Sharlto Copley is in Johannesburg, South Africa shooting “Chappie,” his third film with the director, Neil Blomkamp, who made him a star with “District 9.” It’s a nice role: He plays a kind robot living with a dysfunctional family. But he has to do press on a film where he plays a non-nice role: He’s the villain in “Oldboy,” Spike Lee’s version of the 2003 South Korean revenge favorite. It’s his second baddie role this year — he also went bad in Blomkamp’s “Elysium” — and he’s glad to go back to being good.
How did Spike Lee describe the role to you when he was casting you?
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I was sort of hemming and hawing. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go and do something that was so dark. But when I met Spike, it was such an amazing experience. He was so warm and open-hearted to me — very much not what I was expecting. There I was, a white South African meeting Spike Lee. I was like, “Oh goodness, this could go terribly wrong.” [Laughs] The first thing he did was open his arms and go, “Hey, my African brother!” And we just connected quickly. I knew it was going to be dark material. I didn’t feel like going down that road with a bunch of heavy people. Once I felt this human connection with Spike, it made it safe to dabble in this darkness.
It’s your second villain this year. How do you feel about that?
Not great. [Laughs] “Elysium” was an interesting one, because I could again because it was different. This again was different. I’m not necessarily the easiest person to cast because you don’t what I’m necessarily going to do with a role. Over time you establish a reputation as a character actor. I definitely want to take a break from villains for awhile. I don’t want it to be perceived as me promoting darkness in the world. I’m personally not comfortable with that. But I want to be a working actor. Doing “Chappie” now, it’s really positive as a character. It’s fantastic to be able to come back into a really positive character and find naivete and innocence.
But in “Oldboy,” your character’s not a one-dimensional villain. And there’s not a one-dimensional good guy.
What was so interesting, even in the original material and certainly in our script, was that everybody is flawed. It’s not really a traditional good guy-bad guy film. You see how flawed Josh’s character is as well. I was interested in not just making [his character] one-dimensional — not just a spiteful man, but someone who was damaged, and who would go to extreme lengths because of the damage.
Your performances before this are very wild and very uncapped. This is very contained and arch.
It was quite a challenge in some ways. The voice was very easy to get. I developed the character from the voice. But with emotions, for example, having to repress a lot of energy, I spent a lot of time developing mannerisms. It would be as simple as the way I picked things up or drank tea. I had my girlfriend coaching me from the hotel every day to try and do things in ways that didn’t come naturally to me.
Was the characterization of the role something you worked on with Spike?
Spike said to me he wanted him to be English. I didn’t feel the villain in the original film was particularly developed. If you’re going to do the Western version of the film, you can try and so something different with the villain. So in talking to Spike, we tried to come up with a few things, like him being bisexual. I opted to play him as a bisexual man who had issues around love and sexuality.
Actors love working with Spike Lee and talk about how he’s very collaborative. What to you was so rewarding about the experience?
Spike has this way of making the environment safe for you, of making his humanity obvious when you deal with him one on one. In the media it becomes about issues or politics, but when you talk to the man one on one, there’s a humanity and an understanding of human nature and an interest in human beings. That makes him an interesting artist.