February 4, 2023

‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Breakout Jack Champion Is Prepared for You to Love and Hate Spider

'Avatar: The Way of Water' Breakout Jack Champion Is Prepared for You to Love and Hate Spider

Spoilers for Avatar: The Way of Water plot points ahead. 

Now 18, Jack Champion’s life forever changed when he was 12 years old. Back in the summer of 2017, the young Virginia-based actor, who had just a few small credits to his name, learned that he had booked a screen test for the highly-anticipated Avatar sequel, The Way of Water. Can’t get better than that, right? Well, that same day he also found out that he’d been cast in a little film called Avengers: Endgame. “It was such a big moment for me,” Champion tells Vanity Fair.

So, before he’d head to Los Angeles in hopes of landing the critical Avatar part of Spider, a human child who has become an honorary Na’vi, he flew to Atlanta for “a nice warmup,” a.k.a. shooting his memorable Endgame scene. You can spot him early in the second-highest grossing film of all-time (the highest, coincidentally, is Avatar), when Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang has finally escaped from the Quantum Realm after five years. He returns unaware that Thanos has erased half of the population with the snap of his finger. Walking down a post-apocalyptic street, Lang is passed by a kid on a bike and asks, “Hey, kid, what the hell happened here?” As Kid on Bike, as he’s credited, Champion doesn’t speak. He only shoots an ominous look at Rudd’s character, but Champion made sure to pick Ant-Man’s brain offscreen.

“Before my screen test, I asked Paul Rudd if he had any advice,” Champion shares. “And I feel like every high-profile actor will tell you the same thing: Go with your gut. Acting is subjective, so it’s all about feeling what’s right, and if it feels wrong, then it is wrong.”

And Champion admits to being wrong with his original perspective on Avatar, a view that completely flipped as he re-immersed himself into the world of Pandora. Champion remembers his mom letting him stay up late one night with her when he was six years old to watch James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi epic. “I remember thinking that the Na’vi were the bad guys because they’re like 10 feet tall, blue creatures with fangs, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re killing humans—this is terrible,’” he says with a laugh. “But then, when I was 12, I obsessively re-watched it while auditioning for Avatar, and truly felt like I should be a Na’vi.”

Lucky for Champion, Cameron agreed.

Joining an established cast of returning Avatar stars like Sam Worthington as human-turned-Na’vi leader Jake Sully, Zoe Saldaña as Jake’s fierce Na’vi wife Neytiri, and Stephen Lang as big bad Colonel Miles Quaritch, Champion entered the fray as Spider, a human born on Pandora but deemed too young to be transported back to Earth in cryostasis when the humans were forced off the planet at the end of the first Avatar. On Pandora, Spider has become an unofficial part of Jake and Neytiri’s family, bonding with their children and their rainforest landscape. Spider feels at home on Pandora, despite not being totally accepted. 

Though he admits to being “super nervous” on set, Champion says that ultimately, “it was such an imaginative, magical time for me.” He spent two years doing performance capture alongside the rest of the cast on a soundstage, followed by another two and half years on his own in New Zealand shooting live-action, as one of the few human characters. “Honestly, that was easier, because I had already built that rapport and that emotional relationship with everyone, so I could just do all my scenes again and look back and feed off of that past scene that we did—but now just in my actual loincloth costume.”

The main conversations between Cameron and Champion centered on Spider’s desire to be a part of a family and wishing that the Sullys could be that for him. “Family is something that he doesn’t have, and he’s always wanted,” Champion says. “And when Quaritch comes, that unleashes a whole can of emotional worms.”

Until now, that’s about all Champion could share about The Way of Water and Spider’s place in it, with the actor joking that he’s had to rehearse a lot of the same lines ahead of doing press. “It’s just a lot of like, “Oh yeah, I play Spider, and he’s a human that was raised around the Na’vi, and the action is nonstop and over the top,” he recites and then laughs.

With the film fully out in the world and, as of December 18, having already made $134 million domestically and $180 million internationally, Champion is finally allowed to say more.

“I was a big fan of Stephen Lang as Quaritch, so to learn that I was going to play his son, I felt very honored,” Champion says of the reveal that Quaritch is Spider’s father. In The Way of Water, Lang is back, despite Quaritch being killed by Neytiri at the end of Avatar, but he’s only kind of playing Quaritch this time around. Set more than a decade later, the sequel revives the macho military man as a “recombinant,” or basically a Quaritch avatar embedded with his memories. Looking to seek revenge against Sully and his Na’vi family, this version of Quaritch kidnaps Spider and quickly realizes their connection. “Since Quaritch is kind of his father, Spider feels like he has to show him the way of the Na’vi,” Champion adds, “or else he’ll lose his last drop of real family.”

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