Sharlto Copley on Elysium

Tom Seymour

Neill ‘District 9’ Blomkamp has returned to our screens with Elysium, in which Matt Damon’s everyman plays Max, a former-con struggling through life. It’s 2154, and Earth has descended into an over-populated, poverty-ridden, ecologically-devastated hell. The rich elite have fled to a utopic satellite orbiting the earth, in which robots serve their every need. Max must try and break into Elysium, but first must face Sharlto Copley’s brutal hit-man.

It’s “a perpetual dynamic, an archetype, about how the nobles tried to stop the peasants from coming over the wall and taking their riches,” says Copley. But it’s also a demonstration of Blomkamp’s ability to fuse the visceral, the rough and the grim with high-concept, other-worldly beauty. We spoke to Copley about growing up in South Africa, and the politics behind the film.

GFW: You first met Neill Blomkamp when he was 15. What was he like at that age?
Sharlto Copley: I definitely knew he had something. It seemed pretty apparent from the early days. He was making short films by himself in his room. I would try and do it with my buddies but they weren’t very good, and he would create these unbelievable worlds with CG animation.

He’s let you play a couple of good guys in District 9 and Elysium. When’s he going to let you play a baddie?
My fear with this film is that we were going to undo all the good work that’s been done for white South Africa. I’ve played two characters who are South African and just wants to shoot things and hurt people. But it was just too much of an opportunity. We thought about making him English or American, but then realised it isn’t often you get to make a South African character in pop culture.

How have people in South Africa responded to you personally after your role in District 9?
It had a really good impact on South African. I get young guys that come up to me and talk about how proud they are to see such a big movie in their home town. I grew up so frustrated with South Africa. You have a love-hate relationship with it, and have to live with a lot of complex issues; racial and politics issues. Crime, money and have and have-nots. Political abuse and corruption. The world despises you, then it loves you, and then it feels completely indifferent.

There’s a social subtext behind Elysium. Is that something you openly talk about when you’re developing the film, or do you allow it to speak for itself in the background of the movie?
Neill and I talk alot about the world through our friendship, but we pretty much left the social message behind Elysium in the background. I think you can afford to do that when you have intelligent writing taking interesting perspectives on the nature and ironies of human dynamics. Neither film has a specific political message - they almost act as satirical commentary I think. Elysium is a 1000-year-old story; about how the nobles tried to stop the peasants from coming over the wall and taking their riches. It’s a perpetual dynamic, an archetype.

District 9 was famed for its levels of improvisation. Did you use similar working methods on Elysium?
District 9 was almost 100 per cent improvisation. This was less - maybe 70 per cent improv. Most people in this one didn’t improvise; Neill was quite specific about the lines in Elysium, although he would let me go off-piste. Most of the fights were pretty clearly blocked, but we didn’t rehearse them a lot. They were very rough, which suited the messy fighting style you see in the film. We didn’t want them to look too slick and rehearsed. I got a few bruises, but I got a lot more banged up on District 9.

What can you tell us about your role in Spike Lee’s Oldboy?
Oldboy is a very interesting take on the most original material - the graphic novel. I tried to do something very different from the Korean villain. It’s dark, it’s twisted - it’s probably more dark and twisted than anything I’ve done before or ever will do again.

If you can send a message back to the Sharlto working as an actor through Apartheid, what would you say?
Don’t worry - it’s going to be hell and then you’re going to come through it and it’s going to be ok. I went through a period of being desperately impelled to put out my work to the world and feeling like no-one was getting me or understanding what I had to offer. It was a very difficult time for me and I just about hanged in there.

What’s your advice to a young actor?
If you have to listen to my advice, you should probably quit. If you need me to tell you to believe in yourself and keep on going, then you may as well give up.

'Elysium' is out now.

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