[This story contains spoilers for Avatar: The Way of Water.]
Avatar: The Way of Water star Jack Champion, like his character Spider, is one of only a few human beings that can say they grew up on Pandora. Champion, now 18, was cast in James Cameron’s Avatar saga at the age 12, and so he quickly dropped out of public school to accommodate the simultaneous productions of Avatar 2, Avatar 3 and the first act of Avatar 4. The young American actor eventually wrapped, for the time being, at the age of 16.
Early on in the Way of Water, it’s revealed that Spider is actually named Miles Socorro, and that his biological father was Colonel Quaritch, Stephen Lang’s baddie from 2009’s Avatar. Unlike the rest of the “sky people” at the conclusion of the original film, Miles, who was born on Pandora, was unable to leave for Earth because he was too young for cryosleep. So he ended up being raised by the Avatar Program doctors and scientists, but he quickly became like a “stray cat” to the Sully family, assimilating himself to the Na’vi lifestyle and taking on the name of Spider.
When Quaritch eventually returns as a recom avatar with human Quaritch’s DNA and memory bank, he kidnaps a teenage Spider, who, despite initial rejection, warms up to his pseudo-father ever so slightly. That bond leads to a game-changing decision at the end of the film as Spider saves Quaritch from drowning. For Champion, Spider’s rationale is complicated.
“Well, I think it’s because he spent months with Quaritch at that point. So they built up this father-son relationship,” Champion tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And Quaritch just saved his life from Neytiri [Zoe Saldana]. So at that moment, he thought, ‘I’m not going to join him. I’m sure as hell not going to do that, but I can’t just let him die. That’s just as good as murdering him.’ So it’s a whole bag of things.”
Champion is also shedding just a little bit of light on the upcoming Avatar 3, which has already completed 95 percent of principal photography.
“I was very shocked by [Avatar 3]. It just takes a hard left turn, and that’s not a bad thing. You think you know where it’s going, but then a wrecking ball comes,” Champion shares. “So you’re completely like, ‘Oh wow, I never thought that would’ve happened.’ You also see more regions of Pandora, and you get introduced to more cultures. So I think it’s even better than Avatar 2. Collectively, they’ll each get better.”
In a recent spoiler conversation with THR, Champion discusses all the ins and outs of filming three different Avatar films at the same time, before also offering his reaction to Avatar 4’s script. He even reminisces about his one day of shooting on Avengers: Endgame, alongside Paul Rudd.
So you were cast way back in 2017. What were the highlights from that process?
Flying first class for the first time with my mom to L.A. was probably one of the highlights. Seeing L.A. for the first time was definitely a major highlight and going to Hollywood Boulevard. When you’re 12 and you go to L.A., there’s just something so magical about that. And as far as the actual audition process, I got to meet Jim a few times because I had three different screen tests. I also got to meet Sigourney [Weaver], Stephen Lang, Sam [Worthington], and every audition was just so magical with them. I’ll cherish those memories forever.
How long did the entire process take?
About four months.
Once you were cast, did Jim tell you Spider’s entire arc across the future films?
Not immediately, but I found out. I still don’t know anything about movie five, so I’m still kind of in the dark about his full story.
What was your first reaction upon learning that he was Quaritch’s (Stephen Lang) son?
Oh man, I was such a big fan of Stephen Lang in the first film. He played such a great villain, so I just felt honored and really excited to play a great villain’s son. We call him “Slang,” and he’s just one of the nicest, most welcoming dudes there is. He still has this tough, gritty, old-school cowboyness to him that I love, and he’s just a really good dude. He was always there for me, and so was Sigourney. They both really took me under their wing.
Is his mother still considered to be Paz Socorro from that Avatar: The High Ground comic? Is that canon?
I honestly don’t know. If it’s an official Avatar comic, I don’t see why it wouldn’t be canon, but I’ll have to ask Jim.
Spider is perhaps the only human child on the planet of Pandora, and the only other kids his age belong to another species. So of course, he’s going to do everything he can to assimilate and fit in with the Na’vi. Is that how you see it?
Yeah, for sure, but it’s more than just him wanting to fit in with them. He grew up around them, so he wants to run as fast as them. He also wants to be just as limber and do all the physical things that they can do. But emotionally and spiritually, he’s on the same plane as them because he considers himself one of the Na’vi people. That is his culture. It’s what he knows.
He even moves like a spider as he jumps around and crawls as needed. Were you already pretty agile, or did you have to learn to move that way?
I was always really tall for my age and really kind of hefty. So I was always good at running into things like a linebacker, but as far as being limber and stuff, that was definitely a skill I had to acquire through the years. Slang introduced me to yoga and a lot of stretching and movement, such as holding a squat or doing duck walks.
I’m now picturing you and Slang doing yoga in mocap suits.
(Laughs.) He swears by yoga. In all seriousness, he says that yoga saved his life, health wise.
There are many instances where you’re playing the only human character in a scene, so does that mean you were often the only actor not wearing a mocap suit a lot of the time?
Well, I did do performance capture with the cast for two years. So I actually was in a performance capture suit for two years, and then I did another two years by myself in New Zealand, in the wine cloth costume. (Laughs.) So anytime they were doing performance capture, I was there with them in the suit with the face dots, and then anytime they were doing live action stuff, I was there in the whole getup or lack of costume.
Did the mask cause any problems for you in terms of fog and reflections? Or did they usually add the cover in post?
Most of the time, it was CGI glass. There was never a glass in there. They did have a “hero mask” for certain real shots, but we rarely used it. For the underwater stuff, they built a real face mask that I was in for hours at a time and for months on end. It was a scuba mask that you could breathe in, so that obviously had real glass.
Considering Spider is with Quaritch most of the movie, how much underwater work did you do?
I don’t think I did as much underwater performance capture as the rest of the cast, but I still did plenty of underwater performance capture. I also did scuba in live action. So I definitely did a lot of underwater stuff. There’s also Avatar 3, but I can’t talk about that for obvious reasons.
What’s the longest you held your breath?
5 minutes and 33 seconds.
When you watch Avatar: The Way of Water, does it feel like a time capsule since you’re literally growing up on screen?
In a way, yes. In every scene I see myself in, I remember how I felt on that day. So it is kind of a time capsule, but at the same time, I can also turn that off and just get lost in my enjoyment of the movie and story. So it’s cool to see my teenage years on screen, but I can still get immersed in the world of Pandora.
Can you spot when you’re 14 in one scene and 16 in another?
Yeah, it’s weird. In some scenes, I’m 14, and then in the next scene, I’m 16. So I’m like, “Wait a second, I look slightly more pudgy.” And then in another scene, I’m two inches taller with abs. (Laughs.) It’s a little weird sometimes.
According to THR’s cover story with Jim, there were concerns when the shutdown hit because they hadn’t finished some of your scenes and you were growing up so fast. So did they do anything to combat your aging?
Not really. They did some CGI stuff, but it’s not like they had the anti-aging serum from the movie. (Laughs.) Puberty just happens, and we had to let it run its course.
To be honest, I barely noticed it, but the one scene where you did look considerably younger was the torture scene.
Funnily enough, that was the first scene I ever did in live action. So it’s funny you mentioned that because I was the youngest there.
[Writer’s Note: The next seven questions and answers deal in major spoilers.]
Alright, Jack, let’s get down to it. Why did Spider save Quaritch 2.0’s life?
It’s funny how no one has been calling him Quaritch. He’s being called Na’vi Quaritch or Quaritch 2.0. Well, I think it’s because he spent months with Quaritch at that point. So they built up this father-son relationship, and Spider, being a lonesome character that’s always wanted a family, latched onto that. And Quaritch just saved his life from Neytiri [Zoe Saldana]. So at that moment, he thought, “I’m not going to join him. I’m sure as hell not going to do that, but I can’t just let him die. That’s just as good as murdering him.” So Quaritch is kind of his father, and at that moment, he might be his last hope of a family. So it’s a whole bag of things.
Spider’s decision will likely have disastrous consequences, but I hope that Quaritch will someday realize that his so-called enemies helped raise his son to be compassionate and forgiving, enough so to save his life. Are you hopeful that Quaritch will someday have the breakthrough that these people aren’t really his adversaries?
Yeah, I hope so, too. I don’t know the full Avatar story, so I really do hope so.
Did you actually have to drag Slang through an underwater tank?
No, honestly, it was worse. I had to drag this Na’vi puppet that was weighted down, so it was actually heavy. So when Spider was like, “Come on, you son of a bitch,” I was actually angry because it was so fucking heavy.
Was that your hardest day, physically?
It was not only the hardest day, physically, but it was also the hardest day, emotionally. I was underwater for hours at a time, and doing that for weeks on end was just really hard.
In my mind, Neytiri wouldn’t have actually killed Spider given how much he means to her kids, especially Kiri (Sigourney Weaver). Does he recognize that, too? Or does he have some hard feelings towards Neytiri?
For the most part, he realizes that she was in a frenzy and was just using him as bait. But very deep down, there’s definitely some hurt there and maybe some hard feelings.
In the end, Jake truly embraced Spider as a son. He even said, “A son for a son.” Is that everything Spider has ever wanted?
100 percent. But I will say that at that moment, he doesn’t feel like he got everything he wanted. Because now, his kinda-sorta dad, Quaritch, also accepts him. So does he really want the Sully family, or does he want his actual father? So there’s some cool inner turmoil that I don’t even know the answer to yet, and it’s up for debate.
Yeah, you can tell that Spider developed some respect for Quaritch, especially when he bonded with that banshee. So it is interesting that he’s now torn between two families.
Yeah, there’s a lot of inner conflict now, but that makes for a good story.
So what was your first reaction when you read Avatar 3?
I was very shocked by it. It just takes a hard left turn, and that’s not a bad thing. You think you know where it’s going, but then a wrecking ball comes. So you’re completely like, “Oh wow, I never thought that would’ve happened.” You also see more regions of Pandora, and you get introduced to more cultures. So I think it’s even better than Avatar 2. Collectively, they’ll each get better.
Jim said that when he sent the Avatar 4 script to Disney executives, a creative executive responded with, “Holy fuck.” Do you understand why that executive probably said that?
Did you have a similar reaction?
I did. Oh man, I can’t say exactly why, but that story is pretty amazing and pretty dark.
What’s the best performance note you received from Jim?
That it’s okay to take your time before an emotional scene. So however long it takes, it’s better to really feel that emotion and let it hit you, versus trying to fake cry for a scene, because then you’re just going to have a fake performance. But if you take your time or however long you need to really cry and feel that, then it’ll come across in your performance.
Decades from now, when you’re reminiscing about the making of Avatar: The Way of Water, what day will you likely recall first?
I’ll always think back to my first day and that performance capture suit with Quaritch and the recoms. It was when Quaritch was about to get a banshee, and I was all crouched down, acting like I’ve been in the jungle my whole life. There was just something really special about that day.
I’m not just saying this, but my favorite part of Avengers: Endgame is your sequence with Scott Lang, mainly because it reminds me of one of my favorite shows, The Leftovers. At the time, that must’ve been a pretty big deal for you, right?
Oh yeah! I mean, it’s an Avengers movie. I was so stoked to be a part of that, and working with Paul Rudd was an absolute honor. He’s one of the nicest guys. He sat next to me the whole day and answered all of my annoying questions and never once got short with me or anything like that. So he’s truly one of the nicest guys ever, and I’m honestly just really grateful and surprised by how many people come up to me to say that they liked my 10 seconds of performance in that movie. When someone says they like your performance in a movie, that really means a lot, even if it was 10 seconds. So it still makes my day every time I hear it.
How much did you learn about Endgame during your day on set? Were you still able to be surprised as a fan when you eventually saw it?
I was totally surprised. I didn’t know anything. I was genuinely very confused when I saw the missing posters in the final movie.
It’s pretty cool how you have direct connections to the two biggest films of all time, so your last name is fitting. Leo DiCaprio may be the king of James Cameron’s world, but you’re the champion.
(Laughs.) In Jim’s next film, someone’s last name will be God, so they’ll be the God of his world.
Yes, he’s going to find an actor with the last name Eywa just to one-up you both.
Lastly, we just saw a riveting Scream 6 teaser, so what are you able to say as far as tone?
Watching that teaser really made me scream with excitement. See what I did there?
I sure did! Who knew we’d be trading puns in our closing moments?
(Laughs.) I don’t even know if I’m allowed to say this, but Scream 6 might be the most brutal Scream yet just as far as the killing goes.
Avatar: The Way of Water is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.