Sharlto Copley is a South African actor best known for his role as Wikus van de Merwe—the man tasked with relocating angry alien prawns in the Oscar-nominated sci-fi sensation "District 9." Recently, Copley jumped at the chance to play loony helicopter pilot H.M. Murdock in the big-screen adaptation of "The A-Team," which comes out on DVD and Blu-ray this week.
We sat down with Copley and chatted to the friendly, fast-talking actor about growing up with "The A-Team" TV show, why he almost made original Murdock actor Dwight Schultz cry, and what the least manly thing this star of a red-meat action film has done lately.
Had you ever seen the original "The A-Team" TV show when you were offered the part of Murdock?
Yes! "The A-Team" was my favorite show as a kid, and I had the trading cards and action figures. When I was 12, I formed an "A-Team" gang at school and then a rival gang started. We challenged them to a fight and we won our little war, and then we were the only "A-Team."
Did you want your Murdock to be similar to the one on the TV show?
I read the script and felt the Murdock was too different from the one in the show, so I shot these improvised scenes in a hotel room of all these things that could happen to Murdock in a hotel room. I sent it to [director] Joe Carnahan and a picture of me at age 12 with a B.A. Baracus birthday cake.
This was still during apartheid, but I had a black icon on the cake with the old South Africa flag on the four corners of the cake. It's amazing to see the cultural power of that show and Mr. T being one of the early black icons that was crossing cultures, even in South Africa. Most people don't realize that Mr. T was one of the first African-Americans to make an impact and become a hero to little white kids in South Africa.
Dwight Schultz, who originally played Murdock, said you were the only actor in the movie true to your character. Do you agree with him?
I'm very grateful for that. That character had been a real inspiration to me. I grew up making little movies and doing different voices and characters very much like what Dwight had done with Murdock. It was important to me if I was going to do it, to get his blessing and make sure most of the fans appreciated the way that I did the character. I showed Dwight the test that I shot when he came to the set and he turned to me with tears in his eyes, gave me a hug and said, "You are Murdorck." It was a moving experience to me and meant a hell of a lot.
You improvised a lot of your lines in "District 9." How much of Murdock did you improvise for "The A-Team?"
"District 9" was basically all improvisation. With Murdock, Joe Carnahan was very comfortable with improvisation, so he would throw something at me and say, "Brother, say this. What about this line?" If it worked, I would go straight into it. Between him and me improvising, 70 or more percent of the lines went that way.
Murdock has some mental issues. When you took this part, did you concoct a backstory for him to help you understand this character better?
I didn't need to do that because I was familiar with the feeling of the character, but I was interested in finding out what might have tipped him over. I did some investigation into post-traumatic stress disorder and things like that to see if any of that would be useful to me. In the end, it was all about having that playful, crazy resonance, which I just felt instinctively. I discussed with Dwight: Is he really crazy or not? Dwight said that was something that they never resolved, whether he was a little crazy or entirely putting us on so he wouldn't get into trouble. We kept that in the movie.
In South Africa, you produced, acted and directed in some risqué plays in high school. Can you give us an example of the one that stirred the pot most?
I would just always push the envelope. I wrote one play in my conservative school about two guys who would make a bet on a summer holiday that they would be able to choose a woman and see who could sleep with her. They would lie to her and make up any story to be the first guy to get her in bed. A condom was pulled out onstage somewhere near the end scene and, at the time, it was like, "Gasp!" It wasn't risqué — there was some kind of intelligence behind it and it was fun writing — but the school would be very worried about the subject matter for high school. I would have to go in and debate with the headmaster and have really intellectual conversations to stop myself from getting expelled.
Fans want to see more of your "District 9" character and see him perhaps cured in a sequel. Has director Neill Blomkamp discussed anything with you?
We've discussed a lot of stuff, but Neill is working on his next movie and everybody knows I want to go back and do it for sure. I would love to, so I'm just waiting to see what happens with Neill's schedule and the powers that be.
"The A-Team" is a manly man film with lots of tough talk and heavy action. What is the least manly thing you've done recently?
[Laughs] I have to ask my girlfriend. [Shouts to girlfriend and waits]. My girlfriend says I have become very motherly to this cat that we're not sure if it's a stray or if I'm stealing someone's cat. I've bought it food and am mothering it.
That's funny, because in "District 9" your character trades cat food with the prawns for their cooperation. Coincidence?
Dear Lord! That's true. Maybe there is something happening there that I need to look at with a shrink.