Coming after a summer of heroes with super powers or alter egos, Dredd tells the story of one keeper of justice who polices a futuristic dystopia by way of the gun. Based on the famous comic book character who debuted in 1977, this law enforcer (now played by Karl Urban) acts as judge, jury, and executioner when unleashing justice. In Dredd 3D, this titular character becomes trapped in an apartment complex run by drug thugs, along with his rookie partner Anderson (Olivia Thirlby).
Actor Karl Urban is no newcomer to the world of film franchises. Previous movies on his resume include The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, The Bourne Supremacy, Star Trek, The Chronicles of Riddick, Red, and even Doom.
In an exclusive interview, I sat down with Urban to discuss the Dredd suit, the idea of acting while wearing a helmet, the mindset for dealing with fan expectations, and more.
Dredd 3D opens nationwide on September 21.
Do you see Judge Dredd as a more progressive or classic kind of hero in our recent comic book movie character climate?
There’s a case to be made for both sides of that. I think that Dredd is a wonderful antidote to a lot of superhero movies that have come out recently. This is not a film for kids, it’s a film for big kids. In the same sense, Dredd has elements that are the embodiments of the classic male archetype that we haven’t seen for some time. I look back, and I’m not sure where it began, but the first time I was cognizant of this particular brand was Sean Connery as James Bond, and then going to Clint Eastwood, and Harrison Ford, and Schwarzenegger.
Did those actors influence how you wanted to portray classic, but reserved toughness with this character?
I didn’t look to any individual actors as inspiration for this. I really just drew upon what was on the page. Dredd is a highly trained member of a future law enforcement. And as a consequence he is an individual who does have his emotions in check. In certain junctures of the film, he does get a little unleashed. I think it’s the humor that’s the key, that humanizes him. It’s the humor that we used to love in Schwarzenegger, and laconic Harrison Ford. Dry comments like when Anderson’s not wearing a helmet, and Dredd says, “A bullet might interfere with it more.” You know he’s cracking a joke. I also really love the way he writes off this whole adventure that we get to witness as, “A drug bust. Perps uncooperative.” Really dry and humorous.
Working with Olivia Thirlby, you were the one who had much more experience on an action movie set. Were you her action movie mentor? Did you train together?
We did military boot camp for two weeks in South Africa. That was pretty intense. Olivia and I formed a great team. We realized that the relationship between our characters was central and key to the success of this movie. We would meet with each other every day before we went on set, and discuss where we were, and what we were shooting that day. That to me is one of the most engaging elements in the film is that relationship. They don’t like each other much in the beginning, but through necessity, they learn to trust each and work together. It’s rewarding as an audience.
It seems that when you train for action movies, you gain a lot of skills that you don’t get to use in real life. Have you ever used anything from previous movies offset?
When I shot The Bourne Supremacy, they trained me to a reverse 180 in a Mercedes G-Wagen, and then had the audacity to make me execute this in the streets of Moscow. It was one of those points where you can’t believe what you’re doing. But I may have, for old times sake, executed a reverse 180 or two in a safe environment, off the road. I can’t look at a Mercedes G-Wagen without having illegal thoughts.
You did the motorcycle riding in ‘Dredd.’ Did you do other stunts?
It was important for me to do everything that the insurance company would allow me to do. I think audiences are subliminally aware when something is artifice, when they’re seeing something that is some way, shape, or form contrived. It was really important to be there, and do everything I can. And also, why let someone else have all the fun?
On what set did you suffer your worst injury?
Red. I had to have quite an extensive rehabilitation. After I shot Red, I began training on Dredd. That was a huge challenge for me. I was starting to go gym work for Dredd while carrying this injury.
Does the Judge Dredd suit lend itself easily to hand-to-hand combat? Is it limber?
The uniform is essentially a leather motorbike outfit, and body armor. It was hugely challenging to move. But ultimately, I thought it leant quite a lot to how Dredd moved, and the attitude. Certainly wearing that, in the height of South African summer, leant itself to creating a certain mood. Grumpiness.
In this adaptation of the Judge Dredd character, you keep the helmet on. What can you see in the helmet when you’re wearing it? Does the “X” get in the way of your vision?
It’s fully functioning motorbike helmet. I had full visibility with the visor. The uniform is reflective of the environment in which Dredd operates. It’s a very dangerous world. They can only respond to 6% of crime in the world. These guys get shot at every single day.
Was Sylvester Stallone’s previous Judge Dredd movie something that was even discussed on set, or did you all try to view it completely as its own entity?
It’s its own entity. [Screenwriter] Alex Garland’s script for Dredd was a complete re-imagining. This was a more authentic version of the character. It was a character-driven script. The Dredd in this film isn’t bombastic, or based in ego. He’s actually quite a stoic, quiet man who on the surface is calm. We compare him to be a tightly bound coil, a spring. A jaguar, a leopard, or one of those big cats. He can be calm, and relaxed, but all of the sudden just leap into action.
What causes more stress, avoiding ‘Star Trek’ questions, or taking on such a revered character that comes with many fan expectations?
As a longtime fan of Dredd, I felt an obligation to get it right, and so did Alex Garland. That’s why Dredd co-creator John Wagner became a fully-paid member of our crew. One idea that John had when reading the script was that “Dredd says less.” So, Alex went away, and in his new draft, cut out a lot of lines. And then when Alex and myself had a script meeting, he saw that I myself had drawn lines through a lot of dialogue. I said, “I love this dialogue, but, Dredd says less.”
What influence did John Wagner have on the script?
There were certain things that were very important to John. For example, there had to be a moment where a citizen of Mega City One thanks Judge Dredd for what he is doing. Because, on the one hand, Dredd is a representative of the totalitarian system, and is in charge of keeping order and freedom, but on the other hand he functions as a protector. It was important to John that be acknowledged.
Acting with the mask … I mean, helmet …
Everyone is talking in terms of superheroes. For Dredd, there’s no alter ego, and he doesn’t have superpowers. It’s just a guy doing a job.
Is there a different type of acting required when only the bottom of your face is exposed?
What I discovered was just having faith and the confidence that if you think the thought and the emotion, the audience will too, without the use of the eyes. It was certainly a challenge figuring out how to make that work. Not only was I limited on what I was able to express, but the voice takes on a physicality with the character. You’re equally limited by the fact that you’re playing a character who keeps his emotions in check, and he doesn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve. That, as well as the fact that he doesn’t show his eyes, leads to quite a challenge.
With your filmography, you have appeared in quite a few film franchises. Did your experience promoting these films prepare you for taking on a franchise entity by yourself? You’re leading the franchise now.
I think everything you do in life prepares you for the next experience. Certainly, my work on other films, and with many talented individuals and learning from them, I think I was able to apply those lessons to making this film.
When it comes to making a film like ‘Dredd,’ it comes down to making the film you want to make, but also keeping in mind what the audience is expecting?
To tell you the truth, when I’m making a film, I don’t concern myself with audience expectations. I’m hired to realize the character to service the script, and quite frankly, I put enough pressure on myself to get it right, without even bothering what other people are thinking. Let them judge it when the film comes out. But before then, it’s just outside my area of concern. You have so many things coming at you that demand your attention and concentration, it would be a waste of time to keep hoping that [random name] likes this film.
Especially now with message board fan culture, fans can get a single unofficial image from set and overanalyze it.
That is an interesting conundrum. How much information should be released to the public before a film comes out? I certainly respect J.J. Abrams’ stance on that. You spend so much time and energy and money in making a film, and it’s just, why have people’s impressions corrupted by inferior information, or images? Scripts that get released on the internet two years before the movie comes out – why bother making the film?
Thank you. And best of luck with avoiding all of the ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ questions.
[Laughs] There’s just nothing to say.
Quick Questions with Karl Urban
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Favorite pop song growing up?
“China Girl,” by David Bowie.
Age of first kiss?