From “District 9” to “Maleficent” to “Chappie,” South African actor Sharlto Copley is no stranger to diving into wild cinematic worlds. But with the groundbreaking, first-person perspective action film “Hardcore Henry,” Copley faced his greatest challenge yet.
Directed by Ilya Naishuller, the fast-paced film embeds the audience in the body of a recently resurrected super-soldier who can’t speak or remember his past. All he knows is a telekinetic albino has snatched his doting wife, and Henry is the only one who can rescue her. But he’ll need some help from Jimmy, a mad scientist whose various incarnations are all played by Copley.
Following the film’s U.S. premiere at SXSW, SPINOFF sat down with Copley to dig into the secrets behind its mind-bending stunts and daring first-person device. He not only revealed “Hardcore Henry’s” production process, but also the prank he pulled on location in Russia that nearly gave Naishuller a heart attack. Plus, he hints a reunion with “District 9” director Neil Blomkamp may be on the horizon.
SPINOFF: This movie is completely bonkers. How was it pitched to you?
Sharlto Copley: It was pitched on the basis of [Naishuller’s] music video “Bad Motherfucker.” They said, “We want to do a movie like this, in this style,” and that was the pitch. There was no script.
They were like, “We want to do a first-person perspective action movie”–
When they said that to you, did you have any concept of what you’d be acting against?
I had a sense of it. My biggest question was what everyone was asking: Can you sustain that for 90 minutes? Would a narrative work with first-person? I wasn’t really thinking about the technical details. In hindsight, maybe I should have!
It wasn’t really until I got there and we started working that the reality of, “Wow, I’m going to be working opposite someone who is sometimes a cameraman, sometimes the director behind that camera, and sometimes an actor and a stuntman, or some combination at all times.” It’s very unique. I’m used to acting against either nothing or a person. This is some sort of hybrid that’s constantly changing. It’s quite fascinating.
Yeah, they showed the headgear employed on stage following the premiere.
It’s a head rig, basically, with the camera mounted right beneath the eyes.
And because the camera is mounted underneath the eyes, you can’t look the operator in the eyes because it would throw off the eye lines, right?
Correct. Stupid little technical things like that, like the cameraman is looking at you and looking down at his lens as well […] A soon as you instinctively feel my eye moving [you’ll move your focus]. The human eye instinctively draws the other human eye to it.
So that was an obstacle.
Yeah, and just energetically, too! It’s a strange energy that’s coming at you that’s interfering with you in a way.
And then Henry can’t speak, so that’s another element where you are communicating with a character who can’t talk back.
In a certain sense there is a responsibility on you as an actor to try to create character out of Henry, because you obviously can’t see Henry emoting. You’re trying to allow the audience, who are reacting to you to, become a character. So there’s a bit more responsibility on you in that sense.
You were working opposite not actors so much as stuntmen and directors and cameramen. Were you helping them try to figure out how to create performance?
Yes, at times. That’s a good question; no one’s asked that. Definitely at times it was pretty funny. Because they are really thinking about so many other things, there were several times where I would come over and say, “Listen, if I was this guy, I wouldn’t do X, Y, Z. Or I would do this. I suggest you do it this way.” I actually totally forgot about that.
The stunts in this movie are so insane. What was the greatest challenge for you, physically?
There were so many difficult physical challenges. For me, physically, the dance routine — funny enough — because I had to keep falling. We shot that sequence twice because we didn’t like the art direction of the first lab. So like a year later I’m doing a whole reshoot and I’m falling on concrete. And you got to fall in way that looks like you’re being shut down.
Weren’t there pads?
In some of the setups they did, but I had to wear knee pads, and I just had a knee injury at the time, so it was very tricky just not to really hurt myself. Especially with the first series we shot. Other things, as soon as you start combining disciplines where you’re doing a stunt and you’re acting and you’re driving — all the driving is real, driving through the streets of downtown Moscow, driving into police cars, knocking it out of the way, elbowing the guy off, speaking Russian — it’s using all different parts of your brain. The industry does typically divide that stuff up very clearly. Like a stunt guy just focuses on stunts, e doesn’t have to worry about acting. When you’re acting, you don’t have to worry about stunts. If you do do a stunt yourself, then you’re just thinking about the physicality of that move. Combining all of that pushed everybody to their limits of what they could do.
And because it’s not a Hollywood film, when I see those stunts, it feels illicit because it seems like the same rules of safety may not apply.
It’s true! They don’t. But then on the flip side of that, there’s an awareness that no one’s babying you and you could die. Like really honestly. So shooting any of that stuff in the first world, there’s barriers on things you can fall off. We were just in locations constantly where it was like, “Well, this could go wrong. That could go wrong.” And it sort of made everybody focus. And a testament to the level of the focus of the stunt guys, they had, like, a chipped tooth in 80 days of stunt, which you actually get a lot worse on a big Hollywood action film usually.
They were saying last night at the premiere the scene from the trailer where a girl falls down the escalator, that was an accident!
Yeah, and we thought she was unconscious at the very least. She just face-plants on the escalator like you see. There’s no tricks with that stunt stuff too. There’s, like, very few times when the guys are on wires. Like, for example, running over the bridge there’s no wires. A lot of the jumps they do jumping from one thing to the next, there’s no wires.
There’s no wires when they were running along the top of the bridge?
No, nothing. They fall, they die. And you’re running with a GoPro. There are also very tough guys too. That’s probably also why there was only a chipped tooth and five stitches between them. Maybe on a different film there would be more damage, I don’t know.
Watching “Hardcore Henry” reminded me of watching “The Raid,” where I see the stunts and think, ‘Someone definitely got seriously injured making this,” because the stunts are so raw. They feel terrifyingly authentic.
Yes, well a lot of the stuff was created in the moment. It’s not like a lot of Hollywood action where you have two weeks where they design this particular massive set piece. A lot of it was coming up with it on the day. The running over the bridge for example, they were just driving from one location to another, and one of the guys was like, “Oh, remember how we used to run over that bridge when we were kids?” And Ilya was like, “Well, would you like to go and do it now?” And they go and put the rig on and off they went!
What does a script like this look like? Does it look like a normal script or —
No. This was an ongoing process. We had to keep reworking stuff. We had a different end [originally]. I had to leave Russia at a certain point because of the schedule. We kind of knew because this was experimental. I went back to Russia three times in total, so there was a version of the movie where Jimmy was all the way through the movie til the end. But I had to leave at one point, so they shot the whole rooftop sequence without me. So he dies earlier. Stuff like that were just practical limitations based on time, budget and schedule, stuff like that. We would just make the best of it.
And interesting thing: Improv is one of my real strengths as an actor. I could improv something as we were rehearsing it on the day, but once we decided what the lines would be for the day, because the timing was so specific, if you kept changing what you were going to say it throws of the whole action sequence. And a lot of it was regularly done with four, five, six, seven-minute takes. Obviously a lot of that is compressed within the edit, but the takes were incredibly long. And we were extremely ambitious, probably more — in hindsight — than we needed to be with trying to do incredibly complicated setups in one go. Which meant you could improvise the first one or two as you worked out what you were going to do and then you had to stick to it.
For me one of the more fascinating facets of Jimmy is the kind of hippie-biker version. Tell me how that character came about.
Hippie Jimmy is one of my favorites. I’d like to do a whole movie on Hippie Jimmy.
“Hardcore Hippie Jimmy”?
Yeah! We had a biker [character] planned, like a really tough-guy biker, a typical biker guy. And the tattoo work [gestures to his arms] was really bad that morning. I had these big tattoos and it just looked like someone had painted them on. I said to Ilya, “Dude, I can’t do this. I have a different idea. What if we make these and these changes?” My wife [model/actress Tanit Phoenix] was doing the hair and make-up for me so she could quickly come up with stuff.
I take it your wife didn’t do the tattoos?
No, not those. No, no, no. She was looking at them and was like, “I could do these tattoos better.” So we just did a couple on my hands that looked more real. So, I have this idea for the hippie, this idea that he would be a hippie who doesn’t like violence. Like part of him really wants to be like the Buddha. But there is this other part of him that kicks in when you push his buttons.
It’s almost like a samurai thing.
Then his ego comes in. Yeah, then his ego comes in and [claps hands together]. The funny thing too, I had to learn how to smoke weed. I do stuff in movies, and people are like, “How much of you is in the different characters?” I’m like, “I don’t smoke, drink or take drugs. I never have in my life.” So I’m literally having to learn how to smoke weed.
How did you learn to smoke weed?
You know, just by people laughing when you do it wrong, and feeling very uncool because you don’t know the right way. Having watched people, too, I suppose, trying to imitate it the best you can.
Are you looking to reteam with Neil Blomkamp any time soon?
I would say that’s a distinct possibility. We’ll have to see.
You have a smile on your face where it’s clearly like, “I have something to say.”
We’ll see, we’ll see. It’s a distinct maybe.
Is that “maybe” maybe an “Alien” movie?
No, because Ridley [Scott] is doing his “Alien” movie now, so Neil’s has been shelved for sort of indefinitely. We’ll see.
“Hardcore Henry” is getting such a rousing response. Are you guys considering a follow-up?
We’ve spoken about it. Definitely if there was a demand, we’d love to do it. And to be honest, I think we’d monumentally knock it out of the park. Normally, you have the pressure of like, “Shit, is it going to be as good as our first one? Probably not.” It’s really hard to top yourself. But in this case I think would very easily and capably top ourselves because we would be so much more prepared. We could do so much more narrative stuff now that we’ve learned how to do [all this]. So it would be fantastic to get a shot at doing this again. I think we would just massively raise the bar on a sequel for this.
Is there any trivia or fun facts about making the movie you want the world to know?
Every day was some sort of adventure. In my first two weeks, there was a military presence that descended on downtown Moscow with troops everywhere.
Wait, a real military presence?
Oh, absolutely, absolutely. To, like, stop rioters or something like that. I actually filmed it and played a prank on everybody. I had just arrived, so from my hotel balcony that was on Red Square, I filmed this monumental formation of Russian troops that looked like they were going into the hotel. And I filmed this and I pretended to just be cockily filming it, and I put a gun shot [sound effect] in, as if something had happened. And I turn off the camera as if in a panic. And I turn it on again and I’m like, “OK, they’re coming into the hotel. They’re asking for my passport and I have to go down to the lobby.” And I sent it to all my friends and family and to Ilya.
Oh, my God.
And they all panicked like hell. And Ilya phoned me, and he’s like, “Dude, OK, listen. Whatever happens” — and he totally bought it.
Why wouldn’t he?
He’s like, “Don’t give them your passport, whatever happens. We’ll send some people. Just stay cool, and don’t give them your passport.” And then I called him straight back, and the guy’s like having a heart attack. I’m a big prankster on movies. My family was not amused at all. They were like, “That’s not funny, man.”
Actually I felt very safe and had a wonderful time in Russia. But I definitely played up the like, “Aaaah! It’s the Soviets!”
“Hardcore Henry” opens Friday.
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