Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña on First Diving Into ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’: “How Am I Going to Do This?”

After a whirlwind international press tour, the cast and creatives behind Avatar: The Way of Water finally brought the highly anticipated sequel to Los Angeles on Monday night — though without the team’s fearless leader.

Writer-director James Cameron had to miss the event after testing positive for COVID-19, but that did not stop Disney from going all out, transforming Hollywood Boulevard into a real-life Pandora with waterfalls and a recreation of the world’s glowing forest. The L.A. celebration also followed a cascade of positive reception from the London world premiere last week and those who have seen it since, as star Sam Worthington told The Hollywood Reporter, “it’s a scary time because you’re handing over your labor of love but the feedback has been great so far.”

The first time he saw the film himself, Worthington said it took his breath away, and even though “I know what’s going to happen next, I was very moved, very touched by the story and these characters.” The actor, who reprises his role as Jake Sully, added, “You know that it’s going to immerse you in this world of Pandora but we hopefully push the emotion a bit more and I think that’s what our aim was, to not do a carbon copy of the first one but to extend the family, extend the story and increase the stakes for the people that Jake and Ney’tiri love.”

And of once again collaborating with Cameron, Worthington noted, “He’s breaking new ground and he’s pushing the technology and guys like me to my limit,” with the film’s techniques, which included extensive use of motion capture technology and shooting much of the film underwater in large tanks.

Zoe Saldaña, returning as Na’vi warrior Ney’tiri, said that when she first read Cameron’s sequel script, “I was like, ‘Oh my God, he did it again. He raised the stakes, how did he do it?’ And two it was like, ‘We’re going to do what? We’re going to perform underwater? Great, Jim! Oh wow! I’m so excited,’” teasing her feigned excitement for the challenge.

As the actors went through months of training to hold their breath underwater for minutes on end, Saldaña admitted the hardest part was getting in her own way.

“Fear can be paralyzing and it was more like thinking, ‘How am I going to do this?’” she remembered. “But once we took the courses and went into the practice — the confidence that we all gained from knowing that we can actually do it, it doesn’t have to be forever but we can just do it for now, it was something I could have never hoped for.”

On top of the return of Worthington, Saldaña and Sigourney Weaver, the sequel welcomes a whole new teen cast, with actors Jamie Flatters, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, Jack Champion and Bailey Bass. Avatar 2 was the first film most of them had worked on, and the group watched it together for the first time, Flatters revealed.

“I heard Trinity crying 30 minutes before the end,” he recalled. “That was a special one, that was the perfect way to watch it for the first time.” Bass added, “I cried watching this film, not only because it’s emotional but because we did this. We worked so hard at such a young age and accomplished all of what this film is.”

Champion also teased that since watching the film with audiences during the international screenings has been daunting at times, “if it ever gets too overwhelming, I use the restroom to go pee. I’m still not used to watching so many people watch my movies.”

The group also discussed the highs and lows of the motion capture process, with Bass noting she had to quickly overcome the fear of drowning.

“Barely knowing how to swim going into it and then being able to be successful at it — if you had told me I was going to be able to hold by breath for six minutes and 30 seconds at the beginning of filming, I would have been like no way,” she continued. “But I did it and that just shows how phenomenal not just the cast is but the crew of this film is.”

The premiere also came on the same day that Avatar: The Way of Water received two Golden Globes nominations, which producer Jon Landau admitted was “a little surprising because it’s so early in thinking about things.” But he said that he and Cameron were thrilled for the crew and that he plans to attend the January show.

Landau added that despite Cameron’s past comments that the film needs to become one of the highest-grossing movies of all time just to break even, the “pressure we put on ourselves is to exceed what we did the last time, to make something better, and that’s where our pressure comes from.” And he said that at these premieres while “the audience is watching the screen, I’m watching the audience. Really they’re the true art form, and to see them laugh or get onto the edge of their seat or cry, that’s the biggest reward any filmmaker can have.”

Avatar: The Way of Water arrives in theaters on Friday.

Tiffany Taylor contributed to this report.

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