Sharlto Copley still blushes a bit when referred to as an “actor.” Which is almost understandable — District 9 is, after all, his first feature-length film in front of the camera.
But he seems to forget that he plays the lead role, an ad-libbed role that actually requires two distinct characters (and sets of DNA).
For part one of the sci-fi film he’s Wikus Van De Merwe, a frighteningly unqualified government official charged with relocating South Africa’s unruly population of extraterrestrials. But after a little mishap leaves Wikus with alien genes, Copley switches seamlessly into a full-on, ray gun-wielding action star — complete with a lobster-like E.T. arm.
“I like the guy in the beginning,” says Copley with a quick laugh of his duel roles. “It was interesting, because when we started the movie I definitely had a handle of what the nerdy guy was going to be like — this bureaucrat, this guy who’s sort of insecure trying to act like he’s always in control of things.”
Not that he wasn’t prepared for Wikus 2.0 — mild-mannered and thoughtful off the job, Copley is an intense, believable badass on screen.
“It was a real exploration as all his beliefs and all his values are challenged; his family, his support structure goes,” he says of developing his increasingly less-human character. “He’s just left with sort of more of his raw essence that was hiding under all of that stuff.”
But for all of its action sequences, District 9 can’t simply be written off as a summer blockbuster. After an opening scene vaguely reminiscent of Independence Day, these aliens are facing persecution and rights violations in a South African slum — a situation not lost on Cape Town resident Copley.
“The science fiction I enjoy has a depth to it,” he says of the genre’s possibilities.
“It works on both levels: It works very successfully as a popcorn movie that grabs you from the beginning and takes you on this ride, but it also creates this space for you to look at what it means to be a human being and how you treat not only other humans, but all life forms on the planet.”