An edited version of this story was first published in City Press.
Sitting in a cinema in New York City, it feels surreal to watch Jodie Foster announce Sharlto Copley’s arrival onscreen in Elysium, Neill Blomkamp’s much-anticipated follow-up to District 9.
Foster plays a Defense Secretary who will do anything to protect the privileged rich that live, separated from the poor on earth, aboard the space habitat known as Elysium – including calling in Copley’s menacing mercenary, Kruger. It’s an almost can’t-quite-believe-it moment for fans of the Pretoria-born actor when Foster steely orders: “Activate Kruger,” and he is summoned. Once his peers were prawns, now they’re Oscar-worthy Hollywood stars.
It may be surreal for his fans, but it’s the kind of moment Copley himself is fast becoming familiar with. “Most of the time it’s normal,” says the actor. “Then I have these odd little moments of, ‘oh my God, what has happened to my life?’ Luckily, those moments are very short, but they do happen.”
Like during filming with his Elysium co-star, Matt Damon, who was nominated for an Oscar for playing Francois Pienaar in 2009‘s Invictus. “There was a scene I was preparing for and Matt came up to me – and he played Francois Pienaar so he can do a pretty good South African accent – and I’d hear him go: ‘It’s the sweetie man coming,’ and then I’m like, ‘Matt Damon is doing lines from my film!’ It’s very strange, and very, very surreal!”
His trademark laugh, the same deep chuckle that endeared Wikus van der Merwe, District 9’s anti-hero, to millions, bellows down the telephone line, as the 39-year-old actor considers his life now. It’s hard to believe it was almost four years ago that I was interviewing a Springbok-jersey-clad Copley in a Beverly Hills hotel on the eve of the Oscars in 2010, where the film he made his acting debut in was nominated for four awards. Now, he’s calling from Los Angeles, after arriving back just a few hours earlier from Russia, where he’s due to make his eighth feature film, Hardcore.
Ever since District 9, it’s not only the likes of Matt Damon who has been able to quote lines from the film and extol its virtues. The little movie that became a big hit around the world (dubbed into Italian and other languages), performing the kind of big box office maths to make movie execs smile (made for $30 million, brought in $210 million globally) spun Copley and his childhood friend writer and director Blomkamp into the fame’s orbit.
While Copley went on to be part of The A-Team remake with Liam Neeson and Bradley Cooper, Blomkamp worked away on Elysium, which sees the pair work together once again. Naturally, there has been much focus – and pressure – on the follow-up.
“The pressure wasn’t really on me,” says Copley. “It’s more on Neill and on Matt and on Jodie. I’m playing a relatively smaller, now a supporting character. All I had to feel confident of was doing a character that in its own way is as entertaining as Wikus was, but not too similar.”
In this big-budget blockbuster, the kind of scrappy ingenuity that was a trademark of District 9 still filtered through to Elysium, like the inclusion of another South African character. “I was worried about making my character South African,” says Copley. “Because Neill and I were joking we were about to undo all the good we did for white South Africans with Wikus, where he basically does the right thing at the end of District 9. And now with Elysium, we’re going back to the South African being the villain again.”
Copley’s character is a mad dog soldier of fortune, who flies a helicopter with the SA flag on it and uses an old Afrikaans children’s ditty to strike fear into those he has to destroy. “I was actually genuinely concerned because it was one of the things I was most proud of with Wikus. In a way, on a deeper level, he kind of symbolized what white South Africa did. That’s a powerful message – to show someone in a position of control who does the right thing, so it did bug me to play a villain now.”
But after trying an Eastern European, American and British version of the character, along with 3 different types of South African accents, he went for it. “I just thought no-one’s ever done the Johannesburg-South accent. We kind of got away with it with Wikus, so we thought, ‘let’s see what happens if we really go full on!’ “
Copley’s accent has been described by one reviewer as being as “thick as the fog on Table Mountain”, and he’s been lauded for playing a sadistic villain. He’ll be seen early next year as another baddie in Maleficent – this time with a Scottish accent – opposite Angelina Jolie, and he’s also the bad-guy in Spike Lee’s remake of the South Korean cult classic, Oldboy. “That has been a very different experience – and very dark,” says Copley. “I thought well, if I’m going to do something dark and arty, then this is as dark and arty as I want to get. That film pushed me further than I’ve ever been,” he says.
Playing the nemesis is a stretch for Copley, who admits he’s most comfortable playing comedic characters. He says he’s done with villains for now. “My first love is comedy. It’s my natural place. People ask if I’m worried I’m going to get boxed in as a villain. No, because I have to work really hard not to be funny when I’m doing the villain.”
There’s no boxing him in with the types of roles he’s taking on: an astronaut in the experimental Europa Report, a would-be killer in the Italian horror flick Open Grave and a robot in Chappie, which he heads back to South Africa next month to film with Blomkamp and Die Antwoord.
His choice of roles is in line with his approach to acting. “I want to be a character actor rather than a movie star. Then the audience can’t pin you down. It takes longer takes for you to get known but it gives you more longevity. That’s the route I want to go.”
When he looks at the route his life has taken – how he left etv in its budding stages and wasn’t sure where he would end up in filmmaking – does he think there really is truth in the old adage things happen for a reason? “I still don’t know,” he answers. “I have ongoing theories on the universe – how much is pre destined, how much is luck and how much is talent. It’ll take too long to explain but I feel lucky but I did have a strong feeling in me from an early age that I was going to do this work. I feel like Hollywood pulled me here. Things do have a way of working out but I’m more than aware that for some they don’t.
He pauses for a moment before adding, “My brother was here in LA recently, visiting me from SA, and he looked around and said, ‘as long as I can remember you were saying you were going to live here.’ I had sort of forgot about that,” he says. Looks like that surreal feeling may really be wearing off after all.