One Oscar long-shot is South African actor Sharlto Copley, who made an astonishingly assured acting debut in District 9, written and directed by his old friend Neill Blomkamp. Historically, the Academy has been biased against science-fiction. (I assess the Peter Jackson-backed film’s Oscar chances.) But the film played well at a recent Screen Actors Guild screening, where I conducted a Q & A with Copley:
1. How did you get to know Neill Blomkamp?
He actually went to the same high school as me, but I was out and had started a production company. The art teacher, a friend, saw the sci-fi and 3-D animation he was doing in a computer graphics program. And I had a company that had higher-end equipment than he had at the time. It started through a mutual love of movies and a certain kind of creative sensibility.
2. How did you come together to make the 2005 short Alive in Joburg that lead to District 9?
We were only friends in South Africa for about two or three years, then his parents immigrated over to Vancouver, so he went on his own trajectory over there. I started a consortium of companies: a TV channel, a talent agency, a production company, and a big visual effects house. So I ended up producing for him every time he came to South Africa and wanted to shoot something. He called me and told me, ‘I’ve got this crazy idea of doing some aliens in a sort of African third world township environment.’ And I produced that for him at the time.
3. And you did a cameo?
Yes, as a sniper. A much cooler character than Wikus.
4. So you studied acting in college?
I didn’t go to college. I started my career right away as a filmmaker/businessman in South Africa. I studied through a correspondence course at Trinity College of London.
5. Did you do theater in high school?
I did a lot of writing, directing, theatre, a lot of acting in my own stuff, from about 11 till maybe 18 or 19. I did a lot of performing in my own pieces. You know, I was making films. So for a short time in high school I sort of considered acting, but in that process I decided I wouldn’t act, I would be a writer/director/producer/businessperson. So when this came up, it was just a really really big surprise.
6. I can imagine. How did Blomkamp approach you?
I was very miserable in my life, funny enough, I had left the business partnership I had for 14 years. I’d had five companies at that point with the same business partner, and literally one day I gave everything to my partner, and didn’t know exactly what I was going to do. I knew I wanted to make movies. I thought I might be a producer on the District 9 film. About two months after that, Neill called me and said, ‘Listen, I’m going to offer you the lead part in the film.’ It was quite surreal, he hadn’t told me. We did one little test for the Wikus character, which was kind of a creative exploration for him and the writing process. And I had assumed some other actor would come and play that at a later point. And I didn’t even know that the Wikus character would be the main one in the film. And he kept saying I should do a cameo, and I was like ‘Yeah, I’ll do a cameo…’ so I had no idea.
7. And did it frighten you?
No, no. Funny enough.
8. Why not?
It’s difficult to explain. It’s just so in me, performing and acting, actually. We did a bit of that little sniper character, and then we actually made two more shorts that featured the Wikus character, where I kind of invented him on camera, literally. And it was in that process that Neill decided he wanted me to be the guy. So by the time he asked me, I was so familiar with the world, I was so comfortable with the entire character, so that type of performing sat very comfortable with me. It just feels very, very natural. And I guess I’d done a lot of pressured things already with my career at a young age. I’ve been up and down many times, I’ve made money, I’ve lost everything, I’ve made money, I’ve lost everything. So you know, I was at a different point in my life where I didn’t scream and shout when he told me, I wasn’t like ‘Wow, this is incredible!’ because I knew the film could fall apart, I knew how the business works. I was humbled into silence for most of the day after I sat there thinking how absurdly amazing it was that I’d been offered [the part].
9. Now presumably, you were inexpensive?
I was very cheap, there was that.
10. What was your preparation like, and the script and the shooting process?
The film itself is massively unique, in terms of the way it was made, which was very different from traditional filmmaking. By the time I knew I had the part, there was a 60-page treatment that had maybe one or two lines of dialogue from every character, but was mostly a description of what was going to happen to the character. By the time we started filming, they had an actual script where there was dialogue, but it was never Neill’s intention to use that, it was more placement to get an understanding of the structure of the story, and so the studio could have that. It was a very organic and real process: three or four things needed to happen in the scene story-wise, but then it was literally a process of just improvising several options and running five-seven minute takes of what would happen in that situation. On the performance side the most challenging thing was doing something that’s totally improvised for a seventh take, and realizing ‘OK, there’s only three minutes for the scene,’ and Neill would say, ‘This was cool, do that again, skip this part and keep this, keep this, keep this, remember the way you spoke about this? Keep that.’ I’m fortunate that I can learn lines pretty quickly, so I can, most of the time, remember. And then the continuity, most of the time we had two cameras on that process so that if we did something dramatically different it was still possible to cut between takes. He had coverage to cut away from and come back to if he wanted to.
11. And how long would the average shot be? Were any of them really long?
I’d say about three minutes, on average? Probably the longest we ran was about ten minutes. Like when I’m driving with the security guards on back of the military vehicle and we’d just go until the cameras ran out of memory card, and we’d put in another card and go again. We would just be improvising and coming up with tons of stuff.
12. Who were you acting against as the aliens?
Jason, an actor/production manager friend of ours, played all the aliens; he gave each one different personalities, and he would speak to me in English wearing a grey suit. They didn’t actually do motion capture, they did another more complicated, painstaking technique which involved painting him out but using his performance as the basis for the creature.
13. So the creatures were animated?
Yes everything was animated. I think, for one or two sequences, they did performance capture, like the little kid when he’s playing outside with a can.
14. So you’re basically acting against another actor?
Yes. Neill turned the visual effects model on its head. So there’s no blue screen or green screen, you’re actually in the environment, really getting to have a real emotional connection, and about 30% of the shots with aliens there is nothing: ‘wherever you look we will put the creature.’ So I could decide where they would be and work out a movement, and every now and then Neill would step in and say, ‘Ok, you need a bit more space, why don’t you move here.’
15. Wow. So you did you have the character down from the beginning?
This was the other weird thing. They green-lit me; Neill and Peter made the decision. They did that based on Wikus at the beginning of the film; they were leaning toward the comedy of that character, so at some point were saying, ‘it’s Borat with aliens.’ And I was up for that, because I was always doing funny accents and voices. I had never done, in all that acting or whatever in high school, dramatic, serious roles with real heart and emotion, never. So I don’t understand how they made that decision, but thankfully we were OK. During the process it became more serious. Once I had all the prosthetics on me, I said to Neill, ‘I feel like this is bad news for this guy. This is not fun.’ His whole personality, preconditioning and his whole world is stripping away, so that the bare essence of the consciousness of a man is almost the last thing that’s left and he’s desperately hanging on to his identity. So there wasn’t too much comedy left in that. There’s more comedy in the beginning with Wikus and the creatures. Because of the way he’s resolved in the end, it’s more acceptable to the audience that you like him less in the beginning. His manipulative techniques were funny and he was often a little bit above his head and you would see that he was a bit nervous. But in the end, I think it was the right balance that Neil was able to get into the edited film to make the performance appealing on a heart level.
16. Do you think that part of the reason that this film has been embraced is its mock-doc reality? As an actor, you are exposed with nowhere to hide; was a certain authenticity required at all times?
Speaking personally, I have a frustration with how inauthentic a lot of big films are. They feel factory-manufactured, you know, this is made by a system, you feel forced to go and watch. The creative art of filmmaking often feels like it gets lost when it comes to commercial movies. It’s true, this film is a singular kind of vision. Peter is backing Neil to make the film he wants to make. Neil is giving me the character and going, ‘there’s the character, do it.’ I’m giving him a mass of stuff and he’s trying to work out what will work based on the narrative structure. So technically, he’s not using big green-screens and tightly storyboarded shots that are, ‘say the one line.’ It’s very odd to be truthful for 3.2 seconds: ‘as you turn you can only lift your head that far up because you’re out of shot.’ So Neil was allowed to make the film in a truthful way, although it’s almost bizarrely caricaturish. But what the filmmakers are feeling is able to come through. You aren’t trying to get an emotion through this huge structure.
17. Was there a scene that was particularly difficult for you?
A lot of scenes in the film were very physically brutal on me, so that was quite a surprise. I have a whole different respect for actors for their job. I thought I was an actor-friendly producer/director, but until I actually walked in their shoes, especially when you’re doing the lead in a film, the amount of work that is involved, and the emotional and physical energy that it takes out of you was definitely way more than I was expecting. But it was physical challenges, it was being in the environment. I was getting bruised and battered. It would get exceptionally real, because you could do five or seven minutes of a take. On one of the more dramatic scenes when Wikus comes to the Nigerians to buy weapons, he’s in fight-or-flight mode, on that edge. And I remember that day being particularly difficult. The actor was throwing me into the pit, he kept hitting me on the back of the head with an actual gun, and I literally, almost hit him in the face. It was a strange thing, where your reality is getting seriously blurred. It’s bizarre how it starts to mess with you.
18. So you’ve become an actor?
When I got the SAG invitation, the producer part of me was going ‘NOOO! What are you doing?!’ But I smiled and thought, ‘this is going to be fun.’ So I’ve crossed that fence, I guess. I definitely will produce more, and still write and direct, maybe stuff that I’m in, and I really enjoy acting, and I’m trying to find the right kind of stuff, which isn’t easy. It’s quite difficult.
19. You’re shooting The A Team; how is that going?
Yes, we’re still going in Vancouver. I was skeptical when I first heard about the remake, it was my favorite show as a kid, but then I saw Joe Carnahan was directing. It’s a different experience than District 9—the big Hollywood-style of making a film. There’s pros and cons to that: the luxury— the trailer, the salary—is definitely a pro. But obviously, it’s not the same type of creative process. I’m having fun with my character, because of those four characters, Murdoch is the most crazy, and you can go all over the place with him; they are giving me a lot of work. It’s a fun character, he’s always doing different voices. I’ve had a fantastic time. I think it will be a very cool film.
20. What about a follow up to this movie?
It certainly looks like it, just a timing issue. Neill’s making another film at the moment, but both of us want to go back and do it and everyone seems to want us to.