Karl Urban Interview: Having A Chin Wag With The Judge

As 2000 AD’s future lawman prepares to make his return to the big screen, I met up with the star, Karl Urban, for a chin wag about being a geek, stunts that go wrong and all things Dredd.

Karl calmly sits down and cracks opens a can of drink, before posing and jokingly saying, “Dredd, proudly brought to you by Pepsi.

Nick: I believe that you didn’t have a strict audition for Dredd; it was all a bit of a geek fest. Can you talk a little about how you managed to impress them with your geekery?

Karl: I was holiday with my family when I received an email from my agent saying, “They’re rebooting Judge Dredd, any interest?” Having been an avid reader of the comic when I was 17, I said, “Yes, it’s something I’d be interested in.” So, I got sent the script by Alex Garland, and I thought that it was not only honourable to the source material, but just a really wonderful action packed character driven story. So based upon that, and I had some idea of the creative elements involved, I felt that there was a good degree of insurance about the fact that it was going to be well executed, so it was on that basis that I signalled my interest. Then hopped on a plane, we met halfway around the world, the DNA boys, Alex (Garland) and Pete (Travis) came from London and I came from New Zealand and we met in LA, and we just had a really frank and open discussion about the script, about the character. I had a sense that they just wanted to be assured that I wouldn’t get halfway through the film and suddenly start demanding scenes without the helmet. I think this is what sealed the deal. I told them that, which you’re not really supposed to do, but I told them that I wouldn’t even bother taking the movie if I’d have read the script and found scenes where Dredd had removed his helmet. That’s not the Dredd that I grew up reading and admiring, and I think that’s kind of what sealed the deal. A couple of days later I got a call from London, from them inviting me to join the party.

Nick: As you know yourself, Dredd is a character that people have a certain idea of how he’s supposed to be. How much wiggle room was there to deliver a performance that was unique, but at the same time stayed faithful?

Karl: Yeah, that’s interesting. It represented a huge challenge. For me, I was focused on doing my job, and that is delivering the most specific, interesting multi-dimensional character that I can. Other people’s expectations of what that’s going to be is outside my area of concern. I’m just focused on what my job is. I certainly think that having been a fan as a teenager that I put a lot of pressure upon myself to get it right, and all I really did was use the script. Alex has written a very, very specific, wonderful, action packed, character driven script. I used that and I read every single Dredd comic that I could get my hands on. The cool thing about that was that I went back and not only re-discovered the stories that I fell in love with growing up, but then discovered this really amazing maturity that had developed in the work subsequent to my reading it. You know, stories like ‘Origins’ and ‘Necropolis’, I think as John Wagner (creator of Judge Dredd) got older, the character of Dredd attained more depth. 

Nick: What is the moment in the film that you are most proud of, that you think is going to really please the fans, in terms of when you really felt you nailed Dredd?

Karl: What was really important to me was that this was not going to be a bombastic character based on ego, we wanted the character to be like a tightly wound spring. To me it was far more interesting to watch a character struggling to contain his rage at the injustice than letting that rage out, so that’s kind of what we were going for there. As far as one specific scene, I’m just really proud of the film as a whole, because it could have taken a detour down so many wrong roads and just through the sheer collaborative effort of everybody involved, it’s really turned into an instant cult classic.

Nick: Dredd is a film that could have very easily fallen prey to the whole machine, and become a PG-13 nuts and bolts action film, but it’s the opposite, it’s a very hardcore hyper violent adult movie. Is that something that appealed to you, is that why you chose to do it?

Karl: No, I can’t say that it was an appeal, and I have to say that I pretty much underestimated a lot of the graphic elements involved in the final film. When you read something on the page, it’s your imagination that does the work but it’s something else when you see it fully represented and realised. Even while I was making the film I really wasn’t quite aware of some of the more graphic elements. When I sat down and watched it, it made me recoil, but I think it’s actually a really smart move on Alex’s behalf, because in the way that Stanley Kubrick focused on subjects like violence in movies like A Clockwork Orange to the point where the audience would recoil, I think the same thing occurs here. The violence becomes a character and the violence really informs you, as a audience member, about the reality of what it’s like for these Judges operating in this world where there is very little regard for human life. I think that it would be so easy to go the road of a different version of the film, where you become desensitised to the violence. You’ve seen a lot of Hollywood movies that are just bam, biff, pow (throws some air punches) and you’re like, “oh yeah violence,” but you don’t really understand what has just occurred, because you haven’t actually seen it. But because we have this narrative that we call Slo-Mo, you get to see everything from the perspective of this drug and you do get to explore it.

Nick: The common denominator of the blockbusters over the past few years is that you have a superhero who takes justice into his own hands as he doesn’t believe in the justice system anymore. Why is there such a demand for movies where the ultimate superhero hands out justice? Is it because people feel there is not enough in the world?

Karl: One of the things that set’s Dredd apart, is that he is not a superhero; he is just a man, a man working within a justice system that is struggling to contain a society that is on the brink of collapse and chaos. He doesn’t have superpowers, all he has got is an extraordinary skill set, a versatile gun and a really cool bike. The thing that appealed to me about it is that his brand of heroism was kind of like those fire fighters in 9/11 and I was very cognisant of that when I was making this movie, because he is the type of guy who is going into the building when everybody else is coming out. To me that is the definition of real heroism. It’s not, “I’ve got this magic ring,” or “I’ve got this great power,” he is just a man doing his job.

Nick: Having someone who is Judge, Jury and Executioner is a scary thing, how do you feel about that?

Karl: Personally, I also find that idea completely frightening, even the concept of living in a totalitarian society, where people’s rights are completely quashed. Just makes me feel so blessed that I don’t live in that society. I feel in the terms of Dredd though, that he is a necessary means to an end in that world, because that world is post-apocalyptic and it is a society that is struggling. It’s in a state of chaos and these guys are a direct result of that.

Nick: What was it like doing the action scenes? Were you given free reign by the director, or was there a clear plan to stick to?

Karl: It was all really handled by the stunt department, and it’s always best to hand those things over to people who are experts, because things can and do go wrong, and they certainly did on this film. There is one particular sequence where our stunt doubles had to jump out of the building onto a skate park, and it was deemed to be too dangerous for Olivia (Thirlby) and myself to do. I looked at it and was like, “Come on, I can do that,” and the director said, “I don’t think so.” So the doubles did it, and on the very first take, the stunt double that was doubling for Wood (Harris) landed incorrectly and compound fractured his leg – that means his bone came through the skin, and he completely dislocated his hip. So it’s always best to leave it to the professionals. I am also very aware that it’s a huge responsibility to be the lead in the film, and you have to know when to make that call and say,”‘You know what? I think you should do this pal,” because if something happened to me, there are three hundred people whose livelihoods are depending on me being up to work everyday. A movie is like a missile and there is a whole chain of events that would be seriously impacted if the missile wasn’t kept on target.

Nick: Were there any physical talents that you had to acquire or improve for this movie?

Karl: Yeah, I went through an extensive boot camp and military training, and I have done quite a bit of that for other movies. But I always like to approach as if I’m doing it for the first time, because when your dealing with weapons and weapon safety issues, it’s best to just start from scratch every single time. There was also the physical aspect for me; I worked out, extensively for about thirteen weeks to get into the physical condition that I needed to be in.

Nick: How difficult was it to have on screen chemistry with your partner Olivia when you can’t use your eyes?

Karl: It wasn’t very difficult at all actually. Olivia is an extraordinary actress and she does an amazing job in this film. We formed a real partnership, we both realised that we needed each other because this is a character driven film and that relationship is really the core of this film, it’s the glue, seeing the evolution of their relationship. Dredd doesn’t think much of her in the beginning, but changes through the film and you enjoy spending time with these characters. Everyday Olivia and I would get together before we started shooting and would discus the day’s work, to make sure we were on exactly the same page to really define the beats that we wanted and we really formed a solid partnership and I think the movie really benefits from that.

Nick: How did you go about getting into the mind set of Dredd?

Karl: First of all I read everything Dredd that I could get my hands on, worked out, and I think that the physical transformation was huge. Then when I got to Cape Town, I donned the uniform, and before we even started rolling the cameras, for two weeks I was wearing that uniform, in the midst of a hot South African summer, that can certainly put you in a mood (laughs). You know, all those elements just kind of mixed together.

Nick: How the about the voice? Where did that come from?

Karl: The voice I found described in a panel in one of the comics as “like a saw cutting through bone,” and so what you see in the film is my interpretation of what that is. But I was also very aware that Dredd uses his voice as a weapon, so it had to have a resonance to it and it had to have an authority to it. At the same point, we didn’t want it to go to an extreme that is so artificially enhanced or anything, which we didn’t do. The voice you hear is what was done on scene.

Nick: Have you seen the Stallone film? Did you take anything from that or did you try to move away from that?

Karl: Here’s the thing, I remember seeing that when it came out back in 1995, and, well you know, I have to be careful of what I say out of respect for Mr. Stallone and I certainly don’t want to publicise my film by putting down another, but I always felt like these were separate entities. Tonally you couldn’t get more difference and his film was a product of superhero films in the 1990s and ours is just a completely different take on it, In the terms that it’s much more graphic, much more realistic and I think in many ways it’s much more authentic to the character that Wagner created.

Nick: Alex Garland talked about early drafts involving Judge Death and straight from the comic book story arcs. Did you have a chance to see any of those drafts? And if you’d talked about how that would work stylistically with the Dredd that you had created?

Karl: I have not read those drafts, but I’d be interested to. The truth is I guess that we have just spent so much time and energy focusing on this film and now we are at the point where we are releasing it. I would love to come back and make more of these; I had such a great time working with Alex and the whole team. If we get to make more then that would be fantastic, but if it’s a one off cult classic then as I have said before, I am genuinely happy, I’m okay with that.

Nick: Can you tell me anything about Star Trek 2?

Karl: I can’t tell you anything… except that it’s going to be awesome.

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