District 9 - Sharlto Copley, Mandla Gaduka and Kenneth Nkosi
District 9 - Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), Fundiswa Mhlanga (Mandla Gaduka) and Thomas (Kenneth Nkosi) ©2009 TriStar Pictures Sharlto Copley, Mandla Gaduka and Kenneth Nkosi

Sharlto Copley began directing and acting in his own short films at the age of 12, and later studied Speech and Drama through Trinity College in London. He co-founded his first company at the age of 19 and since then has been responsible for managing several successful companies, including Channel 69 Studios, Atomic Visual Effects and, at the age of 24, became the youngest executive in the history of South African television to own and control a daily five-hour block of programming.

In District 9 he has returned to his acting roots to star as Wikus van der Merwe, a field operative with Multi-National United, a private company who is brought in to oversee a group of aliens, the last survivors of their world, in a makeshift home in South Africa’s District 9.

What kind of participation did you have in the creation of the story and the character?

[singlepic id=75 w=275 h=300 float=right]The story and the world was entirely Neill Blomkamp’s creation, it was an idea that he told me about and that I loved and totally resonated with.

Neill said, ‘I want to shoot this [screen] test with a guy who is kind of a bureaucrat, works at a big telecommunications company and has to go and deal with these aliens every month or so.’ And off that brief from him, I then created the Wikus’ character and just brought what I could to that.

The morning that we shot the test, I did a quick sample for him what I thought the guy would sound like; I got the character from the voice.

How did the character evolve?

We knew the character in the beginning from the test that Neill has shot with me, how brutal he was or wasn’t going to be was a tightrope that Neill was walking finely in the edit, but as an actor I believe everybody acts from a position where they’re doing what they think is right.

Nobody is more bad or good, you’re doing what you think is the best thing in the situation. And so I always felt that that was important, that Wikus would always have heart underneath, there would still be a humanity, something about him that you wouldn’t write him off entirely, even if he’s doing some things where you go, ‘Oh my God.’

There was always that potential with him for more of that to be revealed, as we indeed see.

Do you think he becomes a hero in the end?

[singlepic id=72 w=275 h=300 float=left]I think he becomes more aligned with life itself, if that makes any sense. I found from a character point-of-view the experience of playing this guy wasn’t just about discrimination against a particular species, it was you create a separation between yourself and life, animals, the planet, global warming, you create an identity that is separate from everything else.

Science and religion tells you it’s all one, but you don’t have that experience, and for Wikus everything that he knows and trusts and thinks is real is stripped away and there’s very little left [except] his bare essence.

Was it a long makeup process for you, because as you increasingly become more damaged you probably had to spend more hours in the make up chair?

Yeah, I did. My record was six and a half hours, which I was quite proud of actually. But most of them were two to three hours.

Your performance seemed improvisational, how did you do that and fit in with the special effects?

This is when Neill is ridiculously talented, and where his real genius comes in, because he’s able to create this incredible freedom as a former visual effects artist, his knowledge of the effects as a director is so great that he can give you this rope to really play without saying, ‘Okay there are aliens here, you can only move an inch to your left’.

He was watching all the time to see where the aliens would fit and work, so a lot of the times the aliens would go where I was looking – that’s where the alien was going to be in the scene.

So it was a very free, yet structured, environment.

How hands on was Peter Jackson during the production?

[singlepic id=76 w=275 h=300 float=right]Peter was dealing with Neill, he wasn’t on the set at all. From my point-of-view I was just incredibly grateful that he supported me to play the part and supported Neill’s decision, and he also was supporting me to do the accent true to form and not trying to tone the accent down for Americans as might have been the expected approach, so I was so blessed by that.

And being introduced to the world by Mr. Jackson at Comic-Con was very surreal.

Are you signed for another film in the event this movie is successful?

I can’t really comment on that, but I certainly would love to do another movie if Neill wanted to do it and there was enough audience response – it would be amazing to do.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.