CCH Pounder is Queen Moat in James Cameron's Avatar
James Cameron's sci-fi spectacle Avatar is the all-time highest grossing film both domestically and internationally. On April 22nd, the motion picture experience that changed the way we watch movies is finally coming home. Arriving just in time for Earth Day, Avatar will make both its Blu-ray and DVD debut, and its sure to be a best seller. To help celebrate this upcoming release, which is set to break even more records, we caught up with actress CCH Pounder, who plays Moat, mother of Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and Queen of the Na'vi people in the film. Here is our conversation:
What was it like being a Na'vi mother to Neytiri and Tsu'tey? Did you actually sit down and think Moat's whole life through to this point, here? Did you feel as though you needed to give her your own back-story?
CCH Pounder: I didn't have to do that. I don't know if you know anything about James Cameron, but he is incredibly detailed. He had been living with this story for such a long time. There were certain things he was looking for when an actor would walk in the room. That had a lot to do with spirituality and authority. There had to be this idea that if Eytukan, played by Wes Studi died, the clan would simply be taken over by Moat. She was already "on the page" powerful. I didn't have to do too much work in that area. The fact that you are creating a whole new environment, and a humanoid creature? That was left up to me, really. What you see is what I brought to the table, pretty much.
You play a queen in the film. What sort of cultural royalty did you draw from in creating this beautiful creature?
CCH Pounder: None. That would have meant pulling off a human trait. Old human errors. Old mistakes. That doesn't mean those ideas are negative. But I didn't want her to have that history.
What do you have to say to the select few that haven't seen the film yet? Or are they a lost cause at this point in the game? The film literally changed the way we watch movies. How do you think Avatar will hold up in the home theater environment?
CCH Pounder: They are not a lost cause. I literally said to Jim and Jon, "Do you know what is great about this? You actually have a story that holds up beyond the bells and whistles." The bells and whistles are this new technology. The upgraded 3D. The super surround sound that you'd get in the theater. There is something about seeing people who are nine feet tall on average on a giant screen. It puts the whole thing in perspective. I actually sat behind a fellow watching it on the plane. Imagine the size of that screen. He watched it for a little bit and turned it off. I tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Is it not translating because the screen is too small?" And he said, "No. It just looks a little more intense than I thought. I am going to take my nap and watch it when I wake up." It was a long flight. And that is what he did. So I asked him when it was over, "What did you think?" And he said, "It is really intense. It is a really great story." So, yes, I still want to encourage people to see it. Good stories are worth seeing.
Did this man know you were in the film?
CCH Pounder: No, he did not. I don't look blue. (Laughs) Or dress in any way like my character. I don't think he recognized my voice.
Do you often sit behind people on airplanes and tap them on the shoulder when you catch them watching one of your movies?
CCH Pounder: No! This just had to do with the spectacular nature of seeing this film on the big screen. Let's face it. They went through a year and a half delay making sure there were enough screens around the country. To absorb this type of movie. Of this size. Here you are after all this fuss and drama about not opening it up until they had enough screens. Then, all of a sudden, that has happened, and you are suddenly inside an airplane with the tiniest screen on earth. It's still translating because of this story.
I was going to ask you how your life has changed since appearing in the biggest film of all time, but people aren't recognizing you even after having just watched the film, I can't imagine that it has affected you too much?
CCH Pounder: It hasn't affected me at all. It's been fantastic. This is one of the greatest places an actor can be. Maybe not for a "personality". But for an actor, its one of the best places to ever find yourself. You can have conversations about the film, and you don't have the ego to point out, "I played that role over there!" (Laughs) It hasn't bothered me at all. Maybe my ego's not too grand. But it was great to have a regular conversation, just to get someone's real opinion.
Have you held onto your ability to speak Na'vi? Is that something you retained, or is it something that flew out of your mind as soon as it was off the page and onto the screen?
CCH Pounder: I was there for a year and a half (Laughs). So it's still somewhere, floating around in my brain. You move onto other projects and you move onto other stuff. So, yeah, it's gone.
Its turned into its own phenomenon. You could be making a little extra money on the side teaching the fanboys to speak this language.
CCH Pounder: (Laughs) Do you think? We said that Esperanza was going to be the new business language of the world, and that still hasn't caught on fire. It would be pretty amazing if we created a language and that became the hottest thing. I think that happened with Star Trek. They created a language for Spock. Then, I'm not sure how many people picked up on it, but I know that it's still out there somewhere.
The Klingon language is something that a lot of the Trekkies like to learn and use. It's a big deal.
CCH Pounder: Is it a big deal? Is it a super big deal?
Not for me! But maybe for the fans. They get married in Klingon weddings. They have conventions where that's all they are allowed to speak.
CCH Pounder: (Laughs) I am amazed. I don't know if you have been to any of the bookstores, but there are about five or six books simply on the Na'vi language and look, and how to use your tail! (Laughs)
Did you pass Ben Stiller any hints on how to use his tail at this year's Oscars?
CCH Pounder: (Laughs) No! Ben's too short to be in the Na'vi nation.
I wont tell him you said that.
CCH Pounder: At nine feet? I don't think he will be offended.
Has James Cameron talked to you about returning to Pandora for Part 2? Do you know how Queen Moat is going to continue on in this universe?
CCH Pounder: I don't get demoted. I still remain the Queen. I don't have a husband. I don't know exactly what that entails, or how that will be set-up in this culture that James Cameron is still creating. Can a woman become head of the tribe? This is as much of a mystery to me as it is to you and all the people waiting for the sequel. We do know that there is a sequel. He didn't want to jump on it right away. The first one took so much thought in putting it all together. The next one is going to be even more about story. Because we've established the language. We've established the environment. Now it's the next phase in the "Na'vi meet the humans" storyline.
It took you, personally, a year and a half to shoot your role in the film. With all the technology in place, is it still going to take you another year and a half to shoot your character this next time out, or are you going to be able to go in, like on a normal film, and knock it out in three months time?
CCH Pounder: I think its going to be like that. I don't know that any of James Cameron's films ever take just three months. Because with my year and a half, I had one of the shorter shooting periods. For instance, Zoe Saldana was there for two and a half years. I don't know if it will be that long. I do know that because this stuff is in place, it will be much easier for him to write the story. But James is forever inventing. (Laughs) He will come up with something that I'm sure will delay it. Because its going to be even bigger, and faster than it was before. His techno-mind is that amazing. He is already thinking ahead. And he will benefit from the films that are coming after Avatar, and what they have learned. The technology of film is changing. And we are being swept up in that as actors.
I've heard that you were originally supposed to work with James Cameron on The Abyss. What happened with that film? And are you glad you waited until now to work with him?
CCH Pounder: I prayed that he didn't remember me from our meeting on The Abyss. I thought, "Oh, God! Don't let him remember me. Whatever he does!" But he did. Yeah. I don't swim. I am afraid of water. Just being big and bad was not enough to survive The Abyss. It's an interesting question, because big and bad directors have never been my interest. I like interesting, and clever, and great directing. I have been very lucky, because I have been under John Huston, James Cameron, Phillip Noyce...For me, I have been incredibly lucky in terms of the directors I have been with. My timing has been remarkable. I feel very blessed to have worked with James at this time. Everyone asks, "Oh, my God! How is he to work with?" They hear he is such a tyrant. And belligerent. I had a really fantastic experience in terms of watching someone's creativity come alive and get put to the test. Timing is everything, isn't it?
A lot of cultural pundits feel that our upcoming generations don't have the same sense of imagination we, as adults have, simply because of their reliance on new technology. Yet, this type of filmmaking is the way of the future and it heavily relies on an actor's ability to imagine entire worlds and characters that don't exist. Do you see a problem in the future with these two worlds colliding?
CCH Pounder: I think it is easy. I hope I'm not saying that off the top of my head. I do think the way we play hasn't changed in a thousand, gazillion years. Even in terms of our imaginations, because we no longer go outside and pretend a stick and a rock is a ball and a bat. All the things that hone a creative imagination are being done in cyberspace. All of the kids I know, I am clueless about what they are doing. Because they are entertaining themselves in an imaginary way with imaginary creatures and avatars. They are having a ball in cyberspace. In a funny way, I feel left out. But that is still their imaginations putting all of that stuff to work. I don't think we are ever going to lose that capacity. The only thing that bothers me is that there were a lot of calls coming in. People were very depressed that the environment we created in Avatar was so beautiful, and so imaginative, and colorful, and Zen like. Because we don't have that here on Earth. They were having suicidal thoughts, which I thought was insane. This was an environment that was created by the human imagination. Half of the things you see in the film are adaptations of things we have in the sea, or in the sky. All of these things are from the human imagination, and that is not going to change. It was a little bit crazy, and it made me think that what we may suffer from in the future is incredible self-indulgence. That is a really indulgent place to be. Where you feel a movie can so influence your life that you are prepared to die. Because your life doesn't come up to it. That means advertisers and promoters become the great manipulators of human life.
You were in The Bagdad Café, which was a movie I didn't see until last year, when Avatar came out. The film is almost an alien world unto itself. Are you able to draw from those past acting experiences and bring them into something like Avatar?
CCH Pounder: Interesting. I never like to draw on anything I have done before. I like to start with a clean slate. I'll tell you what I am attracted to. Maybe there is some kind of repetition in that. I am attracted to characters that start off at one place, and they are so influenced by another character that their life has to change. Bagdad Cafe has that in the sense that this very alien woman comes into my world in the desert. Here, we have this alien, or Avatar-like human that comes into my world. He is in disguise, he looks like me. He walks like me. But I can immediately see the difference. I am fascinated by that encounter.
I loved Bagdad Café, and if you strip away all the bells and whistles, as you call them, you'll see that it is very similar to the story being told in Avatar. Something I learned this morning was that there was a TV series based on that movie. I'm interested to know more about that. Did you have anything to do with that? Were you involved with it at all?
CCH Pounder: I was only involved with saying, "No!" The problem back in the 80s, when you did something really well on film and they wanted it to become a TV show, was that there was a pretty standardized formula. It was one that people stuck by even though it didn't work. The names and faces have been changed to protect the foolish! Yes, Whoopi Goldberg was chosen for that. I think they owed time to Jean Stapleton. Immediately you lost the physicality. Bagdad Cafe was a very specific set-up of these extremes. We had a very thin black woman. A very fat white woman. A foreigner. A local. There were all of these incredible contrasts. How could these two people from such incredibly different lives come to a line in the road and join each other in friendship? That was the premise. Because television had all of these other things wrapped around it, they thought, "We've got to give Jean Stapleton a show. She has been making money for us all these years." Whoopi Goldberg was the most well known black woman at that time. So they gave it to her. I sat in a limo with Whoopi. She asked me, "Do you want to do this?" And I said, "I really don't. I have read the script, and it's not what the essential story was about." She said, "I'm not going to do this if you want to do it." And I said, "No. No. I've done the film. And that's where I want it to be." They had changed it so drastically in the first episode. The character came in and found her husband in bed with another woman. Which was so far from the original story of dissatisfaction. There was this internal dissatisfaction, as opposed to all of these external forces changing her lifestyle. That's why we sat in her limo, and we had a great conversation about it. She went ahead and did it. I do feel that Bagdad Cafe, for me, was filet mignon. And for Whoopi it was hamburger.
Avatar is being released on Earth Day. Do you have any plans for the 22nd? This was called Arbor Day back when I was a kid.
CCH Pounder: It was called Arbor Day! We are doing the same tree planting. Jim's company is going to plant a million trees worldwide. We are going to do the kick off this Thursday. I believe it is on the Fox lot. That is where we will plant the first tree. Then we will go to Washington D.C. and have a conversation on the mall. That will happen on Earth Day with a gazillion other people. Tree planting, as an avid gardener, is a very specific part of my life. Now, it has become more highlighted when I think of the missing tree element through all my travels. I notice it all over the world. The need for trees is more important than people realize. They just take it for granted.