A Spike in Copley’s Hollywood career

"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.

"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.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Mzansi marvel makes it big

Debbie Berman set her sights high on Hollywood and her tenacity has paid off with ‘Black Panther’

‘A Star Is Born’ expected to win big at Golden Globes

Hosting the gala will be actress Sandra Oh and comedian Andy Samberg

The global messenger: ​Tebogo Malope

"My aim is to take the local story and make it global and give the world an honest portrayal of where I come from."

The character whisperer: Zandi Tisani

"Zandi Tisani’s aesthetic emerges, it seems, from an egoless part of her subconscious".

Artist tells what we have done

A US museum has given Gunn-Salie the chance to realise an idea and take the message to the world

Spike Lee revives Nola Darling in a TV joint that hits and misses

The director has recast his signature film and its characters for a new generation

New education policy on gender violence released

Universities and other higher education institutions have to develop ways of preventing or dealing with rape and other damaging behaviour

Cambridge Food Jozini: Pandemic or not, the price-gouging continues

The Competition Commission has fined Cambridge Food Jozini for hiking the price of its maize meal during April

Sekhukhune’s five-year battle for water back in court

The residents of five villages are calling for the district municipal manager to be arrested

Vaccine trial results due in December

If successful, it will then have to be manufactured and distributed

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday