Sharlto Copley first met Neill Blomkamp almost 20 years ago and knew, even back then, that the 16-year-old with a passion for film was destined for great things.
Their friendship blossomed into a creative collaboration on three features films, including the eagerly awaited latest from Blomkamp, Chappie, the story of a sentient robot who has to survive in a dangerous criminal underworld.
“It might sound strange, but for me, yes, I could sort of predict it. I felt very strongly that he was going to be one of the top guys in the world, I really did,” Copley says of first meeting Blomkamp in the mid-1990s. “His work at that age was already of such a high level – and I’m talking about his visual work.
“What a lot of people don’t realise with Neill is that, when you look at the visual elements – whether it’s robots or organic creatures – he, as an artist, will create that himself. He does it all.
“He works with designers because, as a director, you’re busy doing lots of stuff, but he has the actual ability to design those science fiction elements and build them in 3D and to capture them and light them.
“That’s his background. I mean, I remember him designing posters for fictitious movies at 16. I was like, ‘I want to see this movie!’ I knew back then that he would have a great career. I knew that he was a special talent. It was just there right from the start.”
Blomkamp, he says, was bursting with ideas, brimming with enthusiasm and blessed with abundant talent. Indeed, Copley reveals that the seed of an idea that would eventually become Chappie the movie goes back almost as far as their friendship.
“I think it was around the time that we were shooting Elysium that Neill was talking about doing Chappie,” Copley recalls. “He said he wanted to bring to life the robot that he had actually done years ago.
“His very first version of this robot wasn’t actually [the short film] Tetra Vaal, which a lot of people saw online. He actually made a spec commercial for a shoe company while he was still at film school. So it goes back to almost his teenage years, the seed of this robot.”
Bringing life to Chappie
And when the movie was finally ready to go into production, Blomkamp wanted Copley to be the actor who would bring Chappie to life on the screen. He was delighted, of course, to do it.
“I was extremely excited … It was an extremely exciting concept to me, right from the beginning. I grasped what he was trying to do, instantly.”
Chappie is an action-packed thriller set in the near future with an all-star cast that includes Hugh Jackman, Dev Patel and Sigourney Weaver, and features South African rap-rave artists Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er, known as Die Antwoord.
Patel plays Deon, a brilliant engineer with a weapons company that makes droids for the South African police. The droids, known as scouts, have been a huge success, replacing human police on dangerous operations, relentless in their pursuits of suspected criminals.
Deon has been working on a programme to create the world’s first sentient robot and presents his revolutionary idea to his boss, Michelle Bradley (Weaver), who turns him down flat, warning that it’s a step too far.
Constructing the character
Secretly Deon plans to download his prototype into the damaged body of a scout but it all goes disastrously wrong when he is kidnapped by a criminal gang – Ninja and Vi$$er playing versions of their rave-rap personas. So the sentient robot, which they call Chappie, is adopted by a strange, dysfunctional “family” who will use him to pull off a heist.
Constructing the character proved a different kind of challenge.
“I shot a couple of improvised scenes with a friend of mine … just to try to work out how he would speak and what his mannerisms would be. I sent those to Neill and he liked them, and then we actually shot a short film that used myself, Die Antwoord and some other South African cast.
“He animated the robot. Neill made a full short to kind of see how it would look and how it would work, so, by the time we arrived on set, we knew exactly what we were doing, really.”
Copley meets Chappie
For Copley, playing Chappie meant wearing a skintight performance suit, with marker dots that would provide reference points for the CG animators who would layer on the robot’s on-screen appearance in postproduction. Chappie’s movement and voice is all Copley and, as his director points out, it’s a brilliant performance. It was, says the actor, very enjoyable.
“It was actually one of the easiest films I have ever made. I had played villains before that, and so I was really done with villains. I had had three villains in a row.
“The hardest part was just really getting the hang of how Chappie’s movements were going to translate, and how much to move. It was a very movement-based performance.
“Focusing on what kind of movements would create certain kinds of emotion, and what can you do with your head, things like that – that was a little bit harder. But to be honest, it was a really pleasant, fun, experience.”
On top of his performance suit, each day on set Copley would add a few flourishes to make Chappie more in character – for example, wearing “bling” and low-hung shorts when he is going through his teenage gangsta phase.
“Dev and the rest of the cast would see me wearing a grey sort of lycra, skintight suit, with various tracking markers – very similar to what Jason Cope wore when he played all the aliens in District 9.
“I then had a chest piece that was similarly moulded to Chappie’s chest, for the actual physical dimensions, so that when Chappie sits down in a chair, I would be the right proportion away from the back of the chair, for example.
“Then I had some rings, some bling that I would wear, and I had a little pair of shorts that I wore with a belt so that I could ride my shorts low down my backside for when he has to be sort of like a gangsta, with a gangsta walk.”
Chappie vs District 9
For Copley, Chappie is similar in many ways to District 9, Blomkamp’s Oscar-nominated feature debut, in that it combines brilliant effects, breathtaking action sequences and a gripping, thought-provoking story.
“It’s a great action film, and it has some spectacular action set-pieces, but there are greater questions. Chappie’s got these different people influencing him … vying for his attention.
“I think the tone for me is quite similar to District 9 in some ways. For me personally, as a fan of Eighties movies, it’s quite nostalgic.
“I don’t know if I can describe the film as having a nostalgic tone but, as a film lover, there are things that remind me of those Eighties movies and the excitement I used to have going to the movies in those days.
“Really, it’s a very original story but it has little nods to those films and to robot movies you have seen before, but just put together in a very unique way …
“There’s also this kind of contrast where mankind is getting to the point of making artificial intelligence, but you still have gangs. It’s a very interesting reflection of society. I think that’s very likely – if we ever do start inventing machines that can think for themselves, I imagine there probably still would be gang cultures around the world.”
Working with the Die Antwoord
And what was it like working with Die Antwoord? “I knew of them before. They had been big fans of District 9, and I was a fan of theirs, and we had met up. It was great to get a chance to do something with fellow South Africans …
“This was their first foray into feature film acting and I think they did a great job. They’re very strong characters, very unique, and they bring a unique flavour to the movie.
“They are really brave artists, too, which I like and respect. I try to do that with characters I do – take a brave position.” Patel plays Chappie’s creator and another parental figure. The two actors clicked from the start.
“Oh, man, I just love Dev. We formed a very good friendship during the course of the film. We’re still friends and we still speak regularly, and see each other when we can. He has so much heart, as you can see with Slumdog Millionaire.
“I was a huge fan of that film and I think he carried that movie entirely. He brings real heart and humanity to his performances, and it’s just so great to play scenes with him.
“I think we have a similar energy in a certain way, and I think he was the absolutely perfect choice to play Chappie’s creator.”
The dynamic with Jackman’s character Vincent is interesting. He wants to destroy Chappie for his own reasons. Copley shares a scene with him near the end and he’s playing a very different character to ones we have seen him play in the past.
What was it like seeing him create Vincent? “You know what I learned about him? – which I had no idea of, having never worked with him – he can improvise phenomenally well.
“I was watching him do some of his scenes, and some of my favourite stuff that he does in the movie is just stuff that he’s throwing in there off the cuff. It’s one of my favourite performances that I have seen him do. It’s so much fun, with the tongue-in-cheek-ness back to his Australian roots.
“That’s the thing about Hugh, he’s this good-looking movie star, but he’s not afraid to just go wherever he needs to go with the character. He’s the real deal, man.”
And what of Weaver?
“It was a real honour. Actually, the first time I walked on to the set where I was going to do the final scene of the film, the first thing I heard was Sigourney Weaver’s voice over an intercom, and I couldn’t believe it. I have grown up with her movies.
“It was a real honour. She’s just a total dame. She’s an absolute lady in every sense.”
South Africa is always home
Copley grew up in Johannesburg and produced, and acted in, one of Blomkamp’s short films, Alive in Joburg (2006). He wrote and directed his own short film, Wikus and Charlize (2010). As an actor, his films include District 9, Elysium (both directed by Blomkamp), The A-Team, Europa Report, Open Grave, Oldboy, Maleficent and The Snow Queen 2. He recently finished filming the TV series, Powers, which began airing on the PlayStation network this week.
He lives an itinerant life and returning to film in the city meant a lot to him. “Emotionally, South Africa is always home, and Cape Town is home for me now, but I’m never there. Home is more Los Angeles, I suppose, and I’m never there either. It’s a gypsy life, and you go where the work is.
“It’s a fortunate life, and you get to learn about different countries, different cultures, but you do get homesick sometimes, and you do long for some sense of normalcy.” – SPRI