Sharlto Copley Talks Hardcore Henry and His Directing Aspirations

Since his initial collaboration with Neill Blomkamp with 2009’s District 9 actor Sharlto Copley has been a performer unafraid to take risks with emerging talents. His latest film is a close collaboration with another first time director, Ilya Naishuller, and the remarkably kinetic Hardcore Henry. Copley plays numerous iterations of his main character, but perhaps more importantly played a crucial role in fostering the project, encouraging Naishuller to balance the film’s astonishing action sequences with vital narrative elements. The collaboration form the heart of Hardcore’s success, where the stylistic conceit of the work is buttressed with a strong sense of character and story.

Dork Shelf spoke with the South African actor/producer by telephone for this exclusive conversation, and we touched upon his commitment to new talent, his passion for Toronto crowds and future directions that he’s looking to explore in his own career. 

Dork Shelf: I saw the film when it was still called just Hardcore at the Midnight Madness premiere here in Toronto. The film sort of exploded since then! Can you talk about what it’s been like living with this project since its original premiere?

Sharlto Copley: It was very exciting and fulfilling, especially on a small, low budget indie film like this, to be able to make something that ends up getting a 3000 screen release. It’s an enormous challenge, as you can imagine, so it’s all the more special and fulfilling when something like that happens. 

DS: Famously you helped Blomkamp get his start. I understand that you actually gave him computer power in order to do some of the effects on some of his early work. It seems that you are a guy who sees talent and likes to help foster it. Did you play a similar role here with Hardcore

SC: It’s interesting you point that out. You’re completely correct in the sense that, I don’t know, to me, it doesn’t seem like a skill, it seems pretty obvious. It does seem that to some degree people are afraid to take chances on new talent and it’s something I’ve always been interested in, finding new talent and just associating with new talent in some way. Hardcore Henry was really the closest experience I had to District 9 – these are the only two I can say I really had a close collaboration with the director. 

I came on board as a producer, and I came on board early when there was no script, knowing how hard this movie was going to be to make. It was still even harder than I thought. Ilya was young, he was somewhat cocky at the time, thinking he was going to get it done in the time and the budget. We laugh about it now, but it was definitely a film where we could have broken up and never spoken to each other again or we could have come out as blood brothers. Thankfully, it’s the latter in this case! 

I knew going in this was experimental, we didn’t have enough money to finish this thing the way we want, but hopefully we would get enough done that each step of the way we’d be able to show people that it’s working and that there’s potential here. So that’s what happened – I went back to Russia three times because we had to change the original end of the film.  

We had a few stumbling blocks, but still managed to get a theatrical release, which is amazing and something I’m very proud of.

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DS: Going into it I feared we weren’t going to get a real movie here,  merely a series of scenes. It shouldn’t be so remarkable, and yet it is in action movies, but the film is a film – there’s a beginning, middle and end, there’s character development, this is not just one big GoPro action sequence. How much of that was shaped once you became part of the project?

SC:A lot of it, and that was definitely something I was pushing for as much of that as possible. Originally, what we started with was a series of action set pieces that Ilya wanted to do. He was very cognizant of the fact that we had to create a story, and we had to put character in there. The idea of coming up with me playing multiple Jimmies was Ilya’s idea. Yet I think it was an experiment as to how much narrative you could sustain in this sort of format. 

I think people will probably give it a go in other genres. I think acting to the camera is a very interesting idea that hasn’t really been explored. You can see in a film like this, but if you slow the camera down, and you explored more narrative and more creative character story, I think you can [give it a go].

DS: I think of the difference between erotica and porn. With porn, you just have money shots, then nothing happening and then you have a money shot. You’re just waiting for the next fucking scene… 

SC: [Laughs] That’s a great analogy! I think there was also a funny kind of generational thing that happened with Ilya and I all the way through. The whole way through the movie I’m trying to get him just to slow down. For me, I’m just like, can you just knock 15% off the pace man? Just let me just breathe a little more! 

He’d show it to a whole bunch of other kids in their 20s or even younger, and they’re like no, no, we tested it and it seems like it’s good, like this is the right pace. I think me being 42 and Ilya being like 29, 30 now, just even that generational difference was notable. It reminds me of music videos in the 80s, when people started cutting really fast, and everyone’s like oh, what are these kids doing? I think there’s definitely that going on with the film too. 

DS: As a 43 year old, old man, I’m watching thinking thank God, you gave me a little bit of a break. 

SC: Yes, I’m with you, man. But funny enough, the more times I’ve watched the film, I find it easier and easier to process what’s happening. I go more on the journey, I see things that I didn’t see with the first time where some of the pieces just felt too fast and too overwhelming. So it’s fascinating, the question to ask where that line is. We set out to be something that’s a bit of a cross between a movie and a video game and a roller coaster ride in the cinema. When we saw it with that Toronto Midnight Madness audience it also became sort of like going to a music concert a little bit. We had some of the most vocal responses from audiences that I’ve ever seen!

DS: One of the things that you obviously bring to it is the schizophrenia of your performance which you’re quite remarkable at. Could you talk about getting in the mindset of all of these various characters?

SC: The tone of the Jimmies was very important to get right up front. Ilya was sort of thinking of making the film a lot more serious. He’s actually a real cinema buff, and I think he was going to make films that are more layered and deep and more sort of critically respected fare perhaps in future. He didn’t even want to make this film up front, he felt it was too gimmicky. He was working on a slow burn, smart spy thriller at the time which was going to be the first film he wanted to make. 

As we discussed it, we sort of said, well, you’ve really got to make this fun. It’s targeting a specific audience, primarily young teenage boys, late teens, early 20s, and it can’t take itself too seriously. It’s got to take a ride. And so those Jimmies that I play have to be done in a fun, almost caricatured style that sets the tone for the film. I think we got a nice balance with that in the end.

DS: There are  two films that really it echoes for me from 2015, one positive and one negative. Mad Max is another film which is an extraordinary technical accomplishment, but underneath the prowess is this deeper storyline and character development than may first sort of appear obscured. On the other hand, in a negative sense, you have films like Brothers Grimsby that just came out that incorporate some of these elements and show that just the schtick means nothing. If you have no story there, you have nothing, you have garbage.

SC: Those are on the top of my list of films that I have to watch! I haven’t watched either, which is bizarre. For Brothers Grimsby they actually wanted Ilya to shoot the first person sequences and he couldn’t because he was working on this, so it was kind of inspired by Ilya’s short Bad Motherfucker.

I couldn’t agree with you more but I think it’s very important to note when you start talking about this type of question, as an actor, you have very little control or input into the film in terms of what the story’s going to be – that is all the director’s territory. How much he decides to make story, whether he can put a proper story in there or whatever, you’re really resting on the director. So I can answer that question for you as a filmmaker. 

As a producer, I think you should go as deep as you can into human nature and human truth and I think films don’t do it enough. It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to get in to directing. I’ve worked on a number of projects where I feel like you could have gone even deeper and it would have been even more profound for more people and you can still have the spectacle. If you’re asking me as a filmmaker, I don’t believe people put enough story and depth into the spectacle movies in general. 

As a writer or creator, you have to have a certain understanding of human nature and human behaviour to really bring those elements in to the films. But I couldn’t agree with you more that this makes a very big difference. We knew, to a certain degree that this form would have the kind of theme park ride experience that would be so different as a first attempt at a full action film in full POV that it would probably be, it would get away with not having the full level of depth and story and whatever that I knew, for example, that I would want. For example, I would definitely only want to do a sequel that had even more story and explored that storytelling side even more than we’ve done so far.

DS: Did you get a chance to see Tim Roth work?

SC: I didn’t shoot any scenes with him. I’m a big fan of his, I’m pleased and grateful that he decided to be in this, but I didn’t unfortunately get to work with him personally. I wasn’t even on the set with him. 

DS: You talked about wanting to direct. What type of stories are you looking to direct and what type of films really do shape your aesthetic?

SC: I think I’m sort of a fan of a lot of different genres. A lot of the more high profile films I’ve done as an actor, I’m more in the sci-fi fantasy kind of genre, I love that stuff. But my first love is probably satirical comedy, so I’ve been shaped as a filmmaker by lots of different films over the years. 

If I’m watching a big action film it’ll be like a Braveheart that has a real spectacle, a real emotional heart underneath it. Some of my favourite movies growing up were things like Dead Poets Society, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Goonies, Alien, Terminator 2. I was a huge fan of Tony Scott when I was growing up, just visually, what he was doing and a lot of times what he was doing with characters, so quite an eclectic mix of stuff.


DS: One of the things that comedy does is it provides an outsider perspective of what’s going on. One of the advantages you have being from South Africa is that you can look at Northern hemisphere society with a little bit of distance. Is that something that you would bring to your comedy and the stuff you would work on? 

SC: Absolutely, and that’s the kind of stuff that I’m writing, The project that I’m working on and may do first to direct myself is very much that kind of satirical, bold, comedic eye, for sure. 

DS: It’s one reason that Canadians think that we produce such great comedians is that we’re right beside the US, so we can see it with a little bit of distance. 

SC: Yeah, it makes sense.

DS: Are there other projects that are coming up that we should know about? 

SC: I did just sign on to a movie with Charlize Theron and Joel Edgerton that I’m going to shoot in May, but it’s an ensemble movie, relatively small role, just there’s a whole bunch of great actors in it, so that’s the next film I’m making. I’ve got two others coming out – Free Fire, which Martin Scorsese executive produced and directed by Ben Wheatley,  the renowned British director. Then there’s The Hollars which John Krasinski directed – I play his brother and Richard Jenkins, Margo Martindale our parents, Anna Kendrick’s in it as well, Charlie Day, Josh Groban… we had a great time, different movie for me, sort of deeper, family sort of drama, comedy. It was a Sundance film.

DS: I saw The Hollars at Sundance. And for what it’s worth Ben Wheatley is a two time Midnight Madness director. 

SC: I had an incredible time with Ben and I’m sure we’ll end up doing some more stuff together. He is an actor’s director truly is in the real sense of that word, probably more than anyone I’ve worked with. 

DS: Dork Shelf refers to nerdy stuff that you collect – are there any thing sitting on your shelves that you want to share?

SC: I collect action figures from movies that I’ve really enjoyed. I have a whole bunch – I have The Goonies set, I have the Hot Toys sets of the Pirates of the Caribbean, and Batman, you know, Heath’s Joker, a bunch of stuff like that.