Amidst San Diego Comic-Con International’s big surprises, one of the heavy-hitters was Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, about which almost nothing had been said or revealed previously. Now we know that, like District 9, it’s a sci-fi parable of class struggle, with Earth an over-populated working-class hell, and “Elysium” the name of an off-world space station where the wealthiest 1% can have everything. Matt Damon plays a regular joe who gets cancer from his job and seeks to get to the station by any means necessary so he can obtain the cure, but standing in his way is a familiar face: District 9‘s Sharlto Copley. Prior to the first screening of the footage, we caught up with Copley to discuss his big, bad new role.
Nerdist: It’s interesting that you did District 9 as an untested actor, and now you have this really great career going. What’s it like to work with [director Neill Blomkamp] on District 9, and then come back to work on Elysium, a film with a budget and actual resources? Any big expectations?
Sharlto Copley: I think on the expectations issue, I think for me as a fan of movies, if you see a director or an actor do something that you really like, you want to see them team up again. At the same time, I suppose there’s a kind of increased expectation. On the upside, you have everyone rooting for you. On the downside, if you make something that’s just kind of OK, people will maybe feel a little bit let down, a little bit like, “We hope that you’d hit it out of the park again.” For me, I was very cognizant of that going in, feeling like I should only go for it only if I felt like I could do a character and a film that would really deliver. In both cases, I felt that we would, that it was going to make an amazing film, and that my character would be something that would be pretty different, and hopefully would entertain people.
N: There hasn’t been much that’s been released visually from Elysium except down on the Comic-Con floor. Stylistically, it looks very sleek, as opposed to District 9 being dirty and grungy. For your character, what kind of stylistic choices did they make for you? Did you like going to work everyday and not having to get grimy?
SC: I was grimy in a sense, but not as grimy as I was in District 9. My character’s a guy called Kruger. He’s the main villain in the film. He’s essentially a black ops operative that hides out on Earth and works for the Elysium government agency. He deals with any problems that may arise with the humans on Earth, as and when such problems arise, shall we say. He lives in a sort of grimy environment, as opposed to the other people in Elysium that get to live in Beverly Hills in the sky, almost. It was definitely a fun character to play, because neither the character nor the movie takes itself overly seriously. I like these genre films, where there’s this slight bit of characterization you’re bringing in. You’re not trying to make heavy, heavy drama. Even though he’s a bad man, there’s still a pure, sort of entertainment value to the character. That’s certainly what I tried to bring. The last time I really enjoyed a movie villain was Heath Ledger’s Joker. With Neill and I working together, I felt we had the opportunity to try and do something that was different and would make a bit of an impact.
N: Your screen presence makes you incredibly likable. When you took on the role of the villain, did it cross your mind that your likability might play against you? Were you cognizant of the fact people generally root for you?
SC: I think I haven’t done enough movies, nor do I have enough of an identity as Sharlto Copley the actor yet for audiences to really cling on to anything in terms of an expectation of me. I’m kind of fortunate in that. I’m trying to keep that as long as I can. There’s a side of my performance ability, I suppose, that comes out in a format you’ve never seen. That means you might not like me as much. I wanted to play him because I still feel like a charismatic villain that, to some degree, you liked. I liked the Joker. I’m not supposed to, but I liked watching him. That’s why I would want to play a villain. I wouldn’t want to play a villain that was so, so unlikable and dark that he’s almost boring, or just depressing. I think that sort of ability to have some charisma in a villain is cool.
N: Where did you guys shoot Elysium? Was that in South Africa?
SC: We shot in Vancouver and Mexico City.
N: They showed Dredd Wednesday night, and they shot that in South Africa. The film industry is really starting to grow there. A lot of that gets pointed back to the success of District 9. How do you feel about that? Do you take pride in the industry growing?
SC: I definitely do. I was actually intricately involved in Dredd coming to South Africa to shoot, because the producer’s a friend of mine. After District 9, he started to engage with me about the options of shooting in South Africa. I have production teams there, and I have a lot of people that were on District 9, because I come from producing. It was a lot of my team and my people that were involved in the actual hands-on producing, the crew on District 9. I put a lot of those same people behind-the-scenes on Dredd. I’m very much proud of the industry growing there. I suppose I’m trying to do a bit for my country by letting people see what a great shooting location it is, particularly Cape Town. Although we did Dredd in Cape Town, as well as in Johannesburg. Safe House came down. It had nothing to do with me, though.
N: You’re the poster child for South African cinema!
SC: That’s more like a service job. What was interesting about Dredd, is people were engaged not just because it was a cheap place to go shoot, which has happened before. But creatively, there were some interesting creative choices made down there. There were some interesting creative people down there wanting to go there as well, not just because it’s cheaper, but to actually just see what kind of creatives are down there.
N: With Elysium, what do you hope fans take from your performance?
SC: I don’t like to try and prescribe that. Whenever they ask me their questions, I feel like cinema-going is kind of one’s own unique experience. From my point of view as a character, I just hope I’ve been able to offer up something different, something you haven’t seen before, and that, at the end of the day is, entertaining and memorable. Hopefully, Neill and I will deliver on that expectation. I’ll wait to see how that goes down, but I feel good. I feel confident that we will.
Elysium opens March 1st, 2013.