Sharlto Copley likes to keep 'em guessing

11:50 AM, Nov 30, 2013   |    comments
Sharlto Copley proves a meticulous menace in Spike Lee's re-imagining of the Korean cult classic 'Oldboy.' (Photo: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle, FilmDistrict Pictures)
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He's the kind of ruggedly handsome actor you wouldn't be surprised to see on red carpets with a model girlfriend.

On-screen, though, South African actor Sharlto Copley is a chameleon who, in his brief time in Hollywood, has proven that transformative roles suit him. He had his breakout as a government employee who turns into an alien in Neill Blomkamp's sci-fi film District 9; brandished casual duds, ballcap and an ever-changing accent as "Howling Mad" Murdoch in The A-Team; and wore dirt and grime well as the gritty antagonist to Matt Damon in Blomkamp's Elysium.

With his latest part as creepy villain Adrian Pryce inSpike Lee's revenge drama Oldboy, Copley focused on big-picture aspects such as large, gnarly scars on his chest to help get into the mind of a billionaire who would invest a lot of his money in exacting a 20-year vengeance on a man from his past (played byJosh Brolin).

REVIEW: 'Oldboy' should have been left alone
STORY: Spike Lee takes revenge on-screen in 'Oldboy'
PROFILE: The characters of Sharlto Copley

The little details were important, too. For example, there's the creepily high-pitched, quasi-European tinge to his voice – the most important aspect to informing a character, according to Copley – when he talks to Brolin's Joe Doucett after Pryce has imprisoned him for two decades.

To find the right tone, Copley, 40, was inspired by a makeup artist he'd worked with on a past film.

"I said, 'I hope you don't mind, but on my next film, I'm very loosely basing this character on you. He is one of the darkest characters in film history,' " the actor says with a laugh.

"I do try and find real people (for inspiration). I don't want to do my version of Clint Eastwood or Al Pacino. I'll meet someone interesting or I'll watch somebody doing something in everyday life – usually a voice but often also a look, something they do with themselves, their hair, their face."

In figuring out Adrian's grooming habits, Copley wanted to go in the other direction from Brolin's clean-shaven face, so he sports a sinister yet immaculately trimmed beard. And to add extra weirdness, Copley grew his fingernails to extreme lengths.

He didn't measure them, the actor says, but there came a point where "to actually live my everyday life with these extra-long nails, man, it was a challenge. I sat there with this incredible beard for six months on District 9, but I tell you, the growing of my nails was the hardest thing."

Miraculously, they never broke. "So I still do not know what that feels like," he says.

"The physical stuff is important, but it's really Copley's acting ability that captures the essence of a man who will go to extraordinary measures to teach Joe a lesson," Lee says.

"When I saw District 9, I knew right away I wanted to work with him," the director says. "He adds so much to it. That's a very, very, very, very hard role to play."

Copley says that all the diverse characters he's had since his 2009 breakthrough have been blessings, and so are his upcoming roles. In the horror movie Open Grave(on video-on-demand Dec. 31, in theaters Jan. 3), he plays a guy who wakes up in a pit of dead bodies and doesn't know how he got there. He goes royal as King Stefan in Maleficent (May 30). And he voices a robot in Blomkamp's sci-fi comedy Chappie, now filming for a 2015 release.

The more radically different the parts, the better, he says. "It's a thing I'm very passionate about, and hopefully it will allow me to develop a slow, bold reputation rather than (being) suddenly thrust into the limelight and then end up playing a bunch of roles that are quite similar."

The key to making these indelible characters his own is being brave with them.

"You have to go out on a limb and know that you're not always going to necessarily win everybody over," Copley says. "But you've got to take and make a (brave) decision. Then you have something that is different.

"I'd rather have a situation where half the audience says, 'I absolutely loved what he did' and half of them say, 'I hated what he did,' than they go, 'Ehhh, it was OK.' "

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