It seems like so much longer ago, but nearly four-and-a-half years ago at San Diego Comic Con, I saw the first ever public screening of a then-little known movie called DISTRICT 9. Those who knew about it probably did so for one of two reasons: one was that it executive produced by Peter Jackson, or they had seen the Neill Blomkamp-directed short ALIVE IN JOBURG, on which DISTRICT 9 was based. Said short starred an unknown South African-born actor named Sharlto Copley, who went on to star in the feature film as well. The day after the screening, I interviewed Copley and Blomkamp, both of whom were self-professed readers of Ain't It Cool, so they knew the kind of geeky details I was looking for out of our conversations, and they did not disappoint.
Less than a month after those interviews, the pair began their DISTRICT 9 press tour in Chicago with a screening of the film followed by an epic, no-holds-barred Q&A in which Blomkamp essentially ripped apart the studio with whom he had long been developing a film version of the video game HALO. The reason the Q&A was so fun is that Copley and Blomkamp was really aware of what they shouldn't say, they hadn't had any coaching or been given bullet points, so any question was fair game, and every answer was fantastic.
Jump ahead three years to the 2012 Comic Con, when both men were there promoting their latest film (released earlier this year), ELYSIUM, starring Matt Damon. In it, Copely is almost unrecognizable as the evil mercenary Kruger. After seeing Copley in DISTRICT 9 or as Murdock in THE A-TEAM or most recently in the sci-fi story EUROPA REPORT, it's become pretty clear that the man is a chameleon actor, a person who disappears so completely in their roles that a) you might not know who it is, which results in b) the actor not quite getting the credit he/she deserves for playing such diverse characters. I didn't get a chance to interview Copley in 2012, but I did run into him in an interview room, and we chatted about trying to arrange a talk sometime before the year was over.
When I first laid eyes on Copley in the Spike Lee version of the Japanese manga comic OLDBOY, not surprisingly, I didn't recognize him with his prim and proper demeanor, vaguely European accent, and underlying danger vibe. His character, Adrian, is a master manipulator and makes Josh Brolin's live absolutely hell both in and out of captivity. His take on the character could not be more different that the actor playing in the South Korean version of OLDBOY some 10 years ago, and that's completely appropriate. Look for Copley next summer in the reworked Sleeping Beauty story MALEFICENT (with Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning and Juno Temple).
Scheduling this interview with Copley was something of a challenge, since he is currently back in South Africa shooting his third feature with Blomkamp, entitled CHAPPIE, co-starring Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver, which Copley plays a robot. Although I don't think we see Copley's face in the film, he is on set every day giving a performance that will be replaced with his robot character (in a similar way actors playing aliens in DISTRICT 9 were). Add CHAPPIE to the list of major genre works I'm dying to see in 2015 (March 27, to be exact). Copley and I finally got on the phone together after three failed attempts in the course of a week, but it was worth the trouble because he's just as open as when we first me and all the more aware of his career and possible future as an actor.
One last bit of prologue, I held this interview until after opening weekend because we do get int a whole lot of spoilery detail here, consider this entire conversation one giant spoiler. So from the set of CHAPPIE, please enjoy my extended chat with Sharlto Copley…
Shalto Copley: Hello, Steve. Can you hear me?
Capone: Yes I can. How are you sir?
SC: I'm good man, sorry for the scheduling miscues
Capone: That’s okay. Fourth time is the charm.
SC: [laughs] It’s been a little bit of a crazy schedule.
Capone: I’m guessing. And the time difference doesn't make it easy either.
SC: No, and then it goes into night shoots, making the time difference even crazier. But anyway, nice to finally talk to you.
Capone: So between your part in OLDBOY and what you did in ELYSIUM, did you decide that this was the year that you were going to make everyone completely terrified of you?
SC: Dude, I wish it could have been that conscious. The truth is more that I’m just trying to be a working actor, and have to take whatever are the more interesting roles that I can get offered. But there were definitely interesting challenges from an acting point of view. I wanted to keep working. I went through a period after THE A-TEAM where I was being super fussy about everything that I did. I did nothing for like a year, and then I realized I want to be a character actor, I wan to develop a career and reputation over time of doing interesting stuff, and hopefully that will also give me longevity in a business that is a fickle as ours. So yeah, it was really a challenge in something like OLDBOY. I don’t have an interest really, I suppose like maybe some artists do, in getting really into the dark side, as it were. But I was just fascinated from an acting challenge point of view in doing something that is so far removed form myself, and could I pull it off, you know?
Capone: I’ve talked to some of your co-stars, and they’ve all said that during the rehearsal process where things get locked down in terms of dialogue and, to a degree, performance, they still were not quite prepared for what you brought when it came time to actually shoot. Can you talk about just the inspiration behind Adrian’s look, voice and demeanor?
SC: I think it was a couple of things. It started with Spike saying he thinks Adrian should be English and has gone to school in the U.S. but has spent most of his life overall in the UK. Spike is amazingly collaborative and really sort of lets you play around, and he pretty much just rolled with a whole bunch of different things that I brought to the table. I suppose the most important for me was trying to find some sense of believability in a sense that the characters are all damaged in the film. That's one of the interesting things--all the main characters are damaged human beings. Although it’s sold as this revenge film, obviously, and it is, it’s really I think at the end of the day about damage, especially this version of the movie. It’s not really just about, "You were really horrible to me, so fuck you. I'm going to get you back." I think it’s a deeper story. There actually is some depth to it in terms of exploring human nature and damage.
So the idea with Adrian was for me to be able to find some humanity or something that the guy would have been damaged by, and I opted to play as a bisexual guy because of what had happened to him when he was young. He has a confused relationship with love and intimacy and sex and those types of things. So I opted for a quieter, much more I suppose feminine manner than something like Kruger.
And the voice, I actually got inspired by one of my makeup artists on a previous film, just a general. I don’t actually sound like him, there is just something about his voice; I didn't imitate his accent necessarily, although he was an English guy. I did a more upper-class accent, but I always look for inspiration in real life. And I thought the nails would be interesting. I grew his nails for real. And I’ve never groomed myself so much in real life; it was pretty intense. My girlfriend was like, “God, I’ve never seen you spend so much time in front of a mirror.” And I had to keep--between that beard and the nails and the body hair as well--there’s a lot of grooming and making everything immaculate. But it’s an interesting experience.
Capone: I did notice that there’s nothing out of place on this guy, in the way he looks and the way he does his hair, and the beard is very specific. Were you at all concerned about playing a part in the remake of a film that’s still so fresh in the public memory?
SC: Yes and no. I had to resolve myself to the fact--because I came form a producing mentality, I suppose--that actors have a very specific place in the filmmaking chain, which is, "Here’s your role, this is what we are offering you, do it as good as you can with this role." Why we’re choosing to make this film, whether it's going to be good, whether it’s not, especially if you’re not the lead in the film, you have very little control of all of that. The idea of should we be remaking stuff over and over again? Should we do Western versions of Eastern films? It’s not a conversation or debate that really, as somebody who’s trying to be a working actor, you can get too involved and concerned about. But certainly you have to be aware of "What can I do with the role?"
So doing something like THE A-TEAM, I thought okay, what Dwight Schultz had done with the original Murdock was something that was very original and classic, and I felt could still play today if I played it in a similar way. Watching the original Korean film, I really enjoyed it, but I thought if I was going to do the villain I would want to do something very different and bring more to it, and I think our script allowed that. Our script went a little bit more into Adrian and what would have driven him. Actually from a certain human point of view, it made a bit more sense to my Western sensibility, if you will.
I actually thought that the script that Mark [Protosevich] did for OLDBOY, that was one of the things that attracted me, just seeing the script on its own. It wasn't because of the original film on its own. I couldn't really remember much of the original film when I read the script. I wasn't like, “Oh, well this is different and that’s different.” I was just like, “This is a very solid and interesting script.” So yeah, in this case of the two characters now that I have done that had been played by someone else in some way, shape or form, Murdock I opted to play very similarly; This one obviously, as you say, very different.
Capone: What's also interesting is that the film is so vicious, brutal and gritty, and your scenes run counter that. They’re more polished and elegant.
SC: Yes, it was a very contrasty approach to energetically, practically, even in just the look of the two characters, very different people from very different lives.
Capone: Adrian is strangely detached, yet this is an extremely personal thing that he’s going through when it comes to his style of revenge. It’s one of the best controlled-crazy performances that I’ve seen in a while. What is the key to maintaining that?
SC: One thing that was important to me was to bear in mind that the guy knew he was going to die at the end. I said that to Spike. I said, "I think what I would do differently…" and it was so long ago since I watched the original Korean version, but I was like, "In our version, the guy’s going to kill himself at the end of the film, and he knows that." Therefore throughout the movie you’re dealing with a suicidal human being. It’s not just a guy that’s like, "Hey I’m going to get you back man," like the classic, polished billionaire that you might expect you could have played it on the surface.
I immediately looked underneath and I said to Spike, "Well you could play this in the kind of classic, he’s a rich guy who’s got the edge over you the whole time, except he killed himself, in which case he’s a damaged man--deeply damaged." And I do think in that exploration of human nature, you need to be somewhat detached in order to kill yourself. You would be detached from the world in a certain way. You would need to be disconnected from the way the average human being experiences the world. Because the average person, as depressed as you might get, when you’re still connected to the world and to your life, there’s no way you can pull that trigger when the gun is actually to your head. Every instinct is going to tell you, absolutely not.
So in order for you to be overriding that instinct, you really have to be detached. And if you’ve planned your suicide for years, you’d have to have really just decided that you've disconnected from the world, and so you're going through all the motions--ggetting up, brushing your hair, doing your nails in his case, doing whatever he’s doing. But you’re really just biding time until the end comes.
Capone: He actually knows the day he’s going to die for years ahead of time. That’s a strange reality to live with for decades.
SC: Yeah, if all works according to plan, exactly. You’ve got money, but are you really enjoying it? You’ve got this power. Are you really enjoying it? Are you an egomaniac as you would imagine most billionaires to be? You know, no. Not really, if you’ve disconnected from life at a young age. It was an interesting exploration.
Capone: No offense to the people you’ve worked with before, like Neill or Joe Carnahan, but Spike Lee to me has always been a real gift to filmmaking. Did you come into the experience of working with him with any pre-conceived notions, and were they met, erased, or surpassed?
SC: I knew very little about Spike, and certainly, speaking on a personal level, I think I was quite shocked, because I was a little nervous as a white South African knowing that Spike had this image as, "Be careful because he doesn't like white people." I was like "Okay, that seems a bit radical." I didn’t really know much about him, coming form South Africa. And I met him, and on our first meeting, he stood up and gave me a hug and said, “Hey, my African brother,” and it was like an immediate heart connection with the guy. In a lot of ways, I was nervous to go into such a dark place with a character, but I have to say when I met Spike for some reason, I don’t know if it makes any sense, but his warmth and his humanity almost made me feel like, "This will actually be a safe film to work on. He will make it safe for me to go there," if that makes sense. Because between takes, I’ve got this warmth, I’ve got this loving environment on set.
And I’ve heard of actors speak of that, that he creates the space for you to do what you need to do as an artist, and I would totally agree with that and I would be more specific that in my case, he actually created a sense of love, a sense of light, a sense of humanity in his actual personality and his actual work as an artist that made me feel like, "It’s okay if you pretend to do some of the darkest shit imaginable because you’re okay, and you'll come back to this environment, which is real and very safe."
So I found it amazing from an artistic point of view that he’s actually doing that regardless of what comes out at the end of the day from the artistic process. Whether it’s commercial, whether it isn’t, whatever. It’s a genuinely artistic process that he’s guiding energetically, creating the space for you. I guess other actors maybe experience it differently in terms of what he allowed them to do. Obviously, some things we all have in common, like letting you bring a lot of stuff to the character, to the look, playing backwards and forwards with what you want your character to look like or wear. He gives you a lot of rope, and I’m sure a lot of people experience that. I don’t know wether people had ever experienced what I did with him--this dark and light.
Capone: You actually have only a couple face-off scenes with Josh Brolin--one where you clearly have the upper hand, and the second where he’s a little bit more in control. What were the days of shooting those two encounters like?
SC: It was intense. Like I said, the thing was that Spike was really containing a space for you to allow you to not just too dark and too carried away. I think both Josh and I get quite into our work. This was definitely the most method I’d been as an actor. I spent a lot of time at home developing the mannerisms and really drilling the body language into my behavior until it became second nature. Every time I picked up a cup, my girlfriend would be like, “No, no, no, use two fingers or three fingers.” All the little things that I developed, and she was coaching me along and making sure at home I didn’t slip up. I was going a little bit more in because the character was more removed from my natural personality, my natural energy.
So yeah, when we were on set, it was a very intense thing because we were both playing damaged people; it’s very interesting. It wasn’t really about dominance. It wasn’t something like Kruger, who is just like, "Dude, I’m just trying to dominate you energetically." Like with Matt [Damon], I was just joking--it was about "Dude, I just want the audience to believe that I can kick your ass. That is really what I’m doing, man. I’m just throwing everything at you to go; I’m not just like, I sort of believe I can--I can! Everything about my history from South Africa, every piece of me that is capable of like taking you on is coming out." This type of face off was more playing from a position of damage, and you’re both putting damaged characters in front of each other. So the dominance is not really at play. It becomes quite emotional actually when you’re working with each other. And as the end of the film is, he’s broken and I’m at peace but also broken.
Capone: Not to get side tracked, but watching Kruger in ELYSIUM, it was the closest I’ve ever seen to someone playing a wild animal, without putting on fur or a Wolverine costume.
SC: [laughs] There was more of a nuance, but a lot of it was cut out.
Capone: Well if there was, it was definitely not so much on the screen, but it really was like watching a wild animal strap on a gun. You’ve been doing the acting thing for five or six years now, on a big scale at least. Have you gotten used to getting to work with these amazing people?
SC: Yeah, I have. I feel very grateful. I feel like I have still a lot more to offer but I think as I’ve sort of learned about Hollywood, I’ve realized coming off DISTRICT 9 that it might take a while, because I was playing a different character. I think a lot of people really enjoyed the performance, respected the performance, but for example maybe didn't know, "Well, is he just playing himself? Okay, anything we see from Sharlto is going to be a different version of Wikus, so how do we cast that?" So I realized that like I’m going to have to fight for roles a lot of the time and go out and audition. I didn’t have to for OLDBOY but for MALEFICENT I did. I went out and did a lot of work doing a tape and trying to get that in front of Angie [Angelina Jolie]. I certainly haven’t worked on anything where I’ve ever felt uncomfortable or intimidated. I feel very comfortable with the craft of acting; I feel very comfortable doing it. I feel like I’ve definitely found what I want to do, although I think directing something is really beginning to eat at me beyond believe.
SC: Yeah, when I was younger, I wanted to be a director, I was going to go to UCLA and study directing. I was enrolled even. I have been shooting stuff and making stuff my whole life. So I definitely think that is going to be in the cards for me in the future, but it’s going to be my own thing that I’m going to direct myself, and I’ll probably do that at some point, but I’m really enjoying the acting and just grateful that I’m getting work. As I said, I think that by playing different roles, I mean, one of the reasons I took OLDBOY was I thought, "Well how many actors are out there that can go from Murdock to OLDBOY? That’s an enormous amount of latitude that you’ve been given. It’s a very fortunate situation that a lot of actors would like.
I think I have sort of a more slow-burn career. I came onto the scene with my first film, DISTRICT 9, quite strongly, obviously. To develop a reputation of doing different characters and doing them well--some of which people like more than others--you know that this is a guy that takes his position and does something interesting every time he goes out there, or at least he’s striving to do that. Hopefully that will get me some sort of long-term longevity doing characters.
Capone: The irony of your career so far is that you have become this classic chameleon actor, to the point where some people might not even realize it’s the same guy in all these different roles, which is great because you get a great reputation as an actor, but a lot of times, they’re not realizing it’s the same actor, so your talent may go unnoticed.
SC: Exactly! It’s exactly true. Had I done a performance in DISTRICT 9 where I play an all-American guy, and the film had been a huge hit like that, then I would have gotten a whole bunch of other lead films where I could play a similar character, being maybe thrust into the limelight, milking it for five years, put in everything, and then Hollywood goes, "Okay we’ve seen what you can do. Thanks very much." It feels like it’s getting more like that, more like the music industry, very disposable. Just because you have two or three hit movies in a row in which you're the lead doesn’t mean you can have a Bruce Willis career now. It’s much more cyclical, it’s much more competitive.
So I think, I hope, at least in my case, that by doing these different roles that that it makes you harder to cast in some ways, but I’m not chasing the fame. I’m not wanting to be a movie star; I’m just trying to be a working actor that entertains people. I am chasing trying to make entertaining characters as much as I’m given a chance within the framework of the film or the character, to make the character as entertaining as possible for the audience--I am passionate about that. Whether they know it’s me or not.
I’m doing CHAPPIE now; I’m doing a robot. I couldn’t care less whether people know that Shalto’s doing the robot or not. It’s a radically different performance from than anything I’ve done before. People in the business will know it's me, and hopefully they would go, "Okay, this is quite something to go through this big range of different characters." I just want kids to love CHAPPIE and want to buy the little robot toy. [laughs] Then I'll feel like I’ve done it well. I don't need them to go, "Sharlto, you’re the guy." I don’t care if they can pronounce my name or not. As long as they can say Chappie’s name, it’s fine.
Capone: You brought it up, and I don’t know how much you can say about it. I’ve seen the short that inspired CHAPPIE, and I know you're doing the voice of this robot, but are you also doing a motion-capture performance?
SC: Yeah, that’s sort of an incorrect statement--just the voice. It’s a full-on mo-cap performance like we did with the aliens in DISTRICT 9, but even more so in this case because it’s a human type of robot, so there’s not additional tentacles or something like that. So they are using everything that I’m doing. They're not doing mo-cap rigs; they'll just trace over me.
Capone: That seems to be Neill’s preference. How has your relationship with him changed over the course of the years that you’ve been working together?
SC: It’s interesting. It has evolved in some ways. Obviously, we’ve got more of a short hand together. We're both learning about film as we go. We’re learning about what does and doesn't work, as much as one can in the business where at the end of the day, as they say, nobody knows anything, which is also true. We're trying to learn from our experience, I suppose, and sharing information and talking about what we feel does or doesn’t work about something. That’s grown, generally speaking, in the same direction. There’s a calmness as well that comes with experience, where you’re just very comfortable with each other. We’ve got a level of radical honesty and even a way of dealing with differing opinions that is very stress free, which is cool. It's a respect for each other and each others areas.
Capone: Can you say anything about the direction of CHAPPIE's story? You almost made it sound like it was something that kids could see. I don’t know if that’s the goal.
SC: Well, it will be R rated, so no. [laughs]
Capone: Ok, kids are going to have a hard time finding that little doll.
SC: When I say "kids," I just mean younger people. Actually any age group. Let me rephrase that. I wouldn't mind 14 year olds having the action figure. I’ve got a whole bunch of collections at home. I’m hoping, and so is Neil, that this time, they don't just give everything away, because I think on this one especially it’s got a really unique story. It’s radically different. It’s got elements that are familiar, so I think it’s more in the vein of DISTRICT 9 in that way. You’ve got elements that you have seen before, but it’s not as science fictiony, in a sense, as his other works. You have a robot and that is science fiction, but the rest of it is really just a story. It’s an interesting movie idea with some interesting characters, so you it's definitely something different.
Capone: You guys did such a great job locking down really anything details about ELYSIUM for so long, and it kept people really interested. I would imagine that you’d want to keep doing that.
SC: They showed the bloody end of ELYSIUM by the time it came out, and you can’t be critical about it because it’s not your job. If I was running marketing, then I would be in more of a position to comment. From an audience point of view, for example with OLD BOY, they’ve done some of the most awesome marketing that I’ve seen in a long time, but in the end, it’s now you can see online the scene where Josh’s character meets mine for the first time, and I’m kinda like, "No! Why would you do that? Why would you have a poster that says 'Ask not why you were imprisoned. Ask why were you released.' And it’s this mystery about who imprisoned you. Why do you want to show the guy?" It’s such a genius idea. He’s in prison for 20 years; he doesn't know who it was. Why are you showing him? But they have their reasons; they do their research; it’s a competitive business. For me as a viewer I don't want to know that stuff. I love it when I can be intrigued by a campaign and then just go, "Don’t show me anymore. I’ll just go to the movie now. Surprise me, don’t show me all the best scenes from the film."
Capone: At this point, it’s really the audience's choice whether they want to know everything about a movie before you go in or know nothing.
SC: From what I can tell, it seems like sites like you guys are good with spoiler alerts; they are letting you know. People are tying to be respectful of that, and I think with movie fan sites, there is a respect for that. And thankfully there are still people out there who want to be excited by a film and don’t want to see everything or hear everything in the review. But it’s an interesting time. It’s a very competitive time in the business.
Capone: Speaking of the flow of information, the teaser trailer for MALEFICENT just came out this week.
SC: What did you think?
Capone: Visually, it looks gorgeous. There’s no storyline revealed; it’s just the two women. Who do you play in the film?
SC: I play King Stefan, who is the father of Sleeping Beauty.
Capone: And you're working with Robert Stromberg, who's this incredible visual effects master, but he’s also technically a first-time director. How did he work with actors and not just computers?
SC: Rob was fantastic, man. Rob was one of the favorite people that I’ve worked with. He’s really one of those genius, talented artists. From the first meeting with him, it was like, "Okay, that’s why they’re giving him a $200 million film," because you do wonder, obviously. What does this guy have? The only time I’d heard that before was Neill with a $150 million for the HALO movie that fell apart. And I knew Neill had something that was absolutely, genuinely genius. And you meet Rob and you look around the room, and you’re looking at all this artwork, and I’m thinking, "Oh my god, this is some of the most incredible character work that I’ve seen. Who you're working with [on these designs]? And he’s like, "I did most of it myself ," and you're like holy shit. And it’s totally different styles from landscapes to buildings to characters, and the man is designing most of that himself. Then as I started working with him as an actor as well, just understanding character and performance and timing, it’s just a really enjoyable experience working with him and working with Angelina as well. She’s amazing. I had an incredible time with them.
Capone: Sharlto, thank you so much for making this happen and giving me so much time. Best of luck with this.
SC: Great pleasure, man. It’s the least I could do after the four attempts. I appreciate your support, and speak to you soon again I hope.