‘Avatar’ Star Jack Champion on Playing Pandora’s Tarzan

In “Avatar: The Way of Water,” Jack Champion stands out as Spider — and not simply because he’s frequently the only human in scenes with the computer-generated, nine-foot-tall Na’vi. Spider is a remnant of the Sky People left behind on Pandora after the events of the original film. Raised by Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and, rather reluctantly, his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) alongside their own children, Spider eventually faces a test of loyalty — side with his family or his species — a difficult decision that Champion skillfully depicts. It’s his biggest role to date in an acting career that began eight years ago, when he was a pre-teen, with a small part in “American Genius.” Next up, he’ll appear in horror sequel “Scream 6,” and with Pedro Pascal in “Freaky Tales,” from “Captain Marvel” directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Just days after wrapping the latter film, Champion jumped on a Zoom call to discuss the challenges of matching eyelines and managing character emotions in “The Way of Water.”  

How much did you know about the role when you first auditioned? 

I thought my name was Monk — short for Monkey Boy — and they said that everything including live action was going to be done by October of 2018. I don’t think they were lying, [but] no one could really expect how long it was going to go. Then, of course, when COVID hit, it just screwed everything and delayed everything. But I didn’t really know much other than he was a human raised around the Na’vi, and I didn’t know who his biological parents were. 

How did you prepare for a role that was very physical and whose costume mimicked what the Na’vi wear? 

It was like, “He’s like Tarzan.” So it was just kind of like, “OK, probably going to be half naked.” And then luckily during filming, I got with my trainer Josh Murillo and he helped me go from a pudgy 12-year-old to a pretty ripped 16-year-old. 

You are in many cases the only human in scenes that are otherwise completely CGI. What were the challenges of adapting to that? 

We had this acting troupe that would basically re-act what the actors did just for my sake, but they’d wear this giant Na’vi puppet on their shoulders, so there’d be a torso here and then a head up here, and then they’d control the arms with little sticks — foam Na’vi that were actually 10-feet tall for us to look at. 

How much of the physical space was built out? 

Anytime you see me doing anything, they actually built whatever I’m running on — pieces of the ship deck, and they could maneuver however they want for the scene. But it was still super slippery because they’d have to dump buckets of water on me to look like I’d just gotten out of the ocean, and then I’d have to sprint uphill on this slippery ship deck. 

You’re in “Scream 6” — and a horror movie is a little bit of a rite of passage for a young actor in Hollywood these days. How meaningful was it for you to be part of that franchise? 

I have to go on record — before being cast, I was one of the biggest fans of “Scream.” I have so much respect for the legacy of the franchise. Obviously, I can’t really say much about it, but I can assure people that it’s a really good story. 

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