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!

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37 thoughts on “What A-list Actors Can Learn from Sharlto Copley

    1. rtm

      Hey rocker, I think you meant to post your comment to the NINE trailer? =) I did see that movie but it was pretty raunchy for my taste, that’s the one with Lena Olin right?

  1. Mike

    Perhaps fans of Gerard Butler will have someone to root for now that GB’s been in so many BAD movies LOL! (the guy needs an accent coach BIG TIME) …

    1. rtm

      Well there always room to root for more than one actor =) GB did a sour note with TUT, but I have hopes for Law Abiding Citizen, hopefully he redeems himself there. LAC director tweeted this on 7/29:
      “GOOD MORNING! I’ve been extremely busy with my new movie”Law Abiding Citizen”. Just screened it 4 Gerard Butler and he thinks it’s his best.”

      As for the accent, yeah it’s not his strong point, but I know he’s got to keep trying. Accent is a big deal to make a performance more convincing, I agree.

      1. Mike

        Seriously? If they can pay such a HUGE concept like that off it could be a classic. Then again, some of the lines in the trailer were waaaaaay over the top. I’m on the fence still!

        1. rtm

          “It’s gonna be biblical.” I got a chuckle out of that one. I put this response on the LAC post: “A script reviewer actually puts LAC on #16 on his Top 25 List on his blog (http://scriptshadow.blogspot.com/), so I hope both Butler and Foxx nail their characters.”

          I also hope the rest of the dialog is good and the one-liners are used sparingly.

  2. Rock

    Great article. I didn’t think I could anticipate this film anymore (have yet to see it), but now I’m even more pumped.

    I’m one of many entirely sick of seeing and hearing about these celebrity actors plastered across cinema screens because they’re easy on the eyes and reaching for superstardom; the ones that can’t act, and yet are being paid six and seven figure paychecks to do just that (Zac Efron and Megan Fox immediately spring to mind).

    Nice to hear there’s a rising talent ready to devote to the creative and strenuous aspects of his job, understand his place in the system, and relay all this with a good attitude.

    1. rtm

      Hey thanks for your comment, Rock. You’ve got to see “District 9”, I didn’t even want to see it at first but am sure glad I did. Best surprise of the Summer, IMO. I’m a huge fan of the underdogs when it comes to actors, so it’s so refreshing to see someone like Copley who has real talent without the vanity aspect. Hope he stays that way as more offers come his way.

  3. Rob

    I was struck by how good his performance is. He really sold the horror of what he was going through. Credit to the director and special effects guys and anyone who was involved in creating the character of Christopher as well though as I cared just as much for him. Really excellent work in that film. Most directors/actors/producers who are being given the big money to make the blockbusters could learn a great deal from that lot.

  4. Julian

    Good article. However, i would like to comment on the first two points you make.

    On the “Acting from the heart” thing. Just because it worked for Sharlto, doesn’t mean in works for everybody. I don’t think reading from the script means a actor or actress is untalented. I figure different actors/actresses(or at least the talented ones) have different ways of approaching there craft.

    On the “he wasn’t in it for the fame.” I think for someone who vies acting as there main career, it would be very hard to approach it the way Copley did. For example, i want to make movies for a career. While someone who may not necessarily see it as there main career could approach it in a worry-free manner, similar to how Copley approaches acting. But because i see it as a career choice i couldn’t approach it that way

    I will agree it is annoying when actors complain(especially now the the job market in the shitter), although i don’t remember the actors you mention(Brad, Will, and Tom) complaining very much.

    I hope this doesn’t come off as douchey or insulting, cause that is not my intent. I was just offering my perspective. And on the subject of Megan Fox, i haven’t seen her in any roles that required acting(She was put in transformers for fanservice as far as i can tell). The only actor that has managed to strike me as talentless is Nick Cannon. Seriously, everybody else did there job fine(even Lindsay Lohan), but i could not believe him in his role for a second. Although anotehr mvoie i saw called Candy Stripers had quite possibly the worst actors/actresses i have ever seen.

    1. rtm

      Hi Julian, thanks for your comment. No, it’s not insulting at all, I welcome different perspectives as I don’t expect everybody to agree with what I’m sayin’ =)

      I’m not an actor so I can only judge from the viewpoint of an audience. I don’t mean to dis actors who act from scripts, I mean 99.99% of movies probably won’t work with improv. It’s true that different actors have different methods of acting, but what elevates Sharlto’s performance is that I was lost in his character and the journey he went through, as opposed to watching a certain actor ‘act well,’ yknow what I’m sayin’? The last time I experience something similar was watching Russell Crowe play tobacco whistle-blower Jeff Wigand in “The Insider.”

      As for your second point, obviously most actors going into the business have a certain desire to be noticed and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s one thing to go into the business because one is passionate about the craft, but if the ultimate desire is simply to be rich & famous, it often becomes about him/her the actor and the kind of image they want to project to the audience. I don’t think it was ‘worry-free’ acting per se for Sharlto, he’s probably stressed out about stuff, too having to carry the movie on his own shoulder. But what came across to me from the interviews was that he wasn’t so much worried about his image, but more about how he could ‘serve’ Neill Blomkamp’s (the director) vision. That’s why my article was directed more for A-list actors who’ve ‘made it,’ which means they could ‘afford’ not worrying so much about themselves and just focus on the craft.

      I didn’t single out those A-listers because they’re primadonnas. I was just sayin’ the movie wouldn’t have worked as well with any of them in the lead, not because they’re talentless but they just can’t get over the image thing.

      As for LiLo or Megan Fox, they’re not even in the same league as Mr. Copley IHMO. I won’t even call them ‘actors’ so much as celebrities. HUGE difference.

      Sorry for the long response, took some thinking to get it all down =)

      Best of luck on your acting career, Julian. I appreciate your thoughtful comment.

      1. Julian

        I actually plan to work behind the camera, as a director and writer(i was just using filmmaking in place of acting for my example) I probably should have clarified that in my comment 😛

        But thanks for the response. I appreciate it =D

  5. flamingo

    Hey there – thanks for your comment – you are obviously a serious movie buff and I loved your article on District 9. Hope we are gonna see looooooads more of Sharlto Copley – he such a breath of fresh air (and hot as anything :-))

    Flamingo

  6. Pingback: Why “District 9″ will be nominated for at least 8 Oscars « The Real Rock n' Rolla!

  7. Lauren, South Africa

    Hi enjoyed your piece very much…hope some of the A-listers read it and took note!

    Agree entirely with your comments as I know him personally. What not many people know is that Sharlto has been doing offbeat accents and impersonations since age 12 so it’s not surprising that character acting comes so naturally to him.

    He is an incredibly versatile, unassuming and talented actor and you can be assured that he is still gonna knock quite a few people’s socks off in the years ahead!

    As most people now know, Sharlto is currently filiming in Vancouver as Murdoch in the feature film version of the A-team.
    Dwight Schultz who played Murdoch in the original series has a small cameo role in the movie and was full of praise for his successor Copley, describing his portrayal as ‘brilliant beyond words'”

    CHECK OUT THIS LINK:
    http://entertainment.iafrica.com/news/1844586.htm

    praise for sharlto by original A-team actor Dwight Schultz…

    1. Hi Lauren, sorry it took me a while to respond to your kind comment. It was my pleasure to praise Mr. Copley as his performance absolutely deserves it! Glad to hear from someone who knows hims personally, please do congratulate him for me on all his success and hope that he continue to do well in the acting biz. Did you know that I also included him in my Top Ten Foreign Actors to Watch list? http://wp.me/pxXPC-ss

      No doubt Dwight Schultz praised him for playing Murdoch, Sharlto would be great in that role. I do wish he’d tackle on some dramatic roles in the future though. His poignant portrayal of Wikus shows that he has the chops to be both funny and dramatic.

      Thanks again for your comment. I’ll definitely keep an eye on future projects from this talented actor!

    1. He does, doesn’t he? I’m psyched to see him in A-Team, though I wish he’d do a drama as he’s definitely got it in him. I really think he should’ve been nominated for an Oscar instead of Jeremy Renner for Hurt Locker!!

      1. WHATT?? he’ll be in The A Team? I’ve been waiting for that movie because I love the series so much … But as always, I avoid reading too much about movie I want to see so I still have no idea who will play in that movie.

        Now that you’ve told me he’ll be in it…the more reason to wait for the movie 🙂 yeaaa.

        Hear Hear!!! His acting was so real in D-9 … as far as I can remember Academy rarely gives oscar for action movie (both for the movie it self nor the actors)

    2. Well tell him he should pay back all the people who worked so Damn hard for him at his production Company, Atomic.
      As he once said that he wanted to throw the shit against the wall and wanted to see what stuck, that was his justification for working for many months for free… He is like the gold miners of apartheid, used the fresh talent of others to keep his lifestyle going. I don’t respect that man. Even if he is famous. He has alot to answer for….(sucessful business man my arse, he used young people I worked one night for 24hrs on a massive production, I made R150-00 for that amount of work, then edited some of the work. All for a peter syvestant Paul van dyke event).

      After 2 months of working for them I asked when I would get paid they kept on messing everyone around.
      Then after I left I was still asking to get paid, you know what their response was, you got training so be happy with that. It would have cost you alot to go to film school. By the way I did go study. Mr Sharlto Copley, maybe you can now afford to pay back what you owes, all those who worked in his slave factory. But I doubt it…. Just because he is what he is.

      Oh and Mr Copley I ain’t no piece of shit…

      1. Hi Jon, sorry to hear you had such a bad experience with his production company. I’m afraid that is all I can say as I’m just a moviegoer who happens to like his performance as an actor, I don’t claim to know him as a person.

        With that said, I do wish you much success in your future endeavor and one day you can put this experience behind you.

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  9. Yes, yes yes!!! It’s such an inspiring story in how he came into the project and got involved in it. It’s good to see people succeed and get into film without having been born and bred into the Hollywood system, sorry Jaden, you’re not that adorable as they say. I’m excited for his and Blomkamp’s inevitable success to come.

    1. Ha..ha.. too funny you’re comparing him with the new Karate Kid, which is one I’ll never watch. Yeah, it’s always refreshing to see someone with no training nor even fame aspirations deliver such a fine performance. I’m curious about his next project called Elysium, SlashFilm has some tidbits about it and it sounds cool:

      http://www.slashfilm.com/2010/06/23/neill-blomkamps-new-sci-fi-film-is-called-elysium-reps-say-he-wont-direct-the-hobbit/

      For some reason the title conjures up images of Gladiator … “If you find yourself alone, riding in the green fields with the sun on your face, do not be troubled. For you are in Elysium, and you’re already dead!”

      I love that movie too much! 🙂

  10. Julian

    I didn’t think this was still getting comments. But anyways, i generally don’t care how well known a actor/actress is(or isn’t) as long as they can act.

    Also, rtm did you see my clarification?

    1. Hi Julian, yes I did, sorry I didn’t reply back. Yes I see your point that in any field, there is always more pressure if it is your main vocation. But I wouldn’t say Copley approach it in ‘worry-free’ manner though, the opposite is true, he put his heart and soul into it. And that’s commendable since he probably didn’t think it would garner this much attention.

      On a related note, he’s quite good in A-Team also, such a fun comic relief. I’d love to see him do more comedy (as well as sci-fi of course).

      Anyway, best of luck in your film career Julian. I’d love to hear the project(s) you’re working on.

      1. Julian

        I see what your saying. I will admit that its nice to see somebody unknown and unconcerned with fame make it. I just figure it would be hard for most actors/actress’s to deliver a good performance(or at least one on par with Copleys performance in District 9)without some training/experience

    1. Hey Mitch! Yeah totally agree, I’m surprised he’s only done A-Team after D-9, I mean I’d cast him in a lot of stuff if I were a casting director as he can handle the action and emotional aspect of a movie. I’m excited for his next project w/ D-9’s director, Elysium.

  11. Carcotas

    Going into the cinema I had mixed expectations as I only saw a handful (yet interesting) posters and only one trailer. I only heard a handful of reviews yet all of them came from this site. Well, I decided to hedge my bets and walk in anyway. And I’m glad I did.

    “District 9” is a wallop of a film that is also one of the year’s very best films. It perfectly presents the balance of human emotions and CGI mastery. The acting is top notch and believable, and the characters are so realistically presented; even the protagonist is deeply flawed, and during some scenes I wonder who should I root for.

    The story is well told; a refreshing, unique and somewhat original scenario, one that we’ve never experienced for quite some time. The atmosphere is bleak, dark and realistic, actually making me believe this thing can actually happen here on Earth.

    The special effects are excellently rendered, and actually give more than their money’s worth (Only US$ 30 million! And the effects were amazing, as great as anything WETA has done before!). The creature effects are so realistic we could not tell the difference. Thanks to none other than WETA for this amazing feat, and I hope they get an Oscar for visual effects. But the practical effects are believable too, as per the engaging and thrilling (and also non-stop) action sequences in the film’s second half. And boy, those weapons are awesome! Special mention goes out to the fluid editing. Example, first half of the film works like a docu-drama, and the second half becomes a hybrid of Black Hawk Down, and we don’t notice the change of pace. It’s that brilliant.

    Peter Jackson really knows how to pick a good story and director when he sees one. And I want to shake Neill Blommkamp’s hand if I meet him. He is certainly a talented director, and one to look out for in the future. (P.S. If that Halo movie is still going on, Blommkamp has proved that he is the man for the job) In short, it’s an excellent science fiction action film, but not without it’s intelligence. It may have a few flaws and very few clichés (these happen near the end of the film) but it is still very solid nonetheless. If there is a sequel, I’ll be first in line to see it.

    Overall value: 8.5/10

    More about Sharlto on http://movieinfodb.com/en/people/82191/Sharlto+Copley

  12. Pingback: Flixchatter Review: District 9 |

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