An Interview with Karl Urban


When "Dredd 3D"opened a few weeks ago, fans and critics brced for a reprise of Sylvester Stallone's abortive 1995 rendition of the Eagle Comics 200O AD superhero, "Judge Dredd."


In a pleasant surprise, the film far exceeded expectations.  In a less pleasant surprise, nobody went to see it. Maybe people in fact prefer  Stallone after all: his cynically lousy "The Expendables 2" made a mint. But even that revolting development is less shocking and discouraging than "Hotel Transylvania," one of the worst movies I've seen all year,  topping the box office this weekend with a record-breaking $43  million.

Anyway, here's Jake Mulligan's interview with "Dredd" star Karl Urban to remind you of what you're missing by watching those two stinkers instead of this robust, red-blooded action movie.

Most actors would feel a bit threatened having to give an entire performance without revealing their face. Not Karl Urban. As the titular “Dredd”, his character is as detached as they come – he executes criminals on sight without a moment of hesitation, throws himself into gunfights with reckless abandon, and yes, he refuses to take his helmet off. Indeed, many would be terrified of having their face ‘chopped off’ and their persona turned into something so cold, but Urban relished the opportunity.


Previously known for supporting roles in big-budget franchises like “Star Trek” and “The Lord of the Rings”, “Dredd” feels like a fresh step for the young New Zealander. Sure, like the aforementioned films, it’s a fantasy franchise, and a reboot by definition (and like the upcoming sequels to those films, it is in 3-D.) But never for a moment does “Dredd” feel like a cash-in. It’s both audaciously violent and visually trippy in a way that American films almost never achieve (the reference point for the film seems to be closer to “Enter the Void” than to the original Sly Stallone “Dredd” adaptation.) This one definitely isn’t for all audiences.


And that’s a classification Urban loves to cling to. He came to Boston to speak with us on the last day of a long press tour; and his disaffected manner of speech seemed to suggest he was tired of all the bullshit that comes with Q+A’s, roundtables, and interviews. Still, he perked up and came to life whenever he got the chance to talk about how the movie is “a legal high, and the visceral intermingling of blood and 3-D. “Dredd” isn’t for everyone. But that seems to be how Mr. Urban likes it.

--Jake Mulligan


Question: Does it make it harder to act when you don’t know how exactly these post-production effects are going to come out, or did you have a good idea of exactly what the slow-mo would look like?


Karl Urban: You know, we had an Oscar winning DP – Anthony Dod Mantle (“The Celebration”, “28 Days Later”) – he put an extraordinary artistic stamp on the movie. He defined the character of the look. As far as the slow-mo goes, we could see instantly on playback. We shot with a camera called The Phantom, so I had a pretty good idea of what it was going to be without the effects. But that’s just a part of modern filmmaking. You’re always working with elements that may not necessarily be there on the day.


Q: So, going to see that on the big screen for the first time, was it fun?


KU: I had a blast. I saw the film for the first time fully completed with the audience at Comic-Con in San Diego. That was a phenomenal experience. I just loved it. They cheered, they laughed – totally into the movie. And that’s the greatest reward that you can have from making a film, is having the audience enjoy it.


Q: So, I take it you think this is a step up from Sly Stallone’s version of “Dredd” from 1995?


KU: Well, I’m not going to comment just out of respect. All I can say is that you only have to go to Rotten Tomatoes and compare the approval rating of both of these films. Make your own judgment.


Q: What’s cool about this movie is that it feels less like a comic book movie and more like a 70’s revenge thriller, is that something that attracted you to the script?


KU: Certainly, this film has a certain old-school sensibility about it. There are a lot of nods in a lot of different directions. The male archetype of Dredd himself – there are forefathers of that in some of Schwarzenegger’s roles, in obviously “Dirty Harry,” Sean Connery’s “James Bond” – there’s that type of man who is tough, who keeps his emotions in check and has this laconic dry wit and humor.



Q: I’m glad you mentioned the humor, because in a lot of action movies for a while there was a punch line. They had to say something funny. They’d shoot a guy and they had a funny line. All the humor in “Dredd” came from the fact that he’s seen it all, he’s done it all - that’s it. It’s not to make anyone laugh.


KU: Part of the humanizing of Dredd is imbuing the character with world-weariness, and this movie as a serialization is a day in the life of Dredd as he puts a rookie through the paces.


The humor and the comedy in the piece isn’t played for a drumroll effect, it comes from within the moment. Often these cynical observations from Dredd, I like them. The house is burning down, and he’s got a sense of humor about it.


Q: It’s really cool that you never take off the helmet. It’s just important. There’s a great physicality to your performance – just the walk. Was that as important to you and how does that effect what you’re doing onscreen? Was it a big part of you?


KU: Well, that’s the challenge – to communicate with the audience without my eyes. I had to utilize everything else I had left. The physicality of the character, the voice, how that character moved, the world weariness that we were discussing before, but also the plain fact of the matter is that when you put that uniform on, it actually forces you to adopt a certain posture just by virtue of its limitations. You move in a different way.


Q: Also, the character has hardly any background about him. How does that change the way you do it? Did you find yourself thinking “Where was Dredd five years ago? Ten years ago?” or do you just kind of play him as a symbol?


KU: No; that would be a mistake. Here’s the thing. I immediately recognized the archetype of that story – let me ask you this. What did you know about Indiana Jones before “Raiders Of The Lost Ark”? Before the opening frame - the opening scene; you know nothing. The character is presented fully formed, you get to know the bare minimum, and you go along with the ride – and that’s exactly what Alex Garland wrote with Dredd. And you don’t ever have to have read a “Dredd” comic to go into this movie and have a good time. You get it – and that’s what’s cool about it.


Q: One thing I really liked about the picture was the production design, the set design, it’s great. I was curious, once you get in the apartment and you’re looking up, it’s so daunting. How much of that could they build, and how does that affect your performance?



KU: Well, we shot this film in Cape Town; we used the brand new Cape Town Film Studios, we used all four of their sound stages and large portions of PeachTrees were actually built. I think we actually built a set that had, like, four stories, and the set designers just did a phenomenal job. It was very easy to be transported into that world.


Q: Does it help to be in Cape Town for something like this and not be doing it in L.A. or Toronto or something like that?


KU: I think it was just a choice. Truthfully, I think that you could have made “Dredd” in many cities in the world. Cape Town, South Africa just happened to have the combination of elements that fit the production I guess.


Q: The rookie – Olivia Thirlby as Judge Anderson. We know her mainly from comedies. And she gets some laughs, but it’s not a comedy here; it’s a strong, physical role. Did she immediately take to it? Or did it take her awhile to get used to this kind of a movie?


KU: She turned up and was fully committed. We had a really strong working relationship. We kind of acknowledged the fact that we were in 90% of our scenes with each other, so we formed a partnership as the characters do. We would meet up every day, discuss the day’s work, make sure we were on the right page and then had the same objectives and we would go in there and execute it. And she does such an extraordinary job, she plays a badass in her own right, and it’s a compelling journey. But she was committed. She trained, worked her ass off.


Q: What do you think of 3D, and what it brings to this film? Do you like seeing movies in 3D, and when you have a choice on your own time do you prefer 3D or 2D?


KU: Well, it depends. I do understand that there is some degree out there of 3D fatigue, and I can understand that. Sometimes films are put out that don’t necessarily need to be 3D, or be the 3D rendering is of a poor quality. But this film was shot in 3D, it was made for 3D, and visually we do think we did other things that 3D films have yet to do: break the negative plane. We’re pushing the boundaries; if you’re going to see this movie, you should see it in 3D. We had an Oscar-winning cinematographer who lensed this. But as for my personal preference, I guess it doesn’t bother me either way.


Q: That’s the thing; the 3-D here does totally accentuate the drug trip feel of this movie.


KU: It’s a legal high, mate. You get a contact high just by going to this movie.


Q: We have to wrap up, but as a fan, I have to ask – I saw online that you worked with Tony Kaye (director, “American History X”, “Detachment”) on an unreleased film called “Black Water Transit”.


KU: [Audible sigh]


Q: Could you tell me anything about the film, is it coming out, how does it look?


KU: I have no idea. I haven’t spoken to anyone involved in a long time. Last I heard the movie was bound up in litigation, and that’s…. we shot that a long time ago. I have no idea.


Q: If we ever see it, should be a good one I hope?


KU: Mate, it’s always a leap of faith.


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