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Discovering beard discrimination and making friend with Matt Damon are highlights of the making of Elysium, Sharlto Copley tells Andrew L. Urban.

He was hardly a teenager when Sharlto Copley first became a successful film producer; he’d shoot brazen short films of his teachers and sell the tapes to his fellow students. “By the time I finished high school,” he says, “I’d made two or three hundred little pieces on a variety of subjects … I was always tinkering with film.”

" preferred to do something where I had more control"

Acting was of second rung importance at the time; “I preferred to do something where I had more control.” In fact Johannesburg born (1973) Copley's interest in acting was dormant for several years when his television production company was one of the few in South Africa granted licensing to create content for broadcast. Copley found himself the businessman running the production behind the scenes, becoming South Africa's youngest television producer at age 25. 

It was during that time that he met then teenager, Neill Blomkamp, who worked at Copley's company in exchange for use of the computers to pursue his aptitude for design. Blomkamp would years later direct Copley in his star-making debut as the nervous bureaucrat Wikus van de Merwe in the Oscar nominated science fiction hit District 9 (2009). The following year, a fervent fan of 1980s TV show, The A-Team, Copley fulfilled a childhood dream, playing the role of H.M. ‘Howling Mad’ Murdock in the big screen adaptation of the series.

Copley is tall, trim, enthusiastic and bright as a button, less than three hours after landing in Sydney (a full day and two hours later than scheduled due to technical delays). His booming voice, less accented than Kruger, the mercenary he plays in Elysium, was probably heard across Circular Quay as we talked at a table next to the open doors to the balcony of the hotel where he and Matt Damon were conducting interviews. He’s dressed down in a loose T shirt and jeans, but his handshake is firm and his smile sincere.

Questioned about his first name, he explains: “My mother heard it on a British radio play, some sort of British General I think, but I’ve never come across it anywhere.” South Africans had no problems pronouncing it, apparently, but when he was going to school in America for a while, he gave up trying to coach his fellow students and teachers. “They just called me Mike,” he says. 

"a long and straggly beard for his role"

Having grown a long and straggly beard for his role as Kruger, Copley discovered what he calls ‘beard discrimination’. “There is a certain length of beard that seems to provoke a negative reaction; you know, if it’s too long and unkempt, people assume that you’re either a homeless person and possibly dangerous, or that you’re some sort of outsider, and they don’t want to engage with you. They don’t trust you.”

With the beard ...

Going back to his temporary apartment in a smart apartment block in an upmarket Vancouver suburb during the shoot, he was walking through the foyer towards the lift one night, in his tracksuit jacket and wild beard, when he overheard the receptionist whisper to some other residents just arriving: “It’s OK, he’s a tenant here…”

But the important thing that Copley has taken away from the making of Elysium is his relationship with Matt Damon. “I feel very privileged to have formed a friendship with a man so decent, so grounded and so passionate about films and filmmaking. He’s become a great role model.”

Published August 15, 2013

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Sharlto Copley - without the beard.


By the year 2154 the wealthy live on a pristine man-made space station called Elysium, and the rest live on an overpopulated, ruined Earth. Secretary Rhodes (Jodie Foster) will stop at nothing to enforce anti-immigration laws and preserve the luxurious lifestyle of the citizens of Elysium – like using undercover mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley). That doesn't stop the people of Earth from trying to get in, by any means they can. When unlucky Max (Matt Damon) is backed into a corner, he agrees to take on a daunting mission that if successful will not only save his life, but could bring equality to these polarized worlds.

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