Every villain is the hero of their own story, which can certainly be said for the title character in Maleficent. This untold story of Disney’s most iconic villain from the classic Sleeping Beauty shows the level of betrayal that ultimately turned Maleficent’s (played to wickedly delightful perfection by Academy Award winner Angelina Jolie) pure heart to stone and led her to place an irrevocable curse upon the infant Aurora. Directed by Robert Stromberg and written by Linda Woolverton, the film also stars Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Brenton Thwaites.
While at the film’s press day, Collider spoke to actor Sharlto Copley (who plays Aurora’s father, King Stefan) at both a roundtable and 1-on-1 interview where he talked about how he came to the film, easily finding his way into the character, whether he thinks his character ever regretted his actions, that some of the backstory had to get cut for time, finding the character’s voice, and what it was like to work with Angelina Jolie. He also talked about playing a robot in Chappie, having his movements animated, why he’s finding his stride with director Neill Blomkamp now that they’ve done three films together, and why their collaborative relationship is so important to him. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
SHARLTO COPLEY: It came through my agents, and my agents gave me the script and said, “This is something going around town. A lot of people are going after it. You’re probably not going to get in there.” I was like, “Look, I really would love to do this.” I went after it quite aggressively, in the sense of doing a tape. Actually, if I remember correctly, there was a delay because they thought it was going to someone else, but they were not sure. And then, as soon as they said, “We might be able to get your tape in there,” I did it and they sent it.
Was this a character that you tapped into, right away?
COPLEY: Yes, I did. That usually happens with characters that I do, but not always. But I had a feeling that I had found a way into the character, which was to use his desire for ambition and recognition and this male dominate trait that I could see and recognize that I had some of in myself. So, I started with that, and then did something where I took it to its extreme.
How did you ultimately find your performance?
COPLEY: I wanted to play him with a real degree of humanity. And because I’m a filmmaker at heart, I know a villain can’t be too humanized and the audience can’t empathize with him too much. For me, he loves her, the whole way through the film. He betrays her, but it wasn’t easy for him to betray her, and that drives him crazy, having hurt the one person that loved him before he was the king.
Do you think he had moments when he wished he hadn’t done, or he wished things had turned out differently?
COPLEY: Yes! But I think it was the classic thing of the ego having just gotten too big, by that point. He’s still stuck in the idea of, “How could she do this to me?” From his point of view, he was meant to kill her, but he doesn’t kill her. He takes her wings, which he considers to be helpful, almost. You don’t see a lot of the backstory that we actually shot, that didn’t make it into the film, that was a progression where he realizing, as he’s getting older and he has this relationship with Maleficent, that she’s just too different from him. He’s starting to say, “What’s wrong with ambition? I’m not magic. I can’t fly. I wanna do something great.” This divide between magical creatures and humans gets bigger and bigger and bigger, causing them to have a fight and separate. If he had his way, as the king of his kingdom, he would have sat down with her and be like, “I did this. Now, maybe we can have some peace between our kingdoms, and you and I can have a relationship. I’m really sorry for it, but this king wanted to kill you. Now, humans and magical creatures can live together.” That would have been my approach with the character.
Do you think that if he had supernatural powers of his own, that he would have been a very different person?
COPLEY: Yes, he wouldn’t have had as much of a desperate need to get ahold of that power. He grew up feeling very inadequate in the environment that he was in, with magical creatures when he doesn’t have magic.
So, you actually shot more backstory than we get to see?
COPLEY: Yeah, as with any film, you can’t get everything in. I love it when they [include deleted scenes on the DVD]. It’s quite a fascinating thing to see. And you very often see why a scene had to go. There’s just not enough time. Whenever you’re a subplot, the filmmaker has to make those decisions.
Because this is a fantasy film and didn’t have to be reality-based, was it fun to just go over-the-top in some of the moments?
COPLEY: Yes, absolutely! That is the fun part about playing characters like this. Villains are not fun for me to play, as such. But caricature-ish, intense behaviors that are based on real human traits are interesting. That makes an interesting story. That’s what a powerful story does. It creates a more intense experience of life for you to watch. That’s what a good film does for me, anyway. That process, I enjoy. It just makes for entertaining characters and entertaining films. And Rob never whispered in my ear and said, “No, it’s too much.”
Was there a process for finding the look of the character and his costumes?
COPLEY: One of the first things we said in the first meeting that Rob and I had was, “Once he becomes king, he should just age, the way American presidents do.” Whenever you see somebody become president and take that level of responsibility, they look older. And of course, this guy has got the added problem of Maleficent coming for him, and his own paranoia. It was funny, but Rob said exactly the same thing. We were very much on the same wavelength. For me, the starting point was actually before I even did my test, when I decided that I wanted him to have a specific type of Scottish accent. The accent is always critical for me because it informs a lot of the character. In this case, I chose an accent that I felt would work equally well as a common man and a king. I would not have chosen a South London accent, which would be a great common man, but people wouldn’t buy as easily, as a regal, noble king. I had to represent, with the accent and voice, someone who is a normal, common guy, and someone who you think could be a noble, strong king, so I chose the Scottish. And then, a whole bunch of decisions came from there. The look led from there. Once I had his voice and I knew his main driving thing was his ambition, I was playing that he was trying to be the man in the relationship with Maleficent, but it’s difficult because she has wings and he’s mostly hanging onto her legs.
How was it to work with Angelina Jolie?
COPLEY: I had to leave the whole “most famous woman in the world” thing at the door and just do this. Thankfully, that’s what she wanted from me. She was just very grounded and very respectful and just treated me, surprisingly to some people from the outside, as an equal. I wouldn’t have expected that. I wouldn’t have required it. I really, really enjoyed the process of working with her. She’s one of the actresses I admire most. Very specifically, what I admire is that there’s very few actresses who are known and loved as movie stars, who would take a role where they’re going to say, “I hate you,” to a baby. She can do that, and still have the audience. It’s a certain type of actor that has that range, knowing that her fans will love her as the hero, the whole time. It’s difficult for people, once they become movie stars, to do that. Even if they have the acting chops to do it, the audience won’t accept it from them. What she had seen and said about District 9 was my layers of being able to mess with the audience and make them wonder, “Do I like you? Do I not like you?,” as you’re watching the character. I think we gravitated to wanting to work together because I thought it would be a very interesting film. I’m going through this in almost the reverse of what I went through in District 9, starting nice and just deteriorating. Maleficent starts nice, goes bad, and then comes back. I thought that would be very interesting, energetically.
When you made District 9, you were unsure about whether you wanted to be an actor, but you’re still doing it. Do you consider yourself an actor now?
COPLEY: I guess so, yeah. I hope to get back behind the scenes soon. I’m writing a lot, so I’ll probably be directing something that I write, within the next couple of years. I’m really looking forward to doing that, as well.
COPLEY: Yes, a childlike robot, which is great. He only gets to about 9 years old, in his emotional development, so I got to run around in one of the most dangerous cities in the world, being a child. It was awesome. It was the reverse of London, where I ran around like a crazy, evil maniac, in one of the safest cities. I ran around like an innocent babe, in one of the most dangerous cities. Welcome to acting, ladies and gentlemen. Chappie was more fun. It was shooting in Johannesburg, where I grew up. I played a light character, so that was fun. Working with Neill [Blomkamp] was very rewarding, the third time out. It was very easy for us.
What was it like to do a third film with the same filmmaker that you did both District 9 and Elysium with?
COPLEY: I think we’re finding our stride now, on this third film. We went back to smallest dollar filmmaking. I’m doing the lead again, which I haven’t really done since District 9. This was something that I really felt would be fun. I knew that I could trust him completely, to make sure that the animation of what I was doing looked good. What’s blowing my mind is the animating over my movements. They’re using absolutely everything that I do, in a poor man’s motion capture style. I was never sure how it would translate, but the amount of me that is in the character is incredible. I can see, in a little sequence, if there’s half a second where there’s a stunt guy that was doing part of a sequence. I can tell when it’s the stunt guy, watching the animation, because he moves slightly differently from me. When you do a performance that’s movement based, the audience won’t see it, but I see it. It’s quite amazing because they’ve created something totally different. All I had to focus on, as the actor, was the behavior and the essence of this being. I was not at all concerned about the appearance, which you normally would be heavily concerned about, as an actor.
Is your voice in the movie?
What’s it been like for you to have such a collaborative relationship with Neill Blomkamp, and how has it affect you as both an actor and as a filmmaker?
COPLEY: I’ve just been blessed by that relationship, in so many ways. What I’ve had with Neill is a sense of him seeing what I have to offer, even at a time, when we started with District 9, with me not necessarily seeing it. At a lot of other times in my life, I’m spending a lot of time and energy trying to say, “I’m actually good at this. Just let me do it.” With Neill, he knows that I can do stuff that even I didn’t realize I could do. It’s literally the opposite, with my engaging Hollywood and engaging Neill. Once you have a relationship with a director that you’re working with, it gets a lot easier. I’ve learned so much, working with Neill, about what it takes to protect your work and your creative integrity. My combined experiences, doing different films now, has made me very concerned about and interested in how you protect your creative self when the work, by default, is going to be judged by people. You aren’t always going to make stuff that everybody does. The sooner that you just realize that and accept that, the better. At best, hopefully, you will like it, every time, and that might not even happen. It’s the nature of your work. It’s just what comes with it. So, it makes it easier to deal with anybody criticizing you or anything thinking you’re wonderful when you realize that you just need to focus in this one area, which is your creative fulfillment and enjoyment. Hopefully, you’ll be able to find enough of an audience, each time, that you can keep working, rather than getting caught up in the Hollywood system, which can so quickly become about how much money something makes and how many people went to watch it. It’s very alluring. It’s such a powerful machine that’s playing on you, the whole time. And yet, it’s also a place with the most creative people that you’ll ever meet, in your whole life, and they’re all struggling with the same thing. All you have left, at the end of the day, is yourself and a very small group of people who you trust to help guide you to make the right decision for yourself.
Maleficent is now playing in theaters.