On a sunny day in New Orleans a few months ago, I got to visit the set of Summit Entertainment’s Red while the production was filming in a shipping yard. The scene I watched involved Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, John Malkovich and a group of “evil doers” as they tried to kill our protagonists. Needless to say, our heroes escaped unharmed. For more on the set visit, read my report here.
While the scene featured a lot of the main cast, Karl Urban had the day off, but he agreed to come to set anyway to talk to the visiting online journalists. Needless to say, we were all happy he came by. During our extended interview he talked about the challenges of filming Red, his character, filming in Toronto and New Orleans, training for the film, Star Trek and possible sequels, and so much more. It’s a great interview so hit the jump to either read the transcript or listen to the audio.
Finally, before getting to the interview, you should watch the trailer for RED because it looks awesome and a lot of fun.
Here’s the full transcript. Click here to listen to the audio from the interview. Red gets released October 15.
When you got on this project, who was attached when you first signed on?
Karl: When I was attached, it was Bruce, MLP, Morgan…who else? Helen, Ernie Borgnine, and I think Malkovich came on just after myself.
So when you first heard about the cast, were you immediately like, “Yeah, this sounds real good”?
Karl: Yeah. I mean it is extraordinary. I can’t recollect in recent history such a phenomenal cast assembled for one movie. So, yeah, I was pretty jazzed to get here.
Were you familiar with the comics for your part to the movie?
Karl: I did, yeah. I mean I read the comic before shooting. Which, I mean the comic is really like the first act; it’s hardly even the first act. And, you know, it is really interesting to see how they have developed it and fleshed it out and injected a great more characters and comedy. The movie is a lot more complex.
Who is your character again?
Karl: I play a CIA agent whose name is William Cooper. And it is my job to essentially hunt down Frank, Bruce’s character. There is a lethal finding that has been put out on him, which basically means I’ve got a government sanctioned hit to take him out.
You are the one that initiates the hit then?
Karl: I don’t initiate it. I carry it out.
Is it a physical role for you then?
Karl: Yeah, it has been. It has been quite physical and, you know, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Toronto was a trip. I mean sometimes…You know, three weeks of nights in Toronto and it got down to…I think, at its worst, it was like minus 17. So I kind of wish it was inverse. I wish we were shooting three months here, two weeks in Toronto.
So would you say you are the bad guy?
Karl: It is not that black and white, actually. I am an adversary for Frank. But, you know, as far as having an evil intent, the character is devoid of that. He is just doing his job. And, you know, the interesting thing about this character is, through the course of the film, the more he learns about Frank and his network, the more he actually comes to understand the bigger picture of what is going on, which leads to sort of an interesting sequence.
You’ve played all sorts of characters. Do you do a lot of research? Like, for something like this where you are playing an agent, do you do that research or do you sort of just jump on it and say, “I’ve got this.”
Karl: No, no, no. I think that’d be a mistake to enter into any role thinking that you’ve got it or you are, you know, armed with everything you need to fill it. And certainly this character was one that I read every book that Bob Baer wrote, and he was basically a retired CIA operative. And I met with him and had some good sessions with him, which was really interesting. A, not only hearing about his experience in the company, but also being able to gleam little bits, subtle little things that you can inject into the character. What else? Obviously, more weapons training, cars — all that sort of stuff. Yeah. So I just read…A lot of it was just trying to get some sort of informed perspective, so I did a lot of reading.
Are there car chases in the film?
Karl: Yes there are.
How important is it to take a role like this, with the success of Star Trek, and get away from where you play a darker character?
Karl: No, I haven’t really thought about it in terms of its importance. I just…I read the script and really responded to the character. He is a cool character; he starts in one place with one point of view and ends somewhere completely different. It’s got a great arc. And then, also, the wonderful thing about it is that I play a CIA hit man but I have family. I haven’t seen that or had the opportunity to play something like that before, so there was quite a, sort of, like a real sort of fun dynamic to the role, which that is what attracted me.
Do you see your family?
Karl: Yes, you do. You get to see him at work and then at home with his family. There are some classic scenes of doing a hit and talking on the phone with the wife about the kids! And it is just…it’s so bizarre. I’m looking forward to seeing it.
Your wife knows what you do in the movie, right? Or does she not know?
Karl: She knows that I work for the company, but that’s about it. It’s like…you know, it’s one of those things where you have an understanding, but, “OK. Dad can’t talk about work.” You know, like, “Don’t ask!” So there are some days I’m coming home and I’m covered in bruises and banged up, which is what I do after meeting Bruce’s character. I come home in pretty bad shape and she is like looking at me!
Obviously you were a fan, but you must be a fan of Bruce Willis and all of his action films. When you are working with someone like Bruce, do you geek out at all, or do you want to geek out at all, or do you sort of keep it very…? What’s it like on the set when you are not filming?
Karl: I’ll say a few things about Bruce. I’ve been watching his work for years. First of all, it was really refreshing to sit and meet him and find out that all your kind of expectations of who he might be is not…I’ll just say I wasn’t disappointed in who he was. He was very open and generous with time and his ideas. And, you know, he is…I think if he wasn’t such a major movie star, he’d make a phenomenal stuntman. He is one of the most coordinated actors I’ve ever worked with.
Do you get any good funny lines in the film or do you play it pretty straight?
Karl: I play it pretty straight. I get thrown in some funny situations that, you know…my job is very kind of…”Kill him”.
You obviously have some hand to hand combat with some of the actors…
Karl: Well, I do. I have a massive fight sequence with Bruce Willis. Yeah.
What’s it like to punch Bruce Willis?
Karl: Oh, it was great! [laughter] One of my favorite bits in the thing is I take this coffee cup and hurl it as his face. And to his credit, he took it right smack on the head. It actually cut him and he started bleeding.
Karl: Yeah. I made him bleed.
Dude, he is going to find you… So Bruce is a bleeder, huh?
Karl: Bruce was fine. His makeup artist wasn’t too happy about it.
The movie also has Morgan, John Malkovich. Could you talk about being a fan of theirs and what they were like?
Karl: Morgan and I sort of really didn’t have to do within this film. But obviously, I have such a long-standing, deep appreciation of not only his work but John’s as well. Same with John — I sort of really only had a limited amount to do with him in the film. But the course of the film…I’ve actually been out with John a few times and spent some time with him and I mean he is classic. He is a unique, one of a kind gentleman. He tells a story of how he is coming back through the airport…John Malkovich tells a story. He is coming back through the airport from being overseas. He designs clothes and he was bringing with him like a whole suitcase full of samples of garments and stuff. And the customs guy said, “So, what are these worth? Are they worth something?” And John is like, “Well, I found myself in an existential quandary because I like the clothes. They are worth something to me; I designed them. So I said to him, ‘I like them. I designed them. They mean something to me. But if nobody buys them, they are not worth shit!’” And the customs guy confiscated the lot! But he is like…he is constantly coming out with these little, you know, really insane stories. But he’s…yeah, he is one of a kind. He’s classic.
How many days have you been on set and working, and what…?
Karl: I think I was about 30 out of 60.
And what did you find in this experience? What challenged you as an actor? What challenged you in this location or this schedule? How was this situation different? I mean it was 30 days.
Karl: Wow, that’s a great question. There’s many ways I could answer that. I think, purely on a superficial level, the physical conditions that we sometimes were shooting in, it was challenging. Sometimes you’re outside and you just can’t feel your face. It was numb. It was that cold.
Wow. This is up in Toronto?
Karl: Yeah, in Toronto. It was absolutely freezing. Challenge-wise…
For instance, with your weapons training or physical training, anything like that, was that a challenge?
Karl: Yeah, the stunt training was definitely a challenge. It was interesting. The stunt guys on this are phenomenal. Buster Reeves is my stunt double and he is, without a doubt, one of the best stunt men I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. He’s a former kickboxing champion. He’s got the record for most kicks to the head. So, when I was into the training things to do my session, he goes, “All right. I’m gonna come at you and you defend yourself as best you can.” I’m, like, “Alright.” He goes, “You tell me when you start feeling threatened.” And he’s like 10 feet away and he starts moving, so he gets to eight feet away, and I’m, “That’s it.” And he just bursts out laughing. He’s like, “OK.” So, I think it was just his gauge of what have we got here. So, he went back upstairs and was, “Oh no. This is gonna be some work.” [laughter] Buster and Stewart, which is Bruce’s stunt double, they proceeded to show me the ins and outs of fighting. So, what they decided to do was show me every conceivable way that you could get choked out. But not on each other, on me. So, “Well, we could do this.” And you see, like, “Oh yeah, OK.” [knocks on table] They literally, nearly choked me out for a good two hours. The great thing about that was that it taught me was the end game was, what the objective in the fight was. If you come up against someone who is of an equal standing as yourself and you can’t take them out, that’s this whole mixed martial arts style, which is gone off. So, yeah, that was really, really interesting. And after that day I clicked into where I really needed to be physically and mentally for that fight. But that’s the great thing about this job. You get taught these amazing skills that you can never use in real life, whether it’s doing reverse 180s in cars or driving weapons. Hopefully you never have to use these skills, fighting…
Do you like to shoot guns in your free time?
Karl: Yeah, I do, actually. I just went out just a couple of days ago with Buster and went to a range here. And we literally spent 600 bucks. We were there for a couple of hours, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. It was great.
I was gonna ask, you shooting 30 days of the 60, you obviously have had some down time in Toronto and New Orleans. What would you recommend to people who’ve never been to either city that you’ve enjoyed doing on your down time?
Karl: Wow, I actually did have some down time, but I actually flew back home for two stretches, so I wasn’t there the whole time. Toronto, I would recommend…What would I recommend in Toronto?
Karl: Yeah, that was pretty much it. There’s a great DVD store on…no. I can tell you what I can recommend about New Orleans is the food is phenomenal. We went to an amazing restaurant the other night called Maximo’s, which if you ever get a chance to while you here, you have to check it out. It’s to die for. Great food. What else? The French Quarter, you know, just take a walk around. You gotta go out at night. You’ve gotta walk down Bourbon Street at night, and do bars.
I have to ask, if you’re walking on Bourbon Street, can you blend in? Or do people immediately want come up to you, especially with Star Trek and the success of that film, do they immediately look at you and they know?
Karl: Yeah, I do get tagged a bit. But it wouldn’t be like Bruce walking down the street. I mean, he would attract a crowd of people. He’s got the rule of no eye contact. That’s it. Think about it, if you make eye contact with someone, then they will, more likely than not, come up to you and want to interact with you. So that’s how he gets through situations like that. No, I don’t mind it at all. I think that it’s par for the course. You wouldn’t be in this business if you had an issue with people coming up and wanting to interact with you on the street. And they’re the customers. And sometimes it’s nice to know that what you’ve done has been appreciated. It’s not like theater where you get that instant response, negative or positive. So, yeah, there’s been a bit of that.
But you can’t walk around Bourbon Street and drink Hurricanes all night the way we can, right?
Karl: Well, actually.
Why wouldn’t you?
Karl: Hence, the glasses.
Do you have an American accent in the film?
Karl: I do.
Is that something you enjoy? Is that a challenge?
Karl: Yeah, it’s always a challenge. It’s something you have to work on. And, again, it’s one of those elements that no different to me than learning to fire weapons or fights. It’s just one of those elements that comprises the character that you have to spend time and energy on getting right.
You recently filmed “Priest”. For people who are not familiar with it, can you talk a little bit about who you play in that film? And have you seen dailies? Have you seen a rough cut?
Karl: I haven’t seen anything. I heard the other day they showed the film to Sam Raimi and a bunch of execs over of at Sony, and they were just really thrilled with it. I haven’t seen it. I’m really looking forward to seeing it. I play a character called Black Hat, who is the villain of the film. And I think that’s coming out early next year, I believe.
Did you enjoy playing the villain?
Karl: I did.
Karl: Yeah, the fun thing about villains is they get to do and say those things that we can never do it real life. They walk on that precipice that’s unblinking. I love that.
Was there any kind of villain that was inspiring that role? Anybody you pulled from?
Karl: Well, you know, really it is a big nod back to the silent movie days. You had westerns, and obviously the villain in the western typically wore a black hat. So, visually it takes its cue off that.
Body language the same? Any twirly of mustaches or anything?
Karl: No, no. I think that’s mistake. You go into a generic area there. I guess the thing about that character is that he was a former priest and his job was to hunt down vampires. And then he was captured and turned into one, and found himself on the other side. And I guess it’s sort of a do or die situation. It’s more fun playing the villain, though, because they’re more complex. There’s a lot more layers to them. I would think, as an actor, it’s just much more fun to be the bad guy. I had a lot of fun on that. There was, emotionally, quite an interesting complexity about it in terms of the fact that I felt betrayed by Paul Bettany’s character for having let me go. Him letting me be captured or not killed me. And there’s interesting layers like that you can infuse. And the depth of that kind of rage and anger and longing and lust, even. Wanting Paul Bettany’s character, Priest, to come and join me, and so together, as brothers, they can sort of exterminate humanity.
Killing vampires is just one more thing you can now add to your skill set.
Karl: Yeah. [laughs]
I’m just curious though. Vampires seem to be…that whole genre seem to be taking off. Summit has the Twilight franchise. “Priest”, “True Blood” — it seems like everybody is making vampire movies. What do you think is the appeal right now of the vampire genre?
Karl: I think it’s kind of sexy. Most definitely after, you know, post “True Blood” and Twilight it’s…yeah, it’s really interesting how that whole genre has taken off. I think there is something taboo about it and that is always, I think, very attractive. There is something forbidden about it and sexual, and I think that is a great hook for people. You always want what you can’t have.
Do you have fear going into a vampire movie that it was part of the bandwagon? Were you just a little bit iffy about taking that role?
Karl: No, no I wasn’t at all, actually. I thought, “Well, I can take that one off. I’ve done that.” I’d love to…I just want to…You know, that is what interests me. If I can find something that I haven’t done before, then that is an immediate…it peaks my interest. Like, this was interesting to me because I am playing a hit man, which I have played before, but not a hit man with a family. Not a hit man who goes on a journey through the film and he ends up at a completely different point of view than when he begins. So, you know, obviously that and working with such a stellar cast and a great director is why I am here.
What do you think the evolution for your character is going to be in the sequel for Star Trek?
Karl: I have no idea.
You haven’t seen a script yet?
Karl: I haven’t seen the script. I just know it is going to be good. I am really looking forward to getting onboard that one. And I feel now that we have introduced all these great characters and it is just going to be really interesting to see where we can take it.
Is it going to start shooting before this comes out in October?
Karl: No. It will start to shoot, I think, at the beginning of next year.
Obviously, I would imagine you are going to be at Comic-Con this summer. You have “Priest”. You are going to have this. I am sure they will both be promoting. Do you look forward to Comic-Con? And when you go to something like that, what do you geek out about? Do you collect anything?
Karl: Yeah, I do.
Karl: Well, I’m mainly buying for my kids.
When you say kids, that is in quotations, right?
Karl: I’ve got a great light saber collection.
Wait, wait. I am going to call you on this. What company makes them?
Oh, yeah. I’m calling you on it!
Karl: Is it…It could be Light Force or…
It could be Master Replica.
Karl: Master Replica, that’s it! The ones that…yeah. Yeah, yeah. They are brilliant. The ones that light up. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve got a Yoda one. I’ve got a little green one and then a blue one and a red one, which makes for a lot of fun until you get hit in the face.
Who’s hitting you in the face with a light saber?
Karl: My kids! Doctor Who; I am big on Doctor Who, so I will go for DVDs and all that sort of stuff.
Are you into collecting the toys? Now with the Trek thing and the scene and being at Comic-Con, are you sort of understanding a little more of the fandom culture?
Karl: Yeah. But, you know, I kind of, in many ways, geek out maybe not quite as much as some of the ones. I don’t dress up, but I love going there and, you know, seeing all the models of the R2D2’s or all the different, you know, different sort of stalls of different various movies and TV shows. It is kind of cool. It is a great opportunity for everybody to really get together and celebrate something…you know, to celebrate the sort of pop-culture. I have a lot of fun there. I have a lot of un more so walking around and checking everything out than actually doing like the Q&A’s or whatever it is…the press…
Yeah, the press stuff sucks.
Karl: It’s OK.
And you talked about a checklist before. You know, “Vampire flick — I can check that off.” You know, CIA, hit man. You’ve played a villain, you’ve played a good guy, you’ve played lead, you’ve played everything. What else is on that checklist? What would you like to do, and what is kind of on slate for you that might fulfill that? Have you done an animated film? Have you done voiceover…?
Karl: No I have not. I have not done that yet. I don’t know…apart from the next Trek film, I don’t know what I’m going to do next. I have the opportunity to do a couple of things, but I’ve been away for three months, so I am going to go back and spend some time at home before getting to the next thing. And I never know what that is until I read the script and I go, “Wow. That’s kind of interesting,” or,” I haven’t done that before.” If I start making decisions about how I’d like to play the character while I’m reading it or if I connect on some sort of emotional level, that is generally a good indication that it is something that I’d like to do.
Do you want to direct and produce?
Karl: That’s a good question. Here is the thing. You know, I’ve been blessed to work with some truly phenomenal directors. And I have so much respect for everything that comprises their craft. I’m not raising my hand saying, “Yeah, I could do that.” I might like to, but I am quite happy doing what I am doing at the moment.
You know, if you are a director then, you know, the commitment can be several years. You know, from the time of shepherding a project through its development, into shooting, and then to post. And, you know, I kind of like the three, four month commitment or whatever it is.
But I certainly have some stories I’d love to tell if I ever get around to doing something like that.
You’ve signed on for two Trek sequels, right?
Karl: Correct. Yes.
Do you see yourself going beyond those two? Is it going to be just a three movie deal with you guys?
Karl: Again, I don’t know. I think that is sort of dependent upon many factors.
Will you get bored with it eventually? It sounds like you like a new challenge.
Karl: Yeah. Well, I mean that is entirely dependent, I guess, on…You know, like anything, whether you are in a long running TV show or a play, if you are running out of new territory or new gold to mine, then sure, that could potentially stagnate. But the thing, specifically, about Trek is you can have a look at who is involved. I mean, you know, J.J., and Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman are all incredibly creative. So I’ve got faith in them. If it goes beyond three, then, you know, I’d go for it.
Have you made any requests to the writing to J.J. or any of the other people working on it where you want your character to go? Have you said something you’d like to be included in the next one?
Karl: No. I kind of think…you know, I kind of think they are geniuses. We should just let them do what they do. Officially bestow a genius label on them and just let them do it. You know, I’ve just got full faith that whatever they come up with is going to equal and surpass the first installment.
Have there been any roles that you’ve auditioned for or any scripts that came your way that you regret saying no to or walking away from?
Karl: Let me think. Not really. Not really. Not that I can think of off the top of my head, actually.
That was a crappy last question.
I didn’t get nothing!
Karl: No, you didn’t.
Can you talk a little bit about being like a young agent up against these old-school Cold War assassins?
Karl: Good question. Yeah, OK. Well, it’s interesting, because obviously, it is old versus young, and not just in terms of cast-wise, but technology. The new breed, which I represent, has sort of a massive technological resource at its disposal. You know, like satellites, phone taps, data haunts, which basically is, you know, all of your credit card information. You know, and cell phones that can track where you are.
That is the phenomenal thing that I’ve learned on this, is that you can get tracked on a cell phone not even having it turned on, because it always maintains a residual charge. You have to take the battery out, right?
Karl: Even when it is off. Even when it is off it will always take a residual charge. I think even when you take the battery out, I believe.
Karl: I could be wrong on that, so…because it’s got to store all your information, so it is constantly emitting something.
You are a dangerous actor to know!
Karl: No, I’m not, but I do know some dangerous people.
Karl: So, yeah. It is kind of that kind of world versus the human intel world which is the way they did it in the old days, which Bob Baer was talking a lot about, is that you actually had to go out there and cultivate these contacts and these agents. And, you know, more and more these days, the, sort of…we call them security…the CIA, the government is sort of relying more on data, which is satellite images and stuff like that, as opposed to actually getting out there and cultivating those ground contacts. And that is kind of what Bruce’s character, you know, the way he operates. And when I come after him, the first thing he does is essentially go through all his old contacts, which is wonderful because we can get this sort of vast array of eclectic, sort of, zany characters from old Cold War adversaries to colleagues on his team. So, yeah. And we had a lot of fun with it. There is a lot of comedy in the film about old versus young and all that sort of stuff.
What was probably the most shocking thing you learned in talking with the CIA…the former CIA guy?
Karl: Who killed Kennedy.
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