Sharlto Copley: Elysium, District 9, A-Team, Fawlty Towers

Ahead of Elysium's UK release, we speak to its villain and District 9 star - Sharlto Copley - about acting, improvisation and Fawlty Towers

When District 9 appeared to rave reviews and Oscar nominations four years ago, the film’s success ignited the careers of both director Neill Blomkamp and its leading actor, Sharlto Copley. The pair’s partnership began long before that breakthrough hit; when Blomkamp was still a young film geek keen on getting into movie making, Copley gave him access to the computing facilities at his production company. The result was, among other things, a salvo of startlingly creative short science fiction films, among them Alive In Joberg.

When, through a series of odd circumstances, including the small matter of an aborted Halo movie, Blomkamp embarked on adapting Alive In Joberg into a feature film, he took the chance to return the favour, and cast Copley as the reprehensible yet oddly compelling Wikus, a horrible bureaucrat who’s dragged, kicking and screaming, to a strange sort of salvation in the allegorical District 9.

Since then, Copley’s carved out a career in playing eccentric, flawed but unceasingly mesmerising characters, including a new interpretation of Howling Mad Murdock for the 2010 A-Team reboot, and most recently, the sometimes comic, frequently terrifying sociopathic assassin Kruger in Blomkamp’s latest feature, Elysium. But what drives him to play these strange, deranged characters, and how does he manage to do this with such gleeful abandon?

That, above all else, was the burning question in my mind when I sat down to meet Mr Copley a few months ago. The response I got was as eloquent, generous and surprising as one of the great actor’s screen performances…

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It’s such an unfettered, crazy character, Kruger. I got the impression you enjoyed playing him quite a lot.

Yeah, I did. I mean, interestingly, I don’t think [I enjoyed it] as much as characters like Wikus or Murdock, because it had a darkness to this one, which is more removed from my everyday personality [Laughs] It’s that and Oldboy, which is also far gone from my comfort zone, I suppose.

Did you develop the character with Neill Blomkamp?

Yeah, I basically ended up sending him four different versions of South African. I also tried a British and Eastern European version of the character. And one of the four South Africans, I felt, was the one we should do, and Neill felt the same way. And we fine-tuned elements of him a little bit, of the dark, sadistic side he would have – the humour versus the lethalness of him, I suppose.

Did you improvise much in this film, because I know you did in District 9.

Originally, I wasn’t supposed to. Neill had said, “Stick to the lines! Stick to the lines! Stick to the lines! It’s Jodie [Foster] and it’s Matt [Damon] and I don’t want you going crazy and scaring them with nine different things they’ve not even seen.”

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So the first day, I arrive on set two weeks after they’ve started shooting. And Neill keeps pushing me, like, “Stick to the lines.” And everyone’s waiting to see whether Sharlto’s going to stick to the lines or not, and what character Kruger’s going to be.

The first scene I’m doing with Alice [Braga], I’m in Frey’s house, I’m interrogating her, and I stick to the lines, every comma, every pause, everything. But Alice doesn’t. She goes off and does this great dramatic stuff, and I stop and I go to Neill, “What’s going on man? She isn’t sticking to the lines!”, and he goes, “Yeah,  I’m sort of relaxing that a bit.”

And I’m like, “Dude, you need to relax that for me!” So he’s like, “Okay, yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay.”

So in the end, there was a lot of improv, which was cool. He let me go in the end, quite a bit. 

So are there things in the final cut where you can go, “Yep, that was me”?

Ah, tons, man. Tons. [Kruger’s] got this whole moral, weird thing where he wants a family and he wants to be, like – there’s a lot more that didn’t make the final film where he wants to be a good father and a good role model, and he believes that he can turn them to his fantasy.

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So stuff like that, you know, where he’s almost watching her as an animal. Almost seeing humans as more animalistic, perhaps.

Like pets.

Yeah. All of that. I’d do all of that sort of thing. I’d just come up with ideas like that.

I always feel like there’s a certain sense of freedom in your acting – the way you perform is very free, in a way. Is that why you got into it?

It’s interesting that you put it that way. I think you’re probably right.

I started when I was very young, so when I was about nine my parents had a video camera, so I started making films and creating characters. And I must have made 200 of these by the time I was 18.

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I did a version of Fawlty Towers where I played Mrs Richards, the deaf woman, you know? [Your humble writer laughs entirely without meaning to] It was crazy stuff! [Laughs]

I was drawn to it. I actually made a choice not to do it as a career because I didn’t want people judging me, frankly. It was such a personal thing that I didn’t care what you thought. The best entertainment I’ve ever experienced, the best musicians – I remember, I was a huge Michael Jackson fan when I was growing up, and when you watch people doing a certain performance, you get a sense that they’re not asking for your permission. They’re giving you something, energetically, that’s so powerful that you have to go along with it.

I was just lucky in that my journey with acting sort of came around again. I protected myself, I suppose, in a way, by saying that I’m not going to do this – it’s like entering a lottery. And I liked the control I had over the material I’ve been behind, and that’s something you don’t have as an actor, control – over your performance, the story, whatever.

But the freedom is a very good point. I really feel… I really feel like I get to be other people, which I guess is as freeing as you can get. And in the characters that I’ve done, you can express things – with Wikus and Kruger, you can go to places, and explore emotions, that most people can’t.

Most people are trying to hide this part of themselves that they’re ashamed of. I’m a wonderful human being. Aren’t you? Isn’t everyone? But when you ask your mother or your brother or your girlfriend or your wife, the more you see more truths.

Yes, she’s a wonderful woman, but she’s also a selfish bitch sometimes, you know? And she’ll say the same about you.

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The real truth of who you are is interesting to me. It forces you to go there – for me, I find that liberating. There’s an honesty to the vulnerability… there are different styles of acting.

I remember Dustin Hoffman said, “I play who we are, and I leave who we want to be to other actors.”

I think, in a certain way, I do that. I do it in a caricature-ish sort of way, because I like characters which are a bit larger than life – ones which make cool action figures or are entertaining in some way – but I try to deal with some element of truth, and to be coming from some sort of truthful place. 

With Wikus, what made him so interesting was that he was so many things at once. You liked him, you didn’t like him…

Yeah. It’s like, they say writers can only be as interesting as the perceptions and world views that they have. Good writers usually have something more than the average person. They draw on perceptions of life – different takes on things, just observations on the way things are. You can only bring what you have or what you’ve experienced.

So to play a character like Wikus… a movie star wouldn’t smash this thing at the end – smash CJ and take the fluid for himself right at the end of the movie. The audience is going to hate it, you know? But going in, I don’t come with the baggage that I’m a good person only, and that I’m a star, and that I represent all the things that are wonderful in a human being.

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I’m a human being that’s much more flawed, that’s much more real. So my protection in playing that character was in calling it. Basically saying, “Yeah, people do have natural racist inclinations, in the sense of wanting to group together, but with their own.” That’s a human truth that most people will try and hide. And they say, “Oh, I don’t.”

Then you ask, “Well, where do you live? Who are your neighbours? Who do you hang out with? Who are your best friends in the world? What race are they?”

Your religion, you group by that. Or your sports team. Football fans, you see them killing each other over kicking a soccer ball. What’s that really about? What’s going on? It’s that sense of identity that is so important to people.

So if you play that truthfully, people can’t really mess with you because you’re showing that truth. 

It’s like, are people sometimes selfish? Yes. Would you, ultimately, mostly put yourself first in most situations in your life? Yes. Would you like to be thought of as someone who wouldn’t? Yes. Are there occasions where you might do the right thing for your fellow man? Yes.

I love the questions some people ask, like, “Would you rather live on Elysium, or would you rather live on Earth?” And God forbid that you say Elysium! It’s like, [shivers cartoonishly] urrhhh, you know? [Laughs]

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Of course I want to live on Elysium! Who would not want to live on Elysium, what kind of a question is that? It’s like, of course I want everyone to be equal and stuff, but no, I don’t want communism, and if you try to make everything equal, it’s going to be tough, because some people are going to have to work harder than others. I don’t know how you solve that problem! I don’t know how you solve the problem of capitalism that has existed for 12,000 years, of total inequality between human beings of every race, colour creed, culture.

But that’s an interesting observation as an actor, where you try to portray the truth of that. Even with Kruger, it’s like, politicians use soldiers. So whatever happens between Jodie [Foster] and Kruger in the film – that’s what happens. That’s what happens in the world right now.

People say, “Oh, he’s such a bastard.” Yeah, he’s the first guy you’re going to call if you need someone if bad people are coming to your house. You’re going to need someone who’s going to deal with those bad people. It’s the irony. The irony of, “Oh, violence is terrible.” Well, okay, it is. We don’t want it, but it’s here, and there are people out there doing that stuff.

We have not got the world to a point where we don’t need it. Most people can’t even stay married their whole life. You get to the point where you’re fighting with your own wife, and now you’re telling me about, “There’s something so wrong about being a soldier.”

For me, the defence in my characters is to find truth – and that in itself is freedom. If you’re really getting philosophical, it’s that whole idea of the truth shall set you free. As opposed to the veneer that people have to live with most of the time.

The interesting thing with Wikus was that he was South African. Now I get South Africans coming up to me and saying, “You made me proud to be South African.”

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What was interesting, even for myself, was that when Neill [Blomkamp] gave me that opportunity, it was to take that version of a South African at the beginning of the film, is probably the thing I’d be most embarrassed of in the rest of the world. If I took this guy and said, “We are this”, you’d just cringe and die. “Please, no, no, no, not that. We actually have cooler people than Wikus!”

But to be able to just take that and just go “Bam!” and put it out there was such a freeing, liberating thing, you know?

You’ve really hit me, man, with the freedom thing. You’ve really got me thinking and feeling on that, so thanks for that one. 

No, thank you! Do you think that’s why you and Neill Blomkamp make such a good partnership, because the way he approaches filmmaking and writing is very free. He’s not afraid to put his characters through hell. They get covered in blood, they lose limbs, you know?

I think we have so many similar perspectives on film in general, across the writing, how you would light, how you would cut. Visual effects, what makes a good shot, what makes a bad shot. Story structure – basic things like keep the story simple. Don’t have a million characters try to do a million different things in the plot because you’re insecure about whether your simple story is going to be interesting enough, or told in an interesting or compelling enough manner.

Every screenwriting book in the world says, put your characters in jeopardy – the most jeopardy you can. And I read so many screenplays where it’s not really jeopardy. It just says, “And another hundred soldiers come to kill him,” you know, it’s not real jeopardy. It’s not giving them real stakes.

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They’re things that are really quite simple to do when you really sit down and think about it. I don’t know how it ends up – maybe it’s insecurity or over-thinking, or feeling that they want to be different, so they combine seven movies in one.

So how did the experience of going from District 9 to The A-Team – which was obviously very different – how did that compare? What was the shoot like?

The shoot was fun. It was much easier not being a main character in that. But a lot more creatively frustrating. Not nearly as fulfilling. Having to be much more disciplined. Coming in late, coming in much lower down the hierarchy, the pecking order of anyone who could say, “I think this should happen or that should happen” in the story or anything like that.

It was literally, here’s my character, I’ll do what I can with my character. All my favourite moments with that character were not written on the page. It wasn’t written that he’d change his accent once. So every instant that Joe [Carnahan, director] would allow improv, I’d improv as much as I could, and hope they’d put as much of it in the film as possible. 

So it was much more of just – it was fun making it, but not nearly the creative fulfilment of those other things. It’s like chalk and cheese, the difference between playing a supporting character and a lead character. I just do my thing and hope it works, whereas with District 9 it’s all on you.

Really, I haven’t found anything that I’ve taken the lead in where I’ve been inspired to do it, or I haven’t won anything that I did like, or I would have done it. So you have to do the best you can with what’s on the table and hope you keep getting work! [Laughs]

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Well, we hope you do. Sharlto Copley, thank you very much.

Elysium is out in UK cinemas on the 23rd August.

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