When movie audiences see “District 9”, they will be introduced to South African director Sharlto Copley, making his acting debut as a man on the run whose DNA is inadvertently combined with that of an alien, in the gritty sci-fi thriller which is causing quite the buzz.
Copley sat down with Paul Fischer in a Los Angeles hotel room to talk about the film and how things have changed for the South African.
Question: I was astonished that you had not done much acting prior to this movie. Yet you’re so good in it. How did the leap, or the jump to acting come about? And why now?
Copley: Well, it was Neill, really. Neill had obviously seen something in me. I’ve known him for a long time. And he decided to do a little test for this character that he was developing in the film, and at the time of doing the test, he wasn’t sure that that would be the main character in the film, and he wasn’t sure that I would be that character, as far as what he told me. And I was not aware of this at all. I thought it was just a fun little test. The fact that he was actually considering me for the lead – I only realized that several months later, when Peter had also agreed, and it was a go.
Question: What did you think of this character when you started working on it?
Copley: I loved him. I – Neill pitched me a basic idea for the character, and gave me an enormous amount of rope to kind of develop him. And I had so much fun with him. And in the actual film itself, things got a lot deeper than I was expecting when we started. That test that I was referring to, we had shot – we had a very strong sense of – that was Wikus at the beginning of the movie. But what he was going to be like as the movie went on, we had no idea, really.
Question: Were you surprised that this bean as almost comedic character, in a way who would become such a tragic figure, as that film developed?
Copley: It was actually even surprising to me, to be honest. I guess I had seen him maybe being a little bit more comedic, through that time. But being there, and actually being in those situations and going through it, and the way Neill was working with this kind of hyper-real stuff the whole time – you know, real environments as much as possible, and real situations – the seriousness of the situation just really started coming through. And we both agreed that it just – you know, he’s not going to – he’s going to be more – almost more human as the film progresses.
Question: How much improvisation were you encouraged to embark on in the first quarter of the movie?
Copley: Neill basically gave me an enormous amount of improvisation rope. There was a basic script that he and Terri wrote. And then within the structure of what he was requiring for each scene, he would have – you know, two or three or four different beats that had to happen in a scene. But then around that, he would give me total freedom to improvise the dialogue completely.
Question: Now, coming from a non-acting background, how intimidating is it for you to suddenly be thrust into this world of improvisation?
Copley: The improvisation part was just something I can do and it felt rather very natural to me. I never felt stressed or pressured about it. I way preferred doing the improvisation to actually just working off a script, although I’m not against it. But the more pressured and stressed part, if there was, is all of this, you know? Is just being thrown into the Hollywood kind of system. It’s an amazing blessing for the movie, but it’s definitely the part that I’m less familiar with.
QUESTION: So did you expect the kind of reception that the film has ultimately received?
Copley: You know, I suspected, because it was Neill and I’ve known him for so long, and I’ve just always had a belief that he’s going to be just the most remarkable filmmaker – so from that point of view, I did suspect it. My character, I certainly tried to just play him as convincingly as I could. But I was very concerned – you know, afterwards, of, ” Well, will people get this?” Especially, you know, will Americans respond to it? I really tried to stick to the accent, to really portraying that character as truly as I could. And Neill supported me in doing that. Peter supported that. So, that’s the part that’s also been surprising for me, is that people are responding really well to this character, which – is very odd.
Question: There is an extraordinary amount of emotional depth to him. And coming from a non-acting background, what did you tap into, to convey – particularly the sequences where you were desperate to try to get your wife to accept you, and all of that?
Copley: Well, I’m a bit older than most actors making their debut nowadays in Hollywood. And I’ve just got more life experience, I suppose. You know, by osmosis you kind of get these things. You have these experiences in your life. You meet people, you see things. So it was very much a process of putting on the skin of this guy, and – tapping into myself, and tapping into those elements that I believe are common in all human beings.
Question: You have a lot of scenes with at least one or two of the aliens. As an actor associating with special effects, how difficult was that?
Copley: Again, Neill made it so easy. I had Jason Cope, who plays all the aliens in the film, to improv off when I needed, and that was him in a suit, with tracking markers for the guys to work over. And then in action stuff, Neill gave me an enormous amount of rope to kind of work out rough blocks, where the creatures were going to be. And largely, they just kind of would put the creatures in around my movements, rather than forcing me into a specific limited movement pattern, or limited performance pattern. So, you know, Neill’s knowledge of visual effects I think is so great, that it allowed him – you know, he’s just so comfortable with that world, that there was just – what felt like an incredible freedom. But obviously, he had this incredibly focused eye the entire time, both technically and creatively.
Question: When you saw the film for the first time, were you astonished at the interaction between yourself and the aliens?
Copley: Yes, I was. I mean, you can have been in visual effects as I have, or whatever. When you see these guys, and you see these characters come to life, you see what Neill did with the XO suit. You know, these sequences in the end. It just – it’s mind-blowing. It’s really amazing, you know? And they did such good work.
Question: What has this movie done for the South African film industry?
Copley: I think it’ll remain to be seen, but I think it certainly is a watershed kind of moment for our industry there, and to have – you know, an Afrikaans character who’s not just the villain, and to have a – something that has a lot of negatives, but overall, I believe, is a positive story. And the South African crews that were on the film. You know, there’s a very high level of expertise, and the vast majority of the crew was South African. So, I think it’s going to do a lot.
Question: Do you see this character as an antihero?
Copley: Yeah. To be honest, I never really thought about it. I just tried to portray him as believable as I could, in the situation. And I don’t think – I don’t think I tried to make him a hero, or an antihero, or whatever. I just tried to be as real to the situation as I could be, and let the audience take from that what they will.
Question: Do you think this film is commenting on any aspects of South African society?
Copley: Well, there are obvious things of – you know, even xenophobic attacks that were happening to Zimbabwean refugees while we were shooting. But I don’t think it’s a specific hitting-you-over-the-head kind of thing with that. And certainly from my character point of view, my character experiences – and I think what most human beings do, the idea of separating yourself from things, you know, that you don’t like. Whatever those things might be. Even if it’s another sports team. It’s the same pattern. It’s the same idea, that your identity is half-created up by the fact that you consider yourself separate from animals and the planet, and everything. And science and religion tells you all is one. Human beings don’t have that experience. By and large, we have the experience of being individual little people, terrified that we’re going to die, and trying to put skins on us to – to protect ourselves. And that’s what my character does, and that, I think, is the bigger thing for me certainly, in the film, rather than a particular social thing.
Question: So, you don’t think that it has anything to do with post-apartheid South Africa?
Copley: Well, as I say, it definitely has stuff to do with it, in the sense of – you know, there was – even in apartheid South Africa, there was District 6. That was – you know, so there’s direct parallels. But I believe that it’s – the issues run deeper. And certainly from the experience of my character, they run deeper than that.
Question: What is the state of the industry in South Africa?
Copley: It’s exciting. The South African film industry –
Question: Is there government funding?
Copley: The government funds films as best it can. The government’s always been very supportive of me. There’s a massive commercials industry down there, especially in Capetown. There’s a lot of movies being set there, both – either films that are set in South Africa, or set elsewhere. So, it’s really a thriving business down there right now.
Question: Are you directing something at the moment?
Copley: No. No, no. I’m actually just making a short film that I’m in, and directing.
Question: A horror film?
Copley: No, no. This is just a short. Just another little short. The film you’re referring to is a film that I did before this, probably, called Spoon, which is still coming out.
Question: Is that in post, or is it done?
Copley: No, that’s in post at the moment.
Question: Are you in it as well?
Question: You just directed that?
Copley: That’s right. I co-directed that.
Question: And it’s a horror film.
Copley: No, it’s a supernatural thriller.
Question: And when do we expect to see that?
Copley: I’m not actually sure. And – yeah, I’m not sure when that’ll be out.
Question: What do you want to do with your career at this moment? I mean, you seem to have done it all now. Directing, acting.
Copley: I’m really exciting about creating more characters.
Question: So, you want to be an actor now?
Copley: And either being involved in the production or the direction of movies that I play characters in, or finding people that I can work with. You know, I think it’ll be very difficult for me to find the kind of relationship that I could with Neill. So, I’m very grateful for that.
Question: Would you like to work with him again?
Copley: Oh, in a heartbeat, yeah.
Question: You know, Hollywood being Hollywood, of course, has anybody spoken to you about meetings, and – agents, and all that kind of stuff?
Copley: Oh, yes. Yes. Yeah.
Question: How bemused are you by all of that?
Copley: Well, I’m very grateful, you know? I think I always had a great respect for Hollywood, and – this is where the kind of forms came that inspired me to want to be in movies. This is where they were made. This is the engine that built them, that promoted them. And you feel a million miles away, down on the southern tip of the African continent. So to have this opportunity to be embraced and supported like this, I’m just – I’m extremely grateful for that. And I hope that I can – I hope that I will really have something to offer, and be able to give some interesting characters in the future.