Sharlto Copley burst onto the scene in 2009 with the modern sci-fi classic District 9. A Renaissance man with a number of interests besides acting, he’s nonetheless carved out quite a career for himself: from big-budget movies like The A-Team and Elysium to smaller sci-fi films like Europa Report. He returns to blockbuster territory as King Stefan, the villain in Disney’s new version of Maleficent. He spoke with the press about it and other projects during a recent press day for the film.
Question: You were awfully cheerful for the villain...
Sharlto Copley: Thank you. I was cast as Happy as a child if that also helps. I keep telling everybody that so that they understand it. Deep down there’s a little boy at heart
Q: You have a very interesting new audience with this one. It’s not just going to be adolescent males who recognize you from District 9.
SC: From my R-rated explosion movies.
Q: You’re going to have the experience of being recognized by small children.
SC: I sort of hope not because it’s not really the role that I’d like them to recognize me in. And so far I’m doing well. I actually went to watch the Maleficent teaser promo at Disneyland a couple of weeks ago. I just happened to be there, and I went there with a normal audience, walked in, walked out, and was fine. No one recognized me. I only got recognized in the park a little bit later by somebody who went “you were the king!” But that’s what’s fortunate about being a character actor: I seem to get away with it.
Q: Your accent was very impressive and it’s not the first time...
SC: Yeah, I was quite proud of that accent. I’ve always done accents and I have very distant Scottish relatives. Growing up in South Africa, you’re exposed to a lot of British influence: UK, Irish, Scottish, English variations and derivatives. I love all the dialects of that area. And choosing the accent is usually the first and most important part of a character for me. Because to me so much comes through in the accent. I knew that I wanted him to be Scottish. I knew this was going to be sort of an Old World kingdom with Old World Englishy-type accents, and I wanted Scottish for the king. There’s something very interesting about that accent: it works equally well playing the common man as it does a regal. There’s a sound in the Scottish accent of real royalty and majesty, even if he’s a vagrant. As opposed to, say, the guy from South London, who wouldn’t sound as good as the king, know what I mean? It doesn’t translate as well if it’s cockney or Liverpool, but somehow the Scottish common man sounds okay in the same version of the dialect.
Q: How was working with Angelina?
SC: The key, I suppose, was leafing the whole “most famous woman in the world” thing at the door and just do it. I took that chance and thankfully that’s what she wanted from me I think. She was just very grounded and respectful, and just treated me as a fellow actor. I wouldn’t have expected that, I wouldn’t have required it. I really enjoyed the process of working with her. She’s one of the actresses I admire most. There’s very few actresses who are known and loved as movie stars who would take a role, for example, where they’re going to say, “I hate you” to a baby, and know that they can do that and still have the audience. It’s a certain type of actor that has that range. It’s difficult for people to do that once they become movie stars. Even if they have the acting chops to do it, the audience won’t accept it from them if they try. She had seen and commented on my work in District 9, where I played a character who you don’t always like, who has layers. I think we gravitated to wanting to work together because I could feel that with her and thought, “this is gonna be a very interesting film because I’m going through this almost the reverse of what I went through in District 9: starting nice and just deteriorating.” She’s starting nice, going bad and then coming back, and that I thought would be very interesting.
Q: You’re a robot in Chappie, is that right?
SC: Yes, a childlike robot which is also great. He only gets to be about 9 years old in his emotional development. I got to run around in one of the most dangerous cities in the world [Johannesberg] being a child: it was awesome. Sort of the reverse of London, where I ran around like a crazy evil maniac in one of the safest cities. Welcome to acting ladies and gentlemen!
Q: Can you say anything more about your relationship with Neil Blomkamp?
SC: We’re finding our stride now on this third film, and I’m doing the lead again which I haven’t really done since District 9. This was something that I really felt this would be fun and I could trust him completely to make sure that what I was doing was working. They’re using absolutely everything that I do in a sort of poor man’s motion capture style. And I was never sure how it would translate, and I couldn’t worry about it. For example, I could see if there’s a stunt guy doing a part of a sequence. I can tell that that’s the stunt guy in watching the animation, because he moves slightly differently from me, and if you use a performance as movement-based as this one, the audience won’t see it. But I see it. And you literally had to focus on that behavior to the exclusion of everything else. The essence of this being, not at all concerned about the appearance which you normally would be heavily concerned about as an actor. I couldn’t do that without Neil.
Q: It seems like you’re doing a lot of bigger-than-life science fiction, or fantasy.
SC: It’s sort of an instinctive thing. I will usually have an instinctive reaction, and then sometimes think about pros and cons and whatever afterwards. But I’m always trying to see if I can play something that is based on truth. So Stefan, for example, was this crazy intense sort of evil character and yet every aspect that I’m playing with this guy is drawn from ways that human beings behave. Ways that ambitious men behave. From my point of view, Stefan loved her the whole way. This is his true love who he betrays for power. It’s the equivalent of the man who chooses work over his family. That man usually doesn’t do it in one moment, where it’s like “listen if you sacrifice your true love, you can be the chairman of the board and make a hundred million dollars.” He’s gonna say, “no” in that cast. But he’s gonna gradually do it because he’s spending more time at work. He then gets to a certain level of success, and trades his wife in as she gets older for the younger version. He’s never there with his kids. Stefan’s doing all of that. He’s living with his guilty conscience of having betrayed the one person that he truly loved. Anybody who has in any way betrayed somebody that they really truly loved, lives with their conscience. Maybe they don’t drive themselves crazy as Stefan does, but they live with that pain. So every aspect for me of a larger-than-life character, has to have a true aspect of human behavior in their DNA. There’s an old saying: every man is a legend in his own mind. And this film deals with a lot of that.