Learning to skin a bunny, actor Sharlto Copley says, is “not pleasant.”
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and now living in Los Angeles, the longtime character actor considers himself a city dweller. Six-foot-tall and bearded, he has a gentle, mountain man–like presence, but Zooming out of his L.A. home in the hills, he’s a far cry from Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, whom he plays in the new film “Ted K.” For director Tony Stone’s imagining of the Harvard-educated math prodigy who ran afoul of civilized life to live off the land in the 1970s and meticulously carry out a string of executions and bombings, Copley had to learn how to do things like skin rabbits, chop wood, and survive in freezing, hypothermia-approaching temperatures.
“I grew up in South Africa where we used to go out in the bush quite a lot, in my generation. But over the last bunch of years, I’ve really become a city dweller, a spoiled-brat city dweller who’s forgotten a lot of stuff, or didn’t know a lot of stuff. As it turns out, we shot in Montana, on Ted’s actual property, and we used a lot of locals to help us with stuff,” said Copley, best known for his work with his pal, sci-fi director Neill Blomkamp, on films like “District 9,” “Elysium,” and “Chappie.”
Indeed, “Ted K” was shot on the exact location from which Kaczynski masterminded his crimes in Lincoln, Montana, and in a replica of Kaczynski’s cabin where it once stood, on the concrete footings he and his brother poured in 1971. Long before he was convicted of three murders and given eight life sentences without the possibility of parole — he remains in federal prison in North Carolina — Kaczynski lived with no running water or electricity, and so, too, did Copley and the crew manage on limited means.
“We were with these real Montana dudes who would help us with snowmobiles, getting deer up the mountain. These guys could really make a plan with everything. How do you skin a rabbit? How do you skin a deer? How do you cook it? How do you cut it up? And we were just like, ‘Oh we would Uber the food.’ I could shoot. I could snowmobile, which was helpful. I haven’t even chopped down a tree with an ax. These lumberjack guys showed me how you cut a tree down because in the movie I sabotage a telephone pole, and I really cut that thing down.”
But learning to gut and skin a rabbit, he said, was “hair-raising. It was like the cutest bunny imaginable, this little white bunny. I loved bunnies as a kid. That was probably the hardest thing I had to do. It was already dead but I’m just like, oh god, I just really had to go somewhere else. This is in your DNA somewhere. If you’re starving, you’d kill this thing, no problem,” he said.
As for who killed that rabbit off-camera, Copley said, “I don’t know. You don’t want to know. You don’t ask.”
Copley is in nearly every frame of “Ted K” as Kaczynski mounts a plot against the outside world, which is encroaching on his mountain sanctuary. Small acts of sabotage turned into deadly bomb attacks, nationwide attention, and inevitably one of the biggest manhunts of all time, leading up to his capture by the FBI in 1996. Much of the narrative and voiceover is built from Kaczynski’s own cryptic diaries and manifestos of nature-centered anarchy.
So how did Copley fare in getting so close to such a disturbed public figure? “Lots of people in Hollywood are so judgmental about [playing] other people or public figures. For me, the job is really to look deep into human nature, and you can’t be too judgmental about characters, especially if you’re a character actor,” said Copley.
While Copley mostly prefers the realm of the character actor, with smaller roles in films like “Maleficent” and Spike Lee’s “Old Boy” remake, taking on the lead for “Ted K” encouraged some inner reflection — and even empathy for the Unabomber himself.
“I realized, in reading the manifesto and in reading a lot of his notes, that I do care deeply about what’s happened to the environment,” Copley said. “I’m deeply concerned about the level to which technology is controlling my life, and I feel very powerless in that situation. It wasn’t a huge stretch to relate to from a fiction point of view.”
Copley noted that what really sent the previously pacifistic Kaczynski off on his rampage against deforestation and killing its practitioners was that “he’d always go on a hike. There was a very sacred piece of land, and one day he comes in and they’re building a road through it. On that day, he says, ‘I said a kind of prayer to the spirit of the spring that I would take revenge for what is being done to the forest.'”
Copley added, “You really got into this headspace of, ‘You’re attacking this whole system, this whole community of living creatures, and I’m going to lash back.’ He starts with just vandalizing logging equipment. He doesn’t start with a big mission to kill people.”
As “Ted K” is essentially a one-man show, Copley has to spend a lot of time mad at the world and incredulous at the people around him, as his hygiene and mental state deteriorate. But for Copley, it was “easy to flip the switch” when the cameras stopped rolling. But while he didn’t exactly go method, Copley tried to stay in Kaczynski’s state of mind as reverently as possible.
“I wanted to live in the cabin, and then I realized I really needed to have the resources. I was doing dialect coaching. I was reading and researching. I lived in the accent, and Tony had said to me [that] he didn’t want me to wash because Ted didn’t wash for months at a time. The smell was very distinctive. I got about four days in and I was like, ‘Eh, I’m gonna need to have a shower,'” Copley said. “I can’t really do that to the people working around me. He was like, ‘It’ll make them feel uncomfortable!’ I don’t want that. I don’t need it.”
Working from 10,000 pages of diaries, three autobiographies, and Kaczynski’s manifesto, Copley said there wasn’t enough to work with for an imitation. “You don’t know what his mannerisms are. I just kind of feel his energy for what he says. He was deeply misunderstood for how he was portrayed in the media, very one-dimensional,” said Copley, who added that he would’ve “loved” to meet the man.
One of the people whom Copley spoke to in preparing for the role was the librarian who was Kaczynski’s “main friend” in Lincoln, Montana. “When I asked her, ‘What do you most remember about him?’ She spent a lot of time with him. And she’s like, ‘His sense of humor.’ I was like, OK, wow, that’s not what I was expecting from the Unabomber.”
Copley said his “mind still boggles to this day” over how Kaczynski allowed himself to get caught by the FBI. “He had another cabin that was about a couple miles away in really thick bush that was hard to get to, and that’s where he did most of his bomb-making work. So when they actually catch him… It was only because they had all the evidence in his cabin. He was fried for that. It’s literally like you pull the ultimate bank heist, people are looking for you for 19 years and spending $50 million, and when they find you, you’ve got the $8 million under your bed.”
Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection
As for what’s next for Copley, he’ll star in the mysterious next season of Netflix’s dark time-traveling comedy “Russian Doll” (he can say “absolutely nothing”). He’s also deep in the writing stages with Blomkamp on a long-awaited sequel to “District 9,” the hit 2009 aliens-among-us sci-fi parable that earned a Best Picture nomination in 2010 and grossed more than $210 million off a $30-million budget. Why the long wait?
“I’ve wanted to do it since we did the first one. It was really Neill coming round with sort of where the world’s been going. And feeling like he has something to say again. We’ve been throwing drafts back and forth and hopefully getting close to something that we can make that will have some relevance,” he said.
Not immediately firing off a “District 9” sequel after the first film, Copley said, was a kind of rebellion on Blomkamp’s part. “There’s definitely a version of Neill who could’ve just left it at that. He wouldn’t just want to make it for the money. There’s a lot we could’ve explored in that world immediately afterwards, but it was his project, and his baby, and he’s really not a typical Hollywood guy.”
“Ted K” opens in theaters and on digital February 18.