Casting Standouts: 'Avatar'

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For veteran casting director Margery Simkin ("Marley & Me," "Top Gun"), working on "Avatar"—James Cameron's "14 years in the dreaming, four years in the making" follow-up to his megahit "Titanic"—presented brand-new challenges, in particular the fact that the film comprised 60 percent motion-capture sequences and 40 percent live-action sequences. Simkin had to find people who could convincingly express emotion through a yet-to-be-created language, and she had to do so under a massive veil of secrecy.

Not one actor was attached when she took over the film's casting in 2007, when the late, great Mali Finn stepped down due to illness. Simkin's greatest discovery on this film was a complete unknown, Sam Worthington, recommended by her Australian casting colleague Christine King.

"Forever people will think that we cast him because of 'Terminator: Salvation,' but it had nothing to do with it," says Simkin. "This was way before. When I saw his tape, it just blew me away. His first audition rocked me. I think Jim got it immediately, and it then became 'Can we sell him to the studio?' They were pretty reluctant, and there were some people that were a little better known, but we were pretty determined that he was the right choice and hung in there."

"Avatar," described as an emotional action epic, could never have happened had Cameron not been impressed with how Peter Jackson created Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. But Cameron went one step further with the motion-capture technology used for Gollum, which reportedly transfers 95 percent of an actor's performance. "Instead of having to spend six hours in a makeup chair and have all of these prosthetics applied on the actor," Simkin says, "the actors do the performance and then their makeup was applied on them digitally after their performance."

While auditioning actors to play the avatars or the Na'vi, the alien race from planet Pandora, she'd notice whether or not they needed to be holding something in their hands. "I think there are actors who, when they're doing a period movie, they want to be in period underwear," Simkin says. "And I respect that. But part of this exercise was figuring out who could do their best work while wearing this outfit in this big blank space. You have to be able as a performer to internalize."

She adds, "For all the Na'vi, it was maybe the only time in my career that I have truly been able to do colorblind casting. The final two people that it got down to for the part Zoe [Saldana] got were Zoe and a blond, blue-eyed girl. I can't imagine another moment in my career when two people so incredibly physically disparate were that close for a part."

The Na'vi speak their own language, created by writer Paul Frommer, but he had not invented it in time for Simkin's auditions. "I met with him and I asked him to figure out what sounds were difficult for English speakers to say in this language," she says. "He taught me the sounds, and I would put every actor that came in for one of these roles through their paces of saying those sounds." Simkin had them read some sides in English and then asked them to perform a special acting exercise. "I didn't care if they said '1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3' or made up sounds, but they had to express their scenes without English," she says, "because I knew that the audience isn't going to know the language, so they're going to have to convey the scene without language. People came in and did it, and they were really, really brave. And it was remarkable what people did and really moving. And some of them were unintentionally humorous."

Sigourney Weaver reunites with Cameron after her Oscar-nominated performance in his 1986 film "Aliens." In the "Avatar" script, two roles had to be combined to make the film worthy of her appearance. Simkin added Giovanni Ribisi as the executive running the planet who goes toe-to-toe with Stephen Lang's character. Lang landed his audition solely by having an updated IMDb picture, as he had gotten into "unbelievable shape" since Simkin had last seen him in person. She says Joel David Moore brought the "missing ingredient" of comic relief to the film, and Michelle Rodriguez and CCH Pounder were "both incredible and hard-working."

Simkin was very impressed with Cameron's casting savvy, and he even operated the camera during callbacks. For Worthington's and Saldana's auditions, she says, "Jim did this really brilliant thing where he cut the two auditions together into one, and in the process of doing that you could really see that they would be great onscreen together."

Casting Director: Margery Simkin
Writer-Director: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana, Joel David Moore, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Stephen Lang, CCH Pounder
The Pitch: In the 22nd century, a paralyzed soldier (Worthington) is granted an avatar body and sent to a planet inhabited by a peaceful race known as the Na'vi.