Interviews Movies

Sharlto Copley escapes District 9

‘District 9’ star Sharlto Copley tells us about the dark side of Hollywood, being recognised at the gym, Wikus and Charlize, ‘Braveheart’, befriending Rampage Jackson, prawns, acting crazy, his primary school gang, and being a member of ‘The A-Team’.

Two years ago you weren’t know outside the local film industry but now you’re starring in one of the biggest films of the year. How has that change been for you?

It can be pretty overwhelming at times. The overriding feeling I get, though, is gratitude – I’m just extremely grateful for the opportunities that have come my way after I felt like I’d worked very hard for a very long time in South Africa, making a lot of sacrifices to try and be in the business. So there was a sense of relief, I suppose, and gratitude to have finally had that opportunity.

Before ‘District 9’ changed everything, you worked in film production. But had you secretly always wanted to be an actor?

No, acting was something I’d seriously considered from the ages of about 11 to 18. I had done a lot of acting but that was part of the fact that I was making little films with my friends, little comedy sketches, little action movies. In that process I decided I wanted to be in control creatively of what was happening,  so then acting wasn’t going to be my thing. So I had completely dropped it, entirely, by the time this came along. I hadn’t had the thought of really trying to be an actor for 14 years when it happened.

Is it what you’d expected? The red carpet, the glitz, the glamour?

The only time I’d thought what that might be like is when I was a kid, so it was so long ago that I can’t really say. I wasn’t sitting there fantasising about what it was going to be like. I can certainly say that it is not the way that people perceive it – it’s not as glamorous, it’s not as one-sided. I guess it’s my philosophy on life: everything has positive and negative in it, if you look hard enough you can always see the flipside to everything. I’m very aware of that in what I’m going through, but mostly the negative side isn’t very attractive, it doesn’t sell stories, it doesn’t sell magazines, it doesn’t bring ratings to TV shows. So people keep the illusion of ‘Wow, it’s all just wonderful, and everybody’s wonderful, and everybody loves each other’.

And in reality you really hate Liam Neeson and think he’s an awful guy.

[Laughs] No, I got lucky on this. The four of us got on which was helpful. Again, I don’t think you had to because the characters are really well structured and you’ve got good actors so you just do your thing. In my view you don’t have to be getting on well when the camera’s off – but we did. That was a bonus.

I think it does help, though, in a film like this where it is all about teamwork.

Ja, me and Rampage had a very strong chemistry and we really wanted that, we needed that, because that’s what the relationship between Murdock and BA is supposed to be like. We were both huge fans of the original show, we really wanted our characters to stay close to the originals, and we got really lucky. We got a close personal friendship out of the movie – we still speak to each other all the time.

And Liam Neeson and Bradley Cooper? Was it intimidating working with them?

No, I wasn’t intimidated. It was more off-camera that it was weird, that I had surreal moments – on the first day or two I’d kind of go: ‘Oh, god that’s Liam’. And I’d seen Bradley in ‘The Hangover’ and ‘Wedding Crashers’ which I’d both really enjoyed so then I was thinking: ‘I’m actually doing a movie with him’. But the actual job, no – there’s nothing intimidating about it.

They’ve both described you as a crazy guy – is that you as a person, or as an actor?

It’s probably a little bit of both. As an actor obviously you draw on personal qualities or experiences in your life. I grew up doing different characters and different voices, even when I had my different companies, I’d mess around with my staff. The fact that I did that was how I ended up in ‘District 9’ in the first place. My friend Neill Blomkamp, who directed ‘District 9’, knew that about me. He knew I’m always messing about with voices and accents. So it’s kind of true, I suppose, that there are elements of Murdock – particularly the switching and being a different character, messing around with the different dialects – that I do myself.

On ‘District 9’ you largely improvised the character of Wikus. Did you get much chance to do the same on ‘The A-Team’?

Not nearly as much as on ‘District 9’ but we did – and I say ‘we’ because Rampage and Bradley are great improvisers.  Liam’s more old school and likes to stick to the lines more, but the three of us really went off and a lot of my best moments in the film, both with Murdock and the other characters, were improvised moments.

Like the ‘Braveheart’ sequence where you’re covered in blue paint?

Ja. There’s this Blue Man Group which is an act in America with these painted blue guys that I didn’t know about. That is in the script: ‘Murdock is going to do some Blue Man Group stuff where he’s pounding on the drums and paint splattering everywhere’. And I said to Joe Carnahan, the writer-director: ‘I just feel it’s a bit silly, can’t we do something more?’ And he was looking at me and I had all this blue paint on my face from having splattered the drums filled with blue paint and he said: ‘You’re reminding me of Mel Gibson in ‘Braveheart’ – we should do something with that’. So he was very open to improv – that was one of the real joys of the movie for me, throwing around ideas with Joe. When he said that, I went: ‘I know the end speech’, so he said: ‘Done’. So they got them to make me a little horse very quickly on the moment and someone was checking the lines from the final speech just to make sure I had the exact words.

You’re clearly a movie fan then. Has your perception changed, being on the other side of the camera now?

I can still go to a film and enjoy it because I’ve known about the filmmaking process for many many years, from when I was a kid. What has changed is the fact that now I read an enormous number of scripts of films that are being made. So when I see ‘Knight And Day’ coming out with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, I’d read that script, I knew what that film was going to be, so that kind of takes away the enjoyment. And that’s with an enormous number of films coming out in the next year. And because I’m interested in film, I read a lot. Even if there’s no role for me, in some cases if it’s an interesting project I’d still ask to read it. So I guess in that way it’s kind of tainted my enjoyment of films if I’ve read them.

Have you got any more acting jobs lined up?

I do. Nothing I’ve confirmed yet but some stuff that we’re talking about that I can’t mention until it actually happens.

So the Hollywood career is something you’re keen to pursue?

I want to pursue films as a producer, actor, director, writer in those various capacities so if I can keep doing that in the Hollywood system, then great. If I don’t find stuff that is inspiring to me within the system I’ll look outside it, independent films, come home, make a film here. I don’t want to be too stuck on that Hollywood thing where you quite easily get into this rat race of trying to top yourself the whole time: ‘Now what are you going to do? And now? And now? And now?’ And you’ve still got to be: ‘I’m great’ and ‘I’m still great’.

It was such a relief to me to make a film like ‘District 9’ that was as personal as it was, as close to my heart as it was, and then to have it do well in the pop culture around the world that I kind of let go of some of that crazy drive I had before. Now I’m just trying to enjoy myself and see where it leads. I’ll make things like that clip where Wikus tries to track down Charlize in Hollywood, literally just for fun. There was no money in that for me, there was no real upside other than: ‘This would be a fun piece to make with Charlize and put it on the internet’.

Charlize is a friend of mine and I really had a lot of fun making that and she was totally up for just playing along, having fun with the idea that everybody still wants her to be South African – and she really is, surprisingly actually given she left the country so long ago. But she’s had a very different life now to the average South African person.

When you’re here in South Africa, do people come up to you asking about Wikus?

I do. I actually get more of that in LA because LA is a very celebrity movie-focused place so there’s a lot of people who want to be actors or in the business in some way and they keep up to date with what’s going on in the business. And ‘District 9’ had an enormous impact in the Hollywood community – way bigger than I’d thought – and so sort of everybody in Hollywood knows about the film. So there are more people there that will tend to come up to me or say: ‘Hey, I thought you were great’ or ‘Please call me a f**ken prawn’, weird kind of requests like that. I do get the odd person in South Africa coming up to me in the gym asking: ‘Are you sharlto?’, or more often: ‘You’re that actor, right?’ or ‘Were you in ‘District 9′?’ You can see the calculation as they see my face and see if they can see the character in me. It’s pretty funny.

Now, back to your new movie – is it true you were in an ‘A-Team’ gang in primary school?

Yes! One of the guys is coming to the premiere tonight that I haven’t literally seen since I was 11 or 12, from those school days, because I then went to a different school. And he Facebooked me, finally. I was hoping somebody was going to make contact, because I couldn’t remember who all the other guys in the gang were but it was so long ago. And he Facebooked me: ‘Hey, I was in your gang’, so I invited him to the premiere and I’m going to see him tonight for the first time in years.

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