Picture by Paul Blom
by Paul Blom
New Zealand born actor Karl Urban is no stranger to playing roles in Sci-Fi / Fantasy movies, having made a turn in everything from Sam Raimi’s Xena and Hercules TV shows, to The Lord Of The Rings, Doom, The Chronicles Of Riddick and the new Star Trek franchise (in addition to a broad range of other genres, of course).
Judge Dredd, a legendary (politically charged) character from the futuristic ‘80s British comic book 2000AD, had the title character amid an over-populated crime ridden futuristic Mega City 1, dealing with crime on the spot, as cop, detective, judge, jury and executioner all rolled into one. The comic got a live action version in the mid-‘90s, Judge Dredd, starring Rocky Rambo himself, Sylvester Stallone, which didn’t go down too well, especially with hardcore fans of the comic. For one, Judge Dredd never removes his helmet – something Stallone’s ego perhaps would not have been able to withstand (unless of course he felt he owed it to his fans, rather than fans of the character, or producers pay his fee and want his face for their buck). But, many were entertained by it, especially those who didn’t feel precious about the original medium and origin of Dredd. (I always felt Shwarzenegger or Eastwood would've been a better choice).
On hearing that a new rendition of the character was in the pipeline and being shot in Cape Town, South Africa (in 3D), I must admit, I had my reservations. And hearing Karl Urban was the lead, I was intrigued at the casting choice (especially since he doesn’t have a natural upside down smile as the hardened tough cop Dredd has pasted on his face permanently).
But, after seeing this exciting, high-octane blast of a movie, I was convinced that this big screen reinvention was well worth taking on. Gritty, violent, intense, but not without a sense of character progression and morality.
CLICK HERE or the Dredd 3D poster beloe for our movie review.
At The Taj hotel in Cape Town we met up with Karl on a visit for the launch of this new, kick-ass rendition of the character and the dark, vicious world he tries to contain.
On his first South African experience, the calm, serious Karl has nothing but praise.
"I had a fantastic time working here. I lived here for 4 months and made some great friends. We shot out at the new Cape Town Film Studios – we were the first big production to shoot there. It’s a great facility, world class. The South African crew are incredible, very hard working, one of the best crews I’ve worked with – that’s why it was important for me to come back here and give them the respect to do a proper cast & crew screening, and premiering the film here.
"I have no hesitation to come back here, I love it – as a matter of fact I’d like to do another film here.”
Perhaps an (inevitable) Dredd sequel will get him back here soon?
Looking at past roles of Fantasy / Sci-Fi, one can easily see an actor like this getting typecast. While he likes these genres, this is not something that concerns Karl.
“I like them just as much as any other genre. I think the press look at the resume they always try and categorize you – I’ve done many different types of films, contemporary films like Red, Out Of The Blue, The Bourne Supremacy, Sci-Fi like Riddick and Star Trek. Dredd - where does that lie? – I think it’s somewhere in between, it’s not really Sience-Fiction, but there’s something futuristic about it – it’s grounded in a dystopian reality.”
Growing up, I was quite into the 2000AD comics around the mid-'80s (with Rogue Trooper, Slaine, Strontium Dog, D.R. & Quinch, and of course, their ambassador for the comics, Judge Dredd). These were available here as imports at some South African news agents. Karl was also no stranger to the series in New Zealand.
“Yeah, it was freely available. You could get it at the local corner store. I started reading as a teenager, but only read it for a few years - until I got busy with life… The great thing about doing Dredd was going back in the research phase and rediscover those stories, and then discover a whole lot of new stories written subsequent to my having read Dredd - and finding there was a wonderful maturity that developed in the writing, a depth that came with the character of Dredd.
“It was very interesting to see the evolution of the character and how the comic book evolved from a satirical comment on Thatcherism to having a central character who can sometimes be a villain, sometimes a hero / anti-hero, but most importantly a character with an inner conflict raging within him about the justice system with which he is charged to uphold, and its validity in society.”
As a fan of the original RoboCop, when it was released in South Africa it came on a wave of near-banning, and a very high age restriction. Several decades later, I actually found this new Dredd to be more violent (with some wild eye-popping slow-motion 3D effects), but with a lesser age restriction… Is it a sign of the times, that people are getting used to those levels? While I don’t believe a movie can really push a population in that direction (unless it has religious connotations). Is there a post apocalyptic future for us, with a possible outcome where fire has to be fought with fire to maintain order, as in Dredd, and suppress criminality in an almost fascist way?
“Well, my response to that is, I think that at times we’re already living in those times – wasn’t it just the other week that 30 mine workers got shot in this country protesting for better rights? Take a look around.”
Recently Libyan and other Middle Eastern attacks on American embassies raged in an apparent response to a video clip that purported to insult Islam and the prophet Mohammed, resulting in murders. This clip had such an effect to push people into violence (without having seen it) – as was the (less fatal) case with movies like Scorsese’s Last Temptation Of Christ (where people tore down screens in cinemas).
Note: shotly after this it came to light that this apparent clip had nothing to do with it.
“It concerns me – we must as a society, no matter what creed, religion, race, we must never respond to an individual’s crude blasphemy with violence. There can be no justification in the loss of human life, for somebody who insults another individual with words. Once we start responding like that, humanity is in serious trouble.
“I personally believe in the freedom of speech, I don’t condone or approve of putting down other people based on their race or religion. I accept everybody, race, creed, religion - Everybody has the right to believe what they want to believe. Personally it saddens me that we live in a society that is plagued with intolerance and violence.”
As organizers of film festivals like the HorrorFest and X Fest, the target is always there that these movies are more than just entertainment, and breaks down society and leads to immoral re-enactments of these dark themes. I believe it is more a case of art imitating life. I am yet to see one of our festival-goers heading out on a chainsaw massacre… These opposers should rather take a look at religious institutions and the extremism and havoc resulting from those sectors (since the beginning of time).
On the approach to acting, every actor has his or her own way of taking on the work.
“I never know what I’m going to do until I pick up a script and respond to the material, if I enjoy the characters, the story. And the people I’m working with, that’s how I make the decisions. I don’t have any preference of one genre over another.”
On the technical side, one would expect modern Sci-Fi / Futuristic movies to be heavily draped in green screen. Was Dredd the same?
“That’s not entirely correct – on Dredd we built the sets – the only time green screen was really used was when you’re looking out of a window. We also used locations around Cape Town.
“The same for Star Trek, in the new movie they built more of the Enterprise than they’ve ever built in the past.”
I remember an interview where someone told Martin Scorsese (yes, we do like his movies) that all sets built on Gangs Of New York would never happen again in this digital age – obviously set designers and builders are not quite out of a job yet!
Many expect Lord Of The Rings to be a pinnacle in Urban’s career. Each movie comes with new experiences, something new to learn, pushing an actor in a different direction. When asking Karl which highlights pop up in shaping his craft, the most recent production of Dredd is foremost on his mind.
“Dredd was certainly a highlight, for me the opportunity to truly collaborate with such talented people... With (28 Days Later & upcoming Halo screenwriter) Alex Garland, (trained stage actress and co-star of Juno and The Darkest Hour) Olivia Thirlby. Every morning Olivia and I would have a meeting before we walked onto set, discuss the day’s work, because we both acknowledged the importance of that relationship between those two characters – 90% of the scenes in the movie we’re together, and the central relationship between those characters is really the heart of the movie.
“When I read the script that was what pulled me in. The story is essentially about a senior cop and a rookie, and how they have to learn to work together in order to survive. I like the evolution of those characters – they don’t particularly like each other in the beginning, but that changes through the course of the film. And to me that’s why this film is so good – because it connects on that human level and emotion.”
Obviously die-hard Dredd fans had an issue with Stallone removing the helmet. Does Urban do it? You’ll have to sit through the whole movie to find out. No spoiler here. For an actor to have their eyes obscured and convey emotion is no easy task.
“Well, the real challenge was playing an individual operating in a very narrow bandwidth – he’s a highly trained individual, he keeps his emotions in check. So playing a character where you can’t see his eyes, and hiding his emotion proved to be a double challenge.
“Therefore it was very important for me to humanize the character wherever possible – find out where his sense of humour is – he has a wonderful dry sense of humour, and that’s throughout the movie, as it was in the comics. There’s a weariness about this character – he deals with this shit day in and day out. You find out where his compassion is, where he chooses life over death, and also find out where his faults are. He is just human and we all have faults.
“To me that comes back to his relationship with his rookie... He doesn’t like her much at the beginning and doesn’t believe she’s worthy of becoming a judge. That changes throughout the movie and he can realize he’s wrong, which is a very human thing.”
Besides the acting challenge, the physicality was also there.
“One of the biggest challenges was keeping cool. We shot in the middle of the Cape Town summer, wearing leathers, body armour and a helmet…!”
With so many Lord Of The Rings fans, in stead of an anecdote (of which I’m sure there are many), one of the most valuable things Karl took from it was the people with whom he worked.
“For me it was an incredible environment to be in as a young actor, getting to work with, and watching the likes of Ian McKellan, Viggo Mortensen… and see how they approach the work – I think that was one of the most valuable aspects of working on those movies.”
And all in his own (New Zealand) backyard!
With new Dredd fans screaming for the prospective trilogy to become a reality, for us here in South Africa, on a larger scale this will be great to further the film industry and bring more big international productions here.
CLICK HERE or the Dredd 3D review.
Actor Karl Urban with Paul Blom (Flamedrop & Shadow Realm, inc.)
Picture by Sharon Naaido