Jackson Rathbone balances the universe in The Last Airbender
Some actors will work for years and never see a single film open in multiple markets. Twenty-five-year-old Jackson Rathbone has two movies opening in more than 7,000 theatres within a two-day period. Rathbone is part of a huge cast in the Vancouver-shot The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, which marks the third time he has played vampire Jasper Hale in the popular series. It opens Wednesday (June 30). He makes his debut as a lead actor in a major-studio film when The Last Airbender opens on Thursday (July 1).
Watch the trailer for The Last Airbender.
Over the phone from Toronto, where he is promoting The Last Airbender, Rathbone admits that he feels fortunate to have been in the Twilight movies but says doing three movies in three years has forced him to say no on occasion. And he says that while big-budget movies have their benefits, he’s been just as happy in the independent films he’s acted in since moving to L.A. from Texas for college.
“Twilight has helped me in my career, but there were projects I would have loved to have done that I had to turn down during that time. However, I consider myself very lucky to have been involved [in the series]. I count my blessings”, he says. “I also like doing smaller films because there is always a sense of being in the trenches and you’re all thinking you’ll have to work hard to get it made. In big-budget films there is an army going back and forth, but everything you do has to be approved. There’s more of a sense of immediacy with indie films but I love them equally, and although there are so many differences, they are both collaborative. The thing I have always loved about film is that you are gathering together all these artists creating art that will last beyond your lifetime.”
In The Last Airbender, a live-action adaptation of the animated Nickelodeon series, a boy (Noah Ringer) discovers that he’s the only person who can change the direction of a war waged by the nation of Fire against the nations of Air, Water, and Earth. He teams with a brother and sister, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Rathbone), in an effort to restore balance to their universe. Rathbone says Sokka reminded him of a film-character type we’ve seen before.
“Sokka is someone I have always liked in cinema,” he says. “He is a character with a cause. His mother is taken away by the Fire Nation and his father is in the war, and he is left behind to look after the kids, including his sister. He is smart and a tactician and a warrior. He starts off with grandiose ideas of how to fight the Fire Nation and through the course of the film figures it all out.”
Rathbone never set out to play Sokka. In fact, he was originally asked, by director M. Night Shyamalan, to play the villain of the piece. When Shyamalan brought on Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel for the role of Prince Zuko, he brought Rathbone back to talk about Sokka. “I had auditioned for the role of Zuko with Night, and I didn’t hear back for a year. They flew me into Philadelphia to read for Sokka with Nicola [Peltz] and it really felt like we were brother and sister. I think he [Shyamalan] hired me because he saw that at the heart of it, it is about family and the two of us seemed believable in those roles.”
Although he has been in film and television since he was a teenager, Rathbone started out making theatre sets for an amateur group called the Pickwick Players in George W. Bush’s hometown of Midland, Texas. His father was an engineer, and he found it easy enough at the age of 12 to create sets for adult actors. He says that it wasn’t long before he saw that the actors had a special appeal.
“It is an amazing theatre community program and you can work as a techie or an actor, but after a year of building sets I noticed that the girls were talking to the actors and not us. I started auditioning and [at 14] was playing Doody in Grease and singing and playing a guitar. I spent hours taking acting lessons and learning a wide array of techniques and abilities that you can get in a good theatre company. Then I left for boarding school and studied performing arts. Eventually, I felt confident enough that I moved to L.A. for college and got a manager. I was hired for [the Disney Channel’s] 411. I like the idea of being in films but I also love walking in different shoes and that may eventually be easier to do in theatre. That would be fine.”