Karl Urban interview: playing Dredd, comics and more

With Dredd out in UK cinemas this week, Seb caught up with the star beneath the helmet, Karl Urban…

If there’s a more geek-friendly actor currently working in Hollywood than Karl Urban, we’d like to hear about them. It’s not just because of the impressive number of sci-fi, fantasy and action franchises to be found on his CV – from Lord Of The Rings to Star Trek, via the likes of Doom, RED and Chronicles Of Riddick – but also due to the fact that he’s the kind of guy who has a son named Indiana, after a certain Dr Jones. And in much the same way as he pursued the role of Bones McCoy in Trek due to his own fannish enthusiasm, his latest project – Alex Garland and Pete Travis’ high-octane adaptation of the classic 2000AD comics series Judge Dredd – is another that ticks his own personal fandom boxes.

We caught up with Karl on the eve of Dredd’s release to discuss how he felt playing one of his own childhood heroes, why Dredd’s sense of humour is important, and the difficulty of acting with only his chin…

I gather you’ve been a big fan of the comics yourself for a while – how did that come about originally, particularly with not having grown up in the UK?

When I was a teenager, the dairy just down from where I lived was selling the Quality Comics series [US-based reprints] of Judge Dredd in the early 90s. A friend of mine was quite into them, and that’s how I tuned in, as it were.

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So being a fan, was this a project you were quite keen to get involved in? Did you actively push for it?

I was interested, but I certainly approached it with a degree of trepidation. It wasn’t until I read Alex Garland’s script that I realised that what the filmmakers were endeavouring to do was going to be a lot more authentic, edgy, grittier… it was going to be a harder film. And I also thought Alex did an incredible job of showcasing the relationship between Judge Dredd and Anderson – and really, to me, that was the foundation of the movie, to see how that relationship evolves.

Were there any particular elements that you were keen to see done right in a film?

Well, right off the bat, obviously, I was relieved to get to the end of the script and find that Dredd’s helmet remained firmly on his head! That was an important one – you know, Dredd is such an iconic, enigmatic character, and I was glad that the choice had been made to be authentic in that regard. 

What is it about the character of Dredd himself that makes you such a fan?

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I guess it’s his brand of heroism. He’s just a man – okay, a cloned man – but just a man. He’s not a superhero. He doesn’t have superpowers. He’s just got a deadly skillset, a quick intellect, he’s highly trained, he’s got a cool bike and versatile weapon, and he’s the type of guy that is walking into a dangerous situation when everyone else is running in the opposite direction. That’s what appeals to me.

And also, he’s got a wonderful, dry sense of humour. And that was really a challenge in playing the character, to humanise him. To find out what makes Dredd tick, what amuses him. It was fun to explore.

Was it tricky maintaining that grim façade? There are one-liners here and there, there’s plenty of wit in the film – but Dredd never cracks a smile when he’s delivering a line like that.

Well, I don’t ever recall seeing a panel in a Dredd comic when he was smiling like that, no. But you know the humour’s there – and if he’s not smiling on the outside, he’s certainly having a bit of a laugh on the inside at some of these situations! 

Was that true of yourself, when making the film, as well? Obviously, again, you have to look pretty grim throughout, but there seemed to me to be so many sequences in the film that must have been just great fun to make… Was it as enjoyable as it seemed to come across?

Yeah, it was an enjoyable shoot, and that was primarily because we were working with some really great people. The South African crew was brilliant, Alex Garland is a phenomenal talent, and working with the likes of Olivia Thirlby and Lena Headey was just a sheer joy. Olivia and I formed a real partnership in the making of this film, we would have a meeting with each other every morning before we went on set, and just make sure that we were on the same page and were clear about what our objectives for the day were. And I think the results speak for themselves. 

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Obviously a lot of it would be dependent on whether the first does well, but I know Alex has talked about wanting to make a sequel, or even two more films. Would it be something that, if the circumstances were right, you’d want to do as well? 

Yeah, absolutely. I enjoyed the process of making this film, and if we get to make more then I’ll definitely be onboard. But by the same token, I’d be quite happy if this is it. I’m proud of this film, audiences seem to love it – it’s an instant cult classic – so, you know, we’ll see. But I’m good either way!

Is there anything in particular, if there were to be a sequel, you’d like to see covered? Any particular storylines or characters that you’re a fan of?

Sure, absolutely. I always like in Bond films how they start the film with the end of the last caper, or the last adventure – you know, the Indiana Jones films did the same, too. So there’d be a wonderful opportunity to maybe do something like the story of Raider [a classic early 90s Garth Ennis story], which is quite a condensed story about a former Judge who turns into a vigilante – you could do something like that as a vignette at the beginning of the next film, or even expand it into a full film. There’s enough there in its own right. 

And I definitely would love to see the Dark Judges – that would have to be the go-to for the next story, I would have thought.

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A lot of those classic stories are a bit more over-the-top and have a quite fantastical element to them – whereas one of the strengths of this film is that it’s quite grounded, and the world’s quite easy to get into. Would you like to see the films move more towards the bigger ideas of the comics, having drawn the audiences in with something smaller-scale?

Yeah, although in our film we do have the drug Slo-Mo, which has this effect of altering people’s perception of reality and time – and people really seemed to enjoy that, but obviously I would assume that’s a one-trick pony. So I definitely think that if we were going to continue the journey, we would have to look for a device that could visually elevate the material as well as the Slo-Mo sequencesdid. 

As an actor, was it a restrictive challenge to play a role that relied only on your chin, and your body language? Or did it free you up to lose yourself in the character a bit more?

Yeah, it was a huge challenge, and it meant I had to use the other tools available to me: the voice, the physicality and so on. But you’re right, I felt that… I guess my years of doing work in theatre were of great benefit to me, because in theatre you have to use your whole body – and you should too in film, but I guess some actors get a bit lazy and don’t! But it became about how to convey as much as I can to an audience without the use of the eyes.

And of course, it did mean that we were always looking at the iconic image of Dredd, straight from the comics page, rather than the recognisable actor Karl Urban… 

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Yeah, Dredd is an enigmatic character – he’s a mysterious character. And to me it was just a far more interesting choice to have his identity, his physical identity, remain a secret. The fact that nobody knows what he looks like, I think ultimately adds to that enigma.

One of the things that sets Dredd apart from some of the other comic book big hitters this year is that it’s gone for the “hard R” style. Are you pleased that that wasn’t compromised in order to appeal to a wider or younger audience, that the character was done as he’s supposed to be done?

Well, who’s to say how he’s supposed to be done, but a choice was made to make this a hard-R film, and I think that it’s a bit of an antidote to a plethora of comic book-inspired films that have come out that have gone in a different direction. And it’s nice, and refreshing, to have a film out there that’s been made for adults – and certainly, thematically you can explore some darker elements as a result. 

Do you think that was a factor in the film not really going for the classic 2000AD­-style made-up swear words like “Drokk!” and “Grud!”, as they may have come off as a bit silly  or juvenile in that context? And was that any real loss?

I think that’s something you have to be careful about, generally. There are examples where it works pretty well – I mean, in Battlestar Galactica, I thought their use of “frak” as a substitute was well-executed. But, look, you know, it’s an adaptation, and there are always going to be elements that are different – and, certainly, I love reading the original Dredd comics, and there are elements within those comics that we don’t have in this film that I miss. But I’m also cognisant of the fact that just because they’re not seen doesn’t mean they’re not there or in another aspect of Mega City One.

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You seem to have quite an affinity for films that play to a “geek” audience – you’ve done videogame and comic book adaptations, sci-fi and fantasy… is there anything in particular about genre work that really appeals to you?

No, I mean, to me – I don’t choose films based on genre, I just choose films based on the character and the story and who I’m working with. It just so happens that a lot of the films that I have done are particularly appealing to folks who like genre films! But I’m equally proud of my non-genre work, too.

And finally, what’s your favourite Jason Statham film?

I liked The Bank Job. He was also in Lock, Stock, wasn’t he? That was a goodie!

Karl Urban, thank you very much.

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