Interview: Sharlto Copley

District 9 director Neill Blomkamp returns to cinemas this month with his eagerly awaited follow-up, Elysium (2013). Set in 2159, in a future dystopia where the wealthy live on man-made space station Elysium and the rest of humanity inhabit a ravaged Earth, the film centres on the story of Max DeCosta (Matt Damon). After an accident leaves him with only five days to live, he must hijack his way to Elysium to get the cure before it's too late. The film also stars District 9's Sharlto Copley, now on villain duty as the brutal Agent Kruger. CineVue were recently on hand to ask the actor about reuniting with Blomkamp, how much improvisation he likes to use, and whether heroes are more fun to play than villains.

Amon Warmann: What was it that made you want to play the villainous Kruger?

Sharlto Copley: When I read the original script, I felt that with the lead character that Matt [Damon] plays there were a couple of things that happened to him that were similar to what Wikus went through in District 9. I felt like Kruger had the most potential to be someone interesting and unique that you hadn't seen before from a movie villain. I didn't know exactly what it was going to be at the time when I read it, we went through various versions. In one version I was American, and then I was English and Eastern-European. The South African won out because you get so few chances to do it.

AW: You signed on before you read the script. What is it about Blomkamp that made you want to work with him again?

SC: I think he has a commercial yet artistic style of filmmaking that lines up with mine; it's the best way that I can explain it. I think our natural feeling that we are doing something arty happens to be something that more people might like; I think we have that in common. He lets me make very interesting characters and he sees my potential to entertain the audience, which very few people will let you do.

AW: Elysium was made on a bigger budget than District 9. Did that make any difference on set?

SC: It was easier to do than District 9 because we had more time - I wasn't the lead so we had a lot more off days. We shot most of it in Vancouver, so I was living in a lap of luxury. Neill [Blomkamp] had time to prep and he shot this one in a very prepared way. He wanted a much looser documentary feel in District 9, this one was much more structured. So I think the production itself went a lot more smoothly and was a lot more fun than the last. But, the first film was more fulfilling I suppose because it was a little bit more personal and closer to my heart for me.

AW: How much of an input did you have on your character's development in Elysium?

SC: District 9 was 100% improvisation - we just had a story guideline. For Elysium we had scripts, we had lines. Neill was like "Listen, it's Matt and Jodie, I don't want you going off the script with this, it's my first time working with them and people of this calibre, so please stay on the script". They shot for two weeks before I arrived for my first day, so when I arrived everyone was waiting to see whether or not I would stick to the lines. My first scene was with Alice [Braga] who plays Frey in the movie. It's a scene where I'm in her house with her kid, and I'm sticking exactly to the lines - every comma, every pause - and Alice isn't sticking to the lines. She does this weird, emotional shit and I stop after the first take and say “Dude, she's not sticking to the lines!” So, after that I was doing something different every take [laughs]. Maybe about 70% or so was improvisation this time. He let me go more than any of the other actors.

AW: You participate in a lot of fight scenes in Elysium. What was the training like, and did you have a favourite weapon?

SC: Matt and I knew we were going to do some crazy stuff together in these Hulk suits which were heavy and very demanding. We weren't just training to look a certain way but just to have strong core strength so you weren't going to die doing it. It was tough. My favourite weapon was the sword. In this tech world, the battles were so one-sided. It's sort of the equivalent now of the Americans going into Iraq - technology is way superior, the group has much more firepower. With the sword, there was the idea of the intimidation factor. If I push a button and I turn you into a meat sandwich that's one thing, but if I take out a sword and cut your hand off that's actually more terrifying.

AW: Were there any accidents on set?

SC: We got banged up, but Matt is the real deal, so it was just two guys who could have a bit of a go. We had stunt guys there working out what we could and couldn't do, so we didn't rehearse a great deal. A lot of the time they would show us the moves right there, camera was already set up and we run through the next four beats and we run through it a few times and then go. We wanted to keep it fresh and rough, there are a lot of things that can hurt you and hit you and bruise you up so we got a lot of that. I was interested to see if Matt was going to be all Hollywood [laughs], but he totally manned up.

AW: Which do you consider more fun to play - the hero or the villain?

SC: For me, I can see why a lot of people say villains because the heroes that they play are maybe too straight. Having done Wikus and Murdock as more heroic characters, they were actually more fun than Kruger. This guy is darker, and it was a bit darker for me to sort of spend time in that energy. I had a five-second rule with Kruger which was that I couldn't be him for longer than five seconds off camera, because I tended to hurt people's feelings and I'd instinctively try and go for their insecurities. I'd have to say so far that the villains that I have played have been more fun. However, it was interesting for me to sort of access a part of myself I guess you try and not have in your life.

AW: The next film we're going to see you in is the English-language remake of Park Chan-wook's Oldboy. What was it like working with Spike Lee?

SC: Spike was amazing; we sort of hit it off right in the beginning. I think I try and do something really different with that character from the original movie. When I did The A-Team I was trying to do my version of what Dwight [Schultz] did with Murdock. In this case, I just came at the character with a whole different mind-set. Spike had said that he wanted him to be English, so I kind of worked a little bit with Spike but pretty much offered up my own version. That's as dark as I've gone, and I think as dark as I want to go in my career. I'm looking for something fun now.

Neill Blomkamp's Elysium is released in UK cinemas on 21 August, 2013. You can read our review of the film by following this link.

Amon Warmann


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