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Interview with 'Dredd' Star Karl Urban


Karl Urban stars in Dredd

Poster for 'Dredd'

© Lionsgate Films

You won't see Karl Urban's face in the 2012 sci-fi action film, Dredd, and that's just how he wanted it. From the get-go, Urban knew that tackling the starring role in this adaptation of the comic books meant he'd have his face hidden by a helmet and in our interview at the 2012 San Diego Comic Con, Urban says he wouldn't have taken the role had that not been the case.

Karl Urban Dredd Interview

Did you avoid re-watching the first film before working on this?

"You know, here's the thing: when I read the script it became obvious to me that what we were endeavoring to do was completely different. Tonally, you couldn't get more different. I think that our film is a lot more - I don't want to describe it...I'm already doing an appalling job, aren't I? I will say this, going into this movie I watched the Stallone version to see what worked and what didn't work. And the way that I wanted to approach the character was not to have the character be a posturing, bellowing character that was kind of ground in ego. To me that wasn't the Dredd that I knew.  To me, it was far more interesting to have a character with this inner rage and struggling to contain it, rather than letting it all explode. So, you know, that's sort of the direction that I was going in."

"I decided that what I wanted to do was find the humanity within Dredd because he's just a man, he's not a superhero, he's a cloned man but he's just a man. He's not a superhero - he doesn't have superhero powers. His heroism is defined by the fact that he's walking into a building while everybody else is running out and he does the things that most people wouldn't dare to do in real life.  And that was the challenge and especially a huge challenge, to convey all of this without the use of eyes because the character oscillates from being a protector to being incredibly violent to having this rye sardonic humor, displaying compassion, protecting citizens, just unleashing the violence. There's  all these different aspects, and for me the challenge was how to convey as much as I could. And there's a wariness, too, about the character which I thought was really important. The challenge was how do I convey all that without the eyes?"

What themes in the story still remain relevant now?

"Well, that's a good question.  To be honest with you, I didn't think about how this movie was going to be perceived or the relevance of it when making it. To me, my mission was just to a) honor the creation that [John] Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra created back in '75 as best I could; and 2) was just to service the script and be in the moment and make the best film that we could. Everything that kind of happens after it is kind of it's not something that's really on my radar. It's not for me to kind of pull it apart and analyze it.  I just wanted it to be a good, fun piece of entertainment."

Did you take that same sort of approach with Star Trek where you focus on your performance rather than the bigger picture?

"I think you can't. It's a mistake. There's so many things in this world that are actually beyond your control, beyond your area of control, and all you can do when you're in a situation like that, despite the fan pressure, despite the expectation, the best thing that you can do is not think about that stuff and just concentrate on the character and the story you're trying to tell. And then it's for everybody else to disseminate."

Did you find it helpful at all to look at the source material?

"Oh yeah. That was part of my whole process of entering into this.  First of all, I spent like 13 weeks in the gym lifting heavy things, eating seven times a day, just to get physically where I needed to be with the character, to feel like the character. And then there was the part of the process which I like the most which is the investigative part, and that was getting my hands on every graphic novel I could. The real wonderful thing was that I discovered a whole lot of new stories, Dredd stories that I wasn't aware of that had come out subsequent to my reading Dredd when I was a teenager.  Stories like Origins and The Dead Man's Walk into Necropolis, America, I mean these are all really great stories, and there's a wonderful maturity that develops in Wagner's storytelling where sort of the seed of doubt had been planted in this character about this semi-fascist cop who was a desperate sort of solution in a desperate time. He gets to a point in these stories where he's starting to question and to me it's just fascinating. It's like the opening 20 years is just this guy doing a job and then suddenly there's this switch, and there's this change as the character's written and it becomes a lot more complex and interesting. And that was one of the things that I wanted to try and  seed in this movie which was the beginning of that weariness."

Was it always a mandate that you were going to keep the helmet on?

"Oh yeah.   It's hugely important. My agent called me up and said, 'Look, would you be interested in Judge Dredd?,' and I was like, 'Hell yeah, Burt, send me the script.' I read it and then I was immediately relieved to discover that the character kept the helmet on. So we set the meeting with the DNA [Films] boys in L.A., and it was Andrew [Macdonald], Allon [Reich], Pete [Travis], and Alex [Garland] and at one point Alex turned to me and said, 'Just so we're clear, you're aware that Dredd keeps the helmet on in this movie. It's not coming off at any point.' And I looked at him and I said, 'I would not be taking this meeting if he did.' So we were right there. We were all on the same page, you know?"

As an actor, how do you sort of retrain yourself when you can't use your eyes to express emotions?

"Then you have to look at all the other tools that are available to you.  Your voice becomes extremely important. In my research I discovered a passage in one of the comics which described Dredd's voice as 'a saw cutting through bone,' so that was kind of the starting point for my character. What you sort of feel and hear in the movie is my approximation of what that is. And also I wanted to do something that was distinctly different from the shouting, bellowing Dredd that was of no interest to me. That's how that sort of evolved."

"Other tools obviously were the physicality. What can I express with my movement...the weariness, when's he tired, when's he really struggling to contain his rage. This post-massacre in the film he kind of has a gear shifted, you can sense and feel in Dredd with the way he's treating that prisoner of theirs. He goes to town and starts taking it out on the guy, so the physicality becomes very, very important. And then it was really important also to identify where the humor lies. You know, that was one of the things that I loved in the comic was just a really dry, dark humor and so that became an important element as well."

What's the Mega-City in your life? Do you remember the first time you went to a city that felt like something over the top and just felt dangerous to you?

"Oh my God, this is so ridiculous. Auckland is a city that's got a million people living in it and I grew up in Wellington. I remember going to Auckland for the first time, working, and then being at the bottom of like Queen Street and just feeling freaked out by the size of the city. And it's laughable now because then you go somewhere like New York or London and those are real mega-cities, the mega-cities of today."

What do you think about the concept of there being one person who is the judge, jury, and executioner?

"Well, you know, the judges are a result of - in the comic book - the failure of democracy, when one president, President Booth, had too much power and basically caused catastrophic global nuclear annihilation. The world descended into chaos, slowly regrouped into these mass cities, and the only line of defense, the only solution left was that the judges were going to have to go on the streets to contain the chaos. There was going to have to be a new form of justice and it was going to be an instant one."

What was your reaction the first time your put on the helmet and how difficult was it to do the action scenes in the costume?

"What was my reaction? I was probably thinking, 'How the f**k am I going to do this?'  No, seriously, that was part of the process, being in that costume and getting used to it. That took time. I wore it every day for two weeks before actually stepping in front of a camera and it still took more time to get used to it. It had its limitations. I don't think it was as limiting as from what I've heard about the Batman costume for Christian [Bale] but, you know, it sort of really helped inform me and sort of dictated to me how the character moved."

Oftentimes the hero is only as good as the villain he is going up against. What did Lena Headey bring to the character of Ma-Ma to make her a formidable match for Dredd?

"Well, this is just my personal opinion, obviously, I think there is a scary, beautiful, violent way-offbeat performance, amazing performance that Lena has delivered in this film. She's enigmatic; you're drawn to her when she's on the screen. The choices that she made were so interesting.  I have to confess there was one day we were shooting this scene where I'm confronting her and we were at opposite ends of the room. I've got my helmet on and I'm looking at her and she's looking at me, and she just starts laughing, manically laughing. I could just feel within me the rage f**king growing. She is that f**king good.  She knows how to push your buttons."

If you read the comic books, you can see hints of where the inner rage comes from over the years. Is there any sort of indication of its origin over the course of this film?

"No. This is the thing that I love about this movie, this is not your traditional set up movie. This is not like Nolan's first Batman movie where we get a big backstory about Dredd. And that's what I love about it - you don't. You just come straight in and all you need to know, the first setup is the car chase which ends in the perp getting his instant justice, all you need to know there was that girl whose life he saved turns to him at the end and says, 'Thank you, Judge.'  Right there you know what he's there to do, simple as that."

What was it like to go back to work on the Star Trek franchise and play McCoy a second time?

"It was surreal.  You know, it was four years since we've made the last Star Trek and I remember coming to set the first day and I literally felt like I'd been transported in a time warp and Obama was about to be elected, you know? We walked on set and there's the exact same cast, same crew, same extras. It was so so trippy, so weird but so wonderful to start that again. This time everyone was a lot more relaxed with each other, and when you develop a shorthand with colleagues who you've been through the wars with, that's kind of the way it felt. It was really interesting to see the evolution in everybody's processes."

On the whole "Gary Mitchellgate" thing, was that deliberately misleading or did you actually say something you didn't mean to say?

[Laughing] "I'm not at liberty to discuss Star Trek..."

Did you get any phone calls after those articles came out?

"There might have been a call or two. I will say this, there is, speaking of Star Trek, this weekend there will be some exclusive footage, Star Trek footage from the new Star Trek that is going to drop on the net, YouTube. Keep your eyes open."

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