The man with the granite chin – Judge Dredd – comes roaring into the 21st Century and onto a cinema screen near you, this month. Chris Patmore caught up Karl Urban, and found out just why the man behind the helmet isn’t worried about becoming every geeks’ favourite film star.
The man with the granite
chin – Judge Dredd – comes roaring into the 21st Century and onto a
cinema screen near you, this month. Chris Patmore caught up Karl Urban, and found out just why the
man behind the helmet isn’t worried about becoming every geeks’ favourite film
In the film Dredd asks
his new rookie, “Why do you want to be a judge?” So the obvious place
to start is, “Why did you want to be a judge?”
I guess one of the things that attracted me to this
character was the definition of his heroism. His brand of heroism is very
human. He’s not a superhero. He doesn’t have super powers. He’s just a man with
an extraordinary skillset, a cool bike and a versatile gun. More importantly,
he’s the type of guy who is walking into a building when everyone else is
running for their lives, in the opposite direction. So the opportunity to play
that kind of man was something I was hugely attracted to. It reminded me of
those really brave firefighters at 9/11. He’s cut of that cloth.
How did you go about
formulating Dredd’s movements and voice?
It was a process. You know, when you take on a
character you have to go through many different doors in order to define him.
There was the physical aspect of it, of going to the gym and transforming
myself physically. Then there was all the research; I read every single Dredd
comic that I could, and a huge basis for the character was what was on the
page. Alex Garland wrote a fantastic, action-packed, character-driven piece.
It’s quite a contained story, but at its heart it is the relationship between
Anderson and Judge Dredd. The evolution of that relationship is, to me, one of
the most interesting things about this movie.
What were some of your
favourite characters and stories from the Dredd comics?
When I was a teenager, and I started reading the
Quality Comics series that came out in the ‘90s. It was stories like Kenny Who and Raider. Raider was a really cool vignette about an ex-Judge who
took to the streets and became a vigilante. He was kind of like a mentor for
Dredd, but Dredd found him in the position of having to ostensibly hunt him
down, which was really interesting. For me, the great bonus of getting to play
Dredd was going back and not only rediscovering those stories that I really enjoyed
back then, but also discovering a whole plethora of new stories that had been
written subsequently, and it was really interesting to see the evolution in the
way the character was written. The depth and maturity in Wagner’s writing, which really translated to the character of Dredd
himself. That’s evident in stories like Origins
and The Dead Man’s Walk Into Necropolis. America’s a fantastic story as well. It’s one of the things I
really like about the character. He is an anti-hero. In America, Dredd’s the
If there is a sequel,
who would you like to square off against from the back catalogue of villains?
Death and his mates. I’d also like to explore the Mean Machine of it all. There’s many.
With such an entrenched
fan base, did you feel any pressure bringing Dredd to screen?
No. No I didn’t. I felt, as a long-term fan, I felt I
placed enough pressure on myself, without being concerned what other people
thought. My job, and my sole focus, was to bring the most interesting, specific
dimensional character that I could. When I’m working, I’m not concerned about
what people are thinking, I’m just doing my job. At Comic-Con I was just
grateful and elated that it was received so well. Alex [Garland] has done an
extraordinary job of delivering this movie and he should be very proud.
It was a very physical
role, but would you say the hardest part was keeping the scowl?
[Laughs] The most difficult aspect of the film was
probably the gruelling nature of it. The fact that we were shooting in Cape
Town, in the summer, and physically I was wearing motorbike leathers, body
armour and a helmet. Physically it was very challenging. I have such a
wonderful working relationship with Olivia [Thirlby]. Every day we would meet
up before we started shooting and discuss what it was we were going to do that
day, and we were on the same page. Not only with Olivia but also with Alex
Garland, who was on set too 24-7. He was a huge asset to this production.
Whenever I would have a question about what was on the page, I would ask Alex.
For an actor to have the luxury of actually having the guy who wrote it there
on set, was massive.
The tone is very dark,
but there is still some humour. How much impact did you have on the initial
The humour was very important for me because it really
helped define the character. It defined the character’s humanity. That was the
challenge. He’s not a robot, he’s a man. He’s a highly trained man who’s been
trained to keep his emotions in check, but one of the things that does humanise
him is his humour. It was one of the elements I always responded to in the
comic, and we looked for every opportunity to inject that into the movie. Just
that dry, deadpan humour that Alex did an extraordinary job of incorporating.
How did you feel about
wearing a helmet all the time?
Are you kidding? I was playing Judge Dredd. That’s the
character. I had a meeting with Alex, Allon [Reich – producer] and Pete [Travis
– director] in Los Angeles before they offered me the role, and they said,
“We just want to make sure that you’re totally comfortable with the fact
that we are never going to see your face in this film”. I said I wouldn’t
be taking the meeting if I read a script and Judge Dredd reveals his identity.
He’s supposed to be this enigmatic, faceless representative of the law. It’s
just essential that it remains that way. Apart from the elation of getting to
do this character, my focus was just on how to execute it in the best fashion
Did you get to keep the
I did. They gave it to me. I tried to steal it three
times before they gave it to me!
How do you prepare for
playing such a complex character?
Every character you prepare for is unique and
individual and different. For Dredd, the process was one of getting hold of
every Dredd comic I could. Two, the physical transformation, which was quite
gruelling and challenging, working out twice a day for about 13 weeks to get to
where I thought the character, physically, needed to be. Then there was the
military training, which was conducted in Cape Town and that was really
interesting. It included some exercises where we had BB guns that were mocked
up like Lawgivers, we went through the set where we had stunt guys secretly
deposited, so we got into real firefights – as close to real as anyone would
want to get. Then there was committing time and energy into learning how to ride
that bike. Then hours of discussions with Alex, just trying to hone down and
define the character as best we could. For me it was really important to focus
and identify the humanity of the man. As I said before, he’s not a superhero.
It was important for me to make him accessible. The humour was part of that.
Also, getting specific as to how he felt about things and how to communicate
that to an audience. That was the challenge. There are points in the film where
you can see certain gearshifts in the character: after all the innocent people
have been murdered. In the massacre you see a real shift in Dredd, and that’s
his response. You can tell by that, that he does give a damn and has got
compassion. In the same sense, when he decides not to kill the kids with the
weapons that are trying to kill him, he again displays a care and compassion
Was the Lawmaster simply
a customised bike? And how was it compared to a normal bikeI’m comfortable on a regular bike, but it took some
time to get used to the Lawmaster. It was great going in straight lines, but
corners were challenging.
Do you see the film as a
social commentary on contemporary society?
The parallels can definitely be drawn. It’s best not
to forget the fact that the character was created in the ‘70s, during
Thatcherism and the era of punk and anarchy, and those threads are relevant.
You only have to look back a year in history and you see London in riot. That’s
the world Dredd is set in. In a society that is on the verge of chaos and collapse.
It’s not that big a leap to that. We take our freedoms pretty much for granted.
It’s really interesting to take a look at a society that is a totalitarian one
where all those freedoms have been taken away because that’s the only way that
society can function. It’s horrific, but it is interesting to explore those
things, and it certainly makes me appreciate that I live in a democratic
country that has a good gun control and I have a good quality of life. At the
end of the day, this is escapist entertainment, but if you want to dig a bit
deeper, there are messages there. I also like the subtle little morality tales
that are in the movie. Dredd’s doing his job. He’s a representative of the law
and he’s bound by a code of ethics, an oath that he’s taken. But what’s
interesting to me is the choices the citizens of Peachtrees have to make:
whether to align themselves with the Judges, whether to help them or not. Based
on those morality choices, what happens to those people through the film. In
reading the original Dredd comics, Dredd was a supporting character to those
citizens of Mega-City One and their stories.
Are you worried about
being typecast as a sci-fi/genre actor?
I think it’s very easy to try and categorise, but the
reality is I’ve done films such as The
Bourne Supremacy, Out Of The Blue, and
Red, which are quite different genres. I just respond to the character.
This was an instance of where I was a fan of Dredd, growing up. It would have
taken a bigger man than me to turn it down.
You’ve played Eomer in
Lord Of The Rings and Bones in Star Trek, amongst others. Any other geeky
heroes you’d like to play?
I feel it would be greedy to want anything more than
what I’ve got! I could retire quite happily now. If I never played another
character based on science fiction, fantasy or comic books I’d be good!