Interview: Karl Urban of 'Dredd 3D'
On being the faceless face of future justice in a harsh world...
The opening night film of Toronto's Midnight Madness this year featured a redemption tale, of sorts; after the mis-made mishap of a Sylvester Stallone film in 1995, Karl Urban was once again stepping into the jackboots and putting on the helmet of Judge Dredd, the parody-pop hero of a series of hard-boiled and darkly satirical British action comics since 1977. But, to true Dredd fans, just as impressive as Urban putting on the helmet was the fact that he kept true to one of the strip's longest-running in-jokes/style points and didn't take it off. Urban has appeared in action films like 'Red" and "Doom" and even stepped in to play 'Bones' McCoy in 'Star Trek," but this may be his biggest -- and best -- action part to date, opposite Olivia Thirlby as rookie -- and psychic -- Anderson. We spoke with Urban in Toronto.
MSN Movies: It was mentioned in the press notes that you know the comic?
Karl Urban: Mmmm-hmmmmm.
…and like the comic, and when you were approached by it, approached by the producer, I'm sure you had strong feelings. Were there any that you would care to share or articulate?
As a long-term fan of Dredd, I did have certain reservations when I heard that they were endeavoring to a reboot, but they were quickly dispelled upon reading Alex's script. He wrote a character-driven narrative with great action and a wonderful relationship between Anderson and Dredd. And importantly for me also, the helmet stayed on for the entire picture. So it was clear to me as soon as I finished reading it, and it was a page-turner, you couldn't put it down, that the material was being treated with respect and authenticity and I was immediately just felt like this was something I had to do.
A lot of actors, when you say "Now we're going to take away possibly five-eighths of your face and your eyes and you can't express in that fashion, you're wearing a helmet for the entire film," they would be less likely to sign on board … but you just knew that was the key and worked on emoting with this with your goatee line?
No. What I realized was that it was going to be a performance that was dependent on utilizing, me successfully utilizing all the other tools that were available to me. The voice can be extremely important, the physicality of the character, body language, you know, how I do what I do. They all became extremely important. And the real discovery throughout making this film was just having confidence in the script, that the audience is going to be in tune with Dredd, that they are going to know where he is because it's been set up. And just having faith that if you think the thought and feel the emotion then the audience will, too. It's amazing what actually does transmit.
The one thing I really liked, the one note I noticed was that all of your head-turns are very bird-of-prey like, this sort of not moving the head aside from on its one axis. Is that stuff you think about and codify, or is it just stuff where you put on the costume and do the physicality and get it relatively swiftly?
Well, yeah, there are points in the script where Dredd's movements are a little more deliberate than others ... like a punctuation, like a full stop. At a point with the medics, the medic mentions the Ma-Ma Clan and this is news to Dredd and that instantly draws his head around him. It makes an impact because it says to you, "Oh, this is of interest to him." You get that, you know? And perhaps there's something about wearing the helmet that makes you hyperaware of that. I don't know.
Is it fair to sort of note that the one film I kept thinking of was this kind of sci-fi version of "Training Day"?
Yeah, I always looked at it like it was "Training Day" meets, I guess, "Die Hard" meets "Blade Runner" in a way because there's a wonderful sadness about this film which you don't really get in many films of this genre, but yeah.
The sadness comes in and this is the best future we've got.
Sadness for me is the struggle of humanity, and the fact that it's gotten to this.
"End of Watch," the David Ayer film, which is playing with Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as L.A. cops, is, in a way about the hard work required to keep a civilization functioning, and the people who do that. This is not something where you go on ride along this actual police or talk to actual judges --but you did?
Yeah, I went on a ride along with police in New Zealand as part of my research.
And did you learn anything from that besides from where the good coffee places are late at night?
Just gave me an appreciation and understanding for the difficulty of their job and the fact that day in and day out they are in a meat grinder and they are dealing with some incredibly difficult situations.
Mr. Garland, he's written "28 Days Later," he's written "Sunshine," he's written some great science fiction, but at the same time this almost doesn't quite have … it's not that much of a leap to omit the science fiction-y elements. Was there a sense of the more human you kept it, the more about character, the better off you would be? It was less about Dredd's gun than it was about what it's like for him to point it?
Yeah, I think so. It was all very important to us to humanize Dredd as much as possible, and obviously that central relationship with Anderson was key. I mean that really, if you think about it, is the nucleus of Dredd's arc in this film. It would be a mistake for people to think that Dredd doesn't have an arc in this film because he does. It's a lot more subtle than Anderson's arc, which is quite obviously from a rookie to a judge. But Dredd is a judge. It is his job to make decisions and stand by those decisions. Sometimes those decisions result in life or death. At the beginning of this film, he decides that Anderson is not worthy to be a judge. He doesn't particularly like her. And through the course of this film, that changes. And he does something at the end of this film that he would have never have done at the beginning of this film. So that presents a crack in his worldview. Things are not black and white.
And for a guy to suddenly have doubt creep in at the end of this film, which is what happens, it's a huge momentous point in his life.
Would you be able to reduce it to saying it's a good look of at the difference between law and justice and that may be Anderson's more interested in meting out justice…
That's it. Anderson gave justice.
Right. And Dredd can see how that's not a horrible thing?
I think that forces him to take a good, hard look and that's the whole point. At the end of this film there's a crack that's appeared in his worldview where it didn't exist before. It was black and white and all of a sudden … what's all this grey area over here?
Very confusing territory for him.
How was it premiering the film last night? I mean things ran a little bit late, but Miss Thirlby was saying that hearing the audience was amazing during the first sequence last night …
Yeah, that to me makes it all worthwhile. You know when you work so tremendously hard on a project and have it come out and be received so well, the fans are having fun with this film, response from the press has been phenomenal, the reviews have been I don't even know anything like it, and it feels good. It really does feel wonderful to entertain people and to give them something they enjoy.
You had a terrifically well-rounded character part in "Star Trek." Is it nice to go from giving shots to taking them? I mean, that did you something a bit more muscular and vulgar in this science fiction genre than taking people's temperatures?
Yeah, I enjoy doing both. I mean, you know, the thing I love about McCoy is that his heroism is defined by the fact that he's not an action hero. His hero was defined by his altruism. That's appealing to me. Dredd's heroism is defined by the fact that he's the guy walking into a dangerous situation when everyone else is running in the opposite direction. His heroism is defined by his courage 'cause he's not a superhero. He doesn't have superpowers. He's just got an extraordinary skill set and…
He walks towards loud noises when other people run away.
He walks towards burning buildings, yeah.
If things go well, you were saying the critical reception is great, fans are loving it, it has to open in theaters of course, but if things go well and people say, "We'd love to come back for another swing at this character," it is assumed that you would be in?
Yeah, I would love to come back. That's interesting, I mean, I haven't personally thought about making another film. We've spent all this time and energy releasing this one, and immediately everyone's going, "We want another one. We want another one." I'm just like, "Woah."This film's got to get out there, and people have to enjoy it, and there's steps that have to occur first, but I mean yeah, of course I'd love to come back and continue the story.
Does wearing a nearly full helmet really cut down on how much time you have to spend on makeup and hair?
It's really convenient?