At the age of 36, Sharlto Copley came out of nowhere to headline Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 surprise sci-fi smash “District 9.” In the four years since he’s racked up credits that would make seasoned Hollywood veterans jealous, appearing alongside everyone from Jodie Foster and Matt Damon to Angelina Jolie and Liam Neeson in big budget entertainments like “The A-Team” and the upcoming “Maleficent.” While he made his name by playing the hero of “District 9,” this year Copley proved he also makes a solid antagonist with leering and viscous turns in “Elysium” and Spike Lee’s “Oldboy” remake.
Indiewire caught up with the actor, who’s currently in the midst of shooting Blomkamp’s latest “Chappie” in Johannesburg, South Africa, to discuss his remarkable rise and year of going bad.
In “Chappie,” Neill Blomkamp’s next film, you’re once again playing the hero, but this year you turned to the dark side with your roles as the main villain in both “Elysium” and “Oldboy.” Was it a deliberate move on your part to show audiences you can play both the good and the bad guy?
I think it was a combination. I’m not particularly interested in playing villains. I do want to be a working actor, and I had to look at what was offered to me, what roles I could get, and what I could do with them.
“Oldboy” was real opportunity to stretch with in depth character acting, because to go from something like “The A-Team” to “Oldboy,” very few actors are given the opportunity to explore that kind of range.
Even though I’m not really drawn to putting those kind of darker characters out there, I think it’s an interesting acting challenge.
Adrian, the mysterious baddie in “Oldboy,” is one gleefully twisted guy. How did you work on embodying him?
There were a couple of things that were quite important. What I had from Spike originally was wanting him to be English and wanting him to have — and it was in script, obviously — the logic to behave the way that he did. He was a damaged human being. I think particularly in this version you see that everybody is damaged.
So it was finding the truth in that, taking somebody who could have been soft as a child and having him damaged by things that happened to him; that happens to everybody — this is obviously an extreme case. I think every soft child in the world gets damaged. All of us come into the world and get damaged. It’s just a matter of how much.
You’re coming at it from a place of truth in that sense, and then it was finding a voice that is interesting and creepy, which came very easily. The movement came a little harder. I spent a lot of time drilling myself. It was probably the most method that I’ve been of staying with the character certainly in the movements and the energy a lot off set, a lot at home. Spent a lot of time with my girlfriend coaching me, saying things like, “Your fingers aren’t lifting enough as you drink the tea cup.” Different mannerisms. I enjoyed that as an acting challenge.
I’m guessing your girlfriend didn’t enjoy the process.
[laughs] Not particularly. Thankfully she was very understanding and doesn’t mind the different guys that come home on all the different movies.
But yeah, this one with the long nails… although the nails were good tickling nails, but other than that they’re not very appealing [laughs]. I didn’t break any either, so that was interesting. They were tough. It was tough to live with nails that long.
I’ve never done so much grooming on myself as well. She would be like, “Okay I need the mirror.” I’m not one to do a lot of grooming so this was an enormous amount of personal grooming, keeping the beard right and the nails right, the body hair shaved to perfect lengths or gone.
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The biggest difference between Park Chan-wook’s original and Lee’s remake has to do with your character’s sordid back-story. Did you feel the changes were necessary?
No, I just felt they made sense. I felt it was a strong screenplay because of that. And whatever you think of the film, it’s a strong script, it’s a strong imagining of the original material. If I had any issues with the original film, it was that I felt that the villain wasn’t fleshed out or significant. And so it was kind of appealing to me. I felt like I could play a different version of what the original villain was. It’s just completely different, so there’s no real point for comparison.
Your co-star Elizabeth Olsen told me she’d never seen the original before catching wind of this remake. Had you?
I had seen the original. I was a fan of the original.
Did you therefore have any reservations about remaking it?
I did, for several reasons. The whole issue of the re-imaginings or the remakes or whatever the case might be, I’ve had to make peace with that in the sense that as an actor that’s not your decision, you’re not involved with that. I want to be a working actor. I’m going to take the roles that are offered to me to keep working. I was nervous of the darkness of the material.
One of the things that pushed me over was meeting Spike, because the man is so warm and has so much humanity — we just connected at a heart level. It made it safe for me almost, in a weird way, to kind of dabble in it.
And I knew there was going to be that issue of the question of whether the film should be remade. But really as an actor that is not my discussion. I just try to do an interesting performance and hopefully people can appreciate it.
You came out of nowhere with “District 9” and you’ve since followed it up with huge Hollywood productions. Funnily enough, “Oldboy” marks one of your smallest projects. How did you acclimate yourself to the big budget studio tent-pole world so quickly?
I feel so comfortable in an acting role, you know, as an actor. Maybe it’s because I came into it late. If anything, I’ve felt frustrated that I can’t carry a film because everything since “District 9” has been supporting roles. I haven’t found leads that I thought were good enough or there are 20 good names ahead of me that will get the lead on a really good project.
It’s one of those things where I feel I have an enormous amount have to offer. To some degree Hollywood doesn’t quite know where to place me because the characters I’m doing are so different, but hopefully that will give me longevity.
I’m starting to get a sense of people starting to respect creatively, although they did right off the bat with “District 9.” I still have to go out and audition for films like “Maleficent” and “The A-Team,” to show people this guy can play this type of role and this type of role, so it hasn’t been easy for me, as easy as if had I played a role where I was this all-American guy. So coming at it as a character actor I’ve felt like I’ve got to work at it and show people what I can do.
How important therefore is “Chappie” to you, given that you play the titular character in it?
It is, but it’s also very ensemble performance in the way that film is being done. I’m just enjoying the idea of a motion capture performance. It’s something different and it’s a character that’s really different from anything I’ve ever done, so from that point of view I think it’s going to be really original. It’s fun to be playing a role that’s light again.