I’ve done podcasts with a few celebrities in my time as a podcaster, including an episode of my comic show Booked with comedian Paul Scheer, a couple with actor Nate Corddry and a few with my local celebrity friends. The difference is all of these have been in the open flow of podcasting, a lot of them over Skype, in the comfort of my own home. I had yet to break my cherry with a professional one on one interview during a press junket but I had no idea that the first person I would talk to in this capacity would be someone I had such a fanboy affinity for.
Sharlto Copley first emerged on the international scene with Neil Blomkamp’s feature directorial debut District 9, astounding the audience with a film that revolutionized the sci-fi genre with a compelling and wholly original vision. Copley’s performance fuels the audience’s investment in the film and the character of Wikus Van De Merwe endeared him to us, as it continues to be a role that is first and foremost in your mind when thinking about the Johannesburg, South African born actor.
From then on he would continue to take interesting projects and intriguing roles, next playing the action hero iconic H.M. “Howling Mad” Murdock in Joe Carnahan’s adaptation of one of my childhood staples, The A-Team. The film, although not a box office success, became a fan and cult favorite. Years after that, 2013 would bring Sharlto in three separate roles, the found footage Europa Report, Spike Lee’s remake of Park Chan Wook’s Oldboy and another reteaming with Neil Blomkamp, taking a villain role in Elysium. Seeing Copley being sought out by other filmmakers really showed him as the star on the rise that he is.
Let’s fast forward to within the last year. Copley starred in his third Blomkamp film, this time opposite Die Antwoord in a full motion capture role as the title character in Chappie. He would also play one of my favorite comic book characters ever in the first season of the Playstation Plus series, Powers, which launches it’s new season at the end of May. Sharlto would also prove once again that he’s part of the cutting edge of films with the only first person shooter style feature film ever, Hardcore Henry, under the lens of Russian YouTube sensation Ilya Naishuller.
I got a chance to check out the film over a week in advance of it’s theatrical release and, as you can tell from my review, I absolutely loved every insane second of the violent and over the top rollercoaster of a ride. So as I walked into the room to interview its charismatic star in the lovely Shangri-La Hotel in Vancouver, I was already gushing about how amazing it was. If you HAVEN’T seen Hardcore Henry yet, there are SPOILERS AHEAD!
Me: Hardcore Henry is a crazy, exciting nonstop thrill ride. I mean it’s just insane.
Sharlto Copley: It’s the craziest thing I have ever done.
M: Honestly, when they stopped it I said “Can you play it again?”
SC: When they stopped it for me I had to rest for a day or two and then I could watch it again. It gets easier for me each time I watch, as my biology kind of adjusts to the pace of it. It really is a generational thing, to be honest.
M: It will have all of those Call of Duty fanboys almost immediately.
SC: Oh yeah.
M: You’re definitely no stranger to these genre bending crazy films that are bold, have an ingenuity to them and take chances. So, did those films that you did in the past like The A-Team and District 9 set you up for making Hardcore Henry?
SC: *Laughs* It did, especially District 9 I think, and also my background as a filmmaker, you know my background as a producer, director, writer, that sort of thing, those disciplines were what allowed me to evaluate the prospects here and realize that I’m going to work with this first time director. There’s no script. This is experimental. He thinks he’s going to finish it in this amount of time with this amount of money. I know he’s not, you know? So then I’m talking to him and I’m trying to see, OK, you have the confidence you need and the sheer balls you need to try. I know you’re going to fail. And, you know, we had this conversation and it was very honest. I’m like “You’re not going to make it in this time” and he’s like “No, no, I looked at it and I think I can.” Just his sheer drive to just try and die trying if that’s what it was going to take, I was like, no, that’s the right personality. That’s what you need. You need a guy that goes “Okay, this is impossible and yet I’m still going to go and do it and somehow we’re going to get this done.” And so for me it was also the experience of looking at this and going “we’ll probably get far enough with enough impressive footage that people will give us more money”, for example, just taking that you don’t have enough money to make this film and that’s what happened. It messed us up in certain ways, like we didn’t get to do the end and the full story we wanted to because I had to leave and so they had to shoot the whole ending without me and little things like that but we still managed to get a film from nowhere, you know, on a tiny budget that still gets a three thousand screen release. It’s pretty crazy and a great feeling that we did it because the odds are so tremendously stacked against you.
M: So Jimmy’s last moments aren’t supposed to be in that wheelchair?
SC: He was originally supposed to go all the way to the end.
M: I saw a video for this awhile back of what I’m calling the “Falklands” Jimmy.
SC: Yes, yes. He’s called The Colonel, that’s what we called him. He’s looking after “the cripple” as he calls him. It’s acceptable in those times to use the word cripple.
M: But the movie was completed when that video went out?
SC: It was, it was. We released that video as part of a crowdfunding campaign to get post-finishing money. We had spoken about crowdfunding earlier and we thought, you know what, let’s make sure we have something cool before we go and ask people for money because lots of people do the crowdfunding and then make a piece of shit. So, both of us were like let’s at least have a record for if we ever have to go for crowdfunding again people will be like “well actually they got a three thousand screen release from their last crowdfunded effort.” So, we waited until we really were desperate for the money before we did that.
M: So, let’s start at the beginning. How does Hardcore Henry come to you?
SC: Timor Bekmambetov, the producer, I knew him. He was the director of Nightwatch and Wanted and a bunch of crazy sort of Russian movies and he sent me the short “Bad Motherfucker” and said we want to make a film based on this and I watched that thing on repeat like twenty times, twenty five times and I was like this is something crazy here. It reminded me of the edginess we had on District 9 where Neil and I were part of the first generation to grow up exposed to international media in South Africa. Television only came to the country in 1976. Likewise, Ilya’s generation was the first generation of Russians to grow up exposed to international pop culture and here he was with that “Bad Motherfucker” video showing western culture. Just something where you were like “Wow, why has nobody brought a first person shooter to life properly? Why hasn’t anyone done it?” And here’s a harder edge to that, there’s just a harder edge to this one in general that comes from a city and country that’s just harder. Like New York thinks it’s a tough place with tough people but Moscow is a tough place with tough people and you see that in the work.
M: I read that you said this is the toughest film that you ever had to make and you can feel that on camera. The endurance on this film is absolutely insane. One scene I’m going to point to is the Frank Sinatra musical number.
SC: That was actually the thing that was probably the hardest for me because we did it twice. We shot it in a lab originally that we didn’t like visually and just weren’t happy with it, so when we got more money, we had a better looking lab to shoot in but I was sick the whole time shooting the sequence. So it’s amazing when little things, like usually on the big stunts, there’s so much that goes into keeping you safe. When you do something like a little dancing scene and it’s like “What are you going to do?” “Oh, you’re going to do dancing as different characters.” “Oh, that’s really cool.” and then it’s like each one’s going to collapse. When it’s going to come to just like collapsing in a way that you’re falling onto concrete because of our visual effects budget being so limited, we were trying to use as few pads as possible and so the first sequence I did I had virtually no pads. I was on a concrete floor. Just collapsing to the ground in a way that looks like you are genuinely lifeless as opposed to controlling your fall going down, which is way harder. It’s like on paper, you don’t really think about it, it’s easy, I’m just going to collapse. It’s not like flying across a building or something and in so many ways like little things like that just grind you down. Just falling, falling, falling, falling down to the concrete and it’s like kneepads and elbow pads would stop a professionally trained stunt guy, which I’m not. So little things like that and also doing the scene a second time, the punk teeth kept falling out. We had these great prosthetic teeth but we had some problems with the glue, you know, so the teeth just kept falling out and I was trying to act as the punk and talk as the punk. You’re tired, you’re sick, you’re just pushing yourself to the absolute limit and you have to keep blowing takes because your teeth are falling out. It’s weird. The big things, everyone’s awake, everyone’s up for it. Instead of having barriers when we had dangerous things you can fall off, we had the Jolly Roger, the skull and crossbones pirate flag, flying whenever it was a day where it’s like “Guys, today you could die so, everybody, just be on it.” And it was a big, serious conversation upfront between me and Ilya. It was like “let’s make it an objective that no one dies making this film” because we knew it could happen.
M: This film sounds very punk rock indie.
SC: Very much and every single stunt in the film is real. Every time you see something with the guy with the Go Pro, like when he drives through the van, they do that. Blows the van up underneath him and he lands on the bike, that did that. Put the guy on a cable and everything. I just put a link to the behind the scenes video on my Twitter. You should check that out. In some ways, it’s actually more impressive to see how the guys actually doing it from the outside to see what the Go Pro guys are actually going through.
M: I’m excited for the Blu-Ray to see all these special features.
SC: It’s great. I mean it’s been a long time for me as a film fan to be like “Wow, I really want to see the special features and how they did that.” This film is just full of that. You have scenes where they’re running over that bridge that this crew created on the spur of the moment. They were driving across the bridge from one location to the next and one stunt guy says “Remember when we used to run over this bridge as kids?” and the other guy says “You want to do it now with the Go Pro?” and then they just strap it on and run over it, no cables, nothing. They fall, they die. They didn’t even have time to run the Jolly Roger on that one. *laughs*
M: You’ve also said that a lot of the setup was really just on the day?
SC: Constantly rewriting. Trying to work out the schedule and the demands. When other films like District 9, that were 100% improvised for me and my dialogue, for this because it was so complex and we were doing long takes, it was also what made it very hard. It was something I talked about with Ilya in the beginning because he wanted it to flow like one continuous take and I was like “Dude, you’re going to need to cut.” You know, those first time director things where he’s saying “No, I think I can do it. I hear what you’re saying but…” and I’m saying “No, you’ll be cutting this shit up.” So, I think if we were to do it again, we wouldn’t be pushing for sequences that go so long because it really makes it very tricky. We would go in, we would rehearse in the morning, I would improve whatever improv changes I wanted to, then we’d write that down and I would stick to those lines because we’d have stunt guys, things blowing up, a lot of action happening, so you can’t keep changing your lines every take. A lot of the collaboration was really great, coming up with the Jimmys was a combination of the two of us. It was his idea to let me do all the Jimmys.
M: What was your favourite Jimmy?
SC: My favourites are probably “The Colonel” and the hippie Jimmy, especially the hippie. I love the idea of a guy who oscillates between trying to be more spiritual and his ego, the real ultimate zen thing where on one side he would never hurt you but on the other side, his ego would just fuck you up lethally and he’s very conflicted by it. I just love that idea.
M: It’s the choice, right?
SC: *laughs* It is. Higher self or ego? *laughs*
M: I know I have only a limited time here but so many questions. I just want to ask you about something upcoming.
SC: Go for it.
M: At the end of May you’re reprising the role of one of my favorite comic book characters ever, Christian Walker in Powers, Second Season. Is the tone of the series different after the setup of Season One?
SC: I honestly feel that Season Two is a whole several notches better than Season One. I was very frustrated through Season One and I wasn’t even a fan of the comics going into it because they told me “don’t read the comics”. There’s a new showrunner now and Brian Michael Bendis is more involved on Season Two, so I read the comics after Season One and I became such a fucking fanboy of that comic. So now whatever I’m trying to do and whatever say I have as an actor and as the lead of the show is to push everyone constantly and say “guys, let’s just make it like the comics.” There’s so many cool stories in the comics. There are very few comics that have that level of story and cool ideas. So, I really feel that Season Two is closer to the comics. It looks way better, we got proper money for a visual effects team, it looks amazing, which you can see in the latest trailer. But, like in the latest trailer, I miss a bit of the humor of the show, though it is in there, so I think it really is above Season One, more so than most shows ever do and I think that if we do a Season Three, we can go even above that with the stride of the characters and the tone of it and what it all means, getting it closer to the comic. It’s really what we should be doing.
M: I’m such a massive fan of the book, my favorite issue being one that doesn’t even have any dialogue in it. Christian as a caveman.
SC: *chuckles* Yeah, yeah, yeah. All of that stuff, through the ages, we can do that. The detective stuff, it’s too done, it’s too plain for me. We need to see this guy in different ages. Nobody’s done that. No one’s done the superhero in Viking times. The world is available from the comics, like when he goes up to the temples of the monks. That’s what you want to see and you’ll see more of that start to tease in Season Two.
Sharlto Copley proved to be a fantastic first press meeting for me, giving an interesting insight into what it really takes to pull off something as batshit insane as Hardcore Henry and, along with the blood, sweat and tears he himself shed to make the movie, his determination to go beyond the role of being a mere actor and help a first time filmmaker realize his vision. Copley is a driven genre actor who has learned from all he has done and is willing to speak at length about it all. Plus, I got some Powers talk out of him for myself, because, well, we all have to be a little selfish sometimes, right?