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Q&A: Actor Sharlto Copley talks “HARDCORE HENRY”

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Despite delivering a breakout performance in 2009’s DISTRICT 9 and further carving out a serious foothold in mainstream global cinema via subsequent high profile roles in films such as the 2010 A-TEAM remake, ELYSIUM (2013),  Angelina Jolie-starring MALEFICENT (2014), and CHAPPIE (2015), South African actor/director Sharlto Copley cannot, it seems, resist returning to the roots of his gritty formative indie days when a particularly idiosyncratic project comes along like, say, the uber-original 2013 post-apocalyptic mystery flick OPEN GRAVE or this year’s wild, uber-controversial HARDCORE HENRY, now out on DVD and Blu-ray. FANGORIA recently spoke with the extremely affable Copley about maintaining balance amidst much success, the HARDCORE HENRY hullabaloo, the challenges of telling a story entirely from first person POV, and why he loves working in genre cinema and will never stop.

FANGORIA: What’d you make of the critical reaction to HARDCORE HENRY? It seems like there’s a lot of love for it, and then also a lot of people questioning its approach to the violence…

COPLEY: Actually, one of the reasons I wanted to do the film was because I knew that it would be divisive. It was a very low-budget movie that posed a bit of a career risk for me, yes. But, honestly, there are so few opportunities to make work that is truly different in this business. Certainly as an artist, I’d much prefer to do films that elicit a love-it-or-hate-it response than forgettable, down-the-middle stuff where people walk out of the theater saying, “Yeah, it’s all right, it’s fine,” and then move on to the next thing. I’d rather do something that inspires somebody to get a tattoo in tribute to it.

FANG: Wait, you’ve seen HARDCORE HENRY tattoos?

COPLEY: Oh yeah. I think there are more people who have tattooed elements of HARDCORE HENRY on their bodies than any other film I’ve been involved in. It’s pretty cool—and also a little bizarre. [Writer/director] Ilya [Naishuller] keeps sending me pictures people send him of HARDCORE HENRY tattoos. I knew all along this film was made for a very specific audience. The people who love it truly love it. They flip out for it. The people who don’t like it…well, they’re similarly passionate.

FANG: How would you describe that “specific audience”?

COPLEY: I visited a cousin of mine the other day in South Africa who I don’t see very often. He’s in his late twenties. He’s seen everything I’ve done and he said to me, unprompted, “Dude, that is the best film I’ve ever seen in my entire life.” I was like, “Really?” He just went off about it. I’m like, “Really.” He said: “This one felt like you made it for me.” Well, we did, in a way.

You know, I’m of a different generation to Ilya, so even as we were making this thing, and even though I could see the potential, a lot of our conversations were focused on me trying to get him to slow down the action, to put in more story, to put in more character development. But then he would show his friends who were also in their twenties parts of the movie and they’d all say, “Nah, I think the pace is good.” I’m like, “Okay, maybe I’m just too old.” [Laughs.] It was really something that is on the very cutting edge of what people will tolerate in terms of the pacing, the intensity—and that’s exactly what some fans are looking for. While we were making the film I thought there was a good chance it wouldn’t get a theatrical release, but I always knew it would have an audience.

FANG: Speaking to the “cutting edge” aspect—this is obviously pretty unique in the way it is shot; in the general vibe and attack. Can you tell me a little bit about how this was different from the other movies you’ve made?

COPLEY: HARDCORE HENRY was a radically different filmmaking experience for me. It broke so many rules and really was the most challenging film I’ve ever made personally—and I know a lot of the stunt guys would say the same thing.

FANG: How so?

COPLEY: From an acting point of view, the most obvious challenge was playing directly into a camera—normally you’re trying to avoid looking into the camera. I’m used to either having an actor there or a spot on the wall—a tennis ball; something for a visual effect sequence—or nothing. In this case you have a camera that is attached to a person, who is sometimes an actor, sometimes a stuntman, sometimes the director, sometimes the director of photography. I think there were fourteen different people who played Henry at different times.

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FANG: Can you give me an example of how that worked on set?

COPLEY: Okay. Let’s say Ilya’s playing Henry at the moment—he’d be acting with me, so it’s almost like, “Okay, now I’m acting against another person, I’m getting something back from him.” Then all of a sudden he switches—now he’s just directing, using his head as a tripod, kind of framing me, watching my performance, handing me something. It’s a very strange experience from an acting point of view, acting against something that would shift constantly. You’ve got to try and ignore it. You can’t look at the human eyes directly above the camera. You’ve got to look only at the camera directly below the human eyes. But your eyes are naturally drawn above.

FANG: Tricky business!

COPLEY: It sure is! The film really does reinvent certain aspects of stunt work. For example, a stunt coordinator is used to planning a stunt knowing where he could put cameras to make the stunt look cool. In this case you tell the stunt coordinator, “You’ve got one angle. It’s got to look cool from this one angle.” He had to re-evaluate the way he coordinated—the entire function of his job, really. If you’re going to ask a stuntman to set himself on fire or fly out of a bus window, the typical process is, he takes a moment, he gets in a very Zen space before, and all thinking about is the details of that stunt.

Now while the guy’s in that Zen space, you’re like, “Oh, and please wear this GoPro, and when you jump out the window remember to film the other guy who’s on fire for as long as you can. Oh, and don’t break the GoPro. And don’t tuck your chin in while you’re falling or all we see is your chest. We want to see some action as you fall out.” Here’s a guy whose gotta choreograph the stunt so he doesn’t break his neck and be a filmmaker. It’s an unbelievable feat. I tip my hat to the stunt team on this. I just have so much respect for what these guys had to do stunt-wise with these cameras attached to them. It’s amazing. Watching the film actually doesn’t do justice to what they went through, but the behind-the-scenes—which you can see on the Blu-Ray—really does give you a sense of how difficult that was.

FANG: Did you recognize before you actually got on set how difficult it would be? Or did the complexity take you by surprise?

COPLEY: No. I knew it was going to be extremely grueling. I had done enough stuff at that point in my career to be able to see what I was in for. Ilya, on the other hand, absolutely had no idea what he was in for. We joke about that now—the fact that it was his first film and he was convinced he would get it done in 40 days.

FANG: Didn’t happen I assume?

COPLEY: We ended up shooting 120 days I think. I joke, but Ilya did understand he would be learning as we went—that there would be some trial and error, and some days we might get nothing. It was accepted. We had all those conversations up front, and so it was a pleasure working with someone who had the right attitude to push the boundaries in the way that Ilya did. Which was important, because it was an incredibly grueling and terribly demanding shoot for everybody. And so Ilya’s youthful, enthusiastic, passionate leadership is really what inspired this talented young Russian crew we had to go through all that it took to make the film. I just have so much respect for Ilya. It was a fantastic experience in that way.

FANG: I wanted to ask about South Africa. You’ve done huge mainstream movies and also cutting edge films like HARDCORE HENRY for, as you said, much more specific audiences. Do you think that any of your willingness to work in these different worlds can be connected to South Africa, where you grew up, and decided to be an actor, and honed your craft?

COPLEY: I think it does. When Timur Bekmambetov—the Russian producer-director, who’s a friend of mine—said he’s producing this film and showed me the “Bad Motherfucker” short, which led to HARDCORE HENRY…well, the way it was done, the level of violence, the way it was handled, the way it was made, I was like, “Wow, you can tell these guys from Russia grew up consuming Western media—movies, video games, music—but they just have a slightly different, twisted take on it because they’re immersed in this culture but not of it.” And that definitely reminded me of how Neill [Blomkamp] and I felt growing up in South Africa, loving Western movies, but seeing it through a different lens. Which is what I think DISTRICT 9 was—Neill using the techniques of Western media to tell a story that channeled his experiences in South Africa.

Obviously DISTRICT 9 is a very different film from HARDCORE HENRY, but the feeling of being outside the system was the same. On a broader level, I went to do this film with Ilya because I knew it was going to kind of be like going back to my roots of just making stuff on a shoestring South Africa, where just everybody gets committed, and you just ignore the risks you’re taking because you believe and because you so want to make the work a reality.

FANG: HARDCORE HENRY probably didn’t disappoint in that respect.

COPLEY: [Laughs] Not at all. We were doing some of the most dangerous stunts you can imagine, but we didn’t have safety regulations or areas taped off. When we had a dangerous day, the stunt guys would fly the Jolly Roger—the pirate flag—just to make everyone aware that today everyone needs to have each other’s back, because people can die. It’s a very different way of working from the Hollywood way.

About the author
Shawn Macomber http://www.stopshawnmacomber.com

The ravings of noted South Florida pug wrangler Shawn Macomber have
appeared in Decibel, Magnet, Reason, Maxim, Radar, Shroud, and the
Wall Street Journal, amongst other fine and middling publications. He
also hosts the podcast Into the Depths and pens the metal-lit column
Tales From the Metalnomicon for Decibel magazine.

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