Karl Urban is living out most young boys’ fantasies.
He played the warrior Éomer in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, he’s exploring strange new worlds as Dr. “Bones” McCoy in the rebooted “Star Trek” franchise, and this weekend he debuts as the hardnosed future-cop Judge Dredd in “Dredd 3D.”
Based on the “2000 A.D.” comic book character, Judge Dredd is the most feared and enigmatic law enforcer in Mega-City One, a massive post-nuclear war city that stretches from Washington D.C. to Boston. As an officer of the Justice Department, Dredd has the authority to stop crime, sentence the criminals and dish out punishment on the spot.
In playing Dredd, Urban is living out his own childhood fantasy. The 40-year-old New Zealand native grew up on the comics and relished the opportunity to bring a faithful adaptation of the lawman to the big screen – something Sylvester Stallone’s critically panned “Judge Dredd” film was unable to achieve in 1995.
The new “Dredd,” which honors the comics by never showing Urban’s full face, follows the Judge as he fights his way through a 200-story slum in search of a dangerous drug lord named Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). Accompanying Dredd on his mission is rookie Judge Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a psychic who must prove she has what it takes to be a Judge, or most certainly die in the process.
I recently sat down with Karl Urban to talk about his new film, Indiana Jones, pinball machines and “Words with Friends” with Spock.
David Onda: When you have such a personal fondness for a character like “Dredd,” does it put extra pressure on you to play him? Do you say to yourself, “What if I ruin this thing that I love?”
Karl Urban: Absolutely. I was very cognizant of the fact going in. But I felt that, in reading Alex Garland’s script, that – first of all, it was an action-packed, character-driven narrative. It was a real page-turner. I couldn’t put it down. And I got to the end of it and I felt it was authentic to the character I loved from my youth. I also felt that the character and the world were treated with respect. So, really, it was on that basis that I entered into this project, but I certainly put enough pressure on myself to get it right.
Onda: There’s been a lot of talk about the authenticity of this film. And that seems to poke a bit at Stallone’s inauthentic “Judge Dredd.” Had you seen that version?
Urban: I saw that when it came out in ’95, and I just feel that that movie is a product of its time. They had a huge star in the form of Sylvester Stallone and the studio probably went – “We’ve got one of the biggest stars on the planet in our movie, we can’t have him wearing a helmet the entire time.” They made a choice and they treated it in the way they treated it. It was what it is, but our film couldn’t be more different. Tonally, it’s a completely different film. The character is completely different. My Dredd is not a bombastic character. He’s not a character that is based in ego. He is there to serve. He is like a tightly wound coil. And, to me, it’s far more interesting to see a character struggling to contain that rage than to let it out.
Onda: We don’t learn a whole lot about Dredd’s past in this film. When preparing to play this character, did you base your performance off of what you know from the comics?
Urban: I read every single “Dredd” comic that I could get my hands on. I knew the back story. It was important to me to know where he has come from and, more importantly, where he is going. And that was really the basis of it for me. The character is somewhat of an enigma, he’s a mystery. And I really love the fact that, in this movie, you don’t get a big back story. He’s not a Spider-man, he’s not a superhero – you don’t see where he gets bit by a spider. He’s a man doing an extraordinarily tough job. He doesn’t have super powers. He just has a really cool bike, a gun and his wits. His heroism is defined by his courage. I immediately felt like – wait a minute, this is kind of like the old serials. If you think about it, what did you know about Indiana Jones before you met him in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”?
Onda: Nothing. He was popping the bag of rocks on that pedestal.
Urban: That’s it. There was no backstory. Just – bang – here’s your hero. And “Dredd” is the same way.
Onda: One of the things I love about this movie is, unlike so many computer-generated movie heroes, we’re actually seeing you in costume running, diving and fighting as Dredd. It has a throwback quality to it.
Urban: There’s a gritty authenticity to this film. It nods to its forefathers. It nods to the “RoboCops,” it nods to the Schwarzeneggers, it nods to “Dirty Harry,” and in my particular opinion, this is a male archetype we haven’t seen in a while. In the evolving landscape of films and, I think, the necessity to make them commercially accessible, to PG them up – we’re really kind of spitting in the face of that one and we’re going old school. We’re making a film for big kids.
Onda: Do you consider yourself a big kid?
Onda: What’s the biggest big kid thing about you?
Urban: I have a pinball collection.
Onda: What’s the crown jewel of your collection?
Urban: I’ve got a “Star Trek: Next Generation,” a “Terminator 2,” an “Addams Family” and a “Twilight Zone.” Yeah, I have some toys.
Onda: You’ve had great success thus far in your career, but you’re still very much on your way up. Is there any disappointment that your face isn’t shown in your first big leading role?
Urban: None. None whatsoever. This is just an instance where I’m serving the character and I’m serving the story. That’s the way it’s supposed to be and, in my mind, it’s the only way to do it. I don’t have any regrets about the fact that you don’t see my face and, truth be told, I wouldn’t have done the movie if I had opened up that script and there were scenes where Dredd had the helmet off and you could see what his face looks like. Dredd’s an enigma. He’s a mystery. And it’s up to the audience to deduce what they can.
Onda: At the end of a day of filming, did you have to massage your mouth to relieve the tension of angrily frowning for hours?
Urban: It was important that the character be recognizable, but it was really just about being in the moment and, in this film, there’s not a lot for him to smile about. In fact, I don’t even think I’ve seen a “Dredd” comic where he’s smiling.
Onda: This is a departure from the kind of films Olivia normally does. Were you impressed with her action prowess?
Urban: Most definitely. I think Olivia’s contribution to this film is incredible, and it’s not often that you get such a strong female archetype in a film – and our film’s got two. She was fantastic to work with. We sort of realized early on that we were gonna have to form a partnership. Most of the scenes in the film we share together, and it was important that we be on the same page. Every morning, we would get together before we would start shooting and have a meeting and just sort of start tracking where the characters were and what they meant to each other at that particular point in time, because that’s the heart of the movie – that journey. They don’t like each other when they first meet each other, and I think that’s fun to watch. It’s fun to watch that evolution. It really humanizes the movie.
Onda: I know you can’t tell me anything about —
Urban: Nope, don’t even ask.
Onda: I just want to know something cool about the “Star Trek” sequel. Will you tell me something cool?
Urban: Something cool… [very long pause]. Well, when we weren’t shooting, the entire cast was hooked on “Words with Friends” and “Scramble.” We were addicted. As a cast, we were addicted. We’re off set, all of us sitting in a row trying to beat each other on “Words with Friends” and “Scramble.”
Onda: In costume?
Onda: There’s my scoop.
Check out Karl Urban in “Dredd 3D,” in theaters everywhere September 21. Click here to order tickets through Fandango.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.