The Debt - Sam Worthington
Secret agent David Peretz (Sam Worthington) © 2011 Focus Features

Don’t let some of Sam Worthington’s movies, like Clash of the Titans, its sequel Wrath of the Titans, Terminator Salvation and Avatar deceive you into thinking he’s just a good-looking action hero. This guy can act, which is very evident in his new movie The Debt. In it he stars as David, a young Mossad secret agent in1966, who along with two other agents, Rachel (Jessica Chastain) and Stephan (Marton Csokas), have been sent to track down Nazi war criminal, Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the feared Surgeon of Birkenau, in East Berlin. At great risk, and personal cost, their mission was accomplished … or was it?

Thirty-one years later, in 1997, Rachel (played by Helen Mirren), Stephen (Tom Wilkinson) and David (Ciaran Hinds) receive some shocking news that will change their lives forever.

I spoke with Sam Worthington about his new dramatic role, and the interesting phenomenon of sharing the character of David with another actor, Ciaran Hinds.

How did this movie come to you, or did you go after it?

The Debt - Sam Worthington
Secret agent David Peretz (Sam Worthington) © 2011 Focus Features

I was doing Terminator at the time in Albuquerque, in the middle of nowhere, and [the movie’s director] John Madden, flew all the way to talk to me.

I thought that any man that’s willing to fly to Albuquerque, I’ll sign on, it doesn’t matter what it is. And he gave it a really nice sell, he’s a very eloquent man, he’s a great storyteller. His work is quite diverse, from Shakespeare in Love to this. It was quite an easy sell.

What kind of preparation did you do for The Debt?

I kind of take my research off the script. You always try to find your way in, and that was my way in for this, talking with Ciaran and trying to figure out what we wanted to do with David. The themes of the holocaust and tracking down the war criminals, you can read a mountain of books on it but I think the movie is broader than that.

It’s about issues you face within yourself, so that was my kind of research, talking to John, and the script.

What kind of issues was your character dealing with?

The Debt - Sam Worthington
Secret agent David Peretz (Sam Worthington) © 2011 Focus Features

It’s about guilt and the ramifications of your actions, which we always deal with anyway, but in this to harbor something like that secret and then live off it the rest of your life – can you get away with it? And then when it does bite you in the butt how do you handle it?

Can you talk a little more about working with Ciaran? Did he watch your performance, because you shot your scenes first?

Yeah, he watched mine. We didn’t talk that much. Ciaran and I met, I said, ‘Here’s how I’m looking at him.

He’s a ticking time-bomb, he’s the one that is the quiet one of the group but had the most passion, and therefore when they can’t finish the mission, that’s when he spirals out.’ I think that’s all we really talked about and Ciaran went and watched some rushes and took it from there.

I see little things Ciaran does that I did, which I find fascinating. Just tiny moments of my head, I have a very distinct head movement and he popped it in.

And there’s something about his soul that’s what I wanted David to be when he grew [older].

Can you talk about working with Marton and Jessica?

The Debt - Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain
Secret agents conspire: Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas), David Peretz (Sam Worthington) and Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain) © 2011 Focus Features

I think the world of Jess Chastain, I think she’s the best actress out there, she’s very stage trained, so am I, so is Marton. John has got a background in stage, so we shot the scenes in order in the house, like on a stage. So it felt like a little play. I had a great time working with both of them.

You worked with Jessica again in the Texas Killing Fields. Did you have a familiarity and rapport that made it easy to work together?

In The Debt we’re both scared young lovers at the beginnings of a blossoming romance. Texas Killing Fields is the end of a relationship, we’re divorced in it. So as we had actually had a film relationship, it was easier for me!

What kind of training did you do for this?

They trained us in krav maga, but I find any kind of physical action quite easy, to be honest with you. I found it kind of interesting that it was an attack form of defense, it’s not actually defense.

If you’re taking on a guy with a knife, the chances are you’re probably going to get knifed, but the way krav maga is, it’s a forward thinking action, so if you get hit with the knife it doesn’t matter because it means you may be able to take down the opponent.

That to me is the way Israelis think; it’s a forward way of thinking. What they believe in, their belief is correct and they go straight for it. I found that parallel interesting.

Where does Avatar stand right now, is there a script?

The Debt - Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington
Secret agents Stephan Gold (Marton Csokas) and David Peretz (Sam Worthington) get involved in some espionage © 2011 Focus Features

Jim has told me the idea for 2 and 3, and it huge, it’s monumental.

Are you going to shoot both at the same time?

I think that’s the plan, because then everything’s in place. But it’s massive. At the moment I know that he’s doing a lot of other things, but he’s also writing a bible to get himself back into the world. He’s not going to start it until he knows that he can push the envelope again.

As an actor, when you made Avatar, did you have any idea what that film was going to be until you saw it?

You don’t even know when you’re seeing it. I remember we were flying to Russia to promote it, and we had already seen it, and Jim was always adamant, saying, ‘Look, science fiction movies don’t do very well, so just be prepared for anything.’

There’s a difference from a movie being successful, like a Harry Potter [film], or an anomaly like Avatar, which when you look at the figures it’s out there, and the speed that it made its money [is unbelievable]. It’s not only that people were seeing it once; they were seeing it two, three, four times.

It’s a phenomenon you can’t prepare for, or understand when it’s happening.

When you do something like Avatar and then you do something like this, which is so real and gritty, it’s such a different experience – did you enjoy this more than acting against a green screen?

Each movie is its own beast, its own journey. I don’t mind green screen, I don’t mind being in the volume, I don’t mind working with nothing, and I don’t mind doing smaller movies like this that I grew up on in Australia. To me each job has its own challenges and its own joys.


Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.