Free Fire, out today, is a rollicking action movie with an all-star cast. As an IRA weapons deal begins to disintegrates, all the criminals involved form and reform alliances in an all out firefight. This, naturally, leads to all out war.
Sharlto Copley, a South African actor, plays Vernon a neurotic and insecure South African arms dealer. He’s a veteran of films like District 9 and played opposite Matt Damon as Kreuger in Elysium. Vernon provides a key note of levity, allowing Copley really shows his comedic chops. My interview with him included insights into the movie, guns, Hollywood moral superiority and fatherhood.
I read that you improvised all of your lines in District 9. In Free Fire your character has some truly hilarious off-the-cuff one-liners. Were these the result of improvisation as well?
Oh yeah man, that particular one was. Whole themes too, like the fact that I decided Vern wants the case of money. None of that was in the original script, decisions like the insistence of going for the case, asking for it amongst the characters, weren’t even in the script. I was able to make decisions about the character and there was a very special relationship with Ben which allowed me more creative freedom. I was able to invent the character within the parameter of the script and then go from there. We would do one take with the scripted lines and then one total improv take. Then what was really amazing, was that Ben’s writing partner (Amy Jump) would see what we were doing and started to see what was happening with the characters, leading to her reworking some lines and subplots from our improv into the script and upcoming scenes. The form got sort of funnier and funnier as we went along and that was again Ben’s original objective from the beginning was “Look I really need to have the humane here, the one-liners and the improv.” So it was a real match made in heaven for me working with Ben and Amy.
I read that Iron Man was filmed under similar circumstances. For a large amount of the script they were in a trailer of a high production set hashing out what they think the next scene should be. What is it about improvisation that lends itself to these higher concept, action heavy, types of films?
I suppose it depends on a case by case basis. It can really hurt you if you do it with people who aren’t that good. Because it can send the story in all sorts of different ways. But I think when it is working well it just creates a spontaneous “real” feeling. In a sense especially with something like this, you don’t have a lot of time to get to know these characters and to know about them, or feel for them, or whatever. So as an actor you pretty much got, what your character looks like, some interesting ways to express character through interacting with weapons and then throw in kind of good one-liners that reveal something about your character. Often I find that if you worked the one-liners too much, think “Hasta La Vista” type days. Film peaked with those sorts of one-liners, now they just start to feel cheesey. So a lot of these one-liners feel more authentic since they are sort of naturally just popping out. They are still the same one-liner it just doesn’t feel as contrived.
There you mentioned that one of the only ways to portray character built into the movie was how to interact with weapons, as Free Fire is all about guns and the characters who wield them. Take your character for example, your character fumble with guns and express anxiety when handling the weapons. How clear was that direction from the outset with the script, or was the anxious South African arms dealer a direction you chose?
I definitely made that choice in relation to the idea that (Vernon) thinks he is greater than he is. This was definitely Ben’s sort of intention with the character but there were a couple of directions even with that which could have resulted. Essentially Ben and I discussed either this South African arms dealer could be extremely lethal like say Krueger in Elysium, or something different. Then we noticed that all these other guys are playing full “dangerous.” For example, Armie was extremely competent with a gun and he was playing that. So it just didn’t seem to work to have so many people playing “dangerous,” and in a collaborative environment like that it helps to portray the opposite of what other guys are playing. So I would make choices like my gun would jam and I’d give to Armie it to reload. Anything that you can do to enforce and dramatize the essential elements of your character and show that visually, helps immensely. I wanted to show a guy that talks tough and acts tough, because he is used to just doing the deal part. He is not actually used to gunfights. You have got to give the impression of being a tough guy but you would likely get your ass kicked by someone who is actually a trained soldier and been to war. You’d last ten seconds against that guy [laughs].
So Free Fire is all about guns and everything in the plot happens due to a weapon. What was the cast process for training with weapons? You have been in action films with guns before but did you do additional training to prepare for this role?
My experience with firearms was that I grew up in South Africa [laughs]. It’s a violent country and I was laughing because I actually have been in a firefight. I wasn’t shooting myself but there was a huge shootout taking place in my office complex in Johannesburg, South Africa which we got stuck in. So yeah, I have definitely had more than my fair share of exposure to mild crime, violence and bar fights, stuff like that. Previously for action movies they would train you to look like special forces level proficient with a gun. So for me for this movie, I essentially just had to unlearn muscle memory stuff and just suck [laughs]. Which is great! Much less pressure on me in a way.
You spend time equally between South Africa and The United States, does that give you any objectivity as to what is happening here? We don’t have to get political if you don’t care to, I was just curious if you splitting your time between Cape Town and Los Angeles gave you a more objective viewpoint of all the stuff happening in our country currently. Do you have an opinion on what’s been happening these days, politically or culturally?
I think it’s all complicated and people are asking me these questions when I always figure that it’s a bigger conversation. I have somewhat of a problem answering those questions. I will say that I do think it’s funny how Hollywood tends to think of itself as some sort of moral barometer for society. So for instance people ask me something about this movie like “well what are your opinions about gun violence? That’s a very sensitive issue.” Personally I feel that this movie is very anti-gun violence but with movies of a different nature it just becomes strange. Like someone from Hollywood will say “we need less guns” and I’ll wonder if they have seen the films they have made. Then someone will yell “Trump is a warmonger” and I again ask “Do you see the movies that Hollywood makes?” When that’s the case, are you surprised? I can understand the concern but I think it’s important to point back to the movies that are being made. People always say “I worry about the darkness in the world” well then maybe don’t make another serial killer tv-series. I just feel like there is too much potential hypocrisy for me to judge how people behave. Especially, when I get to just run around and show different behaviors of different people. It doesn’t always make sense but that’s how I feel.
Lastly I saw that on January 1st you are going to be a father, congratulations of course, how are you feeling about being a father soon?
I’ am really looking forward to being a dad. It also makes you think about the sorts of films that you are making. So on that note I am working on a movie that I am writing, directing and acting in, that’s more for my kids. Free Fire isn’t obviously [laughs], in the best possible way.