An interview with Karl Urban
Published: Friday, September 21, 2012
Updated: Friday, September 21, 2012 11:09
Glancing over Karl Urban’s list of previous films, which includes projects like “Doom,” “Star Trek,” and “RED,” it would be easy to picture the actor as the reserved, dry humored, and deeply American characters that he often plays. While Urban may, indeed, have the introversion and subdued humor of some of his characters while in interviews, the native New Zealander can spend a great deal of time speaking passionately about his work with an intensity that is nearly disarming. The man has a presence. The nonchalant composure he exudes with his articulate and intelligent responses creates a dichotomy of deeply invested artist and generally casual and fun guy. Also surprising, perhaps, is that his science fiction-heavy resume is primarily an accident; “It kind of just randomly happens. … But, that being said, I’m equally proud of [all my films].”
“Dredd,” Urban’s most recent film, is based on the comics of Judge Dredd. The world is a dystopian future wherein a totalitarian regime has taken control in a futile effort to curb the ever-expanding crime rate. Judges are the officer, prosecutor, and jury all wrapped into one. Their job is to find criminals and execute justice, whatever that may be. When Dredd and his new partner, rookie almost-Judge Anderson, end up trapped in the resident district known as Peach Trees, all bets are off.
The most interesting part of the film, at least where Urban is concerned, may be that the actor’s face is never seen: “The character that I responded to as a teenager was this tough, enigmatic, laconic law man. … I couldn’t conceive of another way of doing it and I wouldn’t have signed on if I’d read a script and discovered scenes where Dredd has his helmet off.” Urban, who read the comics when he was a teenager, felt that it was important to remain as true to the source material as possible, a goal which he felt Alex Garland, the screenwriter, absolutely nailed.
I sat down with Urban and three other student writers to discuss his new film and the importance of beer.
STUDENT: It was great to see you finally in a big role like this.
KARL URBAN: Or not see me, as the case may be.
THE SUFFOLK VOICE: How easy or difficult was it to actually see out of the helmet?
URBAN: It was a fully functioning motorbike helmet, ostensibly. The uniform kinda speaks volumes about the world in which Dredd operates and, in that regard, it’s a slight departure from the way the character was drawn in the comics. Our vision is a bit more futuristic than science fiction and it’s representative of a brutal environment, a society that is in decline and chaos. The judges are representative of a somewhat totalitarian faction that has been charged with keeping law and order, that they’re a desperate measure for a desperate time.
STUDENT: Did having the helmet affect your acting at all? How did you maneuver around wearing that for the entire movie?
URBAN: It took a bit to figure it out, it really did. And that was a challenge. The challenge was how to communicate with an audience and not only because my eyes weren’t visible, but because of the fact that the character of Dredd operates within a very narrow bandwidth. He is a man who has been trained to keep his emotions in check, so, consequently, it was very important for me to identify how I could humanize the character as much as possible. The sense of humor became very important. That dry, iconic sense of humor. Finding out where’s this character’s compassion, where does his empathy lie. You can see that in the way that he chooses not to kill those kids. And then just the whole relationship with Anderson humanizes him, because there’s an evolution there. He doesn’t like her much at the beginning. He doesn’t think that she’s got what it takes to be a Judge and, through the course of the film, that relationship evolves and changes as they learn to trust each other and work with each other. To me, that’s one of the most intriguing aspects about the whole film. At the beginning of this movie, you have a character who sees the world in terms of very black and white, right or wrong. At the end of the film, [chuckle], he’s just suddenly discovered this whole gray area and that represents this sort of fracture in his perspective. It’s a paradigm shift. Once you see something in life, you can’t unsee it.
STUDENT: Back to how you were able to express the character. You basically just had your mouth, visually.
URBAN: Well, the tools that I had available were my voice and my physicality. It became extremely important, how you do something. For example, when there’s a loss of innocent life in the film with that massacre, you can see a significant gear shift within Dredd. For a character that was quite tightly wound, suddenly he’s let off the leash. That’s a direct response. That humanizes him. But again, that is an expression of his emotion.
STUDENT: What would you say was the most intense pre-production stuff for you, as far as like training to get ready for the role?
URBAN: Well there was three months worth of gym work and that was made more difficult by the fact that I had injured myself on the previous movie and I didn’t realize it until I went into the gym and started to try and bulk up. I found that I was limited in movement. I had severely displaced my neck doing the fight scene with Bruce Willis in “RED.” I landed incorrectly. So it was scary. There was a ticking clock. I had three months to get in shape and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t physically do what I was supposed to. So while I was working out, I was also going to physical therapy to fix the previous injury. That was a huge challenge and it was daunting as well because of the way that the character was drawn. He’s got this incredible physique and that was a real pressure to get there. Ironically, you don’t see it. It was three months without burgers and beer. It was not enjoyable. And then when we got on the ground in Cape Town, it was a two and a half week military style bootcamp, which Olivia and I partook in and that taught us tactical movement, weapon safety. I learned how to ride the Law Master bike. That was really interesting; I learned a lot during that. We did one exercise where Olivia and I were moving through one of the sets and they had hidden members of the stunt team on the set and given them air pistols and we had air pistols and we ended up having this firefight. That was as close to the real in-game that I’d ever want to get, but it was immensely valuable. It makes you aware of what the stakes are.