As star of Neill Blomkamp’s socially aware South African sci-fi blockbuster District 9, Sharlto Copley knows better than most what makes the director tick. Now reteaming with Blompkamp for the Matt Damon-fronted Elysium, Copley talks exclusively to SciFiNow about the lighter side of his venomous bad-ass Kurger, improvisation and their next project, the mysterious Chappie…
So Kruger – he’s a nasty bastard isn’t he?
Well, yes – from one perspective! I had a lot of fun playing the character because it wasn’t too genuinely dark, I didn’t take it too seriously. It’s a little bit tongue in cheek when you’re making a genre movie. But yes, I had a five second rule with Kruger which was that I could only be in character for five seconds after the cameras stopped rolling. With Wickus on District 9 I used to mess around with the crew, and it was fun – not all the same character the whole time – but I would just instinctively mess around and joke with people.
I did that on the first day with Kruger and I just really hurt people, I would instinctively go for their insecurities – verbally, because I couldn’t physically do it – but energetically and verbally just be an arsehole, and it was unpleasant. I was at San Diego Comic-Con promoting the movie and this guy asked me to do it, and it was one of those moments where my inexperience showed and I did it in a whole round table of press and there was this horrible silence afterwards as I just really insulted this man. So don’t ask me to do it to you!
I wouldn’t want to see it! I found your performance captivating, but at the same time quite frightening. This is a guy who really likes violence and takes pleasure in doing damage…
I suppose I went for the psychotic version of a professional, mercenary soldier. Most of those guys are actually just really good at what they do and are quite clinical about it. But there’s a very small minority that almost get detached from reality and that’s where I was going with Kruger.
You improvise a lot, don’t you?
Was there any room for that in Elysium?
That’s actually a good story, because I’d improvised the whole of District 9, so this time Neill said ‘There’s an actual script, this time – there’s lines of dialogue’. But the character wasn’t written as South African. So once we decided that he was, obviously some dialogue had to change. He said to me right from the beginning ‘I’m working with Jodie and Matt, I don’t want you to improv so much, you’ve got to stick to the lines, especially in the scenes with them,’ – he kept drilling this into me.
I started filming two weeks into the shoot, and Neill kept saying ‘Stick to the lines’, and on my first day on set, I go into the first scene with Alice [who plays Frey] and I do every single lines exactly like the script – but she doesn’t! She’s changing it up and doing this great emotional thing. I took Neill aside and said ‘Dude, what’s going on? She’s not sticking to the lines,’ and he’s like ‘Well, I’ve sort of been loosening that up…’. So in the end I didn’t improvise everything, but maybe about 70 per cent or so. That scene, when I come to her house, I changed everything – the whole scene.
It’s a horrible scene, that…
It’s kind of accessing some weird stuff, isn’t it? It’s really disturbing when you like to see yourself a certain way and then you tap into a certain energy. I think coming from South Africa, you grow up exposed to a lot of different things and I was drawing on some of that.
There’s another moment where you sing a song in Afrikaans…
That, I was very proud of, actually. An Afrikaans nursery rhyme in a South African film – that is definitely a first. As is the accent. The accent he uses is a South Joburg accent, as we would call it. It’s English speakers as opposed to Afrikaans – usually what you hear is Afrikaans people speaking English. This is the other way around. It’s very strong.
You have three completed projects with Neill and are working on another, there must be a lot of trust between you. How has your relationship evolved over the years?
It’s interesting to see how it’s evolved. It hasn’t changed much. We just have more time, more toys, more fun – Elysium was easier to make because of the time, the schedule and the budget.
As his projects get bigger, does that change the dynamic between you?
No, not really. We’re going now to do something smaller. It puts more pressure on him. And it maybe doesn’t allow him to be as creative as he might want, so I think it’s going to be interesting going back to doing something super-creative like our next project – it’s really out there, and you can take risks. On bigger projects, they’re not so keen on the risk factor, everybody’s trying to do everything they can to mitigate that.
A bit thing about your ‘pairing’ is that you’re both South African, with District 9 and Elysium you’re making films that have a very strong political message – is that something that’s important to you personally?
I just think good writing presents some perception on society – either sociopolitical situations, or human beings and the understanding of human nature. I don’t think it’s that easy. The idea that this film is about the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, immigration and so on – you’re talking about things that have been going on for thousands of years. There have always been people who had more, trying to work out how to keep what they have. I think it’s dealing with deeper things in human nature.
Neill’s not trying to prescribe something. People are very quick in media and in our profession to point fingers. Political things are very easy to criticise and it’s not so easy to be the person who actually has to take responsibility for it. I think our primary job is really to entertain.
Obviously this is a sci-fi film, is that a thing for you? Are you a geek?
I think I’m becoming more geeky as I get older. I do love science fiction, but more than anything I love good characters, and science fiction allows you to create characters that are a little bit special or different, or larger than life, or that would make good action figures more than standard drama does. So I think as an actor that’s what’s appealing – fantasy gives you the same thing.
I think some actors really enjoy doing stuff that’s just super-realistic, but a lot of the time I find those performances kind of boring. People said District 9 was really realistic, but it wasn’t really – if I played Wickus like a real South African bureaucrat, it’d be a really boring film to watch. I like to go that extra little bit and give something a heightened reality.
Do you think the genre makes political statements a little more palatable for the audience?
It’s true, it gives you a satirical lens. I love satire. If I have a political world view at all it’s more the view of a satirist, I suppose. It’s being able to look at the ridiculousness of the whole predicament rather than taking one side of the other. I’m fascinated by the overall absurdity of what happens on the planet.
What can you tell me about your next project with Neill, Chappie?
Basically nothing! I’m sorry [laughs]! I would love to.
Don’t waste my last question!
I’m sorry. I think it’ll be cool. Different. Very different.
It’s a comedy, right?
No. That I can tell you. It’s sort of come out there that it’s a comedy, but it’s not how I’d define it. It has comedic elements, but in the same way that District 9 had. But it’s not a ‘haha’ film.