South African actor Sharlto Copley has carved out quite a niche of unique characters. From his big screen debut in Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 to his current film, Free Fire, every character he portrays is memorable. I particularly liked him as Murdock in The A-team and the multiple Jimmy clones in Hardcore Henry. Copley is also known for playing Christian Walker on the short-lived Playstation series, Powers. Copley has a knack and skill for playing oddballs.
Sharlto Copley stars as South African arms dealer Vernon in Free Fire. Written and directed by Ben Wheatley, Free Fire is an action-comedy that satirizes gun violence. Set in the late seventies at an abandoned warehouse, two groups converging for an arms sale end up in a crazy shootout. The characters are riddled with bullets as they run, crawl, and hide from the carnage. Copley and co-star Armie Hammer deliver stand out performances.
I recently spoke with Sharlto Copley for the DVD release of Free Fire. He plays the characters that he would like to see on screen. He’s in it for the entertainment value as well. Copley has been allowed a fair amount of improvisation to most of his characters. Directors can see his versatility, so he’s been given a lot of leeway to develop his parts. Free Fire‘s Vernon was not originally written as a South African. But Copley’s charm and inflection convinced the filmmakers to let him run with it.
Copley spends a lot of Free Fire screen time shot up, bloody, and covered in filth. Interestingly enough, none of those issues bothered him. It was the constant firing of weapons that aroused his ire. Copley discusses the nonstop noise on set. The actors were forced to perform with earplugs to muffle the barrage of bullets. Free Fire is also unique in that it was largely shot in sequence. Please see below our complete interview with Sharlto Copley.
Let’s start with your choices so far. Every role from District 9, to Hardcore Henry, to here in Free Fire has been unique and memorable. What attracts you to these oddball characters?
Sharlto Copley: There’s a number of things. For me, I enjoy playing characters that I think are entertaining to watch. That’s important to me. I don’t think that’s important to every actor. Obviously you have to have a resonance, some kind of way in with the character, where you could bring some truth. I also love doing the hard to find, multi-layered characters. Flawed characters with heart, those are hard to find, like Vickers in District 9 and Ron in The Hollars.
I love Jimmy in Hardcore Henry. That was such a crazy character. Was that performance on the page or you doing improv like in District 9?
Copley: It depends on the film. I love improvising, as I did in the start of my career in District 9. That was a real rare treat, a hundred percent improvisation, which I’d never had before or since. But if anyone will give it to me I’ll take it. (laughs) I’ll probably have to do a District 10 to get that again. In Hardcore Henry, we couldn’t do loose improv because the scenes were so technical. We would try out some scenes in the morning, try out different lines. Then see if we could see use as a reference for the effects and stunt guys. They had to know exactly what I was going to say, or a cue that something was going to happen. This was essential because we were doing such long takes. So that was a film with some spontaneity. A lot of those lines were created that morning of filming, in the moment, in the actual car, or during the first run of the scene. Now something like Free Fire is a lot more improvisation. It’s hard to quantify an amount, but it was a lot. Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump allowed it. My character was the mouth of the group, so he could just go off; which was a lot of fun.
You spend all of Free Fire getting shot, rolling, and crawling in dirt. What was that process like? Getting filthy and grimy on a daily basis?
Copley: Oh it was quite a thing. The warehouse was pretty dirty. Once the characters get shot, you spend the rest of the movie on the ground, in the dirt. I was joking with the other actors. This was a step up for me. I’d done two movies in the trash heap. (laughs) So it wasn’t that bad. It’s more designed dirt. They put dirt down, but it’s not dirt off the street. Hopefully it didn’t have anything too bad in it, no lethal germs. For me, it was a great experience. We got to shoot in sequence, which is very rare. We all also went to the set, the same time, every morning. We all also left at the same time at the end of the day. It was like doing a play. You never knew who was going to be on camera. We didn’t have stand-ins. Your legs could be in a shot with a Brie [Larson]. We would play table tennis, darts, anything around the set, and they would call you. It was a very unusual set, a very unusual way to make a film.
There’s so much gunplay and staging. How can you improvise in such technical scenes?
Copley: Ben was extremely well prepared. He had the whole set, built in 3D, in Minecraft. He worked out every detail. I think he paid a producer’s kid to build the whole Free Fire set in Minecraft. He knew where the bullet hits happened. He knew where we had to move. Where he gave us flexibility was the dialogue. He’s an amazing director. He had real balance between being prepared and flexible, and the speed which we shot at. The set was pre-lit. They had an Ipad that could bring up various lights on set. From my point of view, the whole thing felt very actor friendly.
How long was the Free Fire shoot?
Copley: I want to say three or four weeks…no, it may have been five. It definitely wasn’t three. (laughs)
So be honest, that scene in the warehouse, you’re covered in blood and dirt, you’ve been shot a million times, did you every regret taking the role of Vernon?
Copley: No, honestly, for me, it wasn’t really physically demanding. It didn’t compare to other things I have done. Having said that, the most demanding thing was being set on fire. I was so gung ho. I want to do the burn. I want to do the burn. Then I heard that was the only thing I wouldn’t be doing in sequence. I had to shoot the burn at the very end of the shoot, for insurance purposes.
Copley: Yeah, it’s a low budget film. (laughs) I’d never asked to do a stunt before. They said, you can do it, but let’s make sure we have the movie in the can first. I started getting a little nervous as we got close, but it went down amazingly. We had an amazing stunt team. They keep you safe the whole time. That was something I’d never done before. It was the biggest, meaningful challenge. Now physically, the hardest thing for me was the gun shots. There was just a ridiculous amount of gunfire, going off all the time. When you’re in a warehouse like that it does echo. There are different sounds of impact, depending on how heavily they load the blanks. Even ones that weren’t full had incredible noise concussion. From once the gunfire starts, we wearing ear plugs. Doing the performance with ear plugs. That was a remarkable challenge, especially on these long takes. It’s like trying to have a conversation with headphones on. The noise was relentless. By the end of the day, I felt so beaten up by the noise. I don’t think it comes across, to the same degree, when you’re watching in the cinema.
That’s pretty interesting and makes a lot of sense. I loved the repartee between you and Armie Hammer. Where did that come from? Was that in the script?
Copley: Amy, once we started shooting, would watch what we were doing. With my character, Vernon, he wasn’t originally written as a South African. So I had more to play with. She said we didn’t have time to rewrite him, so do your South African stuff. But then she started to research South African sayings. She would come in the next day with these lines. We had an incredible collaboration. But a lot was improv, Armie has a incredible gun knowledge. He’s very good with a gun. He’s the guy, from the group, that I would want on my team if I was in a real shootout…
Wow, so Armie Hammer is packing some real heat?
Copley: Oh yes. One of the things we chatted about was how realistic was a gunshot. How long would I have? So he told me about that golden hour and a half that military guys know. If you haven’t hit a major artery, then you probably have an hour and a half before serious trouble. So I didn’t just introduce that. I asked him that and it became this thing in the movie. Vernon is timing himself. I was timing myself the whole way through. I’ve got forty-minutes. I’m not in trouble yet. Not everything got into the film, but the stuff that did is great.
You’ve just done a short film with Neil Blomkamp. Do you have any other projects with him coming up?
Copley: Well, nothing I can talk about right now. The two of us have obviously had a great time on projects we’ve done. I think it’s a certainty we’ll do more stuff together. There’s more God stuff coming out as well. Keep your eyes open there too. It was a lot fun.