What A-list Actors Can Learn from Sharlto Copley

Copley at Comic Con

District 9 is one of those powerful movies that stays with me long after I saw it (check out my review of the movie). For the most part, it’s Copley’s performance that makes the film work for me. Sure, the documentary style technique and all that technical stuff blew me away at first, but once I started watching, it’s the actor’s performance that get me immersed in the film. When I relate to the character or get affected by it—whether you love it or hate it—that’s when a movie becomes an ‘experience’ instead of a mere spectacle.

Which brings me to newbie Sharlto Copley, the South African actor who’s never acted in a movie before other than the blink-and-you-miss-it involvement in Neill Blomkamp’s Alive in Jo’burg’s short film. I just watched several interviews with this guy where he’s still pretty much coming to grasp with his new-found fame. The fascinating part is that he never intended to be famous, he just happen to be thrust in front of the camera because the his friend Blomkamp thought he could do the part of Wikus Van De Merwe. Blomkamp might as well be a casting agent ’cause he was right on the money. I couldn’t imagine anybody else playing that role, from the dweeb-ish bureaucrat to the desperate hunted man trying to survive, Sharlto was downright convincing. Put someone like Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt or Will Smith and this movie just won’t work as well, as it frequently becomes more about them the ‘celebrity’ instead of the story they’re telling. In fact, these A-listers can learn a thing or two from this novice actor.

Here are three random things that came to my mind:

1. He acted from the heart
The fact that this project is a labor of love between him and his director friend Blomkamp, Sharlto’s involvement in the whole film making process is from the heart. He wants the film to succeed not for his reputation’s sake but because he cares about the project. His immersion goes beyond what the script requires him to do, but he breathed all the nitty-gritty of the movie in and out that he becomes that character. In fact, instead of simply delivering lines, most of his acting was ‘improv,’ as he intuitively followed what he said ‘the beat that Neill wanted to capture for a particular scene,’ which makes for a real and authentic performance unlike anything I’ve seen in a long while.

But the acting side of the work—because it’s improv, I’m not sitting there the night before going, “Okay, so should I say this scene like this? Should I say the line this way?” and trying to work at it. I’d just show up and go. So that’s very stress-free, in a sense.— A.V. Club Interview

“I just am that character, to be honest, in that situation. And with a film like this that was done so realistically, it often felt like we were shooting a documentary. It felt so ridiculously realistic that it was easy. I just found it a very natural thing. I don’t have any technique or thing I’m thinking about. It’s like, ‘Well, either that is the character, or no, it’s not.” — A.V. Club Interview

2. He wasn’t in it for fame
Unlike most actors, Sharlto’s been a successful producer and businessman before getting this gig. His performance is almost devoid of ego or self-consciousness because he has nothing to prove, he was simply serving the vision that Blomkamp has for the film. He’s not worried if he’d ever get another job again after this, which makes for a refreshingly unaffected, almost uninhibited performance that’s captivating to behold.

I do have the advantage in that I don’t really mind what happens. If I don’t act again, then it’s okay, fine. — A.V. Club Interview

That side of the business doesn’t really interest me, like getting attention or stroking my ego or whatever, like I’m a real filmmaker-at-heart kind of a person. I normally am behind the camera actually, so I didn’t have aspirations of “I want to be a famous,” but I’ve always done characters my whole life just for fun. — Ain’t It Cool Interview

3. He is no primadonna
It’s nice to hear when an actor isn’t complaining about doing his job. A lot of movie stars got (over)paid millions of dollars and then whine in interviews about the grueling shoot, how stressful it was, blah blah blah. Isn’t that why you got paid the big bucks for? The crew members’ jobs are most likely just as strenuous, but they make a fraction of their salary. I haven’t seen this much dedication from an actor. Even among seasoned thespians, I could only think of a couple of people with equal passion: Christian Bale for the Machinist and Daniel Day-Lewis in just about everything. It’s as if he applied JFK’s famous line with his ‘it’s not what the movie can do for me, but what I can do for the movie‘ attitude. He plays a huge part in the movie’s success, yet nary of self-importance in sight in all of his interviews I’ve read/watched. It’s cool to hear that an actor acknowledge that his craft also depends on the people he works with on set, and how some way they help him nail a great scene.

“…when as an actor, everybody is just doing everything for you to make that space for you to bring that moment…” — ScreenCrave.com interview on YouTube

Here’s wishing for a lasting acting career for Mr. Copley. I’m sure he’ll be around for more District 9 follow-ups, but I hope he’d try other things, too. IMO, he’d be great in a drama or comedy, just so long as he keeps it real and not be buoyed by doing pedestrian blockbusters (whatever you do, just stay away from Michael Bay!). If he continues to turn out even half of what he brought in his debut, I’d surely keep watching.


Copley and Blomkamp are teaming up again in another sci-fi movie Elysium, also starring Jodie Foster and Matt Damon, scheduled for release in 2013. This time he’s playing the villain.


So what are your thoughts on District 9 or Sharlto Copley? Let’s hear it!