Interview: Dredd 3D Star Karl Urban

It’s understandable if some scratch and/or shake their heads over the need for (and wisdom of) a new Judge Dredd movie 17 years after Sylvester Stallone completely missed the point in 1995.

But writer-producer and long-time Danny Boyle collaborator Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine) has come up with a gritty, stylish new cinematic take on the stoic, future lawman that embraces the core of the character created by writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra in 1977 for the graphic British sci-fi magazine 2000 AD. (Dredd has since gone on to become one of the most popular comic-book characters in the world.)

Starring New Zealand actor Karl Urban as the titular Mega City cop, with the help of director Pete Travis (Vantage Point) and Boyle cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours), this new Dredd works both as ultra-violent, shoot-em-up sci fi, and a commentary on the same.

A hard-bitten, “pure Justice” law-enforcer (and–as his title suggests–judge, jury, and executioner) in a used-up, burned-out, cynical future, the things that make Dredd the graphic character so popular are his satirically brutal, violent dedication to “The Law” and stoic air of dark mystery. Hidden behind his helmet and armor, Dredd’s full face has never been clearly seen, and even after 30 years of publishing, his back story remains murky–a character trademark the new film, unlike Stallone’s version, respects, even if it deprives Urban of an actor’s biggest tools, his eyes.

The 2012 Dredd 3D follows the scowling law enforcer through one harrowing day on the job, during which he and rookie-in-training Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) are trapped in a massive housing complex, facing off against a heavily armed army of thugs employed by a vicious drug lord (Lena Hedley).

Urban himself is already a genre-fan favorite for his work as Rohan rider Eomer in The Lord of the Rings, a conflicted antagonist in The Chronicles of Riddick, and most impressively his spot-on portrayal of Doctor McCoy in J. J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot. And in Dredd 3D, the actor brings a knowing subtlety and wry humor to a character that could easily end up a jokey caricature. (Just ask Sly.)

I sat down with Karl Urban last week in Chicago to talk about Dredd 3D. Yes, I’m a huge fan of both Lord of the Rings and the new Star Trek, and yes Urban has completed shooting on Star Trek Into Darkness, coming to theaters next summer, but no I didn’t pester him with fan-boy praise and questions about either. (Actors tend to weary of hearing and talking about roles they played a decade ago, so I didn’t LOTR geek out on him. And Urban’s under a strict Star Trek gag order from Paramount, so his patience with attempts to pry past it seemed understandably, though still politely, strained.)

Instead I talked to the actor (who is much more slenderly suave and debonair in real life than his brawny, macho on-screen characters–more David Bowie than Norse warrior) about Dredd 3D and his thoughtful take on the seemingly impassive character.

Dredd opens in theaters everywhere this Friday, September 21.

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You went after the role of Dredd and asked early on for a meeting with Alex Garland. What was it about Garland’s approach to the Judge Dredd material that made you want to be a part of the film?

Karl Urban: What hooked me was that he’d written a very character-driven narrative, and the heart of this story was ostensibly the relationship between a seasoned cop and a rookie. It’s that human element, the fact those characters don’t get on, but are forced into a situation where they have to work together. And then during the course of the day, how they feel about each other changes. To me that’s gold, that’s the heart of the whole story.

Also being a fan of Dredd–I’d read it as a teenager–I felt that Alex Garland’s script was authentic and respectful to John Wagner’s creation. Of course, I found out subsequently that Alex was collaborating with John, and that John was a fully paid working member of the production.

That first meeting with Alex was more about discussing all things Dredd. I think they wanted to size me up and be reassured we weren’t going to get halfway through the movie, and I’d start requesting scenes where Dredd has his helmet off. It was clear to them that I got the material, and they wouldn’t have that issue with me.

Once you had the part and started to work on your portrayal of Dredd, how did you get around playing this very iconic character who could certainly be seen as more symbol than human?

Urban: What I learned was I couldn’t approach the character by trying to play the icon. I had to find the man, find out what makes him human, and that was the only way I was going to fully flesh out the character. It was critically important to find that dry, laconic, dead-pan sense of humor that humanizes him.

You know that there’s an inner monologue going on there in Dredd, a thought process, that he can see the funny side of things even in a dark situation. That’s a testament to his character.

Other things were more physical, like there’s a certain fatigue to the character that I felt was important to capture, a weariness. This nightmare of a day we see in the film is just another ordinary day for him.

And also finding the compassion in the character–he is very stoic and enigmatic, but it was important to find the right beats for the compassion and when to signal the gear shifts. I wanted Dredd to be like a tightly wound coil, and then we’d see where those beats were where we could expand that and let a bit of that inner rage or inner conflict out. To me it’s far more interesting to see a character struggling to contain his emotions, than to have one let them out.

And you have to do all that without the use of your eyes and with very minimalist dialog.

Urban: Funny thing with the dialog. Before we shot the film, Alex Garland had a meeting with John Wagner, and Wagner said, “Love the script; one of my few notes is that Dredd needs to say less.” So Alex incorporated that note into the next draft. Then I had a script meeting with Alex in Cape Town several months later, and Alex looks over and sees that I’ve got lines through the dialog, and I saw him clock it, and I said, “I love this dialog, but I just have a feeling Dredd should say less.” So we were all on the same page.

I know you don’t want to get ahead of yourself, but if this movie is successful and there is talk of a sequel, how do you see the character of Dredd progressing in possible future films? Do you have to keep peeling back more layers of his background and emotions in order to keep the character fresh and growing? Or does making Dredd less mysterious reduce his impact?

Urban: That’s a really interesting question, and I think there’s an argument to be made for both sides to that. There’s a natural curiosity to want more, and if you look at the evolution of the writing in the comic, over the last 15 years the stories have taken on a far greater depth and maturity, and so has the character of Dredd, than the stories produced back in the ‘70s, when the character was really a satirical backlash to Thatcher-ism. It would have to be handled very carefully.

The film and your portrayal of Dredd hinges so much on the relationship between Dredd and Anderson, and to that end, you and Olivia Thirlby have a very effective on-screen dynamic.

Urban: Olivia and I realized very early on that for this film to succeed, the relationship between Dredd and Anderson was key, so we formed a unique partnership, probably quite unlike anything that I’ve experienced in my career. We would meet together every day before we’d go on set and discuss the day’s work, what we wanted to achieve, where the characters were in terms of how they felt about each other and Dredd’s professional assessment of Anderson.

There are key points where it’s through Anderson that you get more of an insight into Dredd. So it was important that those beats be synchronized. Her performance and Lena Headey’s are two of the things that make this film quite extraordinary and set it apart from others. It’s not that often you have two empowered, strong, feminine characters in a movie.

Obviously this film doesn’t back away from big, over-the-top, and pervasive on-screen violence. And yet it works in the film’s context because it feels stylized, purposeful, and seems to have something to say other than “here’s another cool kill.”

Urban: If you’ve ever read Judge Dredd comics, some of them are extremely graphic, and that graphic content is off-set by that dead-pan humor. The violence in our film is authentic to the what was created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra. What makes the graphic content interesting is the way it’s treated cinemagraphically. The director of photography, Anthony Dod Mantle, came up with a whole treatment for the use of the drug Slo-Mo [a narcotic that slows users' perception down to 1/100 of real time] that really elevates the material. You’re looking at this graphic violence, but it’s shot so extraordinarily beautiful, it’s like a moving 3D painting. It is reflective of this dangerous, brutal world, of these judges operating in a society that is out of control.

Since Lord of the Rings, you’ve appeared in a lot of genre films—science fiction, fantasy, action films, and of course the new Star Trek. Are there any types of roles and films outside that realm that you’d like to give a try?

Urban: I respond to material that really examines the human condition. I find the triumph of human spirit in the face of adversity extremely interesting. Stories about actual events like the disastrous 1996 climbing season on Everest, like in Krakauer’s Into Thin Air–what those people went through, like Rob Hall, and the fact he wouldn’t leave his client on the mountain and ended up sacrificing his life. That would be incredibly interesting to me. I’d love the opportunity to do something like that.

Or even just a small romantic comedy—I haven’t done one of those since The Price of Milk [2000]–I’d love to do that. Or a small, independent drama. I really don’t know what I’m going to do, I just respond to the character and the story. That’s the most important thing: What’s the story? And who do I get to work with?

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