If there’s a theme to Sharlto Copley’s career so far, it’s ‘transformation’. His breakthrough role in Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 saw him transform from a petty bureaucrat into an alien hybrid; as Murdock in The A-Team remake, he transformed his native South African accent into an American one (with some Scottish, Australian, and English flavours thrown in); and in Chappie, his entire performance was transformed into a CGI robot character.
His latest project also lets him play with a range of different ideas. Without spoiling too much of the plot of Hardcore Henry, Copley plays Jimmy, a character who has far more than one facet to his personality. From one scene to the next, Copley changes his outfit, temperament, and even accent. It’s a show-stealing turn in a film that’s already got a lot going on, from its innovative first-person perspective to its extreme violence.
We caught up with Copley ahead of the film’s release to chat about the most difficult movie he’s made to date…
What was it that attracted you to this role? I don’t want to spoil too much, but Jimmy’s definitely an interesting guy.
The first thing that I saw was the music video, Bad Motherfucker [by director Ilya Naishuller’s band Biting Elbows]. And really, after watching that about 25 times on repeat, I was fascinated with the idea of trying to make a movie in that format. At the time I got on board, the Jimmy role wasn’t really defined – like, playing multiple Jimmys – that was something that happened as Ilya and I started really seriously engaging on the form, and debating the tone of the movie, et cetera.
And when Ilya came up with the idea that I would play multiple iterations of the same guy in different ways – which doesn’t give it away, you kind of learn what’s happening in the film – I was very excited by that. I hadn’t seen that done before. I’d seen people play totally different characters in the same film, of course, but this was a fun, unique challenge.
Did you get to have much input into the different iterations, then?
Yeah, hugely so. This was a very different situation from most actor/director relationships. The closest I’ve had in the past was the first movie I did with Neill [Blomkamp], District 9. On that film, there was an enormous amount of collaboration between him and I, and this was a collaboration with Ilya in a real sense. I got to invent most of the characters; basically all of them, even if Ilya had ideas for what some of them could be.
One Jimmy was meant to be a biker, like a Harley Davidson biker, but on the day we were going to shoot it something went wrong with the tattoo that they’d spent three hours tattooing onto my arm, so I created a new character right there on the spot. There was a lot of fun like that. It was a perfect role for me.
You’ve got a reputation for liking to improvise, based on your work in District 9 and Elysium, so that does sound like an ideal situation for you. Where did Jimmy’s British accent come from? Was that your idea?
Yeah, it was. I just wanted to play with the voice, and it was a challenging part in the sense of trying to decide how different you could go with voices and accents between the characters.
As you’ll know if you’ve seen the film, the Colonel Jimmy is really where the accent changes the most. We thought, well, Colonel Jimmy only comes in once you know what’s going on, so we could get away with it, you know!
Other than him, the other characters have slightly different versions of the same dialect and slightly different pitches in the voice and in the delivery and the rhythm. It was fun to play around with.
The other obvious challenge in the film is the way it’s shot, in that first-person perspective. How difficult was that to get used to?
Incredibly difficult! It was the most difficult film I’ve ever made. We knew going in that we were going into an experimental world, and you know, the shoot was meant to be 45 days and it took 120 in the end. I went back to Russia three times.
It really rewrites a lot of the traditional rules of filmmaking that you’re used to and comfortable with. It helped that we had a young passionate Russian crew that were relatively inexperienced – it reminded me a lot of our crew in South Africa on District 9 – they’ve grown up with international media and want to show the world what they have to offer.
You presumably had to act opposite a camera a lot of time, how was that?
From an acting point of view, the biggest challenge is that actors are usually acting against a person – or, in rare situations, you’re acting against nothing, just some sort of eye line. In this case, you’re acting against a guy who’s wearing a head rig with two GoPros underneath his real eyes.
Several different guys played Henry in the film: sometimes it was the director, sometimes it was the DOP, other times it was various stunt specialists, so you’re acting against a hybrid of a person and a camera. Sometimes he’s interacting with you like an actor, but then he’s moving his head to frame you correctly, then he’s engaging you again, so it could be a little distracting. It took a day or two for me to get used to that, but by the end it was fine.
It’s such a relentless movie – it’s almost all action, with only a few very short pauses. How much of that did you feel when you were making the film?
It was incredibly difficult to make. All the stunts that you see in the film are actually real; there’s CG enhancement, but when you see the trailer, where there’s a guy throwing a grenade into a van, then the van blows up underneath him, he flies into the air and lands on a bike underneath him… They did all that for real. They lifted him on a crane, on a wire, put him on a bike, and blew up the van underneath him.
Normally, stunt coordinators can hide behind multiple camera angles; it’s one of the primary fundamentals of stunt choreography, knowing how to use different cameras to make a sequence look way cooler and more dramatic than it actually was, but in this case there’s only one POV, so it was very demanding.
And I think, what you’re saying about the relentlessness, it’s really experimenting with almost a new form of entertainment. For me, it’s a cross between a rollercoaster and a movie and a videogame. It’s something that I would approach as an event to go to. We wanted to create a reason for kids to go to the cinema together and have a social event that’s just fun. Some people are going to love it, some people are going to feel like they were assaulted just a little too much, but it’s something that you remember!
You might be a bit nervous beforehand, like you’re going on the really big, bad rollercoaster, and you might have someone who doesn’t wanna go and you’ll be like “come on man, come with us!” It’s that sort of social dynamic, that’s what we’re hoping people would experience.
I was a bit afraid beforehand that I’d get motion sick.
In the research we did, if people are scared of motion sickness, we found that if they sit at the back, the vast majority of people who suffer from motion sickness are fine.
I actually moved seats. I was in the front row and I moved back.
Yeah, and there are people who are like “You have to watch this movie in the first row!” I call the first couple of rows the splash zone, because that’s where people are going to throw up. But as far as I know no-one has thrown up in any of the screenings.
Yet! To go back to the action, did you get to do any stunts yourself?
Yeah, I mean, this is the sort of film where these Russian stunt guys were doing such incredibly dangerous crazy things that you’d just feel like an idiot as an actor going “oh, I do my own stunts.” These guys were doing something every day that could kill them. I mean, the scene with those guys running over the bridge, for example, they’re running and the bridge is wet and it’s raining and they’ve got the GoPro on their heads…
For me, stunts like driving a car through a barricade and hitting a police car and having a guy hanging off the side of my windscreen elbowing me in the face while the back windscreen is blowing up, and we’ve got no official road closures, we’re just waiting for a gap in the traffic… It was some of the most challenging work I’ve done in my life. Not in terms of physical pain, just in terms of having to drive the car and remember all these things; not going too fast and not going too slowly in case you kill a stuntman.
There was one take where I thought I’d killed the stuntman. I elbowed him, and he fell. Ilya was in the car with me playing Henry at the time, and we felt the car drive over something that we were convinced was him. And we looked back and he was lying in the road, not moving. It took us three minutes to drive around the block before we could get back in contact with the crew to see if he was okay. It was my worst three minutes in movies. I was convinced I’d driven over him and he was going to be injured or unconscious or dead.
Turns out we’d just driven over this bizarre bump in the road that felt exactly like we’d driven over him. We got back and he was like “Did you get the shot?” and I had to say, “no, man, I thought I killed you.”
That… is… terrifying. Before we run out of time, I have to talk to you about Chappie. That film just destroyed me, I cried until my face was raw.
Oh, wow, cool! [laughs] That’s the appropriate response to someone saying “you made me cry until my face was raw.” That’s what we were going for!
How was it for you to watch that film and see how your performance had been translated into a robot?
I loved what the animators did with the character, what they were able to bring to what I did with the very few tools they had. There was no face, just ears and a little visor. I was so impressed with that, and so grateful for that artistic collaboration, that when I was promoting the film I wore a shirt with all the animators names on.
It genuinely was like giving birth to something new. It wasn’t just straight mo-cap; obviously they were animating as much as they could over every movement I did, but how they used those things on Chappie’s head to emote was down to them taking cues from my face. It was a remarkable experience.
You’ve played such a vast range of characters over the last couple of years, from a child robot to a terrifying villain to, well, Jimmy. Is there something you haven’t done yet that you’re keen to? What do you look for in roles now?
That’s a good question. I am interested, from an acting point of view, in doing more, I suppose, dramatic stuff, you know? I did this film called The Hollars, which John Krasinski directed, with Margo Martindale, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, which was a more subdued performance from me. That was fun; it was a different acting experience, so that’s kind of cool.
I’d personally like to do more comedy, so I think I’m going to go more down the comedy road as I go forward.
Sharlto Copley, thank you very much.
Hardcore Henry is released in the UK on 8 April.
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