February 3, 2023

When it was announced that Sigourney Weaver had joined the cast of Avatar: The Way Of Water, the internet rumour mill went into overdrive conceiving the ways in which her character, Dr. Grace Augustine, could come back after seemingly being subsumed into the Tree Of Life by Eywa. When invited to lunch by James Cameron to discuss the new film, the actor was as confused as the rest of us as to how she might return. “I would have to say that even I was not sure where Grace went, based on the images that were shown,” says Weaver. “I think Jim hadn’t quite made up his mind. He was just trying to figure out what would make sense with the story. I was delighted, of course, to be reincarnated as another person.” The other person became Kiri, the 14-year-old adoptive Na’vi daughter of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) who is swept up in the adventure from the Pandoran forests to the water worlds of the Metkayina tribe. Here she discusses the acting challenge of a lifetime…

EMPIRE: How would you describe Kiri?

Sigourney Weaver: I think she has a deep love for all things in the world, creatures, plants, everything. This is also true when she’s underwater. She’s at ease in these natural environments and very comfortable with all the different creatures. It’s a touching story, because we have to leave our home and we have to leave the forest and go to this new environment. And I think what I loved about what Jim did was that she is a very typical adolescent. She’s very self-conscious, filled with all these emotions that come from being thrown into this new reality and missing home. So, I had a lot to think about as Kiri, and I had to work in a completely different way than I’ve ever worked. That was very exciting for me.

How did you begin to approach this? In some ways, it feels bit like a drama school exercise?

It’s funny that you would say that because I think the way I started with Kiri was just standing, feeling my body bit by bit, as if I was fourteen. Just trying to get that feeling back in my body and always coming from there whenever I had a scene. So, it took some kind of rerouting of the way I work. But I had done this exercise in drama school where if you say your character has blue eyes, you wait until you feel as if you are looking through blue eyes.  Every time you described something, you would add that on to your physical being and you weren’t expected to do anything or show anything. You just felt it and it kind of blossomed inside you. I found that exercise was extremely important getting into Kiri because I didn’t want to play an adolescent, I wanted to become an adolescent. And I didn’t want to become any adolescent. I wanted to become her.

That’s such a challenge, isn’t it?

I know, I was thrilled to be given that challenge by Jim. He was very funny. He said, “You’re so immature, this will be so easy for you.”

Jim would say, ‘Don’t look like you’re holding your breath, you have to be completely relaxed underwater.’

How did it feel being a Na’vi?

I’m glad I had that experience, because I think Grace preferred her avatar herself and her avatar life, and everything to do with the humans was a lot of bullshit. I’m just in awe of how Jim can come up with these incredibly complex layered stories and relationships about this family. We may look blue, but I feel like the themes of this movie — of becoming refugees, having to leave home and figure out how to live in this completely new environment — are so universal. It’s so timely, all the challenges the family faces together as individuals and as a family.

How did you find the freediving?

I do love the ocean and I was playing a character who embraces it. I feel very lucky I grew up swimming. I think it made me a much stronger swimmer. My husband and I both did the training. And by the time we were ready to start filming, surprisingly, we were holding our breaths with [freediving instructor] Kurt Krack for up to six and a half minutes.

Avatar: The Way Of Water – Kiri

Wow! I guess it’s also about getting to a point of calmness where you can also give a performance?

I think that’s so true. My husband was very helpful. He said you need to get there 15 minutes ahead of everybody else so you can get all the preparation taken care of and then you can start to relax. He was absolutely right. I really needed more time than other people to just let my mammalian response to the water which is ‘What am I in!’, to let that calm down and then I was able to let Kiri take over. So I enjoyed it. I mean, it was a trip, man, it was such a trip.

What were the biggest challenges?

I think the most challenging thing was that Jim would say, ‘Don’t look like you’re holding your breath, you have to be completely relaxed underwater.” It was uncomfortable, but it was great, because we really had to become fish in a way.

How was it to be reunited with Jim again?

I feel so fortunate. I love working with Jim and we have so much fun. I was quite thrown by Kiri a lot of the time, just her character. I felt like Jim really creates a safe space for us to be out there with our characters, not knowing things, not knowing, especially as an adolescent, how to be. He really wanted us to use all those instincts.  He was always a great collaborator. He always wants to know. “What would you like to do? Is there something we haven’t tried that you would like to do?” So it was very free in that sense.

You must feel huge pressure around the size of the budget and the massive expectations?

The pressure we feel is we don’t want to let Jim down. We don’t want to let the story down. We don’t want to let the audience down. So we have to really go for it every single day. I was so inspired by the work, not only of my fellow actors, but also of all the technicians. The bar is high with Jim. He can be very sarcastic if you screw up. Let’s put it that way — although he loves us so that’s behind it all.

Do you think he’s mellowed over the years?

I think so. You know, I think I think when I met him, he was married to Gale Anne Hurd. I’m working in England, on Aliens and our English crew – who very proud of the first film, very proud of Ridley Scott – it took them a while to see how brilliant Jim was, and that he brought a whole other vision to the series. It took a while. It’s been so long since then, he’s been happily married to Suzy and has four children. I think being a family man for 10 years while he was writing helped him. He’s a happy guy. He’s a very generous man. He has a lot of fun doing what he does. This was a real labour of love. There’s no other way you could do it. It’s just too hard.

Avatar: The Way Of Water comes to UK cinemas from 16 December.

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