Sharlto Copley moves in front of the camera for 'District 9'

He'd never acted in a feature before, much less played the lead in a big-budget science-fiction extravaganza produced by Peter Jackson. But for Sharlto Copley (SHARL-toe COP-lee), "District 9" was something of a relief.

"I've been in the business side for a long time. I've owned companies. I've been a producer, director, writer; I've done quite a lot of stuff," he says. "A lot of it was planning, strategizing, very stressful. Trying to control things that are ultimately out of your control. Acting didn't have anything to do with that. For me, it's about shutting my mind off, really, especially since all my dialogue was improvised."

The 35-year-old Copley has made highly successful short films in his native South Africa, almost entirely behind the camera. When longtime friend Neill Blomkamp's deal to direct the film version of "Halo" for Jackson fell through, Blomkamp and Jackson looked for another project to do together. "Alive in Joburg," a short Copley had produced with Blomkamp directing, came to mind: The totally revamped feature version became the space-aliens-as-unwanted-immigrants sci-fi adventure "District 9." Copley hoped he'd have some behind-the-scenes role in the full production.

"Neill was working on ideas for the script. He said, 'I want to shoot something to show Peter and maybe the investors what I'm thinking. Can you put another shoot together?' So, of course, I jumped at that," Copley says by phone from Houston as he tours the country to promote the film.

Blomkamp had created a character, a "bureaucrat for a large corporation in apartheid South Africa, who would occasionally go into District 9 and serve notices on the creatures. I jumped in front of the camera and we shot for about three or four hours.

"Neill didn't tell me this was the main character of the film -- and certainly not that he realized as he was cutting together the footage, 'Maybe Sharl should be the guy.' It was all unbeknownst to me until a couple of months later, when Peter had already signed off on me," he says, still amazed at how his life has changed so quickly, including his inner life.

"I trust the process of life more; I was a massive sort of control freak. I always wanted to be in movies. As far back as I can remember, I was passionate about film. It's connected me with that passion again."

Being suddenly thrust into the role doesn't mean Copley didn't put serious thought into his characterization, especially considering how unlikable the bureaucrat, Wikus Van De Merwe, is when the story begins.

"I did play him from the position that he's doing what he thinks is right, or he's totally ignorant or naive in other instances," he says. "He's got a family structure, what religion has told him, what society has told him, and he doesn't question that."

Among the many things distinguishing "District 9" from other genre fare is its authentically off-the-cuff style.

"I don't say a single line from the actual script. It was used as a structure. Neill would say, 'OK, get the alien to sign the form, get him out of the house and discover the computers.' Then it was up to me and Jason Cope, who plays the alien. People think with green-screen and effects involved, it must be a very restrictive way of working -- but that wasn't the case at all because Neill set this process up.

"And in the action sequences, there would often just be nothing. Neill's so comfortable with effects that he doesn't need a whole big storyboard to know it's going to work. I could often just look where I wanted to or behave as I liked. Like when the little kid [alien] grabs my face: 'The kid's going to attack you; he might sort of bite at your neck.' So I did something with my jaw, and the animators came up with the idea, 'Because he's moving his mouth, let's have the kid grab his mouth.' "

Setting the film during apartheid makes certain social comparisons unavoidable, and "Neill has said many times that all those things are there and they make the film pretty metaphoric, without a question. But that's a secondary layer of the movie. It doesn't have a set political message. There's no nice, wrapped-up ending where everybody says, 'We're going to love each other' and suddenly humans and aliens become best friends. It's a complicated situation, and we try to make it true."




Where you've seen him

You probably haven't seen Sharlto Copley before unless you're a fan of South African short films. Even then, having watched his action-nerd in "District 9," you might not recognize him in "Alive in Joburg," the short that inspired the feature (and in which he's the studly sniper). He's particularly proud of "2001: A Space Oddity," which depicts an emergency landing by the space shuttle in Johannesburg. It's available to view free online, and he offers this cultural nugget to better understand it: "If you've ever been to South Africa, it's everywhere, one of the first things you'll notice -- these guys escorting you into the parking lot and claiming to watch your car and wanting a tip."

-- Michael Ordona

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