Jack is soon to reap the fruits of four years of labour with the world premiere of Avatar: The Way of Water, the much-anticipated sequel to the multi-award-winning 2009 blockbuster by filmmaker James Cameron. Growing up on the set of Avatar between the ages of 12 and 16, filming two Avatar films back to back, Jack spent his formative years working alongside a host of extraordinary actors. A star-studded lineup of Zoe Saldana, Sam Worthington, Kate Winslet and Sigourney Weaver, just to name a few. Even after years spent in Pandora soaking up all the knowledge and creativity that goes into a movie universe as complex as the Avatar franchise, the novelty of securing the role has yet to wear off. On working with director James Cameron – or Jim as he fondly calls him – he raves, “It's just like everything in creativity all bottled up into one person.”
While routinely distracted by his family’s hairless cat – displeased to not command his full attention – Jack tells me about the moment he knew acting was his calling, what it’s like to grow up on a major movie set, and the value of opening up to loved ones and not letting issues consume us. But most importantly, I impressed Jack with my knowledge of furry animals after quickly taking note of the photograph of a Highland cow on the wall behind him.
Avatar: The Way of Water will be released in cinemas worldwide on Friday 16 December.
Lovely Scottish Highland cow on your wall there.
You are the first one to know that it is a Scottish Highland cow!
They're very cute. Super furry. Do you have a particular fondness for Scottish Highland cows?
I think my mum got it. I think she just likes furry-looking creatures. That's why our dog is a little scruffy.
They're cute. We also have a hairless cat so that takes away from the furriness.
That’s good, it’s important to maintain some balance! On a scale from 1 to 10, how are you today?
I'd say a solid 8.
Wow, that's pretty good. Is there a special reason for that?
I mean, the new Avatar trailer dropped today. It feels like this movie is about to come out, so all this hard work is finally paying off.
Amazing! I always like to start on a positive note, with a bit of self-love. What are the qualities you appreciate most about yourself?
I'm a people person, I feel like I can connect with people pretty easily. I have ADD. I can hyper-focus so if I love something or if I'm really passionate about something, I can just tunnel vision on that, which helps.
On the other hand, if you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I'd want to be stronger academically because I graduated high school from an online school, but I still feel like there's so much for me to learn. My favourite subject is history, so I would like to learn more about it and do better in maths and science. I also want to learn how to write a script.
What initially attracted you to acting?
Growing up in a small town, sports are really big here and I was never competitive at all. I also have bad hand-eye coordination so with those two things combined, sports were not my thing so I moved toward theatre. There was a local theatre programme for kids and I joined that. I immediately felt like performing was my thing. I'll never forget my first play. We only had one night where we showed all the parents, and I was grumpy the elf or something. I had one line and I forgot it. I was like, “Oh no!”, but then I just improvised and it still worked. At that moment, I had the entire theatre laughing and I was like, “Okay, this is my calling”.
How was it growing up in a small town and then coming into this big world of movies?
I guess coming from a small town, booking Avatar, flying out to LA and then going on a four-year journey was something I never expected. I was fully like, “Whatever happens, happens”. I was ready for anything they would throw at me… The Na'vi movement training, the bow and knife training and all that stuff. A lot of people would be overwhelmed, but I just thought, “Okay, I’ve got nothing to lose. Let's just do it”.
The world has been waiting for a long time for the second Avatar film. And for you, it's been such a wait. How are you feeling about the premiere being so soon? It must feel a lot more real today with the trailer out?
Nervous and excited, I’m yet to see the film. I don't think I'll see it until the world premiere in London. I'm really excited to see the film and people's reactions, so it's a mixture of excitement and nervousness.
Seeing as the first film was so popular, do you feel any pressure?
There is obviously pressure there if you let it get to you. What is everyone going to expect? A perfect movie? I think, for me, I'm just excited to see their reactions, I hope everyone likes it. That's all you can do.
It looks like the response has been really positive so far, looking at the commentary on the teasers. Can you tell me about your character, Spider?
Spider was born on Pandora at Hell's Gate and he was orphaned there, once the humans left. He grew up alongside the Na'vi and the Sully family, so that's what he knows and he considers himself one of the people. Obviously, he knows he has limitations, but he still considers himself one of the Na'vi.
I understand a big topic in this film is family. How did you and the other actors who play family members work to establish that relationship?
Well, I was the youngest of the boys. We just naturally grew into this kind of friend-family type of dynamic because we all stayed in the same hotel. So, you know, if I was ever bored, I would just go over to one of the other rooms and be like, “Hey, do you wanna hang out?” I was definitely like the younger brother. But I also probably annoyed them too...
How did you annoy them? [laughs]
I was always very physical and kind of like roughhousing, we did a lot of wrestling. There was a pool, so we would always go to the pool and just do what young teenage boys do. I would tackle them and we just bashed around.
You and your character live in very different worlds. How did you relate to Spider and his experience?
When I was auditioning for Avatar, I obsessively watched the movie for about a month. I knew what all the creatures were called, I knew everything you could know about the Na'vi culture. Once I became a fan of the first Avatar movie and found out everything about it, then I was like, “Okay, I can definitely be a character”. Now I know the world in my head, so I can just build this character with the knowledge I already have.
I imagine being on set, being taught how to use a bow and arrow and all those other elements helped you get into character. What was this process like?
I think I was the last one to be cast, so I had about a month before we started filming. 5 days a week – Monday through Friday – I would come into the studio and they had a bunch of stunt people to teach us to bow and arrow, how to move like a Na’vi, how to stunt roll, fight, and knife fight. We also had dialect coaches that would teach us the language and how to speak. So already being a fan of the first movie and getting training on how to act, move, and fight like a Na’vi made it all come together.
What was the audition process like?
It was really long, I did two self-tapes. Growing up in Virginia, it was all self-tapes. Then I did a couple of calls over Skype – before zoom was cool – with the casting director, Margie. And then I did three screen tests and they flew me to LA with different people from the cast, and then I met Jim [James Cameron]. Overall, I think it was three months of auditions.
That's quite intense. Was there a point where you started to feel like, “This might go my way”? Or were you just kind of like, “I'm not gonna hope for anything, I'm just gonna see how it goes”?
I remember talking to my mum and being like, “Even if I don't get it. We've gotten this far and that's an accomplishment in itself”. For the rest of my life, I could say, “Hey, I flew to LA to meet James Cameron”, you know?
Very true. It sounds like you have a very close relationship with your mum and she's very supportive of your acting.
I do. She is my biggest supporter, like my momager. Without her, I wouldn't be an actor. She would drive me to short films or wherever I needed to go. We drove to Atlanta for six hours, she definitely does a lot for me.
That's dedication. Avatar: A Way of Water is groundbreaking in terms of CGI. How was it to work on such a visual effects-driven film?
I did two years of filming and performance capture in Manhattan Beach studios in LA. Then I did another two years of live-action filming, but the cast wasn't around because they were already done. I had to do all my human stuff. So basically I had to do all my scenes twice. Jim would always joke that the first two years were a giant rehearsal for me. It's because I had to do it again in my actual costume. It was fun because in New Zealand I had the troupe there, which is like a group of stunt people actors, and I would basically act with puppets. They had these big things on their shoulders; the torso and up would be Na’vi. Then they had to match exactly what the other actors did, it was fun and a lot of hard work.
That does sound like a lot of hard work. So during that period, how many films did you make?
We filmed two and three back to back.
Wow. You've literally grown up on set with James Cameron and some really extraordinary actors. How have you matured on a professional and personal level since joining the Avatar cast?
When you're with a group of people for four years, they can't help but become your family, you know. Obviously, I've matured quite a bit – at least I think have – from 12 to 17. I was 12 years old when I got the role and I’m 17 now, and I wrapped filming when I was 16. My work ethic and my core values, all developed on set because of the people I was around.
What are some lessons you've learnt on set?
So Jim, the director James Cameron, knows everything about every department and it's just special to work with a director that knows everything about everything. It's really inspiring and I want to get to that level of intellect and work ethic. He is just like everything in creativity all bottled up into one person. I also spent five years working with my trainer, Josh Mario, who helped me go from a pudgy 12-year-old to look like I've been in the jungle my whole life and having abs. That really helped shape my work ethic. Even when you don't want to, you just have to put the time in.
It sounds like you've had a very hectic time between 12 and 17. What do you do on a day off?
I believe in a cheat day. My trainer would always give me a cheat day, or more like a four-hour cheat window on a Saturday to eat whatever I want. Especially when I was away, I'd get my friends online and we’d play Minecraft, Fortnite, whatever. And I'd have crisps and chocolate and ice cream. This was my moment to be like The Big Lebowski, you know, be super lazy.
Games and junk food…. So that's like the ideal day off from Avatar.
Yeah! If it's taking bubble baths, do that. Just do whatever makes you most comfortable.
How was it to be away from all of your hometown friends over these years?
The New Zealand time change actually worked to my advantage because I would be able to play video games with my friends and it would always match up time-wise with them. Even with FaceTime and all that stuff, nothing substitutes actually being there in person. You just try to stay connected with people and talk and that's how you try to make friendships last.
The world has seen a lot in recent years – the pandemic, George Floyd and BLM protests, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the repeal of Roe v. Wade, and the list goes on... Having come of age against the backdrop of these events, how do you think that’s affected you and other people your age?
I think it hopefully teaches my generation to be better than the people who are in power now. We see the mistakes and the decisions they are making so we can learn to be more loving and caring and respect other people's bodies and also not want to invade other countries just for the land. Just be better. At the end of the day, as humans, all we can do is try and be better. And that's what I hope we – my generation – learn from past generations. History does repeat itself, but, hopefully, we can learn that and then have it not repeat itself.
With all these overwhelming things happening all around us... How do you take care of your mental health? Is mental health important to you?
Very much so because I struggle with depression, anxiety and all that stuff. Mental health is always a battle, but as long as you keep that stuff at bay and learn to always try to go on another day. Try to be thankful. That's what's helped me a lot... To just be thankful for the people around me in my life and what I have, because my life could be a lot worse. There are a lot of things to be grateful for.
I agree, I think it's really important to keep reminding ourselves of all the good things we have. How long have you been struggling with depression and anxiety?
I've had anxiety my whole life, for sure, but I think depression has been more since puberty. Depression runs in my family and I've been dealing with depression for a few years now, but it's something that's helped by therapy or talking to someone like your mum – or whoever you trust the most – and just always keep fighting for another day and being thankful.
Definitely, talking is such a powerful tool, so I totally agree with you. Where's your happy place?
My happy place is probably with my friends, whether that would be skating, playing video games or just watching a show with them. Or being with my family, I'd say that's my happy place.
Speaking of shows… What is one piece of art – it could be film or TV – that’s left an impression on you lately?
Fight Club is my all-time favourite movie but I also recently watched Taxi Driver for the first time and that was really good. Travis Bickle as a character is just crazy cool. It's a movie about someone with mental health issues who doesn't have anyone to talk to and doesn't have any resources to try and be better, you know? It's a different time nowadays and there's way more awareness, but back then, there wasn't really any of that. He's a character that is really alone and his depression and terrible thoughts consume him. It's definitely a sad movie, but it's a really good piece of cinema.
And Fight Club is also about a lonely person who doesn't have that many outlets. He does have an outlet but that gets ruined because he's been lying to himself the whole time. And then his brain kind of snaps and creates the alter ego, Tyler Durden, which is like the ultimate rebel who just says fuck you to everything and everybody. It can seem appealing to be rebellious and like burn everything down. Tyler Durden, as a character, is a fire and the fire will burn everything down. That's why the character realises at the end that it’s not the answer.
On a final note, what does 2023 look like for Jack Champion?
Scream will come out in March and I'll do press for that. Other than that, I'm not sure. I think 2023 is a pretty open book for me. My favourite times in life are when there's nothing to expect, so expect the unexpected and just go with the wind of life. Like in The Big Lebowski in the very beginning, there's that tumbleweed that represents him just kind of going with the flow.