Sharlto Copley Did His Most Dangerous Stunt Ever in Free Fire

The District 9 and Maleficent star on being set on fire, playing a ‘misdiagnosed child genius,’ and what’s up with District 10.

Sharlto Copley emerged out of South Africa just eight years ago and blew everyone away with his performance as the doomed bureaucrat Wikus in Neill Blomkamp’s alien refugee thriller District 9. Since then, Hollywood has been good to him, throwing often intensely physical character roles at him in films like The A-Team, Blomkamp’s Elysium and Chappie, Spike Lee’s remake of Oldboy and Maleficent, Disney’s live-action re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty.

In director Ben Wheatley’s new film Free Fire (also starring Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer and Brie Larson, among others), Copley plays Vernon, a slippery and easily excitable arms dealer whose actions — including delivering the wrong guns to some professional IRA members — help make an exchange go disastrously wrong in a Boston warehouse circa 1978. When the shooting starts, Vern is in the thick of it from the start, fumbling his way through the carnage and even getting set on fire for his trouble.

It’s the kind of role that the affable Copley can dig into with relish, something we spoke about as we began our talk in a Los Angeles hotel not long ago.

Den of Geek: This character seems like he was almost built for you. Tell me about your take on Vern and how you approached him.

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Sharlto Copley: Well, he changed a lot from the original version. I think quite a lot of the characters did in the sense there wasn’t as much comedy originally in the draft that some of us read, in some of the earlier drafts, but what was in there, which was critical for me, was this line that we lost where someone says that Vern was misdiagnosed as a child genius and never quite got over it. That was a fantastic, thing. I’m like, “Okay. What would that be?”

The amazing thing about Ben is that you create the character with him and in this case, because I came on last, Ben was like, “Listen, I think you should do him as a South African and we’re not going to have time to write him as South African before you get here, so we’ll just make him up together.” I was like, “Wow, I am so up for doing that.” That’s what we did.

Up front there was almost this thing of, “Well, if he really was an arms dealer from the 70s, he could be the most dangerous guy in the room. I could play him really as a dark, very competent and very dangerous man. The script at that time seemed pretty dark and not necessarily comedic. Even when I got to Brighton, it was still just finalizing, “Okay, how far do we go? How competent is he versus how non?” Then when I saw what everyone else was playing and I had a sense of wanting to do something complementary to that, I was like, “Okay, definitely we just pull this child genius thing and he’s got issues. He’s just a salesman, and he can act tough because he’s in arms, but he hasn’t actually been in many fire fights at all if any ever.” That, I think, just made more potential comedy, obviously.

How did that work out on set?

It was a very special experience. Ben would shoot a take on the script. Then he would do a take we could totally improvise. I’ve done that before, but he would do that consistently which was pretty rare. Then, the really unique part was Amy Jump, his writing partner, would start writing stuff based on what she was seeing you do that day. She started changing stuff and saying, “Hey, I think Verne might say this or that.”

So as tightly constructed as the movie is, it seems like he allowed a lot of room for things to change as it went along.

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He’s amazing at that because so much of this movie is so well planned. They built the set and he knew where everything was going to move. I think he has a sense of what they’re looking for and I think with Vern, coming back to that statement of him being misdiagnosed as a child genius, there’s a certain spirit there that they’re looking to get embodied. As long as I’m embodying that, it’s in line with his vision. It is a very difficult thing to put your finger on, exactly why, as an actor, you feel so free and you feel like you’ve really invented your character. You’ve definitely done that within Ben’s very clear, coordinated control.

Was he on your directorial hit list?

He wasn’t. I wasn’t familiar with his stuff. My agents had said to me, “Everybody that’s ever worked with this guy raves about him, so whatever you think of the script, just talk to him.” I did and from the first meeting it was very clear that it would be a great experience. You get very, very few chances to improve and invent a character like this. I was like, “Okay, here we go.” Even steps along the way where he knew I was doing South African, he didn’t know what accent I was going to do.

You’ve done so much physical stuff and you’ve been put through the ringer in a lot of movies, but they set you on fire in this one.

As it turns out, insurance would say that that’s the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done on camera because we could shoot everything in sequence except my burn. My burn had to get shot at the very end of the movie once they had everything in the can, and it was wild. It was seriously not messing around. Stunts are always taken very seriously and especially when it’s an actor, then everyone babies you even more. With the burn it really was serious. It was a very serious environment.

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There is such a small margin for error. What I learned through the set medic, who had worked with a lot of burn victims and was telling all these horror stories in the days leading up to my burn, is that you burn very fast. I always had this impression that it would take a while, like when I would look at my prosthetic burns burned down to the tendons. I said to him, “This would take a while though, right? To get to this? I’d have time if something went wrong? They’d put me out.” He was like, “No, man. You’d be down in about five seconds max. Yeah. Three seconds, if you had gasoline on you.”

He explained something to me that I never considered. If there’s a shirt or something, as long as this takes to burn, you have a little bit of time, but when it’s on your skin, basically, if you have gas on your skin and you start burning, what happens is the fat burns. As soon as the fat sets alight, fat burns. Fat will actually ignite, so now you’re trying to put out your own fat as you burn. It’s a very small margin for error to prevent permanent damage in a burn as it turns out.

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Even with something as dangerous as that, is there a certain satisfaction in doing your own stunts?

There definitely is. There definitely is. I still feel like a fraud to a certain degree because you’re nothing compared to the stunt guys in terms of what those guys will do. There is a creative satisfaction for sure. I was at the premiere of Atomic Blonde with Charlize Theron and she does her own fight stuff in that. She’s throwing dudes around and when you see that movie, it’s just astounding. She put in months of training to be able to do the stuff. Because you can see it’s her, it does actually make it so much more fulfilling. I’ve got so used to seeing amazing, impressive stunts, but it’s a stunt person. He makes a point of showing you that she’s doing the stuff herself in a scene with stunt guys, but she’s really doing a lot of the work. I enjoyed that so much as a viewer, so I think it is enjoyable for viewers.

Free Fire has a great ensemble. Anyone you were especially looking forward to meeting or working with?

Not normally. That’s not a big part of my priority. I had actually worked with Sam Riley and Noah Taylor before. I knew Armie and I thought he was amazing in Social Network. When I met him, I told him I thought it was two different actors playing the twins. I was excited to work with him. We share the same agent. I was super excited to work with Cillian Murphy too. I’ve been a big fan of his for many years, so I was excited about that just going in.

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This movie feels like almost like a play in a way because it’s all set in the one location.

We spoke about that all the time. It was the closest film experience that any of us had had to a play. You’re shooting a sequence, you’re in one place, you’re all there all the time, and you shoot fast, which was great. Because the place was pre-lit, the time between setups was extremely short.

You’re also going to be in a movie called American Express, directed by Nash Edgerton.

I think that’s the name. I don’t know if they’ve finally settled on that name, but yeah. It’s the untitled Nash Edgerton Project, and that one is just fantastic, man. I’m really pleased with how that came out and excited for that to hit the screens too. That’s another amazing ensemble cast with great chemistry. It’s dark comedy. I’m enjoying the more comedic stuff to be honest. I really want to do more and more of it.

Neill Blomkamp ever call up and say, “Hey, we’re going to do District 10 one of these days?”

We have assorted, varyingly complex calls about that topic. I am going to publish his email online soon and just say, “Guys, just start asking him,” because now the ball is fairly and squarely in his court when he wants to get back and do it. I would love to and I still think we will, yeah. Yeah. I think we both feel that way.

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