Kate Winslet, Sigourney Weaver on James Cameron’s “Incredible” Female Characters and the “High Bar” He Set on ‘Avatar: The Way of Water’

By THR Staff

For those who were new to James Cameron on the set of his ambitious Avatar sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, his reputation preceded him.  

But there were no surprises for Kate Winslet and Sigourney Weaver, who had previously worked with Cameron on two out of the three highest-grossing films of all time — Titanic and the original Avatar, respectively — and spoke of the high bar he sets for his cast, as well as a knack for writing powerful women. 

“His capacity to create incredible female roles is just amazing,” Winslet told The Hollywood Reporter at the film’s press junket in London. “These leaders, these women, they have power, they have physical strength, they have emotional gravitas. It’s very exciting to be invited in to play a character who is so in line with how I see the world and how I hope to be as a parent and as a woman.” 

Winslet takes on the role of fierce, underwater matriarch Ronal in Cameron’s long-awaited sci-fi epic, which opens 13 years after its predecessor. Her clan, the Metkayina, hesitantly welcome Zoe Saldaña’s Neytiri and Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully, along with their four children, to the oceanic community when Stephen Lang’s Quaritch returns with a vengeance and the Sully family is forced to flee their home in the forest. 

“Everything about it was completely phenomenal. I mean, you don’t imagine when you are a person in your 40s who’s had three children that you’re going to learn something new and actually be good at it,” Winslet said of undertaking extensive training to be able to dive and hold her breath underwater for the role. “And I knew quite quickly that it was definitely something [that] if I put my mind to it, I could probably get quite good, but I certainly never thought that I would hold my breath for seven minutes and 14 seconds.” 

And did seven minutes, 14 seconds beat Tom Cruise’s on-screen breath-holding record in Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation? “So I’m told,” Winslet says. “I’m definitely better.” 

Winslet went deep-diving with Weaver, who returns to the Na’vi with an entirely different character to Dr. Grace Augustine in 2009’s Avatar: she and Cameron together created the role of 14-year-old Kiri, the eldest daughter of Jake and Neytiri. “I think [Cameron] has so many women in his life that he really admires and respects and Kiri … I feel like she’s an adventurous spirit in all of us,” Weaver said.  

She also praised Cameron for letting the cast improvise — something that felt necessary while embodying a teenager — and revealed she hung out in classes at LaGuardia High School in New York City to pick up on the voice of the age group. “They were at this point in their adolescence where some sounded very childlike and others sounded completely like adults, so that was great because it freed me to let Kiri speak,” said the actress.

And while Weaver cannot grasp the $2.9 billion grossed at the box office, Saldaña has found a way to fight the looming pressure placed on the cast by the first Avatar’s world-breaking record. “I would be lying if I told you that it doesn’t pop up,” Saldaña admitted. “But as soon as that thought comes in, it has to leave because at the end of the day, what made Avatar so special is the fact that it was all heart and it was a labor of love … And at the core of it, it was a love story.” Saldaña and Worthington take on the roles of protective parents to Jamie Flatters’ Neteyam, Britain Dalton’s Lo’ak, Weaver’s Kiri and Trinity Jo-Li Bliss’ Tuk in Avatar: The Way of Water, which Worthington described as a “nice way to extend the story”. 

“[It isn’t] a carbon copy of the first one,” Worthington said. “There’s something very elemental and base about this family, and I think we kind of leaned into that. It is about protecting your family, protecting the family that you choose.” He hopes the “emotional resonance” will connect the audience to Cameron’s story. 

And when his low blood sugar became apparent on set, Saldaña revealed she would often leave nuts and chocolate for Cameron to stumble upon. “Sometimes he forgets to drink water or eat.” But it’s a reflection of his work ethic, she continued. “Here’s the thing about Jim: Jim doesn’t demand excellence from others and not do it himself. He leads the way with that, he sets the example, he raises the bar himself and then we’re all compelled and inspired to follow in his lead.” 

“We’re all thrilled to be there because the bar is so high and you have to be so, so there — at 200 percent,” Weaver added. “It’s not a casual job.” 

And for Cameron, it all comes together to create movie magic. “I have this strong theory that when you’re having the beauty and the joy and the exaltation, you want to stay in it,” Cameron told THR. “When you’re having something that makes you cry, you want to stay in it. It doesn’t make any sense, but it’s just how we are. The movie can cast a spell, and we don’t want to break this spell.”