I hadn’t yet seen District 9 when I first met Sharlto Copley. I’d seen the trailer, of course, before I attended the pre-press screening reception with Copley and director Neill Blomkamp, but I didn’t instantly connect the handsome, vivacious man across the room with the awkward dork I’d seen in the film’s trailer. After speaking to Copley and seeing the film, I’m even more convinced: if he’s heading to stardom — and he certainly deserves to after the extraordinary performance he turns in in District 9 — Copley won’t get mobbed on the street. No one will recognize him.
A screenwriter and director in his own right — his film Spoon (with cowriter and codirector Simon Hansen), a supernatural thriller starring Rutger Hauer, wowed South African audiences in 2008 with its eye-popping FX produced on a small budget — Copley makes one of the most striking feature acting debuts in recent memory as bureaucrat turned reluctant action hero Wikus Van Der Merwe turned, well, something else. But if Wikus is less than thoughtful about his strange predicament, Copley is just the opposite: he barely needed any prompting, when we spoke at the pre-screening reception, to open up about how he approaches movies, as a filmmaker and as a film watcher.
“I want a movie to make me think,” Copley says. “I don’t want to just sit there and let it wash over me — I want to be totally engaged with it. I think science fiction is one of the most intriguing genres for doing that.”
District 9 exists within the highly provocative cultural milieu of South Africa, which continues to undergo dramatic social changes that informed the setting and execution of the film. “Cultural differences and value differences I think are one of the biggest challenges that people face in any country,” Copley says. “You try not to talk about the things you really differ on. On the positive side, I think people also try and focus on the common values. That’s certainly what South Africa was able to do, to allow that transition to happen in 1994, the transition to democracy. And also creating a space for the painful stuff to come out, in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”
The challenges that Wikus faces may be uniquely science fictional, as he interacts with the extraterrestrial refugees who’ve washed up in Johannesburg, but there is also a specifically South African tenor to them, too. Blomkamp says he cast the unknown Copley in his leading role because, in part, he needed “someone who very seriously understood the history of South Africa and could draw from that experience to make the character more authentic that way, as opposed to someone who wasn’t South African. He hasn’t really acted in anything before, but he is so talented at this kind of improv — a sort of South African Borat approach.”
“Neill bought a very defined world,” Copley continues. “Obviously we had the same frame of reference to that world, having grown up in South Africa, so we had a lot of common references. He and [coscreenwriter] Terri [Tatchell] had a script, a structured story, but within that a scene would take place for which Neil would say, ‘Okay, these are the two, three, four things that have to happen, these are the beats in the scene.’ And then I would improv around that.”
Blomkamp notes that he’s especially pleased with the moment in which Wikus — during the eviction scene, which was the “loosest” sequence in the film — notes that spray-painted graffiti on the side of a shack is a gang sign. “I thought, That’s interesting,” Blomkamp says with a laugh. “He’s just said that the supporting alien character is a gangster. If it works, we keep going, and if it doesn’t we try it again.” Clearly, Blomkamp thought it worked, for the moment remains in the finished film, and in fact is one of the most delightfully satirical touches to be found in the movie. But that’s another reason that Blomkamp cast Copley: the actor was adept at “incorporating the satirical dark humor.”
Copley sounds like he’s a little bit in love with Wikus… as you might expect an actor to be with his character. “It was an amazing experience,” Copley says. “The experience of a character who’s doing what he thinks and believes is the right thing: I really believe everybody does that. It doesn’t matter whether the guy’s the hero or the villain. You act from a position of your conditioning as a child, your religious conditioning, your experiences in life, what your parents have told you… And here was this character having all his conditioning stripped away. All the things that he believed in, and his support structure… he’s being forced to question his values and to question the decisions that he has made. And he doesn’t necessarily have a perfect answer or a perfect solution at the end of the movie.
“I approached it from the perspective of a very insecure person who’s trying to hide those insecurities, who’s trying to look like he’s in control of everything. He thinks he’s more popular than he really is. He’s a bureaucrat, he’s got his very safe world, he doesn’t like having to go and deal with these creatures — it’s something that he just wants to get by and hopefully won’t have to do for too much longer. If there’s any heroic side of him, it’s almost forced out.”
How did his experience behind the camera affect his work in front of it?
“The way that I act is really simplistic, actually,” Copley explains. “It’s sort of by osmosis. I take in information, and then find a voice and get a character — there’s no real thought or conscious effort going into that process. I either am that character or I’m not. The technical understanding of filmmaking was relatively useful in this situation in that I was aware of certain restraints with continuity, with effects, things like that, but almost subconsciously. It probably made it easier on Neill and the DP and the continuity people and the visual FX guys. But they are very separate. Once I’m in that character I’m really not involved in any of that. I’m not trying, I’m just doing what I think Wikus would do in that moment.”
Copley discovered one unusual side effect of SF acting: “I learned to eat with one hand,” he says… that would be the hand that does not metamorphose into an alien claw early in the film. “I learned my own bit of discrimination. Because no one really wanted to see the claw” — a bloodied, filthy practical effect on the set — “so I would just sort of put it away. No one would want to see it while the crew was eating.”
Oh, and what the heck kind of name is “Sharlto,” anyway? “I’m still trying to work that out,” Copley says with a laugh. “Sholto-Douglas is an Irish last name. I’m not Irish, but my mother was listening to a radio show and there was some character in it named Sharlto…” He turns a tad nervous, however, when Blomkamp interrupts to say, “You know there was a famous South African general called Sharlto,” which seems to startle Copley. “You’re joking,” the actor replies. “I’m dead serious,” the director insists. With a nervous laugh, Copley asks: “Was he famously good or famously bad?” Oh, “famously good,” Blomkamp assures his star.
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