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District 9 star Sharlto Copley got the part without even trying

Sharlto Copley, 29, says he has no dreams of being a leading man. He is on the cover of last week’s Entertainment Weekly.

TriStar Pictures

Sharlto Copley, 29, says he has no dreams of being a leading man. He is on the cover of last week’s Entertainment Weekly.

It's a pretty safe bet that nobody named Sharlto ever became a movie star. Sharlto Copley never planned to be the first. The 29-year-old South African didn't even know he auditioned for the lead role in his lifelong friend Neill Blomkamp's stunning sci-fi allegory, District 9.

The movie, its creator and star have seemingly emerged from nowhere over the past two weeks.

Copley even made the cover of last week's Entertainment Weekly, an honor usually reserved for the Pitts, Cruises and Twilight stars of Hollywood.

I suggested to Copley during a telephone interview that he's probably the least-known person to ever grace the cover of EW. The guy Blomkamp compares to Sacha Baron Cohen for his improv and wit burst into long, hearty laughter.

"I love that!" he said after catching his breath.

Over the next few minutes, Copley discussed his friendship with Blomkamp and how he was tricked into playing Wikus Van De Merwe, a bureaucrat assigned to evict 2 million aliens from a Johannesburg ghetto. District 9 is inspired by the friends' early exposure to apartheid but resonates with discrimination in any era or place.

So, you and Neill were friends through childhood?

Basically that's true, although he left (for Canada) when he was 17, so we didn't have too many years together in South Africa. Probably about three years or so. We kept in touch ..."

You produced Neill's short film, Alive in Joburg that expanded to District 9, but how did you get the role of Wikus?

It was a very strange experience because Neill actually shot a short test with me without telling me exactly what it was for. He told me in the beginning: "I just want to explore an idea for a character in the film. Why don't you play him for right now?" So, I jumped on-camera and did this character, basically improvised for a couple hours. When Neill edited that together, he basically thought I should be the guy. He showed the footage to (producer) Peter (Jackson), and started writing the script with Terri (Tatchell) with me in mind, but they weren't telling me. They didn't tell me for months.

Why do you think Neill held back?

I recently asked him: "Dude, what was going on? Why didn't you tell me?" He said he was concerned that it wouldn't get through the Hollywood system ... In the end, Peter just said go for it.

But you'd never acted before. How did you know how to create the Wikus character?

What I always did in my life —and what Neill spotted, I guess — is I've always done characters. If you visited me at my office at any time, I would be a particular character that I would switch off and on for a month or two. Just messing around with my staff; comedic stuff, massive pranks, just to be drastically different.

Wikus looks nerdy, but you're a good-looking guy. Would you want to be a leading man?

I definitely wouldn't. I'm a character actor. I'm not interested in that sort of role. I do voices, and I want to do characters that I can really get into. That's what I feel natural doing.

ON THE WEB: Read more of Steve Persall's interview with District 9's Sharlto Copley on his blog Reeling in the Years at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.

District 9 star Sharlto Copley got the part without even trying 08/15/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 15, 2009 5:31am]

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