|Interview: Karl Urban on "Dredd 3-D"
|by Peter Sobczynski
The New Zealand-born actor talks about his latest project, the title role of the cinematic reboot of the popular comic book series.
New Zealand actor Karl Urban has become a familiar face in the world of genre filmmaking over the last few years, thanks to appearances in films like 'The Two Towers," "The Return of the King," "The Bourne Supremacy," "Doom," "The Chronicles of Riddick" and "Star Trek." In his latest project, the action epic "Dredd 3-D," that face is nowhere to be seen thanks to the helmet that his character wears throughout. Based on the super-violent comic book set in a dystopian future in which the police serve as judge, jury and, more often than not, executioner to the criminals that they apprehend. In this film, Dredd has been assigned the task of evaluating a trainee judge (Olivia Thirlby) when they are sent off to a high-rise under the control of a drug queenpin (Lena Heady) who sends hundreds and hundreds of heavily-armed minions to stop them before they can escape with a prisoner who could bring down her entire empire. The end result is a visually stylish and extraordinarily gory shoot-em-up that is anchored by Urban's surprisingly credible performance, one made all the more impressive by the fact that he not only has to deliver it from within the confines of an outfit that exposes only his lower jaw but without demonstrating any recognizable sign of human emotion throughout.
Recently, Urban came to Chicago to promote "Dredd 3-D" and sat down with me to talk about the film, his long-standing fascination with the character of Judge Dredd and working inside the outfit. Yes, the upcoming "Star Trek 2" does pop up in the conversation as well.
How did you first get interested in acting?
I would define it as a long-standing compulsion but I do recall a few things from when I was a very young age that were a huge influence on me. My mother worked at a film production company and they would lease out lights and cameras and equipment to productions in New Zealand and every so often when a major film in New Zealand was completed, they would screen the film on the garage door of the warehouse where they kept all the equipment. I remember being there at a very young age and seeing all of these amazing New Zealand films like Roger Donaldson's "Smash Palace" and being inspired not only by the performances but also by just hanging out with the crews while they were watching them. For me, that was it--that was the direction that I wanted to go. I wanted to be a part of that world.
Were there any particular actors or performances that particularly impressed you?
Sure. Bruno Lawrence, a New Zealand actor that Jack Nicholson once actually claimed to be his favorite actor. American actors like Robert Mitchum, Steve McQueen Paul Newman---those strong male archetypes. I would see Harrison Ford's films while growing up in the 80's and 90's.
Many of the films that you have made are examples of the sci-fi, fantasy and action genres--"The Two Towers," "The Return of the King," "Doom," "Chronicles of Riddick," "Star Trek" and now "Dredd 3-D." Are these genres that you have a personal affinity for personally or professionally?
Dumb luck, really. I am primarily drawn to character and story and it just happens that a few of those stories have been science-fiction and fantasy. I am equally content doing films like "Red" or "The Bourne Supremacy" or this New Zealand film called "Out of the Blue"
I understand that long before signing on to appear in "Dredd 3-D," you were a fan of the original Judge Dredd comic books. Both as a fan and as an actor, what is it about the character of Judge Dredd that appeals to you?
Well, it is really one and the same. First of all, I really responded to Dredd's brand of heroism. He wasn't a superhero and didn't have superpowers. He was just a man--a highly trained individual with an extraordinary skill set whose bravery was defined by the fact that he would walk into situations that he knew to be dangerous. To me, that kind of character is one that I admire. Beyond that, I guess I responded to the humor of the comic. It had this wonderful dry, laconic sense of humor--very deadpan and dry. I also admire the whole world that John Wagner created, the science-fiction element of it.
There was a previous attempt in 1995 to bring Judge Dredd to the screen in the form of Sylvester Stallone and the end result was an enormous flop that enraged fans of the comics by having the character appearing without his trademark helmet and by including such allegedly crowd-pleasing elements as comedy relief provided by Rob Schneider. In embarking on "Dredd," was there any sense of trepidation over following in the footsteps of such a notorious bomb?
I obviously didn't think about and perhaps if I had, my fear might have gotten the better of me and I might not have done the film. As soon as I heard that they were rebooting "Judge Dredd," I was immediately interested from having been a fan but I had a little bit of trepidation about how they would be handling the material. those reservations were immediately washed away when I read Alex Garland's script and found that he had written a wonderful, character-driven script. Most importantly, it was authentic to the character that I knew and it was only subsequently that I learned that he had been collaborating with John Wagner and that John Wagner was essentially a paid-up member of our crew.
How difficult is it as an actor to play a character like Dredd where everything is internalized to the point where he never appears to display any form of emotion at all?
That is a huge challenge. In fact, I think you hit on what was the most challenging aspect of the whole film. It wasn't having my eyes covered--it was the fact that the character operates within a pretty narrow bandwidth. The challenge was how to humanize him and give him as much good nature as possible and that is where the humor came in. That is why it was really important to include those bits where Dredd does display compassion, such as when he chooses not to kill those kids. He undergoes a significant gear shift when there are innocent civilians under threat because that is his job and responsibility--he cares about the people of MegaCity !.
There is also a weariness about him--the sense that the shit that he goes through in this film is just another day and that he is going to wake up tomorrow and it will be the same. What I responded to in the script and what helped me was the relationship with Anderson and the fact that the evolution of that relationship was reflected in Dredd's evolution. At the beginning of the film, he doesn't think that she is qualified and in many ways, she does fail throughout the day. By the end, he acknowledges that her contributions have been valuable and changes his opinion about her. That, to me, is a wonderful attribute--that he is not so stuck in his own ego. For a character who sees everything in black and white, his journey is to discover the grays.
Between the non-stop action, the bulky costume and the helmet that covers nearly all of your head, the role of Dredd is also a challenge from a physical perspective. What sort of training was required for you to prepare for the part?
I had about three months of intensive physical work in order to get into the condition that was required--I don't know if you have read the comic but he is in pretty good shape. I also did a 2.5 week military-style boot camp in South Africa to learn technical maneuvering. I had to learn how to ride the bike and, of course, there was getting acclimated with the uniform. I wore that outfit ever single day during that process , two or three weeks before the cameras started rolling, because I didn't want to step on the set and feel uncomfortable.
After the release of "Dredd 3-D," you are appearing in the latest installments of two other film franchises, namely the new "Star Trek" and "Chronicles of Riddick" movies. Now I know there has been a lot of secrecy involving "Star Trek" but I assure you that I spoke to Paramount and that they are totally fine with you spilling the beans about everything.
(Long, long pause that is finally broken by his laughter) Bless you for trying. I would love to tell you but here is the thing and this is why I really respect J.J. Abrams. It defeats the purpose of spending so much time, energy, passion and money in creating something if, by the time it gets to the cinemas, everyone has already read the script online or seen the photos. If all the information is out there, then the mystery is gone. I think that one of the things that excites audiences is the buildup to the unknown. I totally respect the necessity for secrecy and I have certainly missed it when I have been in productions where all of the information was already out there. Then you get into the area of people's perceptions because the finished film can often be quite different than what they pictured in their minds.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=3425
originally posted: 09/22/12 02:40:15
last updated: 09/22/12 08:18:42