“Free Fire” doesn’t just give Sharlto Copley another opportunity to create one of his signature quirky, fast-talking characters, providing a bit of levity to an otherwise tense scenario. It also lets him do it in full-on 1970s style — with massive sideburns and leisure suit — and while on fire, literally.
In the satirically high-caliber arms-deal-gone-wrong story from filmmaker Ben Wheatley (“High-Rise”), Copley brings a verbose, seemingly smooth-talking salesman’s patter to Vernon, the flashy coiffed and outfitted broker selling an arsenal of firearms to IRA agents. As the deal goes increasingly south, Copley gets to unleash the kind of quirky, off-kilter energy that’s memorably fueled his performances in films like “District 9,” “Elysium,” “The A-Team” and “Chappie.”
But none of those previous works prepared for the biggest challenge of “Free Fire”: a scene where that spectacular suit catches on fire. And as he tells CBR in an in-depth one-on-one interview, it took a high degree of faith — and some serious ignoring of the insurance company’s concerns — to act his way through the stunt.
CBR: Let’s talk about the first time you saw yourself with the character’s hair, the facial hair, with that very lovely and expensive ’70s suit. How did that help you get right to him?
Sharlto Copley: Tremendously. Probably more so than almost any other character. It always does help for costume and the hair style, whatever you’re doing, I find makes a huge difference, especially the wardrobe. We had random things like shoes that was helpful, this guy with his snakeskin shoes, pink socks, so it’s great.
I love playing on sort of stereotypes and archetypes, everything everyone tries to pretend doesn’t, shouldn’t exist. You can’t stereotype! And that’s all I spent my career doing.
Right. Don’t we go through life and see that guy and think “I know that guy?”
Yeah, of course. They exist for a reason. We’re fighting them for a reason, but they absolutely exist.
That salesman swagger.
Where were some of the inspirations for that?
There’s very few characters I’ve done where I can very specifically tell you what I’m drawing from, or a person, or an event or something. I think I just kind of subconsciously, over years in South Africa and traveling around — we did travel quite a bit as kids — just pick up stuff and then just pop in it.
The accent, I knew from just hearing people of that generation in South Africa. There were people that spoke like that in the ’70s. Chose to sort of pitch the voice up like that. I’ve heard that too. That was a little bit scary. I thought, “Maybe that’s going to be annoying.” It’s meant to be annoying, but is it entertainingly annoying? Or just annoying? So that was kind of touch and go for a while.
You’ve become a bit of a master at those kinds of characters — the stone-in-your-shoe role in the story, but he doesn’t irritate the audience.
Yeah. Inevitably, some people are going to be just irritated, but you want to be like, mostly, he’s annoying, but he’s entertainingly annoying. Then there’ll be a couple people like, “No, he’s just annoying.” That’s a risk you’re going to take. But as long as you’re winning the majority, I think you keep working, basically.
Walk me through the big fire stunt you have in the film — that’s really you, covered in flames. Tell me about the preparation that they gave you for it, the mental preparation you needed to do it, and then tell me what it was like in the moment.
It seems all fine when they showed me how it was going to be done, and I’d see them do it. But yeah, there was just something about, as I got there on the morning, knowing that they had to schedule it last. The insurance takes it that seriously, that it’s like, “We think it could be a problem.” Pretty calculated guys, an insurance company. There was that weighing on my mind, I guess.
They just are so good though, the stunt guys. They wouldn’t let me do anything that was too dangerous. So you trust them to know the levels of how much glue to put on you, and how big the flames are going to be. You don’t test it first. It’s just you’re all in. You’ve seen them do it, and you see that they’re okay, and they’re going to do the same thing to you.
We put on a fire-retardant suit, they covered that with gel, with like this freezing gel. Whatever it was, it freezes you. So you would literally start shaking if you took too long to get into the fire. So once that’s on, then it starts to get very serious and real. You put the wardrobe on quickly, you’re freezing. They cover you with a glue. Everyone takes it incredibly seriously.
The seriousness on set was just a notch above anything that I had sort of seen. Maybe it was because the actor’s also being set on fire. They just take it even more seriously, I don’t know. It’s just ridiculous, of course. We shouldn’t be any more special than the stunt guys.
What’s that experience like, when you’re on fire?
It’s just primal. It’s just primal, animalistic, get this fire out. There’s no acting. It was wonderful because it’s like, we’re going to give you a fire extinguisher, it will really put the flames out. It’s there to make sure they had the right stuff in the fire extinguisher. “Just put yourself out, man.” When you think you’re out — that was a little challenging because I couldn’t see behind me, so when I guessed I was out is when I would go down. You think you’re out, and you end the scene — “but if you feel something hot still, just hit the deck and we’ll jump on you with fire extinguishers.” And they just do that anyway for safety. They take it very seriously.
There were four guys with four extinguishers on all sides of me waiting to just step in if anything went wrong. You do have a very small margin of error, as I got to learn. Because what I learned from the set medic, who was on the scene when I was getting my burn prosthetics on, and he was telling me true stories about fire, and burns, and that sort of stuff.
Because we shot out of sequence, I did a lot of that prosthetics getting put on me first, and freaking myself out about looking at what I would look like if I was burnt. They were explaining to me how fast you burn. If you have gas on your hand, or your arm, and that gasoline, for example, is to set alight, how quickly that would set your fat alight, which would burn you to third degree burns, how fast you have to get that out to not really be in trouble.
I always had the impression, and I suppose it’s from watching movies where they design it so that the guy can run for a long time on fire. But in five seconds, your hand can be burnt down to where all these tendons are gone, and whatever. So it’s a very fast reaction, if it’s on the skin. If it’s through clothes, you have that time. But once it hits your fat, your fat sets alight. Your fat burns. Stuff like that where you’re just like, “Oh man — OK.”
Whose idea was this?!
It was mine. Ben was actually, he was always so encouraging, and it was the one thing where he seemed hesitant. I eventually learned why, because probably insurance was like, “We don’t want that. We don’t want the actor doing it,” but the actor wants to do it!
Did you do this in between seasons of “Powers?”
I did, I did. Actually, I came into it with black hair from “Powers,” and spent 11 hours in a chair to try to get my hair from the black that I had to Vernon’s hair, much to the credit of the amazing hair lady that we had.
It must have been to go back to a character where you can mine as much comedy out of it as possible, and not have to be subtle about it, as opposed to what you were doing in “Powers.”
Yeah, it was a great freedom. It was great to be doing a movie again too, and just to be working with a level of talent that I was working with on “Free Fire.” Everybody is just so damn good. If you work with less, it’s a horrible thing to say, but definitely one of the things I’ve noticed, good actors, they won’t try and sort of compete with each other. They’ll just find ways of making a scene more interesting.
You could feel that on “Free Fire.” We were all doing interesting things. You’re all, in a sense, trying to make a character as interesting as you can within whatever the boundaries are of your character. But there was a sense that we’re trying to help each other do that on this one, rather than compete with each other, which was great. Sorry. That’s the sound of the stirring coffee.
Did the more enclosed single location help you guys bond and band together as almost like a stage troupe?
It did, it did. That was not because necessarily we were just shooting in one location. It was shooting in sequence in one location, and having a lot of off time. So having to arrive at the same time every morning, because you never knew who was going to be on camera at any given moment. So you always had to be available. So there was a lot of hanging around together off camera too. So you definitely had more time together, more chance to bond.
You’ve worked in the science fiction genre, in a very realistically grounded kind of realms. You’ve worked in these high-octane sort of action, projects like “A-Team,” and then something like this that has a lot of action to it. Is that the territory that you like to work in, or are you ready to kind of explore some things that you haven’t had a chance to do yet?
I’ve sort of actually taken a break from acting. I did one more movie [“American Express”] with Joel Edgerton, Charlize Theron and David Oyelowo, last year. But then I just decided to do my own films. I’ve been writing. I wrote my own film, we’ve set it up, and we’re going to shoot it at the end of this year.
So I guess I’ve become more interested in what the films are actually saying. Not just like, “OK, I’m going to do a fun character.” You have absolutely no control of what the film says, what it means. So the artist in me, I suppose, I’m more interested now in that than what other characters I might be able to do. We’ll see what happens.
And you’re keeping the content of the film close to the vest.
Yes, very much, yeah.
Tell me why you’re excited to get behind the camera, besides being able to be in control of a story in its entirety.
When I started out like shooting stuff when I was like nine, when I went from like nine to 19 years old, I must have made, I would have been an obsessive YouTuber. I was thinking the other day, probably about 200 things, little sketches. I did a whole episode of “Fawlty Towers” where I played Mrs. Richards a deaf woman. I did mini little movies. I did a whole full length movie when I was 16.
So I think, honestly, I think I’m more genetically encoded as a writer/director than I am as an actor. Let’s see if anyone agrees with that. I am choosing probably the most edgy thing that I possibly could have. I’ve written five different scripts over the years, and decided to do this one first, which is the most difficult one, the most potentially polarizing and disastrous, but it could also work and be absolutely amazing. So that’s what I’m going for. We’ll see what happens.
“Free Fire” is in theaters now.