By now, you’re likely well aware that Powers has made its official debut on the PlayStation Network. The first scripted series for the gaming giant, Powers occupies a unique location in the comic book television landscape. It takes many tropes and cliches and turning them on their head to deliver a clever blend of crime procedural and superhero story that deftly weaves its way around modern-day Los Angeles. Though Powers has had a long road from script to screen–some fifteen-odd years, to be exact–it’s a good thing that they waited because they have managed to assemble a tremendous cast to anchor the series. Two actors, in particular, stand out from the pack, and we get the distinct feeling it is their conflict that will come to a head and light the powderkeg that ignites this season, setting the story ablaze: Eddie Izzard as Wolfe and Sharlto Copley as Detective Christian Walker.
Copley’s portrayal of Christian Walker is one of a broken man trying to put the pieces back together. In the world of Powers, Walker was once a titular Power, a hero imbued with superhuman abilities who used them to fight the forces of evil wherever they lurked. He wasn’t just any hero either; he was something of a rock star in the world of vigilante justice. Then, Wolf, who was like a mentor to him, suddenly snapped, going on a killing spree that resulted in his imprisonment and Walker’s powers being taken away. Now, no longer able to do the impossible, Walker is the face of the Powers division of the Los Angeles Police Department, a crack team tasked with policing those with metahuman abilities. It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it–and Walker may just be that man.
Recently, I had the chance to catch up with actor Sharlto Copley by phone in order to pick his brain about what attracted him to the series, where it sits in the modern superhero TV landscape, and even a little bit about his upcoming first-person POV action film Hardcore.
Nerdist: Tell us a bit more about your character, Christian Walker. He used to be a Power, a superpowered individual, but now it seems he’s lost his way in the world.
Sharlto Copley: He’s a complicated character with a lot going on. Gradually, you get to learn more and more about him as the first season unfolds. You’re correct when you say that he was a Power back in the day. But it was even more than that—he was one of the most famous people with superpowers. In this version of the Powers world that Charlie Huston and Brian Michael Bendis are presenting, superpowers are very prevalent in society. Some people can just levitate a few feet off the ground, that’s all they can do. Others might be able to breathe a little bit of fire. Then other people have more Superman-like powers. Walker, back in the day, was called Diamond. He was sort of a Superman-style hero.
One of the things that actually attracted me to the show and the character is they have introduced a social commentary on the obsession our society has with fame and power, people wanting to be noticed and wanting to be special. These superhero characters in this world are pretty much what rock stars and rap stars and movie stars and TV stars are in our current society. You know, instead of Lady Gaga endorsing some brand, you’ve got Retro Girl. In this Powers world, back in the day, Christian was really a rock star. He was a guy who was good with media, good with getting attention, and a lot of the superpower stuff is very grounded in reality. Just because you can fly doesn’t mean you make money from that. There’s a lot of those kind of realistic approaches to the superhero universe.
Christian had those superpowers, and he was very good at keeping the spotlight on himself. He had a huge ego, and drank, had groupies—but then he loses his powers and becomes the face of the police division that is charged with regulating these Powers. It’s not an ideal position for him. It’s a little bit of power in the world, but it’s nothing compared to what he had, and he wants it back, you know? But there were a lot of mistakes he made back then as well…
N: Yeah, during the pilot episode Eddie Izzard’s character Wolfe asks tells Walker, “How does it feel to be powerless?” It’s sort of this struggle of what do you do in a world where the impossible is possible when you can’t do the same. Would you say that’s a central theme to series?
SC: I think so. Television moreso than film explores multiple themes. With a film, you’re really used to focusing your beats. Unquestionably for me, the theme of Powers is all about what true power is. The title is quite appropriate. It’s quite relevant to our society right now, and I like material that has something to say. You’ve actually got something to say, you’ve got a deeper meaning. For me, it’s specifically the matter of what you do with power. When I had power, I helped people. Everyone wants power. Everyone wants to be able to control their own lives and environments. You know the old saying, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” You have this challenge, and he does. If you had these superpower abilities, would they corrupt him? How would you use them?
Power and fame—I think fame is the other thing—fame is the height of acknowledgment, and our society yearns for that. Facebook probably became so successful simply by playing on that. You can go, “I’m here! Look at me! Look at what I did this morning.” Just tell me that I exist. There’s a real need for that, it’s a deep-seated thing in human nature.
N: It feels like, especially in Walker’s case, that he doesn’t want to be remembered so much as he doesn’t want to be forgotten.
N: Powers has its moments of levity, but it is a little bit darker than some of the other superhero-centric television series we’re seeing recently. Where do you think a show like Powers fits in the modern comic book TV landscape?
SC: It’s its own unique kind of combination of elements, I think. You have the idea of human cops trying to handle superheroes, and on the surface, it might seem kind of pointless. Like what are human cops going to do? As you start going into the world, you see that they’re not fighting Superman; rather, it’s a guy who can levitate a few feet off the ground and is making a nuisance of himself. If you can breathe fire, you could shoot someone in the eye, you could punch them in the face. It’s interesting. It’s a means to handle the genre in a more interesting way. Some have said it’s a more believable or more realistic way. So, yeah, I don’t think there’s anything quite like it, but people are coming at this type of material from all angles nowadays.
N: One of my favorite moments in the pilot is the scene you share with Eddie Izzard’s character, Wolfe. It’s a tense scene that is loaded with subtext. What sort of dynamic can we expect between the two characters over the course of the season?
SC: Other than the relationship with Susan Hayward’s character Deena, Christian and Wolfe have the most important relationship. He has a very complex history with Wolfe, and Wolfe was somewhat of a father figure to him. It was a father-son-type relationship that went horribly wrong. Wolfe was there when Christian first realized he had powers and was somebody he used to look up to a lot. Then, things went dramatically and terribly wrong. So now whenever he deals with Wolfe, there’s an enormous amount of mixed emotions going on, and I had a great time working with Eddie Izzard. He’s a very smart man. We spent some wonderful time together during the shooting, and on camera together there’s just a real connection. He’s just one of those people that is incredible to watch.
N: On a slightly lighter note, if you could be a Power, what superpower would you want?
SC: You know, you start getting greedy when you ask that question because my first instinct is to say that I want to be able to fly. It’d be amazing. But then you can’t really be a Power if you can fly, but you don’t have invulnerability. It’s like, you can fly, but then you crash into something and die. [Laughs] Or you get too cold when you fly, so you can’t practically just fly at the height you’d like to. That’s the funny thing about living with superheroes for four months—you really spend a lot of time breaking it down. It’s a little bit unfair just to offer somebody one when there’s such a great array of powers. I think you’d have to give me at least two. Give me flight and then invulnerability. Then I’d be cool. Then I’m fine.
N: It’s a slippery slope once you bring superpowers into the mix.
SC: It is, man, it really is. Invulnerability would be cool. Just give me those two, and I’m totally happy.
N: Shifting gears slightly, in addition to Powers, another project of yours that I’m very excited for is Hardcore. That first trailer really surprised a lot of people because you don’t expect to see that first-person shooter sensibility translate to film. What can you tell us about that project and what it was like to work with in a medium like that where it’s all done in POV?
SC: Hardcore is the most challenging film I’ve ever made, hands down. It was supposed to be a 24 day shoot, and we went to 110 days. We may do reshoots to film additional stuff later. It was an incredible experience. We shot in Moscow and we were doing stuff that no one had ever done before. The young Russian director is a of true kind of genius really. He’s put together some of the most incredible action sequences I’ve ever seen on film.
The whole idea was can you sustain a character, can you sustain this POV for a 90-minute movie? That was the challenge, and it seems that you can from the response we’ve been getting. It’s a constant vertical learning curve as we try to do things that are pushing the boundary technology-wise, performance-wise, what worked, what didn’t work. It’s been a very fulfilling experience and I really believe we made something—certainly if you’re into games, first-person shooter games—that’s impossible to ignore. I dare people to ignore it. It’s really something I’m very, very proud of and we really tried to push the envelope. To me, it’s almost more of an experience more than a film; it’s a cross between a video game and a roller coaster ride. That’s how I would pitch it.