When director Neill Blomkamp set out to make his debut feature, District 9, he reached out for an old acquaintance to play the starring role: Sharlto Copley, a South African TV and film producer who had never acted before. Like Blomkamp, Copley entered the entertainment industry early in life—he co-founded and managed an effects house, a talent agency, and a TV studio in his 20s, becoming a South African TV executive and channel programmer at 24. He’s produced and directed music videos and short films, plus an unreleased feature, Spoon. (He also produced—and had a very small role in—Blomkamp’s short “Alive In Joberg,” which was eventually expanded into District 9.) But when Blomkamp requisitioned him for District 9, the call came at the right time—he was walking away from his business partner and his companies, ready to do something else. He recently sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss what led him away from production and into a job that involves both rolling around in human feces, and being waited on hand and foot.
The A.V. Club: This is your first acting role, and you’re playing not just the lead, but the only really significant human character in the film. How did you get the part?
Sharlto Copley: Neill presented the idea to me by saying, “I’ve got this idea for a character, a bureaucratic South African guy who has to deal with these creatures, and I think you should just test him out.” At that time, I didn’t know it was the lead character. I thought I’d maybe be behind the scenes in some way, helping Neill shoot it in South Africa. And we shot this test piece and edited it together. It was a total improv piece. We just went into the township and messed around. He showed that to Peter [Jackson], and Peter supported him in casting me, and that was it.
AVC: Did he tell you why he wanted you for the role?
SC: I really started asking him properly on this press tour, because it was never fully resolved. I said to him, “Why? Why?” And he said, “Well, I just knew you could do it, it must be you who actually is in it. I knew that you’d have the talent to do it.” Which is weird.
AVC: Did you first meet because you were a producer and he was working in special effects?
SC: Yeah. He was doing amazing visual-effects-type, 3D animation stuff: design work, 3D little pieces—little mini-movies, basically, little shorts to music, which he also did himself. And I was just out of school, and with a production company. We met up through that. I was just fascinated by the work he was doing. He was fascinated by the fact that we seemed to be in the industry, although I wasn’t really yet, I was just trying to be. We didn’t have a company, we just had some software and stuff that he didn’t have, so he could play around on our machines. And mostly I was interested in the stuff he was creating himself. We did whatever we could in those days. I think the first one or two things he did with us were a sort of architectural fly-through for some proposal we were doing. Designs for stages for a show we were developing, things like that. But the real interest was in his own original stuff.
AVC: Was he independent at that point, or working with a company?
SC: He was still in high school! He didn’t work for me. Some people have joked that I gave him his first job, but he never got paid for those things. It was literally just a case of he was still in high school, and just somebody you connect with in a creative way.
AVC: How did you get involved in his short “Alive In Joburg”?
SC: Well, Neill had this amazing idea of doing an African sci-fi in an African environment. He needed a team to shoot it and put it together, so I produced it for him. And I’m used to working with that sort of jack-of-all-trades: four or five people that make a film, and you have to be able to do everything.
AVC: Did you produce that short for any particular use, for television or something specific?
SC: It was basically just a creative exploration for him. I wanted to produce it because I was excited by it, and I was willing to get involved without a fee or anything. Just to make something as cool as I thought it was going to be. I was very proud of being involved in that.
AVC: What was your actual role as producer on “Alive In Joberg”?
SC: There were, if I remember correctly, five people literally serving as everything, Neill included. When you’re doing something with that little money, you’re doing production management, you’re organizing the costs, I was organizing the locations where we shot. It’s the same guys we ended up using with District 9. Cost, crew, armorers, just working with the community to create security there, wardrobe, and we had to buy stuff we were going to use to dress these aliens up with. You do everything as a team. I shot footage on camera. Jason Cope, who plays the lead alien in District 9, he was also working with us. We both jumped in and played very small roles.
AVC: Did you have a part in building your District 9 character?
SC: Oh yeah. That was the awesome part, just to have this kind of creative input as far as the character went. Neill said to me, “Listen, the way I see this, there’s kind of a bureaucratic guy who works in an office, and once a month, he has to go deal with these creatures. Imagine old South Africa, a typical guy who works at the big telecommunications company.” We’d all come in contact with enough of these sorts of people to have a sense of it. And off that, I sort of found a voice and then really just found the whole character. And shooting that test footage for Peter, it was a process of exploration into the character. That’s where the whole idea came out that he talks into the camera, talking to the cameraman. Trent [Opaloch], the DP on the test, was the actual DP on the movie, and he became a character in the thing. And it was just an awesome creative process. I could just throw stuff out at Neill, and then once he had that character, he started working on the script with that character now in mind as the main character. And I only found out a long time later that they actually wanted me to play the role, and they actually wanted him to be the star.
AVC: Were you aware of any trepidation on the part of the people who backed the film, with having a first-time director and a first-time actor as the star?
SC: The only thing Neill ever made me aware of was that there was a possibility that the accent of the character might be a problem, and I might have to tone down the accent. Other than that, I knew Peter had supported Neill’s decision to cast me, and the buck stopped with Pete ultimately. And that was obviously a godsend for me, just having that support from the director and the producer. The accent was a real concern to me, because I experimented—I could tone the accent down, technically, but I just lost so much of the character. So much of the character’s mannerisms came out in improv that I said to him, “If we have to tone it down, we should do it via ADR afterward, because otherwise, I’ll lose this character, I can assure you.”
AVC: Given how emotionally traumatized your character is in the film, how much time he spends screaming in panic or anger, it seems like it’d be very difficult to maintain an accent consistently throughout.
SC: Yeah, I needed to find an accent that I—I’ve always felt very comfortable with accents. Once I get an accent, I can do it, and that’s just something I’ve been able to do my whole life. So that didn’t worry me too much. What worried me was the kind of guy he was. It has a very specific meaning in South Africa to do that type of accent—there’s very different cultures in South Africa. I’m the English South African side, he’s the Afrikaans South African side, and the more he sounds like me, speaking to you now, the harder it is to bring in those mannerisms and those things that were unique to that guy.
AVC: The cultural meaning of the accents—him being Afrikaans, his father-in-law being more English—and the political dynamics involved are likely to go over the heads of Americans, not to mention viewers in a lot of other parts of the world. Is that a concern?
SC: I guess that could be Neill’s one. It’s not mine. I just needed to have a character that was real and that I could believe completely existed, for myself, and for what Neill was trying to make.
AVC: He starts out as sort of this strange blend of personable and monstrous. And over the course of the film, almost every major decision he makes radically changes his character. Were you conscious about wanting to play him different ways at those different points to modulate the audience’s reactions?
SC: I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what the audience would be thinking. I spent more time focusing on building a character arc. My only sort of preparation was, I took the script and broke down each scene to give me a sense of what was happening to him at various times. That was useful, but in the end, even that—we just threw out so much of the preparation by the time we got there, and allowed the situation to be true to itself. Neill was watching overall to try and keep the tone right. And it was important to me—I didn’t know how serious he was going to be when I started the movie. The test we shot, it was the version of the character in the beginning, the lighthearted, smug guy. I assumed he’d stay like that; I didn’t imagine he would change as dramatically as he did. And then I got the prosthetic makeup on and entered that actual environment, and just looking at myself after six hours of makeup, I said, “This is a problem. This will affect this guy.” And I went to Neill and said, “I think this film is more serious than I thought.” And he’s like, “Totally.” That was where Neill was going all along.
AVC: As an actor, what besides the prosthetics do you use to get yourself into the character’s mindset during his worst moments? Like in the lab, for instance, where he’s on the brink of hysteria. How do you get yourself there as an actor?
SC: It’s interesting, because I’m not an actor. I’m having to learn what I do and try and talk about it afterward. I have to really be honest and say that I do very little. It’s been quite a humbling process for me. It’s almost the opposite of all my previous work, which involved a lot of thought and process and planning and strategy. And this is the opposite. I just am that character, to be honest, in that situation. And with a film like this that was done so realistically, it often felt like we were shooting a documentary. It felt so ridiculously realistic that it was easy. I just found it a very natural thing. I don’t have any technique or thing I’m thinking about. It’s like, ‘Well, either that is the character, or no, it’s not.”
AVC: How did all that makeup and the prosthetics hold up over days of violent running and getting thrown around?
SC: That’s the first time I’ve heard that question! It’s a great question. Um, they suffered. We had tons of prosthetic gloves, and they were the ones that got nailed the most, because there were a lot of times that I’d go to ground in the movie, and a lot of times where I’m on the ground, I’m tied down, I’m fighting against things that are restraining me. So they held up surprisingly well. I thought it was going to be a complete mess, but I think because he’s so dirty most of the time… It was really something. Sometimes you’d end up with like human feces on you if you rolled the wrong way. Not necessarily pleasant. But I think because he’s so dirty most of the time, we got away with more. When things were starting to chip off and get beaten up, you didn’t really see it, because there was just so much dust and blood on me.
AVC: Watching the film is so grueling, it feels like the shoot must have been intensely grueling as well. Was it as bad as it looks?
SC: Yes and no. Physically, it’s probably worse than it looks. We did a lot more stuff than even made it into the film. So there was an enormous amount of physical battering in there. But the acting side of the work—because it’s improv, I’m not sitting there the night before going, “Okay, so should I say this scene like this? Should I say the line this way?” and trying to work at it. I’d just show up and go. So that’s very stress-free, in a sense. It’s a different type of pressure, in that your body is expending a lot of emotion and energy. But that type of endurance, I really didn’t mind after the stress of the production. The crew, they were in that physical environment, and they had all the production stress as well. I think for Neill and everybody else, it was brutal. So I just tried to be as professional as I could on my side, and make it as easy as I could for those guys. Plus having the advantage of the fact that I’m going to be tired, I’m going to be worn down, and I’m going to not be sleeping properly, because I have a lot of intense stuff happening, and it’s going to help the part.
AVC: What are you playing to in the CGI scenes? What were you actually looking at when talking to the aliens?
SC: To Jason Cope, who’s actually a friend of Neill and I, and a great actor, great improviser as well. And that was, again, just Neill making it easy for us to have something to bounce off of for those real interactions. And then maybe 20 percent of the stuff or so, with the action there was nothing. They would work around what we needed to achieve in the scene.
AVC: And that didn’t throw you at all, the playing to nothing?
SC: Oh no, no. I mean, it would have on the emotional stuff. I did say, “I really want someone to bounce off of,” and Neill made a lot of the right decisions in terms of how to get the realism across. So no green-screen, for example. And no forcing you like, “That’s exactly where you have to run, and you have to stick right to that path.” It would just be “Run. Just go. Fall down however you like.” And then if it was a problem, Neill would look and say, “You’ve got to do it a bit more in this direction, because we can’t fit him in,” or whatever. But that would very rarely happen. You hear actors say, “Yes, he gave us freedom, and he steered us in the right place.” But this was really insanely different. If we just wanted to shoot the whole scene from the left all of a sudden, that’s what would happen. If he decided, [Snaps fingers.] “Actually that’s better,” it would just happen. [Snaps fingers.] We’d just be able to keep throwing stuff at him, and he just had [Makes laser sound.] laser-sharp focus. He created this flow where that on-the-spot improv could happen. And that shows in the movie. It really does, I think.
AVC: What’s he like as an actor’s director? Was there specific on-the-spot direction about how to play the character?
SC: In my case, a tiny amount. I suppose in the pick-ups, when it came to having a close edit, and he wanted some more specific things, that was the closest he got to actually getting involved, and saying, “This is the tone. I really specifically need it this way.” But the beginning was just wide open. “Shar, play it.” “Okay.” I think he was very specifically not wanting to get involved in nitpicking anything with the actors. It was definitely more of a “Let the actors do what they need to do” than a lot of other directors I’ve seen.
AVC: You’ve directed a film, Spoon, and you’re involved with a series of production companies you co-founded. Given your other projects, do you want to do more acting?
SC: Yeah, I absolutely love it. I had an amazing time, and it’s definitely the most fun part of all the jobs I’ve done. So this is the one to have if you can get it. I definitely want to. At the same time, I want to do characters that I feel I can really nail. I’m not interested in going to casting after casting, trying to get into that game. So there is a part of me that knows that I will do more characters, even if I have to produce those projects myself to get those projects out there. If the right characters come along, I would love to. I would jump at the chance. I’m open to anything, and my phone rings a lot. That’s the part I’m most grateful for is the potential to do more work.
AVC: What’s the distribution status of Spoon at this point?
SC: This company Video Vision and Distant Horizon out of the States has the distribution on that. I’m not actually sure what his plans are.
AVC: So you don’t have a timeline in terms of when we’ll see it? What can you tell us about it?
SC: It’s a supernatural thriller. It’s a guy who suffers from a medical condition and blacks out when he gets stressed, and weird things happen every time he does, and he’s trying to piece together what is going on in his life.
AVC: Do you have more directorial projects ahead?
SC: Yeah. To be honest, I’m probably more of a comedy person, actually. I really enjoy the comedy stuff, and I’ve got some things I’ll be working on that I think are just different ways of combining genres in comedy and drama and action. And very, very character-based, again with characters that I’d like to do.
AVC: Did District 9 get in the way of your other projects?
SC: No. I had just left the companies I co-founded and co-owned just before Neill gave me this part. So technically, I was unemployed, which is quite hilarious. I just decided I wanted to change my life, and I just walked away from what I’d been doing for the last 14 years of my life.
AVC: What led you to do that?
SC: I just felt like I was all over the place. I had somehow lost that passion. I guess making Spoon and working on an actual film. I sort of went, “I want to do films,” but we had companies and responsibilities that were wider-ranging. So I just felt I needed something different in my life. I needed a different work relationship. I had been with the same business partner for a long time, and just felt like I needed space from that.
AVC: Touring America behind a film has presumably been pretty different. Are you enjoying the media aspect of the business?
SC: I do. When you compare it to the other jobs out there, it’s really not that bad. Answering the same question again and again, people are like, “Isn’t that tiring?” No, as an actor, I like to do 20 takes. If a director wants to do 20 takes, I’m up for that. So to answer the same question 20 times with a different person asking doesn’t bug me. And traveling around the world, you know, when everybody is waiting on you hand and foot constantly, it’s really nothing to complain about. It is a bit overwhelming, and you do get the sense of it being a circus. But that’s what the business is now. You need that marketing power. You need to go do the interviews. You need to put yourself out there and risk and be open to the fact that people are going to not like you, and they are just going to rip you apart, and whatever you say in an interview can get quoted out of context. And I was uncomfortable with that in the beginning, like I would have rather not. I would have rather said, “If I could just do the characters and not have to do the press, that would be better.” Because it’s safer. You’re not vulnerable.
AVC: Well, you’re still vulnerable in the sense that you’re putting your art out there for judgment, and people’s judgments can be harsh.
SC: Yeah, you’re putting your art out, but this is, I’m putting myself out. You know, in one three-minute interview, someone’s going to make an opinion of you: “Oh, this guy is terrible.” And you can be Tom Cruise and jump on a couch, and suddenly your career just drops. It’s a lot of pressure in that way. But I do have the advantage in that I don’t really mind what happens. If I don’t act again, then it’s okay, fine.
AVC: So do you know what the immediate next step is in your life?
SC: No. It’s the first time in my life… Before, if you’d asked me that, there was always a definite master plan and sub-plan and plan linking into that plan. So I’m just really trying to live differently for a bit. It’s a very different world. The acting world is a humbling experience, I find. It very much, for me, it shut me up. This whole thing. It was like, “Well you think you can be a hotshot because you started this company and you started a television channel when you were 24, or whatever.” And it’s really… [Pauses.] The process of finding a character—stripping everything off, all those things you have to protect yourself, that you think are your clever things, was in a sense mirrored in my work life. I let go to see what’s actually out there, or what I’m meant to really do, if there is such a thing. And certainly this experience leads me to feel like maybe it is.
AVC: Whatever it is, do you think it’s in South Africa? Do you want to carry on working there?
SC: I don’t know. I don’t know where it is. I would love to do more stuff in South Africa, for sure. And I think I will, simply for the reasons they made this film for $30 million. Because it’s a cheap market with some serious talent in it. Just economically, regardless of the setting or the film—there are a lot of movies getting shot there now, but it’s still pretty untapped. The scope is there.
AVC: In your experience, what’s the filmmaking scene like in South Africa right now?
SC: It’s grown. The government is supporting it as much as it can. There’s an enormous commercials industry there, and has been for many years. There’s top creative work, top technical work happening. And more and more films being shot there: 10,000 B.C.-type movies; and then obviously things like Blood Diamond that are actually set in Africa, and this one Clint Eastwood’s doing now [Invictus], with the Nelson Mandela, Rugby World Cup story. So it’s definitely expanding and there’s quite a bit of excitement. Tsotsi, obviously, Gavin [Hood] winning [the Best Foreign Language film Oscar for 2006 for Tsotsi], and going on. So now that you’ve got directors like Gavin and Neill out there into the Hollywood A-list, top-of-project scene, it also opens up a creative avenue that the country didn’t have before. The country was a service place. But I think people are more like, “Oh, what creative stuff is coming out of there now?”