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ELYSIUM Sharlto Copley Interview

District 9 star Sharlto Copley reunites with director Neill Blomkamp for Elysium .

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To say Sharlto Copley was an unknown actor before District 9 is an understatement – his day job at the time was producing, until director Neill Blomkamp made him the lead in his tale of aliens trapped in Johannesburg. Now, with The A-Team behind him (and Maleficent and Spike Lee's Oldboy remake on the horizon), the actor's playing the thorn in Matt Damon's heavily-tattooed side in Elysium , Blomkamp's trip to a future where the haves live on the plush eponymous space station in Earth orbit, and the have-nots live in squalor on Earth. We spoke to Copley about playing thoroughly unpleasant special forces man Kruger.

Had you and Neill planned on working together again after District 9 ?
When I read it I think Neill was just sending the script to me, not saying like I want you to be in the film at this point, more out of creative excitement or whatever, and I felt like there were things that happened to Matt's character that were a little too similar to stuff with Wikus [in District 9 ] to really want to do the lead. I felt like if we did team up together that we would want to do something different – not too different, but not too similar, a fine line where people are sort of wanting you to team up again but with a higher expectation, that you'd better deliver. First time around, there was no expectation, we had nothing to lose. The idea of playing the soldier interested me. I always felt like I could do that properly as in the agression that was needed. I sort of touched on it in District 9 , and as Murdock in The A-Team – just the idea of being the soldier was interesting to me.

How much of Kruger was on the page when you started out?
Well, it's hard to give a percentage, because I saw so many different variations of the script, but certainly he's drastically different. Neill ended up letting me improvise an enormous amount of the scenes, so it changed a lot. What resonated with me was that he was going to be this special forces guy hiding out on Earth.

Kruger's a hard guy. Did you have to go on a boot camp to get in shape for the movie?
Yeah, there's a lot of physical training, but it was more getting myself into physical shape . The character at that time was the furthest removed from me of anything that I'd played so it was a little more tricky. People talk about how it's fun to play vilains or what ever, but I'd had fun with Wikus and Murdock as characters, so I wouldn't say Kruger was the most fun for me of the stuff that I'd done. But the boot camp, if you will, was mostly about just getting into a certain headspace. I didn't have to go Method around the set or whatever but there was a bit of making that leap into a darker, harder, more violent type of place.

DId you feel odd having this grizzled soldier looking back at you in the mirror?
One of the blessings about acting and one of the curses is that you get to go to places which you're obviously drawing from something that you have inside, and some of that was like, "Shit, I didn't quite know that I had this in me!" So certainly when you look at the level of physicality or intensity or comfort with violence, I hadn't quite realised how much that had impacted me growing up in South Africa, so that was an interesting surprise.

Did you develop much of Kruger's backstory ahead of shooting the movie?
A little bit, not much. It was just a little bit of discussion as to maybe what had happened, why he would be on Earth – it's kind of a choice that he made, when he could be living on Elysium. He probably came from a solidering family, his parents would have gone to Elysium and he would have enjoyed the soldiering and the professional solidering aspect and therefore done this job like a pro-level mercenary would probably do.

You filmed the broken Earth scenes in Mexico City slums. Did that help you get into character?
It's funny, because everyone asks that, and I always go, "I shot the whole of District 9 in a dump, in a difficult environment!" For me it should be "How was shooting in Vancouver in the lap of luxury?" I couldn't believe I was on a Neill Blomkamp movie! I was interested more watching everyone's reactions to Mexico. We always used to see the guys painting sets on the lot in Vancouver and they'd wear their little masks to protect them from the fumes, and they'd kind of wear masks and everyone would just kind of laugh and say you guys have no idea about what's coming. They basically had to live in those masks on set in Mexico. It was pretty funny.

With the Elysium scenes being shot in Vancouver, did it feel like you were making two different movies?
It helps tremendously to immerse yourself in the real environment, I find. I love that from a filmmaking point of view. It just brings out a certain kind of magic. I come from visual effects, but it's hard – if not impossible – to get if you were going to try and do that on greenscreen, or you were going to try and build that environment. Like we're going to go and build clean, safe dirt for you guys to roll around in – it just doesn't quite feel or look right, something's just off. Sometimes it's impossible to say what it is but you can often tell.

It's not all that long since your first movie, and now you're working with Hollywood royalty like Jodie Forster [who plays Elysium's chief of defence] and Angelina Jolie [in the upcoming Maleficent ]. How do you handle that?
It is strange. The part that I struggled with the most I guess was Hollywood royalty going on to me about my performance in District 9, and the level to which people admired that would make me very uncomfortable, only having done one film – I very clearly had a sense of how fickle Hollywood is, that you certainly haven't arrived if you've done one film, and that anyone's three bad movies away from not working. That surprised me, and it was a bit unsettling.

Working with the people feels like the most natural thing in the world. It's hard to explain, I just feel very comfortable. What happens to me is I get these odd flashes of my brain utterly freaking out at how bizarre the situation is. I'd have it with Matt or Jodie. I'd be like, "I'm doing a movie, this is Matt, I'm doing a scene with him!", or I was with Angie [on Maleficent ], going "This is Angeliana Jolie, you're playing her sort of partner, this is VERY WEIRD, my friends are going to find this very surreal!" and it is – there's a part of your brain that utterly freaks out at it, and then it just carries on absolutely normally. Thankfully it's not the other way round, thankfully I'm not freaking out most of the time and just having moments of calm. Most of the time it feels calm and normal, and then just occasionally my brain just has no idea how to file that information. It still happens, it definitely goes off every now and then.
Richard Edwards

Elysium is released by Sony on Wednesday 21 August.

Read SFX's review of the movie.

Richard is a freelancer journalist and editor, and was once a physicist. Rich is the former editor of SFX Magazine, but has since gone freelance, writing for websites and publications including GamesRadar+, SFX, Total Film, and more. He also co-hosts the podcast, Robby the Robot's Waiting, which is focused on sci-fi and fantasy.