, to me, is also a way of understanding how the Israelis think. It’s a forward way of thinking; it’s what they believe in; they believe their belief is correct and they go straight for it, so I found that parallel interesting.
Q: What was the biggest challenge for you on this film?
A: The accent. I always struggle with accents and everyone bags me for it, but that’s something you just keep learning. It’s a weird accent because we’re doing German dialect with an Israeli accent on top of an Australian accent in my case. So the voice coach got us all together and we found a kind of solid, universal sound we could all aspire to.
Q: There’s a remarkable story about how you accidentally became an actor – as a result of accompanying someone to an audition for drama school.
A: I was a bricklayer; I built houses. And I did go an audition with this person for moral support, except that I got in, and she didn’t. In hindsight, it’s because I was willing to do anything. And it beat mixing cement for the day.
Q: Where does the future of the new “Avatar” films stand right now?
A: Jim [James Cameron] has told me the idea for films two and three, and it’s fu—ing huge. I think the plan is to shoot both at the same time, because then everything’s in place, but it’s massive. At the moment, I know he’s doing a lot of other things. But this is monumental, and he’s not going to start it until he knows he can really push the envelope again.
Q: When you do something like “Avatar,” with all the special effects, and then something like “The Debt,” which is so gritty and tactile – which kind of experience do you find more rewarding?
A: Each movie is its own beast, its own kind of journey. I don’t mind green screen, I don’t mind working with nothing, and I don’t mind doing smaller movies like this that I grew up on in Australia. Each job has its own challenges, and its own kind of joys.
Q: Was it easier working with Jessica Chastain in the upcoming film, “The Texas Killing Fields,” after acting with her on “The Debt?”
A: In “The Debt,” we’re scared young lovers, in the beginnings of a potentially blossoming romance. And in “Texas Killing Fields” we’re at the end of a relationship; we’re divorced. Jessica and I have had this film kind of relationship, and we’ve also become friends, so it was easier for me.
Q: What is John Madden like as a director?
A: He has an ease with direction. He lets you do your work, he trusts you, he hires you for a reason. Some directors hire you and then try to mold you, which is ridiculous. I was hired because of 15 years in this industry and 30-odd movies, so I know what I’m bringing to the table. John lets you do it and if he does have any sense of direction, he does it in such a tactful, easy way that you kind of don’t even know he got you there. It’s like a cat with a bit of tin foil: it’s beautiful.