Film

A Spike in Copley’s Hollywood career

Nadia Neophytou

Spike Lee saw Sharlto Copley in District 9 and said "Who is this guy? I want to work with him.".

Sharlto Copley in Spike Lees's Oldboy. (Supplied)

"Woo, Lord!" exclaims Spike Lee, when I ask him about working with Sharlto Copley, South Africa's on-the-rise star who plays the villain in Lee's version of Oldboy, a "reinterpretation" of the South Korean cult classic, opening in cinemas today.

"He has a million ideas," says Lee, riffing on the energy Copley has become known for displaying on set. "And he is quite talkative!"

A man full of energy himself, Lee relished having the Jo'burg-born actor on his set in New Orleans, where Oldboy was shot.

"When I saw District 9 I said: 'Who is this guy? I want to work with him.' Thank God we were able to work together on this. He has a lot of ideas. Sometimes ideas don't come together but you've got to hear them, because somewhere along the line, one of them might work. Every actor has his own process. Sharlto has his own specific process, but you can't argue with the results."

Copley is fast becoming a staple on the global movie circuit. He's also starring in the space-set Europa Report.

After District 9, Copley was spun into the Hollywood movie world, but he's choosing his roles carefully. Independent films and one big Disney blockbuster are next. Maleficent, alongside Angelina Jolie, is one that has fans waiting in anticipation to see how he fares as the king in the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale.

It is in aligning with directors such as Lee that Copley's path has been kept interesting, beyond his numerous collaborations with South African-born, Canadian-bred director Neill Blomkamp.

Lee certainly keeps people talking – from his breakout hit film Do the Right Thing, a movie many believe should have earned an Oscar, right up to his outspoken views on gentrification in Brooklyn, New York.

Lee's decision to get his newest project funded through the crowd-funding Kickstarter website drew ire from critics who believe the site should be for unknown and emerging filmmakers rather than established names.

Kickstarter
"The truth is I've been doing Kickstarter before there was Kickstarter, when there was no internet," Lee says. "Social media then was writing letters, making phone calls…" Indeed, he has a reputation for being tenacious, scraping together funds for projects that movie studios wouldn't touch, such as Malcolm X.

For someone who's always been hustling, it seemed only natural that the 57-year-old filmmaker would want to try new avenues to get his films made.

Ever since his debut She's Gotta Have It earned him enough money to start his own production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, Lee has been creating and directing independent films and movies for major studios too, from Inside Man to 25th Hour.

Copley seems to be creating a mixed portfolio too – with movies such as The A-Team, peppered with out-there indies, such as horror film Open Grave, directed by Spain's Gonzalo López-Gallego.

"It's a double-edged sword," Copley says of his growing fame. He's not yet an A-list name capable of carrying the bigger films as a lead, but that brings its own opportunities.

"I'm becoming a character actor rather than a movie star," he says. "Then the audience can't really pin you down. It takes you longer to get known, but it gives you more longevity. That's the route I want to go."

After 40 years in the business, Lee knows about sticking with the movie business, and has now turned his focus to the Kickstarter-funded film The Sweet Blood of Jesus. "It's the way forward," he says. "We've already shot the movie. Without a studio holding us to their rules. We wanted to raise $1.25 million and we raised $1.4 million – I'm happy."

In the coming weeks, meanwhile, Copley will turn his attention to working on and promoting his new slate of movies – and, along the way, sharing a stage with Jolie.

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