(Originally posted at The Hollywood News)
After bursting onto the cinematic scene with his critically lauded and commercially successful feature debut District 9, director Neill Blomkamp returns this week with sophomore film Elysium, a project that shares key thematic similarities to its predecessor only injected with a considerably higher budget. Meeting science fiction with relevant social commentary, Elysium is set in the year 2154 and stars Matt Damon as Max, a man trying to bridge the gap between two polarised worlds: an overpopulated, ruined earth, and Elysium, a man-made space station built for the wealthy. Events conspire to make Max’s mission an uphill battle, events presided over by Elysium’s Secretary of Defence (Jodie Foster) and her deadly, ruthless earth-bound operative Kruger, played by Blomkamp’s childhood friend and District 9 star Sharlto Copley. The Hollywood News sat down with Copley to discuss his role in the film, his working experience with Blomkamp and Matt Damon, and his future career away from acting.
Q: Sharlto Copley, tell me a little bit about the character of Kruger.
SC: Well, Kruger is, I suppose, a futuristic version of an ex-Special Forces black ops soldier who hides out on earth and lives amongst the earthlings, and he gets activated to perform illegal, off the books operations for the Elysium politicians when they have problems with earth.
Q: You’ve gone from District 9 to more comical roles in, say, The A-Team; how did you approach playing an out-and-out villain?
SC: It was interesting because it was probably the furthest removed from my natural personality of anything I have done so far. Well, maybe that and Oldboy – I did Oldboy after this, so those two were like as far as I can get from my natural personality. Even somebody like Murdock [in The A-Team] who’s crazy and does all the different voices. It was a little harder this time round.
Q: Kruger is bulkier and perhaps more physical than other characters you’ve played. It’s a lot more of a physically intimidating role than, say Wikus Van De Merwe in District 9, which was already a very physical role. Did you have to bulk up specifically for the role?
SC: Yes, as well as mentally just have to be in a certain frame of mind. It wasn’t a big method thing or anything, but it was just accessing a side of myself, I suppose, that I don’t often do.
Q: This is your second big screen outing with Neill Blomkamp, where he explores similar themes to District 9. He obviously has a largely bigger budget this time round; did your working relationship change at all as a result of this?
SC: No, the budget didn’t change anything except making it easier for us as we had a lot more time shooting than we did on District 9. Most of it was shot in Vancouver in the lap of luxury, and I wasn’t the lead so I wasn’t working all the time so it was just a lot easier and, I think, more of a pleasant experience. It was maybe less personal for me than District 9 was in terms of the content and exactly what we were doing, so maybe not as fulfilling in that way. But District 9 was gruelling and hard; some days on set I found myself saying “Please let me get through this day!” I didn’t have anything like that on Elysium; everything was a lot more fun.
Q: How involved were you in the project? From the get-go or did you join at a later date?
SC: Not as involved as I was with D9 at all. Neill pretty much this time – he even said to me,“Listen dude I just want you to stick to the lines this time”, because he worked in a much more structured way. So he was like “So I’m working with Matt [Damon] and Jodie [Foster], so I don’t want you going off and freaking them out, coming up with new shit in the middle of a scene”. And then the first day that I get there, he’d been drilling this into me all the time and I do the scene with Alice [Braga] in her house and I stick exactly to the lines in the script, every comma, every pause, and Alice doesn’t, she goes off and she does this wonderful, dramatic performance. So I took Neill aside and I said, “She’s not sticking to the lines what’s going on?” and he says “Well I’m sort of relaxing that now”. So I say “Dude you just have to let me go”, so he did and he let me just do my thing most of the time, so this time it isn’t one hundred percent improvisation, maybe just about seventy percent or so.
Q: What’s Neill like as a director? Is he quite strict or does he allow you to bring in your own ideas?
SC: He very much casts actors and expects them to do their thing. He doesn’t get involved; he’s not really into the actor’s performance and motivation. He doesn’t sit down and workshop it before filming or anything like that. He’s visually and emotionally working on the story as well as working on the tone, and only really comes in when he needs to tweak something. So he’ll come in and tweak a performance or tweak a tone a little bit one way or another. With Kruger it was always going to be a thing with how funny he was versus how serious, so we went through a few options of making him a litter more darkly comedic at times and a little less darkly comedic at others.
Q: Was he a darker character before you became involved in the project then? Because you are known as an actor for bringing a sardonic humour to roles.
SC: No, not really. He changed a lot compared to what was written in the original script, which is something I never ended up doing. We just developed him by going through a series of different ideas for what the character should be.
Q: What was it like acting alongside such big names as Matt Damon?
SC: It was amazing. Matt and I hit it off straight away. We shared a love of film, writing and everything about movies so we’d be constantly talking about that, and the people around us probably found it a bit much at times! I had some surreal moments, because Matt has played a South African in Invictus – and he loved District 9 and loved my performance in that film, so it was a bit weird for me being in a film with someone of his level. I’d be preparing for a scene and getting serious – and it’s a bit difficult for me to stay in a particular frame of mind for long periods of time – and just before I went in I would be getting into character and I’d hear “It’s the sweetie man coming”, and it would be Matt impersonating me in District 9! I had these weird reality moments where I’d be thinking “This cannot be happening!”. It was great also because I felt very supported; because with District 9 I felt like the real acting pressure was on me and Jason (who played the aliens). So this time the calibre of everybody else was unbelievable, I mean Wagner [Moura] and Alice – who are from Brazil – are incredible also. It just made everything easier. I knew that they had gone through several names of who was going to be the lead because I was cast before everybody else, and as they went through the names – and I’m not going to mention any names – but various names came up. Matt happens to have a very hardcore look and seems like a guy you wouldn’t really want to get in a fight with, but they were thinking of going the opposite way and casting a few guys that don’t look like that just for casting against type. And I remember just smiling to myself and thinking “Okay if you cast any of these guys it’s going to be a walk in the park for me. I’m going to rip these guys’ heads off”. But as soon as they said Matt I thought “Oh shit! I’m really going to have to up my game”, because Matt has so much intensity, and to look like I could kick his ass I would have to really man up for this one. But I was so glad that they chose him, I felt it was right and that he did an amazing job.
Q: You both share a notable chemistry in the film, especially during the intense fight scenes.
SC: Yeah! I just had to up my game for that.
Q: What were the fight scenes like to shoot?
SC: Brutal, they were brutal! I mean, we’d be taunting each other every day and we both got very physical as we are both physical guys, so it was fun to do. But brutal.
Q: You’ve gone from District 9 and immediately went straight to Hollywood for big mainstream projects. What processes do you have regarding choosing oncoming projects?
SC: You know, you have to sort of choose wisely. The point that I am at in my career now, you don’t get a lot of choice of the best stuff that is out there. I haven’t, for example, played the lead in anything since D9; I haven’t had to take the whole responsibility for a film because I haven’t been offered anything that excited me enough, or I haven’t been able to win anything that excited me enough to do that. So most of what I’ve done is either ensemble pieces or little experimental pieces like Europa Report – a little project where I did a sort of cameo in because it was interesting and quite ‘out there’. I tend to look largely at the role in question and see if I can do or add something that I think is interesting and valuable to the project.
Q: You come from a background of producing and directing films that have been in festival circuits. Any plans to do a feature film in the future?
SC: Yes, definitely. I’m going back very much into writing, directing and producing, and I have a few things that I’m starting to develop.
Q: Any particular topics or genres?
SC: Cross-genres actually. I like fantasy and science fiction but one of the things I’m writing is a big war epic, so I’m not necessarily stuck into any one genre.