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Contender Q&A: Sharlto Copley

December 3, 2009 |  1:52 pm


Before his starring role in "District 9," Sharlto Copley was a busy media and independent film producer in his native South Africa. All of that changed dramatically after director Neill Blomkamp cast him in the science fiction drama, which exploded in theaters in the summer of 2009 with a worldwide box-office take of nearly $200 million -- more than six times its original budget. Critics praised the film's societal commentary and impressive visual effects (courtesy of producer Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop), but many focused on Copley's intense (to put it mildly) turn as Wikus van der Merwe, an officious government worker whose encounter with the film's marooned aliens has a transformative effect on him, both literally and figuratively. Hollywood soon came calling, and Copley found himself not only on the receiving end of award season buzz, but also with the plum role of Captain H.M. "Howling Mad" Murdock in Joe Carnahan's big-screen adaptation of the '80s action series "The A-Team." 

Copley spoke with The Circuit during a brief stopover in Los Angeles, where he maintained his sense of wonder and humor over life since "District 9" while battling an insistent and intrusive fire alarm at his hotel.

(Please note: Possible spoilers follow.)

How surreal has the whole "District 9" experience been for you?

Very! When you're being discussed in regard to any sort of award, it's sort of icing on top of icing. This movie has been such a blessing since Neill gave me the part, and particularly since it broke. Comic-Con was really the start -- people really started responding to the film after that, and it was overwhelming. I wake up every day, and go to sleep every day, feeling grateful.

Your association with "District 9" began with Neil's "Alive in JoBurg" (the 2005 short film that served as the inspiration for "District 9"). 

Essentially, yes. I produced that for Neill -- that's how I was introduced to that universe. I always thought I'd be producing something [for him] and not ending up in front of the camera.

So how did you become his lead?

Well, it was a fascinating process. I did two more short pieces for Neill and for [producer] Peter [Jackson] at Wingnut [Films, Jackson's production company] as a demonstration for some of the creative ideas that Neil had. During that process, I jumped in front of the camera when Neill was testing out this bureaucratic character, which I didn't know was going to be the lead in the film, and certainly had no idea that I'd be playing it. It was almost a happy accident, if you will.

There were a number of challenges to playing Wikus -- the intense physicality of the part, the emotional extremes and, later, the prosthetics you were required to wear. Which of the three presented the biggest challenge on a daily basis?

There were different times when they were all challenging in their own way. The prosthetics were, on the whole, more helpful; initially, they required a lot of time -- my longest time in the makeup chair was 6 1/2 hours, but normally, it was more like 2 1/2. But they were so helpful in regard to the character and the loss of his human identity. 

The others were challenging depending on the day and the physical environment. One of the most difficult things was to keep the right tone, because we were improvising so much, and because there was such an interesting character arc, and we were shooting so dramatically out of sequence. We had an overall idea of what was going to happen before we started, but I developed a system for myself where I kept track of where he was, how sick he was, how frustrated and a general sense of the intensity required. I actually had a graph of the character's development in the film that showed where he'd be the most angry or the most sick, so before I went into a scene, I had a frame of reference of what his emotional state would be in relation to the other parts of the film.

How much time were you allotted to improvise?

We had to shoot very quickly, so I would usually jot down a few ideas the night before. I think that because it was a smaller set, we had more shooting time, so we would experiment a lot. We were also shooting video, so you could just switch the camera on and run a five- or seven- or sometimes even a 10-minute take. We could develop scenes while we were shooting, rather than in some advance preparation.

You've been involved in film from a production side for a long time, but your acting tenure is still very new. What's the experience like to see yourself on a big screen?

I don't really see it as me. The character is very different from me, so it's kind of surreal. Occasionally, I see flashes in the character of something that I'd do, but I really do feel a distance between me and what I'm watching.

Speaking of surrealism, you're now in a very big Hollywood picture. How has it been to go from the indie aesthetic of "District 9" to "The A-Team"?

That's been an amazing adventure, particularly because "The A-Team" was my favorite show as a kid, and Murdock was my favorite character. So to play him, and to meet Dwight Schultz (who played the role in the TV series and who has a cameo in the film), that's continued this strange journey. On one level, it feels completely crazy [to be in the film], but on another, it feels right and natural. I wouldn't say that I believe in destiny, but I start to wonder -- I've been wondering a lot more than I used to -- about being in the sort of position to play a character that was a real inspiration as a kid. 

You must feel a little lucky.

It definitely does. A lot of people, friends of mine and the like, have asked me, "How did you do it?" And I don't feel like I could have engineered this situation. I feel very humbled by the whole process. I wasn't trying to pursue acting in any way, shape or form. I was in the film business, and I worked incredibly hard at it. So it's a combination of working really hard, keeping fixed on a particular career path, and some luck as well. 

I'm wondering if, for your next film role after "A-Team," you're hoping for something more relaxed.

(Laughs) I've always had a lot of energy, and I find acting is a lot more relaxing than what I did before, which was behind the scenes. With acting, you show up -- you don't even have to bring clothes. They give them to you. There's no company or infrastructure to worry about, because you're trying to control a million things. It's a very in-the-moment experience for me. I like to just show up and do my thing. In a sick and twisted way, I think it's very relaxing on a set.

-- Paul Gaita

More from The Circuit:

The Contender Q&A: Anna Kendrick

The Contender Q&A: Melanie Laurent

Sundance Film Festival: This year's must-see movies

Photo: Sharlto Copley in "District 9." Credit: 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group Inc. All rights reserved.