Writer/director Neill Blomkamp blew audiences away with his first feature film, District 9, which premiered at the 2009 San Diego Comic Con. And it was only fitting he returned to the Con to debut footage from his second film, Elysium, a movie the studio and filmmaker have been keeping pretty much top secret, only announcing an official synopsis for just days before the 2012 Comic Con. The preview screening of Elysium footage proved to be one of the biggest hits at the Con, with the film's stars including Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, and Sharlto Copley (the star of District 9) making the trek to San Diego to talk to movie fans about the sci-fi film.
Returning to Comic Con, Copley - who was more than happy to be back to the place he credits with helping to make District 9 so successful - was greeted with enthusiastic applause from the jammed-to-capacity crowd. Catching a quieter moment with Elysium's main bad guy, I asked him about the project which is bigger in scale than his first collaboration with writer/director Blomkamp.
Exclusive Interview with Sharlto Copley from Elysium
Saying yes to doing another movie with Neill must have been a real no-brainer.
Did you even have to read the script?
"No. I saw the initial design work, the first actual images I saw from Elysium were at the BAFTAs for District 9. He showed me a few things on his computer and I was like, 'Dude, I want to do this movie.' I didn't even know what it was about; I didn't know anything. 'I just want to do the movie. Please, can I do the movie?'"
Did he say at that point that he had something in mind for you already?
"No, he didn't know what was going to happen because he was still writing the script. He still had different ideas. And then he sent me an early draft of the script a while later, just sent it to me to see what I thought. Immediately I resonated with this character that I'm playing which is really the main villain in the movie. I said to him, 'Dude, just so you know, this is the one I'd like to do if you want me.' And he was like, 'Yeah, I hear you.' And it was an opportunity to make a really unique and different character, that's what specifically resonated with me with this character. I loved the story, I loved the script and all, but I was drawn to try and do something different."
If he had said he wanted you but not for that specific character, would you still have said yes?
"Yeah, I would have been an extra. I would have been an extra walking on to the set selling oranges."
Do the designs he initially showed you wind up in the film or did his vision change from those early drafts?
"That stuff always develops over time, but essentially it was the same. He develops his design work as he goes and refines certain things. He refined a lot of things in the story and went through two or three different story versions and main character versions even, but the essence of the film is the same."
Was it a lot different working with Neill on this with a big budget and studio backing than it was on District 9?
"It wasn't because Neill had so much control over this film so we weren't answering to like a million people at a studio. So it really just felt like the same thing but just with more money and less hassle and less stress, better craft services, less dirt. Although I lie - we shoot in Mexico City so there was a fair amount of dirt. We were in the slums of Mexico. But also, this was a much more tightly scripted film than District 9 was, but Neill again allowed me to go and improv like crazy. I love that and so I did again a huge amount of improv with the character."
Did you take your character in a direction that wasn't actually in the script?
"Oh, totally. I think he'd originally written him as like a British guy and then Neill and I worked together on turning him into a South African and a very specific type of South African, based on South African characters and stereotypes of, again, people we both knew about. We kind of defined and developed the character, just because it was the opportunity...I could have played him British, I could have played him Eastern European, I could have, but it was just you don't get a lot of opportunities to do something really different. And I felt this was one of those, and so did he."
Is it fun to play a villain?
"It is, but more specifically when the villain isn't too serious. The last villain I really enjoyed was Heath Ledger's Joker and where you can sort of have a bit of charisma to the fellow and you can play with him and it's not overly dark. This is a genre movie, so the whole movie it's not taking itself 100% seriously. There is that element of fun, and so I didn't find it depressing me at the end of the day or anything like that."
There wasn't any problem shaking off the character.
[Laughing] "Exactly. I am pretty good with that stuff. I can shake it off if I need to because, you know, it's going to some dark places - don't get me wrong, but it's doing it in a bit of a fun way and I'd like to think somewhat charismatic way, hopefully."
Before the Comic Con panel, we hadn't seen anything from it. It's been such a well-kept secret. What's the tone?
"Cool. Is that a tone? Can you use that as a tone? Amazing? Intense? That's the tone. It's pretty awesome."
District 9 really got kicked off here at Comic Con. Is that why it was important to bring this film here too?
"I suppose so, for the studio, for Sony. For me, it's just very emotional because this is the place where my life changed. 2009 my life literally changed after the first screening of District 9. They brought it here to kind of see what would happen. We had two press dates on our tour as we went into Comic Con. I got a sheet that said, 'Los Angeles press engagements: none listed.' 'New York press engagements: none listed.' And then the next morning after the first Comic Con screening, it was like, 'Guys, we need you to go to 10 cities, and then you need to go to other countries. You're going to go to Japan.'"
That must have been such a good feeling.
"Yeah. Especially when you...I'm nine years old wanting to be in film in South Africa, making little movies, feeling like I'm very isolated down there. And you come to a place like this years later and you arrive and you find people that love film as much as you and like what you did. Thank God, because of course it could go the other way. I mean, they're not necessarily always going to like what you do, but I feel confident with this one; I feel good about the character and I feel good about the movie."
What are you allowed to say about the movie?
"I mean, what's out there now. It's a movie about the haves and the have nots. The haves are now living off the surface of the Earth in an amazing environment, it's like Beverly Hills in the sky, and the have nots are stuck on Earth in an overpopulated environment that's not very pleasant to live in. My guy is the main villain. He's the equivalent, I suppose, of what you'd find today as like a black ops operative for Elysium, for the government officials. He hides out on Earth and they activate him when there's problems that need to be dealt with off the record."
He takes out people?
"Yes he does, very much so. It's a very different role for me."
Do you have to do a lot of shooting and working with guns?
"There's quite a bit of like swords and knives and guns, and he's extremely lethal. There's several ways that the man could kill you very easily."
Swords and knives? Isn't this set in 2159? Are we still fighting with swords and knives?
"Yes, but he does because he likes it. It's just more interesting. He's a warrior and it makes it more exciting, more intimidating. It's sort of the analogy of, because if you imagine that most of Earth the way it's populated now, using analogies like the way that in certain - again, drawing from like places in Africa - people will take a knife and chop your hand off as an intimidation tactic. So my guy's that sort of guy. So that you understand my point, I will chop your hand off if necessary. So the sword really represents that. I mean I could kill you, but that's not as interesting as chopping your hand off to kind of say I'm serious."
Overall you said the tone is "cool," but is it really bloody and gory?
"Yeah, very similar to the District 9 type of thing. It's very, very grounded in real kind of issues but then with a sci-fi kind of action but with gore. It's very much Neill's style again, just maybe a little bit slicker this time. He's going for a more sort of polished look than he did in District 9."
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Elysium opens in theaters on March 1, 2013.
(Photo SPE, Inc./Eric Charbonneau © 2012 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved. )