In Maleficent, an update and retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale through the point of view of the title villainess, Sharlto Copley plays Stefan, a young man whose desire to rule the kingdom of humans gradually poisons his relationship with the once-good Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) as well as the magical forest kingdom that lies across the border from his own. After he does become king — through a vicious act of betrayal — Stefan becomes even more isolated and paranoid, especially after Maleficent places her famous curse on his daughter Aurora (Elle Fanning).
Ever since emerging onto the big screen in 2009 with his unforgettable performance in District 9 as the hapless bureaucrat turned alien/human hero Wikus, the South African actor has followed a path in which he almost completely changes his appearance and persona from film to film — including turns as the lunatic Murdock in The A-Team, the creepy villain Pryce in the Oldboy remake and the monstrous assassin Kruger in Elysium. Copley’s next major role will take him into the realm of motion capture as he portrays the title robot in Chappie, the third feature from District 9 and Elysium writer/director Neill Blomkamp.
Den of Geek sat down with Copley recently to talk about his approach to selecting roles, working with Angelina Jolie and what kind of man King Stefan would be in modern life.
Den of Geek: I’m always curious of what you look for in a role because every role I’ve seen you in has been so different from the last one, ever since we first saw you in District 9.
Sharlto Copley: I mean, it’s not a conscious thing where I’m sitting there saying every role must be very different but I guess when I was a kid and was doing little sketches and making little films at home, I was often in them and I would very usually do different characters with different voices. It was the kind of acting that I liked. So I’ve never done a role as myself, ever. It’s my whole thing of what I think acting is, it isn’t just taking me and doing a slightly different version of that. It’s doing a radically different something else. So then when something comes along I will typically just try and find something that resonates with me that I think I could feel, you know. I need to feel something in the role. I need to feel some element of actual truthful connection to the character that very often I can then caricature or characterize in some way and put some sort of entertaining performance on top of the real true essence that I’m connecting with.
Was it important that Stefan be somewhat sympathetic and retain an element of humanity, at least up to a point?
Yes, I mean there was actually even more humanity to him in the original script, which is one of the reasons that I sort of wanted to do it. Certainly as an actor you need to hang onto humanity in your actions even if it is a film. You need to have a reason why this guy would behave this way. And I had that the whole way through the film. I know doing a villain that you’re always on this fine line of, you know, you can’t be too sympathetic from an audience point of view. The villain still needs to be the villain. In this case love saves Maleficent and doesn’t save Stefan. They’re both people who go through different pains but Stefan is the worst of the two evils when they’re both being evil. But from an acting point of view it’s critical to have sympathy yourself for the character. Otherwise you can’t do it.
I heard you say something earlier to the effect that if you put Stefan in a modern context, he would sort of be like a captain of industry type of guy.
Yes, exactly. It’s a very common thing you would find if you sat down and took a whole bunch of people and companies around the world and you said, “So what is enough?” What does that mean? When is enough? I mean do you have enough when you have enough money? When do you have enough power? When do you have enough houses? When have you slept with enough women? You could just keep going, you know. And I’d be very surprised if they can answer you. Which in itself tells you something. That is what Stefan is playing a, that male driving thing that goes out of control. It’s a metaphorical version of that, you know. Will he betray his true love to get the power that he’s always wanted? He’s prepared to do that.
I played it that he loved her the whole way through and it was his guilt from having hurt her that was driving him crazy, you know. Which again is something that I believe is true and would happen, just maybe not as an extreme form as portrayed in the film.
The original roots of the Sleeping Beauty story go back as far as 1527. How far back does the king appear and did you look back any of that material?
I read through two. I read the version that starts in France in, I’m sure its 1697, that you’ll find like in Wikipedia or whatever. And then there was the Brothers Grimm version. It was just out of curiosity. I think this film had a very specific thing that it was doing — for me, I got a very clear message of love being able to save you from the darkness if you let it…It was an interesting message and quite different from any of the others.
I’m sure everybody’s asked, but what is it like to be in the trenches and working with Angelina Jolie?
Angie was just fantastic to work with. I’d do it again in a second. And she has a real passion for this work and for life in general and for human nature and for why people do things the way they do. She’s a very intelligent, very much more sort of complex and deeper than I might have thought from the image of her, you know, (after) meeting her and working with her. And more than anything she treated me like an equal, which she really didn’t need to do, and that was something that I was very sort of grateful for. In terms of just when we were working on the set it was just two actors. I also made a very conscious decision at the beginning to not allow myself to be like all scared of her –– “What if she gets upset with this?” or that kind of thing -– and I also saw a lot of people around her at different times doing that — sort of, “Oh, don’t upset her” or don’t do this. The whole thing that comes with stardom. But I think part of how and why I got the job was just that I was going to be much more sort of frank and direct and not have any sort of level of intimidation going on.
How did you end up getting this part?
We had met and she mentioned something like, “Well I hope we get to work together sometime,” you know, just in part of the chat as we were saying goodbye. I still wasn’t really sure if I’d heard it. Two years later I had the chance and sent the tape in and I was like, “Please give this to her.” Because I think we recognized something in each other. She had been speaking to me at that time about playing a character like Wikus that’s kind of likable and then not likable. And she does that so masterfully in this film. I saw she was going to do that with this role –- which so few actresses will do, especially famous women. They have to be prepared to say “I hate you” to a baby and yet keep the audience and have the ability to do that. And then I played a character that’s doing the opposite of what I did in District 9, starting off good and deteriorating. I always felt this would be a very cool sort of chemistry to watch happening. I was kind of hoping that she and the director would see that and they did, which I was so grateful for.
Tell me everything you can about Chappie, which (producer) Simon Kinberg told me was an utterly unique movie that no one’s going to believe when they see it.
It was an amazingly refreshing experience for me because after doing something heavy like Maleficent, I got to play what is essentially a very childlike robot. I was basically playing a child for two months in Jo’burg which was just amazingly refreshing on my soul as I say. Other than that, I mean, what blew my mind is the way that these guys have been able to take what I did physically because they’re animating what’s called poor man’s mo-cap because it wasn’t done on the location. We’d shoot and they’re animating over me and painting out sections that they need to make the robot. And it’s just amazing as an actor to watch some sort of new creature be created that you are absolutely the heart and soul of — but the skin is completely different from your own, you know. There’s no eyes to express with. It was a fascinating incredible experience, going into storytelling and acting and having to do a very motion based performance.
And it’s very different from District 9 and Elysium?
Yeah. Very similar in the sense that I think it’s really something that’s very, very true to Neill, going back to a smaller budget, set in South Africa, but it doesn’t have any sort of social or political elements. People are describing it as a comedy. It’s very similar to how we did District 9. How we did the aliens, for example, in District 9 was the same kind of way that we’re doing Chappie as he’s brought to life as a robot. As Simon says, it’s a truly unique film. Something that has elements that you are familiar from sci-fi but just put together in a way that’s not like anything you’ve seen.
Maleficent is out in theaters Friday, May 30.