INTERVIEW: ‘District 9’ star Sharlto Copley

Posted by · 12:01 pm · August 13th, 2009

Sharlto CopleyWhen actor Sharlto Copley first pops up on screen in Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9,” it isn’t a grand movie moment in the style of John Wayne’s arrival (albeit out of focus) in John Ford’s “Stagecoach” by any means.  In fact, viewers might instinctively expect Copley’s character, Wikus Van De Merwe, to be a supporting player, what with his unassuming demeanor and character actor appearance.

By the end of the film, however, audiences will have witnessed one of the most controlled, authentic portrayals of the year.  And this humble viewer’s prediction is that, down the line, the upcoming weekend’s wide release will ultimately be seen as the coming out party for an exciting new acting talent.

At the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills recently, Copley winds down at the end of a lengthy press day for the film.  Fielding wall-to-wall questions from broadcast and print media can leave a person numb to the talking points, but as he hungrily chomps down on an apple, he still maintains focus on what it is about the project that interested him from the outset.

“I guess I was always interested in films that either had a comedic edge or a depth to them, an intelligent aspect,” he says, staring off toward the downtown Los Angeles skyline as he searches for the words.  “As much as it could be exciting or whatever, that was always important to me.  And I think what Neill’s done with this film is combine those things really well.  You’ve got satire, you’ve got drama, so it’s a pretty unique situation.”

Indeed, “District 9” is seen in some quarters as indicative of a human interest science-fiction story in a genre that has increasingly lost its grounded footing.  It makes for a nice sister film to Duncan Jones’s “Moon” in that way, sci-fi that interests itself with tangible emotional beats more so than the high concept science of it all.

Someone like Blomkamp “comes along very rarely,” Copley says, “and what I’ve seen demonstrated in my life is that Hollywood will respond.  I think the system is such that it will not allow a situation to remain unchecked.  If films are being made and not resonating enough, the new stuff does get through.  But I think with this movie, Neill is definitely bringing sci-fi somewhere it hasn’t been for a long time: a level of on-the-groundness.  I think this is the kind of movie that is going to be remembered because people will be comparing the level of realism and the level of emotion with the spectacle.”

Growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa (the setting of “District 9”) with Blomkamp, Copley saw that realism first hand.   Despite the sincere political environment that surrounded him, he says he always loved comedy.  Stand-up legends like Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams were favorites.  Copley cites Williams’s cross-over career as one he particularly admires.  “He could cross genres,” Copley says.  “He could do funny stuff, but you could feel the guy.  Jim Carrey, same thing.  It’s funny, but you can feel these people.  They’re good actors as well.”

Sharlto Copley in District 9At San Diego’s Comic-Con International in July, Copley told a packed exhibition hall that he was always interested in being a filmmaker  “From the age of 10 I was just making films with whatever you could find and often putting myself and my friends in them,” he said at the time.

Despite his childhood relationship with director Blomkamp, however, landing the lead role in “District 9” was no sure thing.  The project attracted the attention of visionary filmmaker Peter Jackson when the “Lord of the Rings” director was looking for someone to helm an adaptation of the “Halo” video game he had planned to produce.  Blomkamp’s short film “Alive in Joburg” caught Jackson’s eye and he felt he had found his guy.  But when the “Halo” project crumbled due to studio politics, as Jackson has put it, he and Blomkamp sought out a more containable project.

Blomkamp did some screen tests of Copley, but the actor wasn’t aware of the implications at the time.

“I didn’t know when Neill was shooting that test that he was testing me for the lead character or that even that character was going to be the lead character in the film,” he says.  “So it really came as an incredible surprise to me when he said he wanted to offer me the lead role in the movie.  It’s a conversation I won’t forget.”

Jackson’s approval was still necessary, of course, and it was on the strength of that screen test that Copley got the role.  When the approval came through, the actor was understandably floored and flattered.  “Obviously it’s mind-blowing to me for someone to say it’s going to be fine because Peter says it’s fine,” he says.

The character Copley plays in the film could be seen as something of an unexpected dream role for an actor, or perhaps that perception comes with the intensity of the his portrayal.  Wikus starts out as near comic relief but slowly embarks on an odyssey crossing an entire emotional spectrum, a truly fascinating arc that spotlights a number of key realistic asides along the way.

When it came to the actual filming of the modestly budgeted $30 million film, Copley says there wasn’t much thought involved.  “It was by osmosis,” he says.  “Neill gave me a brief of how he saw the character.  He used common references in the South African culture that we both knew growing up and I immediately kind of had a picture in my mind.

Sharlto Coopley in District 9“I do voices a lot.  I do accents, and voices and characters kind of come from there, and I always just did that for fun.  I had a very clear picture, I suppose, very quickly, mostly what this guy was about.  It was a process of Neill looking at him in specific situations as the film went, pushing him a little bit more this way, a little bit harder or a little bit softer from time to time, just to get the tone right.  But this character almost came to me in one go.”

Blomkamp had a basic structure and would give the actor points he had to hit throughout a scene, Copley says, but improvisation with the dialogue was quite welcome on the set.

“He would take whatever input I had if he wanted it and I really just stayed with the character,” Copley says.  “I didn’t know how the character would be by the end of the end of the film, but I knew who he was, so it was just a question of, ‘Put me there.’  It was a very real process, as true as I could get it.”

The performance, of course, becomes all the more fascinating when one remembers Copley shares the screen with a digital alien throughout most of the film.  In that way, the work is nearly a one-man show.

But while Copley’s career as an actor has certainly taken flight, he says he has not lost an interest in being on both sides of the camera.

“The acting is definitely more enjoyable for me but I think I still will be a filmmaker and I’m interested in developing characters and developing projects, collaborating with other people, driving a little bit more of myself or less of myself behind the scenes,” he says.  “I won’t just act.”

And now, understandably, the experience of “District 9” has changed Copley’s professional trajectory considerably.  But, as he puts it, and at the risk of overstating things (which he doesn’t), the serendipity of his casting and the project’s completion have changed his personal outlook on life as well.

“You can’t make that sort of thing happen,” he says.  “You can just try and be as true to yourself as you can in a given situation and see where life leads you.  So I guess that’s what it’s meant, for me to say, ‘Do the best you can and sort of trust the process of life, trust what you’re meant to do more than try to force things to go your way or force them to happen,’ which is probably how I lived a lot of my life prior to doing this film.”

“District 9” opens nationwide tomorrow.

→ 2 Comments Tags: , , , | Filed in: Interviews

2 responses so far

  • 1 8-13-2009 at 3:34 pm

    BDM said...

    Very nice article. Well done.

  • 2 8-25-2009 at 7:49 pm

    Carol Holms said...

    Incredible movie and incredible actor, Sharlto Copley! My granddaughter and I had tears in our eyes a few times during the movie. We loved this new young talent. What a movie!!!!