District 9 managed the seemingly impossible – a starless movie set in another continent with no American perspective at all managed to top the summer box office, beating out a whole slew of competitors. True, much of that can be credited to producer Peter Jackson’s name on the project, as well as the film’s firm place in the tried and true sci-fi genre, but that alone wouldn’t create the kind of word of mouth necessary to take this film to the top. That comes from writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s incredibly well-crafted story and the amazing work done by the film’s star, South African actor Sharlto Copley, who has definitely put himself on the map now. He had worked with Blomkamp before on Alive in Joburg, the 2005 short film on which District 9 is based, but that doesn’t mean he knew what he was in for when he took on the challenging task of showing us the horrifying journey of mild-mannered Multi-National United officer Wikus van der Merwe in his attempts to forcibly relocate an alien slum.
“Neill just saw something in me that I hadn’t seen, really, and decided to test me out for this character,” Copley says, “which was kind of the deciding factor for him and then for Peter Jackson as well to support me to do it. My strength as an actor, I think, is improvisation and characterization. I could always do accents and things like that. So I felt very comfortable doing it. The most interesting part is this part now. The actual making of the film – obviously the short was a smaller team of people, but from my experience as an actor, it was pretty much the same thing. Obviously a very different character from the short, but Neill did a character test with me for the character you see in the film, so by the time we came to shooting, I was very comfortable with that character. This whole thing, with the crazy buzz about the movie and coming to Hollywood and this whole experience is the part that’s really surprising and drastically different for me.”
Was there ever any concern that American moviegoers would actually care about a movie that doesn’t involve their country or perspective in the least? Not for Copley. “I’ve believed for a while as an actor that there’s this impression of America outside of America that America is xenophobic and doesn’t want to watch anything that’s not American, but I’ve just always felt that’s not true,” he asserts. “I’d come over here, I’d been to school here for three months when I was 12 years old. I just didn’t feel it was accurate. I believed wholeheartedly that I could do a character with a very different accent that would actually be interesting to American audiences. So far people seem to be responding very well.” Number one at the box office would confirm that much.
Speaking of xenophobia, the entire film serves as a powerful allegory for the apartheid problems in Copley’s native South Africa, who grew up in Johannesburg and currently lives Capetown. That troubled past definitely informed his performance. “Growing up in South Africa and having to deal with the heavy emotional pain of that past and even now just finding a way in a democratic society – it is something I’m very proud of as a South African,” he states. “I’m very proud of how we did that in a peaceful way with very, very different cultures and, in certain cases, with very, very different values, being able to operate in a democratic situation. But there was a very painful process, and certainly for people prior to my generation. My generation had it very easy, relatively speaking, because we didn’t go through the really rough times of apartheid. It absolutely had an impact on my character. Also, the way I see the world from an acting point of view is you see that people act from what they think is right. They do what they believe is the right thing. Even if they’re going to war and killing 20 million people, you think it’s the right thing to do at the time, and reality gives you the chance to test whether it actually is. My character goes through that process. He’s certainly doing what he thinks is the best way to handle a very difficult situation. I certainly approached my character from that point of view, and then with his experiences, he starts to have to test what he thinks and what he believes.”
“We had only tested the character before he starts to go through this transformation and this experience,” Copley adds when asked about his take on Wikus, who finds himself in an alien metamorphosis. “I totally had a handle on what that character was. He’s funnier and there’s a lot more comedy and lightness to that guy, and it was really an exploratory process. As we went into the film, none of us had a very clear idea at all of what was going to happen. Certainly, what I started experiencing as an actor was the idea of this character who was very insecure and trying to hide that and look like he was on top of everything, and then really be faced with everything that he was valuing in his life being stripped away – the things that he believed, the support structures in his family. So it just by default became more dramatic and more serious in the sense that it really felt like as that happens, as you strip away your preconditioned thinking as a human being, all that’s really left is your essence, if that makes sense.”
How was this remarkably unique documentary-style film put together? For his part, Copley had a lot of room to hone his craft. “Neill and Terri Tatchell, who wrote the screenplay – there was very much a structure in place and very specific guidelines of things that needed to happen, but then I was given an enormous amount of free rein to essentially improvise all of my dialog within that structure. With the creatures, sometimes Jason Cope, who played all the aliens in the film, would be in a suit just for the emotional scenes when needed, but often there was nothing. Just playing against air and working out blocks with Neill and rough eyelines – just looking at something in the room.”
“I’d like to be able to tell you that the clumsiness was on purpose,” Copley notes about Wikus’ klutzy mannerisms. “Every now and then, as we realized that the character was becoming a little more serious, Neill would say ‘listen, Sharlto, when you get out of the vehicle and you’re running, could you do it real sexy? Have you seen Bruce Willis? Could you run more like Bruce Willis?’ I really thought he was joking, and I’m wondering now when I look at it ‘maybe I should’ve run a little more sexy.'”
The amount of prosthetic makeup Copley needed to endure was a bit of a surprise to him, though. “I was quite cocky and confident when I started because I figured the crew is going to do a 12-hour day and be complaining way before me,” he says. “What I didn’t realize was that generally they call prosthetics before the crew is there. So I often did four or five hours – I think my record was six and a half hours in the makeup chair before we started. We had an amazing effects team – Sarah Rubano was the on-set supervisor for me and she was just incredible, and we had a lot of fun working at those crazy hours of the morning and having to sit through the prosthetics. I had a physical prosthetic hand – none of it on me is CG. That’s all prosthetic. I actually had a lens in for the eye, but they’ve also done some additional sizing for the eyeball. I had a lens in for the very last shot so you can see the eye’s just a little bit bigger. But they did do some CG there.”
What wasn’t CG or green-screened at all was the set – it took place in an actual shantytown, completely with disgusting conditions. “The main set was on a 20, 30 year old landfill. It used to be a rubbish heap and if you dig down into the ground, there’s actually layers of trash that go back years. The smell in the place was very intense. The ground itself – any time I had to fall on the ground, I’m going into the real environment. There were always spot checks of the amount of glass and nails and rusted stuff in a square meter in that place was truly amazing. We didn’t mess around with that, and it definitely made a difference to the character to actually be in that real environment – the harshness of it.”
There was also the matter of the cool-looking battlesuit Wikus has to don when everything starts to go to hell for him. “There’s a torture device called the iron maiden, and the actual thing was extremely similar to the iron maiden. I couldn’t move at all, really. After the first couple hours, I thought I was actually doing fine, and I had these two things pressing into my head. As I came out of the suit the first time, I almost fainted, because I didn’t realize the cumulative pressure of me struggling in the suit -because I was trying to bring a realism of me in there – and the fact that my head was clamped and I really couldn’t move. So that was pretty scary.”
After all that danger, all that grossness, all that physical stress, what does he consider the hardest thing he had to do in the whole film? None of the above. “The most challenging part was actually the ADR, where you’re recording the dialog afterwards,” he admits. “It’s just one of those things that’s so underrated, it doesn’t seem to be talked about. I don’t know what the total percentage was that I had to re-record dialog in this case, but we used a lot of the on-set stuff because of the documentary nature of it. But as I’ve come to learn, there are a number of movies where 90 to 100% of the film is actually recorded afterwards. So you’re going and trying to recreate your performance in a dark room where you can’t really move around, and you’re getting beaten up and you’re crying. So I found that to be more challenging, especially because I was improv-ing on the day, so I hadn’t learned lines. I was reading cues and trying to remember how I said things and stuttering in certain places and putting in a very natural speech pattern. That, I would say, was the most challenging part for me, but I actually enjoyed it by the end. I really enjoyed it.”
So what does the future hold for Copley? Is he going to keep it local in Joburg? “I think what I love about the Hollywood system is that ultimately, it’s looking for stuff that works from wherever. I don’t have a particular desperate need to keep making South African films or anything like that. I don’t have that strong of a sense of national identity. I’m very proud of my country and I’m glad that it’s getting its moment in the sun. The industry there is really growing. A lot of movies are being shot there whether they’re set in South Africa or not. That’s great and exciting, and it’s a great place to go and shoot movies. I’d love to see that keep happening, but from a creative point of view, as an actor I’m interested in radically different characters from all over the world. Different accents, different worldviews.”
So, he loves the Hollywood system. Is he going to become the new hotness in Tinseltown? “I’m totally not interested in being a leading man and trying to be cool and sexy. That’s not going to happen,” Copley insists. “I would just love a chance to do really original characters like this that have humor and have depth to them.”
Okay, then. Can we at least hope for a District 10? “I’m not in a position to comment on that, but certainly if Neill wanted to do another one, I would absolutely love to do it. We had an incredible time and it was a truly awesome experience. I’m on a very strange rollercoaster ride and I’m just really grateful for it. I’m just trying to enjoy this experience. If I never did another movie, I’d really feel very grateful that I’ve really been able to give something very special. I would love to do more. I would love to do it again.”