Karl Urban interview: Priest, Judge Dredd, Bourne, Lord Of The Rings, genre movies and more

Ahead of the release of Priest, we caught up with actor Karl Urban to talk about his roles in Star Trek, Lord Of The Rings and the forthcoming Judge Dredd...

Karl Urban has to be one of the most geek friendly actors around. Since he proved to be somewhat awesome as Eomer in the career propelling greatness of The Lord Of The Rings, he endured and survived one fanboy plagued movie, only to play one of the core roles in J.J. Abrams version of Star Trek, as Dr. Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy.

Yet, Urban managed to do more than survive his take on DeForest Kelley’s beloved character, proving, for many people, to be one of the best parts of the film.

Arguably, though, his biggest challenge in placating the geek masses lies ahead, when he dons the judge’s helmet in forthcoming Dredd. But he’s nothing if not prepared.

Ever since Karl Urban’s turn in The Two Towers, I’ve been following and supporting his career as he’s continued to make film after film that’s appealed to me. He was great in The Chronicles Of Riddick and Doom, two movies that I thoroughly enjoyed, despite a critical panning. He challenged Jason Bourne at his own game of smashing in The Bourne Supremacy (instigating the opening heartbreak in a moment that made me jump off my seat in the cinema), while most recently taking on Bruce Willis for some more destruction in RED.

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With his career ever on the rise, we caught up with him to discuss his newest role in Priest, in which he stars alongside Paul Bettany and which is directed by Scott Charles Stewart, whose feature debut was last year’s Legion, which also starred Bettany as well as a bearded Dennis Quaid with a shotgun (which should always merit a mention).

So, without further ado, we’ll let the man himself tell you all about it…

Your character in Priest, Black Hat, other than having a classically cool name, what was it that drew you to him and the project?

Well, I think the starting point was the fact that Black Hat is a fallen hero. He’s a warrior priest whose job it was to fight the vampire scourge and in the course of doing that job, he falls in battle and gets transformed into the very thing that he’s been fighting. To me, that was intriguing, to suddenly be on the flipside of that coin, and as starting point for a character, I thought it to be a wonderfully rich and fertile ground.

It’s always nice to have a bit of conflict to make a character more dynamic.

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And where would you say that Priest fits into the vampire mythos, especially having been around for such a long time. Where does it slot into the cinematic tapestry for you?

Well, that’s a good question. I feel like Scott Stewart’s delivered something that is, in one sense, respectfully derivative, but in the other sense, entirely original. What he’s done, quite cleverly, is gather a whole bunch of genres and mix them together to come up with something quite new and I think it’s something we haven’t seen before.

I mean, this a post-apocalyptic, sci-fi, vampire, western! [laughs] And that’s brilliant. It’s just genius. And the thing that I really like about the vampires in this film is the fact that the majority of them, my character aside, are actually creatures more akin to something you’d see in The Lord Of The Rings.

So, it has that fantasy element on top of all those other things?

Exactly, yeah!

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That’s pretty much a combination of all my favourite genres in one film! Did you grow up as a fan of horror or vampire movies?

It was not something I delved into heavily growing up. I guess I responded more to films made by Spielberg and Lucas and Ridley Scott, and in doing the preparation for this film, talking to Scott [Stewart] his references were very clear. He was talking about Blade Runner and The Searchers and Kurosawa’s Throne Of Blood, and it’s amazing when you actually watch the film you can see it. They’re all there.

Am I right in believing that you’re a fan of westerns too?

Oh absolutely, yeah, absolutely. And all sorts of westerns, whether it’s Nevada Smith, or The Long Riders, or the Sergio Leone westerns, which you know are fantastic. The Good, The Bad And The Ugly probably has to be one of my favourite western of all time!

That’s a good choice!


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Scott Stewart has a strong background in visual effects, which is an area you’ve now had a lot of experience in. Did that help the working dynamic, with your mutual understanding of how a performance can work with effects and vice versa?

Well, the great thing about Scott, as a director, is that he’s specific about what he wants, and as an actor, that’s a luxury. He vision was always very clear and very epic and I think he’s delivered that.

Being a fan of all the genres you mentioned, I tend to find that solid genre movies can be quite underappreciated sometimes. What appeal do they hold for you?

Well, to me it comes down to characters and story. If you enjoy spending time with the characters and there’s a good a story, then the genre, in a way, becomes somewhat irrelevant.

Genre in the past has been a way of exploring themes and ideas that perhaps were too politically, or socially controversial. So, genre was used a means to do that in a way that was more palatable.

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But you know what? I’m just a fan of them. As I said, growing up watching Star Wars and all that sort of stuff.

It makes perfect sense to me! This time around you seem to have a slightly more villainous role, but you seem to have been quite fortunate in avoiding being stereotyped, being equally at home with heroism and villainy. Is that something you conscientiously encouraged in your career?

I haven’t conscientiously tried to do anything in my career! [laughs loudly] It just kinda happened! But I certainly feel that what makes an interesting villain is the dynamic, and for me, the fact that the character of Black Hat has a quality of tragedy about him, that gives him some empathetic cache that he can spend.

Those characters are often, I find, really interesting, the characters that dare to be wild and dare to do and say the things that are just forbidden and taboo in normal life. So, I had a lot of fun playing this character! [laughs]

It’s not every day you get to walk down a street in a town that you’re destroying that’s completely engulfed in flames and having the time of your life doing it.

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And going back a bit to one of your performances I found quite powerful in The Bourne Supremacy, where you had quite a silent character with minimal dialogue. You had to express threat more through a physical performance. Is that more of a challenge?

Yeah, you know, the wonderful thing about those characters that have, I guess, a minimal amount of dialogue – and they can often be quite skeletal on the page – is it forces you to get very specific as an actor, because every beat is an opportunity to convey meaning about your character. You have to utilize every beat. Otherwise, you run the danger of having an unrealised performance and character, so it was certainly a challenge for, not only for myself, but even for Matt (Damon), Bourne himself is not-

Very chatty?

Not given a massive amount of soliloquies, no! [laughs]

If I may ask as well, being a big fan of The Lord Of The Rings, it seems strange to me that the films started ten years ago already. What’s the first positive nostalgic memory that comes back to you from the filming?

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Oh, wow! That’s a good question. I think the immediate thing that comes to mind is the people involved, Peter, Viggo and Liv. Just the wonderful people at the heart of that whole experience. It was about working with a fantastic bunch of people that’s the most lasting memory that I have of The Lord Of The Rings.

I know you can’t say a great deal about Judge Dredd at the moment, but having faced off against various physical presences in the form of Vin Diesel and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and having had the physical duress in films such as The Bourne Supremacy, I wondered how the physical challenge and threat in Dredd holds up comparatively?

Dredd was a gruelling shoot, it was. I have not seen an edit because they’re actually, right as we speak, at the process of putting it together, but I think it’s gonna kick ass and I believe in Alex Garland [producer and screenplay writer on Dredd].

Absolutely. I know every film is talked about now in terms of a franchise and I know it’s early days, but are there any story arcs being set up for any future movies?

Yeah, it’s very early days. At this point in time we’re just concentrating on getting the first one right and making a film that services not only Wagner’s vision, but also services an audience. And we’re making a film for fans of film and that’s always, I think, a tricky proposition, when you’re transferring a beloved, iconic character into a completely different medium. And at this point in time I feel quietly confident that we’ve kept the very essence of what John Wagner created back in 77 and I think that’s kind of backed up by the fact the he himself came to see it and was just stoked by what he saw. So, early signs are good, my friend!

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And you should be quietly confident as well, because you’ve already managed to fend off both Lord Of The Rings and Star Trek fans as well!

How do you mean? [laughs]

Well, this will be your third contentious geek property, where the fans can really get quite rabid about any changes to the material.

Yeah, and I’m sure they will. It’s inevitable that there are going to be elements that people will miss and new elements that people will embrace, and it’s impossible to please everybody. But at the end of the day, you do the best that you can and you just, I guess, try and be somewhat respectful of the property, and everybody involved, from Alex Garland, to myself and everyone at DNA [Films], I felt, has their heart in the right place.

Karl Urban, thank you very much!