He wasn't exactly burning with theatrical ambition—he thought Chekhov was that bloke from Star Trek. What he did have, however, was a blue-collar work ethic and a willingness "to do anything." He got an acting job right out of school. Then another. "Then that movie begets another movie," he says, "and everyone in Australia goes, 'Ohhh, you're the next big thing.' They give you another one. So your hard work begets work."

But maybe not satisfaction, and it's here that we arrive at the after. Worthington was enjoying himself, but after a starring turn opposite Abbie Cornish in the 2004 Australian indie film Somersault, in which he played a sexually confused farmer's son, he decided his game needed lifting. "I've wasted time," he remembers saying to himself. "What was I thinking? I could've been learning more instead of being like, 'Oh, that's an awesome job, man. She's a good-looking costar—I might try for that.' You know, all the dodgy stuff in your twenties." But working harder, more soberly, more seriously—it still wasn't quite enough. And that's when Worthington suffered his man-in-the-mirror moment. Mild self-improvement, he decided, wouldn't cut it; he had to start over, from scratch. "I don't know if I can explain it," he says. "If I could, it'd make it a lot easier. But the whole point was that I couldn't explain it."

Two weeks later, fresh off moving into his car, Worthington fielded a mysterious call from some casting agent wanting him to audition for an American movie. He had barely enough gas money to make the drive. "But I thought, well, at least I get to act today," he says. "And what was I doing anyway? I was living in my car, trying to figure out what I wanted to do." The audition tape went to Hollywood, where Cameron watched Worthington speak his first line ("Uh-huh") and instantly decided he'd found the lead for Avatar, his first feature since Titanic.

"It's hard to find a guy who works for women and for men," Cameron says. "With a lot of actors, women love them, but they don't inspire men. I needed someone who could lead men into battle." Worthington, he says, "was the one who went full Shakespeare." They met, they clicked. "He impressed me as a tough guy," Cameron says. "He had a flintiness about him." The studio, however, wasn't as sold on the fledgling unknown as Cameron, who waged a six-month battle to cast Worthington. "Jim would call up and say, 'Where are you?'" Worthington recalls. "I'd say, 'I'm still in the car, mate. I'm waiting to go to work.'" The studio blinked. You know the rest.

"I'm most taken with the journey that led him here," says Joseph McGinty Nichol, better known as McG, who directed Worthington in Terminator Salvation while Cameron was editing Avatar. "It's a very bohemian story." It is, though in some respects Worthington doesn't hew to the bohemian stereotype. He shies away, for instance, from the word art. "Artistry has a kind of weird connotation," he says, "because you can sound like you're going straight up your fucking ass if you say that." In drama school, when Worthington was asked to name his favorite movie—"They didn't ask me my favorite play because they knew I hadn't seen one"—he turded up the punch bowl by answering Lethal Weapon 2. "They looked at me like I was crazy," he recalls. "I think they were thinking, oh, Casablanca, Gone With the Wind. But I said, 'Look, if I can have half as much fun as those boys and get paid to do what they're doing—that's pretty cool.'"