Accidental movie star Sharlto Copley on his gonzo career and keeping things surreal in 'Free Fire'

In the Martin Scorsese-produced shoot ’em up “Free Fire,” South African actor Sharlto Copley plays Vern, a narcissistic gunrunner in a polyester suit who’s prone to a certain behavioral grandiloquence. He describes himself as a “rare and mysterious pearl” but can’t shoot a gun to save his life; he’s revealed to be a “misdiagnosed child genius” but never recovered from discovering his brilliance lacks any basis in truth.

It’s a baroque characterization — all antic energy and adenoidal line readings — that allows Copley to steal just about every scene he’s in. Which is no small feat considering “Free Fire’s” ensemble cast is rounded out by Oscar-winner Brie Larson and Armie Hammer (as a studly stoner) and offers determinedly demented performances by British actors Sam Riley and Babou Ceesay — all amid a cartoonish crime tableau where the sense of suspense comes from just how many bullets the characters can pump into one another before finally bleeding out.

Copley explains his objective in “Free Fire,” opening Friday, wasn’t to keep it real so much as surreal.

“With the Vern character, I thought, ‘Can I pitch the voice that way? Is the voice going to annoy the … out of people?’” the actor says, seated on the patio of a Beverly Hills hotel restaurant. “Is the audience going to go, ‘That was funny for the first minute. Now please shoot him and shut him up!’”

Copley, though, isn’t the sort of actor who plays things safe. “It’s not for everyone,” he says. “When you take a strong position as an actor, it’s risky. It is what you might call scene-stealing or chewing the scenery. But that’s my instinct: to do the thing I’d like to watch on-screen.”

Eight years into what can fairly be called an accidental movie star career, the 43-year-old has built a bizarre yet fascinating filmography by gnawing off sizable chunks of Hollywood scenery and chewing them to smithereens. With his natural talent for accents, implacable joie de vivre, gonzo skill at improvising dialogue and bottomless capacity to change his appearance from role to role, Copley is becoming increasingly well-known for his self-styled, sui generis screen presence. One that can bring to mind Crispin Glover or John Malkovich or Jeff Goldblum in the performances’ proud eccentricity.

Which makes it all the more surprising to discover, then, that Copley had barely contemplated acting when he was cast in his debut movie, 2009’s documentary style sci-fi thriller “District 9.” At the time, the Pretoria native had his sights set on becoming a media maverick, operating a film and TV production company while trying to set up ETV, what Copley describes as South Africa’s “first national, free-to-air terrestrial TV channel.”

He fluked into the role when writer-director Neill Blomkamp — a Johannesburg school friend and filmmaking collaborator — asked Copley to appear as a bumbling Afrikaner bureaucrat in a 10-minute test film he intended to show “Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson. In the short, Blomkamp was pursuing the kind of lo-fi, “found footage” aesthetic that eventually found its way into “District 9,” which Jackson ended up producing.

“Sharl was always this guy who was extremely overt and larger than life and very funny. He also could create characters very easily even though acting was never on his radar,” Blomkamp says. “Being a personality was on his radar. When he was starting his TV station, one of the shows was like ‘Punk’d.’ He was the guy who would manipulate people and mess with them. But that was in the greater goal of becoming a writer-producer-director.”

Despite that lack of acting bona fides, the test footage persuaded Blomkamp and Jackson that Copley could carry the $30-million Sony film. And “D9,” of course, went on to become a surprise smash, grossing $210 million worldwide and earning four Academy Award nominations including best picture. “You could imagine the conversations Neill must have had when he said, ‘I want to cast my buddy from South Africa,’” Copley says, growing wide-eyed at the memory. “‘What has he done?’ ‘Well, he’s not really an actor. And he’s going to make up the dialogue.’ It’s impossible! I didn’t even know I could do it!”

Since then, the actor has gone on to rack up memorable performances in a dozen-odd films. Appearing alongside Bradley Cooper and Liam Neeson as the mentally unstable Capt. James “Howling Mad” Murdock in Fox’s 2010 “A-Team” movie adaptation, Copley adopts a drawling Southern accent and attempts to use a defibrillator to jump-start a car engine. “That’s one of my favorite all-time characters, an absolute essential part of being able to work in Hollywood,” he says. “After ‘District 9,’ my agents were very quick to set up that meeting saying, ‘Look, he isn’t the bureaucrat guy.’ But people thought, ‘He’s not an actor. This is him.’ I got that a lot.”

Playing a psychotic baddie in Spike Lee’s 2013 “Oldboy,” the actor grew out his nails, donned prosthetic scars and assumed an upper-crust English accent (as well as what Copley calls a “bisexual edge”). He plants “love’s true kiss” on Angelina Jolie as the unrequiting subject of her storybook sorceress character’s affections in “Maleficent.” And as a samurai sword-wielding mercenary pursuing Matt Damon’s character in the 2014 sci-fi thriller “Elysium” (also directed by Blomkamp), Copley displays a convincing homicidal streak and outre physicality that had remained, until then, an unproven commodity.

The actor also provides a motion-capture performance and weirdly childish voice-over as a Pinocchio-like A.I. battle bot in Blomkamp’s action-dramedy “Chappie.” And by this point, Copley serves as something like a spirit animal for the writer-director.

“Off camera, as a friend, he really has a heart of gold,” says Blomkamp. “On-screen, working with him, there’s a level of intensity he has that 99.9% of actors don’t have: a specificity and intensity about what he’s doing with the role, and wanting to know every single possible thing he can know about it. It’s probably what makes him so magnetic to watch.”

But none of those roles offered such a pu pu platter of dramatic personae as last year’s first-person-shooter action flick “Hardcore Henry.” Portraying a character named Jimmy, Copley appears in 11 incarnations — as a homeless alcoholic, hippie biker, ghillie suit-wearing sniper and quadriplegic scientist among them — getting his head blown off, going up in flames and dying repeatedly, only to come back and chew the scenery again.

The actor called it his most challenging professional experience to date (and not just because at one point he thought he had accidentally run over and killed a stunt man during production). “A good character actor is going to do those characters really different,” says Copley. “The real challenge is, how do you play 11 versions of the same guy? If you go too different, it starts to feel like, ‘No, that’s weird.’ You’ve got to feel like it’s him still in there.”

To hear it from Ben Wheatley, director and co-writer of “Free Fire,” Copley’s background behind the camera gives him certain advantages inhabiting different characters. “On set, he’s offering up loads and loads of stuff all the time — almost to the chagrin of the other performers,” Wheatley says. “He’s come up through postproduction, through sales and all sorts of stuff. He can look at how everything’s made with a much more understanding eye.”

Of Copley’s overall body of work, the director adds: “A lot of why those performances are so rounded is because they come from that position of understanding — what the world of the work is like.”

Toward the end of the year, however, Copley plans to cross the filmmaker-performer divide once more, having written, with the intention of directing and starring in, a film project he describes as “satirical science fiction with a lot of comedy.”

Currently casting the movie, the South African admits some difficulty in finding actors who can conjure the heartfelt yet buck-wild je ne sais quoi that imbues his own performances.

“I’m thinking, ‘Who do I put with me?’ What I’ll often find is they’re great in serious but not that funny. Or they’re so funny but am I going to feel them? It’s that line of: How much heart and how much humor?” Copley says. “Like Woody Allen has his thing. Will Ferrell has his thing. The tone, if I get it right, becomes my thing.”

And what, precisely, is that tone? “It’s the instinct I have as an actor. It’s for the purpose of entertaining, not the purpose of, ‘That’s so real!’ Those performances never interested me.”

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