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Avatar’s Giovanni Ribisi Tells Us Why James Cameron’s the Only Person Not Using the Word ‘Epic’ About His Gargantuan New Film

In this weekend's inevitable box-office champ, Avatar, Giovanni Ribisi plays the latest in a long line of corporate scumbags who grace the films of James Cameron. You would think it’d be a thankless role — half Basil Exposition, half Snidely Whiplash with a 401(k) — but Ribisi gets a lot of mileage out of the part of Parker Selfridge, giving him a certain cynical, can-do attitude that becomes more monstrous as the film progresses. The self-described "asshole" of the film talked to us this week.

You play the one truly unlikable character in the movie. Even Stephen Lang’s character starts off as kind of a stand-up guy before he becomes a villain, but your character is just corporate slime from beginning to end.
I know! [Laughs] He’s a jerk! When you’re actually executing the part, you try not to be judgmental about the person you’re playing — you try to take on the viewpoint of the character, in order to be as realistic as possible. And then, when I saw it, I was like, “Yeah, that guy’s an asshole.”

Did Cameron have specific ideas about the character that he wanted you to convey? Did you work with him a lot on the part?
We really gelled. Initially, I brought a lot to the table, and he was pretty encouraging of a lot of that. I would sort of go off and ad-lib a little, and he was into it. Of course, most of my ideas were motivated by me being really nervous and pacing around my hotel room for hours on end, trying not to screw it up.

So, what did you think the first time you saw Avatar?
What do you think? I saw it with Steven Spielberg and a bunch of other people, and I believe it was even Jim Cameron’s first time that he had seen the film in its entirety, from start to finish. And Steven was literally whooping during the film, standing up with his fist raised and stuff. He said this reaction was similar to the first time he saw Star Wars. I mean, it’s an incredible movie, and there is this indescribable aspect to it.

At the same time, it also feels like a very personal film.
Well, Jim has wanted to make this movie for a long, long time. But there’s also definitely that thing with his storytelling, and his mise-en-scène. Yeah, he always creates these epic environments and settings, but it’s always centered around an individual character. I remember we were talking, and I mentioned the word “epic” in the context of Avatar, and he stopped me and said, “No, this is definitely not that.” He sees it as more intimate and personal.

And it seems like you’re one of the very few actors in the film who actually got to spend most of their time on an actual set, since all of your scenes take place on the base.
There was a little bit of green screen for us, but for the most part, we went to New Zealand, where they built a whole set. But I actually had a lot of interest and experience in the effects stuff, because I went to school for many years studying computer graphics, and I’m a partner in a company called Stereo D, where we convert 2-D imagery into stereoscopic 3-D images, and we actually worked on Avatar.

So you were involved on both sides of the camera?
Yeah. You could not have two vocations that are more opposite from one another. They’re so different. At the same time, there’s so much creativity that goes into creating this world. And it’s definitely the hot topic these days.

You were also in Public Enemies this year. So, who’s the bigger taskmaster: James Cameron or Michael Mann?
Wow. In the most honest way, I wouldn’t classify either of them as taskmasters, but they both expect the best out of the people that they work with — in the best possible way. Jim Cameron’s commitment alone wrangles the troops into wanting to give their best. And Michael Mann is someone who’s unrelenting and not willing to stop until he can realize his vision. I think we need more of that in our climate — people who are willing to push the envelope and lay everything on the line. And I’m someone who definitely likes to do a lot of takes, just to get it right. I mean, movies could last for a thousand years. Ultimately, I don’t think people are going to remember the disposition of the creative personalities involved. That said, they’re both incredible people and great to work with.

Photo: Courtesy of Fox