Looking at actor Karl Urban’s resume of late, you could definitely argue the man is in his graphic novel period. He’s got two major film projects, “RED” and “Priest”, based on the genre ready to release and he begins work on director Pete Travis ‘ “Dredd”, based on the comics Judge Dredd, in mere weeks in South Africa.
While Urban admits to being a Judge Dredd comic book fan since he was a kid, he’s also candid about the fact that his current spate of sequential art adaptations wasn’t part of some grand plan.
“To be honest with you, I never really plan a thing,” Urban laughs during his exclusive interview with Newsarama last week. “I just respond to the material put in front of me. I think it’s more a byproduct of the fact that Hollywood is drawing so much inspiration for films from graphic novels. It used to be novels and short stories. But they wouldn’t make these movies if there wasn’t a demand for it and an audience willing to go see them. I think it’s just symptomatic of Hollywood filmmaking today.”
Not that he minds. Since his triumphant turn playing crotchety Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” reboot, Urban’s pile of possible projects has only grown and graphic novel adaptation scripts have provoked the actor the most.
“If I start making decisions about the character or I start empathizing with the situation or it engages me so I can’t put it down, that’s a good sign,” Urban explains. “I also look at who is going to be directing and producing it, what’s the budget and the other actors involved.”
All of those qualifiers are what led him specifically to “RED” (opening October 15), the action-thriller loosely based on Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner’s three-part comic book miniseries of the same name. In the film Urban plays CIA agent William Cooper, a cleanup killer inside the Agency that’s charged with getting rid of retired CIA assassin Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) permanently. Cooper shares some similar plot points with both CIA director Michael Beesley and Deputy Director Adrian Kane from the comic books, but Urban plays a more proactive foil for Willis’ Moses as they engage in a country-wide game of cat and mouse.
Urban says his first introduction to “RED” was via the Hoeber brothers (Jon and Erich) script.
“From there I went back and had a look at the graphic novel,” he remembers. “The graphic novel really only constitutes what is the first half of our movie. I think the Hoeber brothers did a brilliant job of expanding that world and creating a really interesting, eclectic bunch of characters and weaving them into a fun tapestry.”
For his part, Urban says he went to real CIA operatives to glean information on how to play Cooper.
“The research that I put into this role was reading every book that Bob Baer [former CIA spy] wrote,” the actor reveals. “Then I had the good fortune of sitting down with him and discussing his experience in the CIA and how that pertained to the movie. That was really interesting. I was able to draw a lot from that.”
The first time audiences see Cooper, he’s on the job doing the Agency’s dirty work while having a very domestic conversation with his wife on the phone. A very telling dichotomy that Urban says immediately gives his character depth.
“As you see in the movie, Cooper is ordered to liquidate Frank Moses and you don’t question your orders, you execute,” the actor explains. “The great thing about Cooper is that he’s got a fantastic arc in the story. He starts at one place and through his interactions with Frank, a paradigm shift occurs. He ends up somewhere completely different, and as an actor I’m always looking for some sort of journey for a character.”
“Cooper as he’s constructed is not a stereotypical adversary,” Urban continues. “He’s got many dimensions and you see he has a family, and what that means to him when he’s put under pressure. You get to see him start to question what he’s been ordered to do, and that shows he’s very proactive in his thoughts as it relates to his actions.”
And Urban gets a lot of action, especially against Willis’ wily Moses who’s just as cunning and deadly as he was in his CIA prime. Urban gets the full brunt of that in a gnarly, mano a mano brawl with Willis inside Cooper’s CIA glass encased office.
“Yeah, we certainly worked pretty hard,” Urban laughs about the scene. “I would say Bruce Willis was not flaccid in his approach to the fight. We rehearsed for about three weeks for the fight and shot it over a period of ten days. We discussed a lot about the tone of the fight. We didn’t want it to be stylistically overwhelming but we wanted it to be a fight the audience would wince at. These are two guys going for it. And there is so much comedy in this movie and that fight really represents the reality of what is going on. These guys are out to get each other and the stakes are life and death.”
Props go to Urban as well for his freakishly convincing agent stealth moves as he prowls airport hangers, hotel ballroom halls and garages for his quarry throughout the film.
Urban laughs modestly, “Well, that was primarily a function of collaborating with the wonderful stunt coordinator [Paul Jennings, :The Dark Knight”, “Clash of the Titans”] we had and the members of his team that had military training. It fit into the background of my character and I was able to imbue Cooper with that kind of sensibility.”
With excellent buzz and strong critical reviews already for “RED”, Urban hopes that it turns into another franchise for him to return to in the future.
“I certainly hope so,” he enthuses. “We’ve finished this first film and we are really proud of it. It’s a really funny, hilarious film and we’re going to hand it over to an audience now. If they appreciate it and have as much fun watching it as we did making it, then by all means I would certainly like to come back and make another one.”
Next up in early 2011, Urban plays a stalker in the horror thriller “And Soon the Darknesss”. Then in May he’s back to graphic novels, or more accurately Korean manhwa, in “Priest” for his villainous turn as Black Hat, a former priest turned vampire leader.
With the proliferation of vampire projects in every medium, Urban says he’s optimistic that director Scott Stewart has fashioned something new with the genre.
“I kind of think of “Priest” as a post-apocalyptic vampire Western, but even the vampires in the film are not presented in the way traditionally an audience is used to seeing them,” he says. “So I feel like through a derivative process we’re hitting some fresh territory.”
In the meantime, Urbans says “All my focus and energy is on “Dredd” and I’m really looking forward to doing that.”
A complete reboot of the franchise for film, Urban explains, “the Dredd story we are going to tell is really a day in the life of Dredd as he puts his rookie through her paces to determine whether she’s going to make it as a judge. It’s certainly going to be a high-octane, action-fueled kind of a film. I feel very confident that this is going to be the ‘Judge Dredd’ movie that audiences have been waiting for since 1977. I say that because we’ve got (Judge Dredd co-creator) John Wagner on board and he’s 100 percent behind what we are doing. I think we’re just going to be a lot closer to the source material than any other version that’s been made.”
While many fans lamented the corny nature of Sly Stallone’s 1995 turn as the character, Urban says that tone is key in this new outing. He confirms there is comedy in the writing, but he trusts director Pete Travis’ sense of balance.
After “Dredd”, Urban’s got a date with the galaxy again for the “Star Trek” sequel set to shoot in 2012. Asked if he’s more or less nervous going into the franchise again after they got all the naysayers to turn into converts, Urban turns serious and offers, “I think it would be dangerous for anybody to take their eye off the ball. While we had a huge amount of fun making ‘Star Trek’, we were also hyper focused on what we were doing. But I have a huge degree of confidence in J.J. and the writers. I think they’re like a bunch of geniuses making it together so I know they will cook up something special."