People – Interview with Sharlto Copley
The recently transplanted South African talent focused on staying alive as he donned a variety of hardhats in the new, boundary-pushing action movie Hardcore Henry
By Katherine Monk
VANCOUVER, BC – “Let’s not die today.” According to Sharlto Copley, those four words were a daily mantra on the set of Hardcore Henry.
“It was a big discussion: No one must die making this film. We talked about it because we were pushing the boundaries and the rules and we had very little money. On the days where there was a very high risk, we’d fly the Jolly Roger – skull and crossbones – in a prominent place to make sure everyone was on guard and alert,” says Copley, sitting down for a chat at a high end Vancouver hotel.
“Everything you see in the movie happens. When you see a guy getting blown up and the van beneath him, that’s actually happening… It was by far the most risk I’ve taken as an actor, which sounds so lame considering what the stuntmen were doing. But at one point I have to drive through another car, and I’ve never done that. So I had to ask the stuntmen: how fast should you go to drive through another car? And they said, ‘pretty fast.’ I did it… and I thought I ran someone over. For two and a half minutes, I thought I had run over the stunt man – and killed him – but it was just a pot hole.”
Copley points to a music video that was created from behind the scenes footage, and says he feels extremely fortunate that after 85 stunt days and 120 shooting days, the total injuries for cast and crew amounted to five stitches and a chipped tooth.
“We were all focused in every moment, and we had to depend on each other,” says Copley.
Shot on a relative shoestring in Russia using 13 stunt men outfitted with GoPro portable high-definition cameras, Hardcore Henry is an action movie with a difference. It puts the viewer in the position of the protagonist using a technique borrowed from “first-person-shooter” videogames where every character speaks to the camera directly – addressing us as “Henry.”
Within the first few minutes, it’s apparent that our alter ego isn’t entirely human. Much like RoboCop, Henry is an enhanced human soldier with high-tech mechanical parts. We watch a pretty doctor address him by name, tell him his voice box needs to be installed, and then attach a prosthetic arm and leg.
A few seconds later, everything explodes and Henry is on the run. His only friend and resource is Jimmy, a scientist who appears in several iterations – all of whom are played by Copley.
“For me, that was super fun and a fantastic opportunity. I have always been a fan of movies where one actor gets to play multiple parts. And I was interested to see how far you could go with that as an actor. Even to speak differently, like the colonel – you know, I wanted to see if you could get away with that.”
Copley says he and first-time director Ilya Naishuller talked about approaches, limits to character, but in the end, went for just about everything – except a scene that would have involved killing a horse (on screen) and hitting a woman in the face with a brick.
“There were some things I just didn’t want us to do, certain areas where the Russian sensibility I didn’t think would translate all that well. For instance, I didn’t think a western audience was going to be okay with riding a horse to death and letting it get eaten by dogs. Or another scene where a lady is hit in the head with a brick,” says Copley.
“Every culture draws these lines in a different place, and even though Ilya was educated in England and speaks English very well, there are cultural differences. If you watch the video that Ilya made for his band Bad Motherfucker (click here), you can see where the whole movie came from. It’s so immersed in the pop culture that surrounds us, but it’s taking it somewhere different. It reflects us back with a different edge – and that reminded me of my experience on District 9, which sort of did the same thing from a South African perspective,” he says.
Copley was producing and directing his own projects before District 9 turned him into a full-time actor. The kid from Jo-burg created a successful TV production company, but when his buddy Neill Blomkamp asked him to act in his ever-timely sci-fi refugee metaphor, Copley’s whole life changed quickly.
Suddenly, he was travelling the world and walking red carpets alongside Sigourney Weaver, Hugh Jackman and Angelina Jolie.
“Directing was in my DNA before I started acting. And now, I feel I’ve reached the point where I’m frustrated enough that I want to go back. I’d like to have more control.”
Part of his recent life restructuring includes the purchase of a home in Vancouver. Like his old neighbour Blomkamp, Copley says Vancouver combines the best of American and British cultures in one homey Canadian package.
“I feel very at home here,” says the new Coal Habour condo owner. “I’ve been living as a nomad, but I’ve always tried to spend as much time here as I can because I feel socially comfortable. It’s not totally American. It’s not totally English. It’s a nice combination of the two cultural stereotypes.”
For a moment, Copley talks about the American can-do attitude that fuels the capitalist engine. Then he offers his thoughts on the reflective English psyche. “If you think about the United Kingdom as an imperialist power that had the self-awareness to actually hand countries back voluntarily—that was revolutionary for any superpower. But it decided it shouldn’t continue taking over the whole world…. people forget that.”
Given the over-stimulation of the current era, it’s surprising anyone remembers anything – which is another real-world observation included in Hardcore Henry, albeit in crude metaphorical form, since Henry has no memory of his former self.
Henry is the empty vessel, the masculine avatar that embodies our moment in time. Copley says he’s not the deepest character he’s ever encountered, but he’s definitely on the cusp of something new.
“For me, this was about pioneering the medium and pushing the boundaries of what could be done in the cinema. It’s traditional film, but it’s looking to the next generation of virtual reality. It’s a hybrid. And I think it’s on the boundary – certainly of what I can handle as a viewer,” he says.
“I have to sit in the back row. But for the kids, it’s nothing. For the ADD generation, this is where they live.”
Hardcore Henry is currently playing in theatres everywhere.
Behind the scenes footage from Hardcore Henry was used to make the video for Biting Elbows For the Kill video.
Photo: Katherine Monk offers a first-person shot of what it would be like to sit opposite Sharlto Copley during an interview.
THE EX-PRESS, April 11, 2016