Actor Sharlto Copley, star of District 9, arrives in Toronto around 2 a.m., delayed by a major storm. He´s set to promote the new film, his first of many possible leading roles. By the time he meets with me around 10 that morning he´s probably extremely tired, but you wouldn’t know it just by looking at him. He´s a man who projects nothing but enthusiasm, even while wrestling with some of the most unpleasant alien creatures seen in movies this decade.

District 9 is truly global filmmaking. Director and writer Neill Blomkamp, who hails from South Africa but lives in Vancouver, collaborated with South African actors Copley and Jason Cope, as well as producer Peter Jackson, who brought his native New Zealand to the world with the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Copley has, to this point, made his living as a producer, both in fictional shorts and news broadcasting. One of those shorts, “Alive in Joburg,” depicts a race of aliens getting stranded in Johannesburg, and the burden that places on the surrounding population. His high-school pal Blomkamp was behind that one as well, and the feature-length vision of that plot, D9, finally hit theatres on August 14 after months of unprecedented viral hype.

In many ways, the film is an alternative to the creatively bankrupt science fiction seen in something like Transformers. It’s full of new ideas and images, and has already made gains on its modest $30-million budget after a $37-million opening weekend at the box office. TORO sat down with Copley four days before the film´s release, to discover just how it got to this point.

Q: This is your first major movie role. Your level of anticipation must be very high.
A: My first role at all! My first professional role.

Q: While watching the film, it doesn’t seem that way at all.
A: I guess it was just something Neill saw in me. I had done plays and stuff in high school. District 9 isn’t the first time I’ve done any acting of any nature, but certainly once I left high school, that was it, though I had a small role in “Alive in Joburg,” and maybe jumped in front of the camera in one other short.

Q: How did you get from that to leading District 9? Did Neill Blomkamp ask you to audition?
A: Without telling me what he was doing – and I don’t even think he knew what he was doing in the beginning – he asked me to set up a shoot for him, in South Africa, after “Alive in Joburg.” He said, “Listen, I’ve got one character that I want to test out. He’s a bureaucratic guy, imagine old South Africa, he works at a large company, and every once in a while he has to deal with these creatures...” But, as a South African, it didn’t sound like a particularly dramatic character to me. He said, “I want you to just play around with it.”

We spent a morning – Neill and I, with [co-writer] Terri Tatchell and Trent Opaloch, the DOP – in the township, and shot a whole bunch of improvised stuff. When Neill was cutting that together he made the leap in his mind with “Maybe he should just be the guy.” But then didn’t tell me that for several months after, as they were writing a script.

Q: Have you had a chance to see the film with an audience yet?
A: Yes. Comic-Con was the first time. It was crazy, watching it with people who are real fans of the genre, it’s a little bit nerve-racking. You know they’re going to come out and say what they think. They’re not going to hold back on that.

Q: Science-fiction fans can be brutally honest people.
A: That’s good and bad when you’re in this business.

Q: If you’re planning on doing it again, you may learn something from that.
A: People came up to us afterwards, and said stuff like [in a whiny voice] “If you do a sequel, don’t lose the emotion! Don’t lose the character! Don’t make it just about explosions!”

Q: Can you tell us about the inspiration behind your performance?
A: It was interesting because I knew what the character was like at the beginning of the movie, from that little test I was talking about. That’s where the character had been born. And Neill had always said, “You’re going to improvise through the whole movie.” I improvised every line of my dialogue in the film. They had a story, but I didn’t use pre-written dialogue whatsoever. So it was a real exploration. None of us had any idea what was going to happen for two-thirds of the film. It was very often like shooting a documentary.

Q: Why did you decide to opt out of a production role this time?
A: It was sort of a no-brainer decision when Neill said he was going to offer me the lead role. It was by far the more attractive option for me. I was very pleased. I felt very comfortable with the character, as we’d shot a couple tests at that point, which Neill was using as a kind of video presentation for people. I found [acting] less stressful than being behind the scenes.

Q: In some ways, your job doesn’t start until the camera rolls.
A: It’s very much this entire team of people, where I’m normally trying to hold that team together, either as a director or producer. And when you’re behind the scenes you’re dealing with a lot of things that are essentially out of your control. You’re just dealing with one problem after another. As people say, it’s like fighting a war.

For the creative process of this character, I would just rock it from the morning. I hadn’t learned lines, they don’t even dress you in the clothes you’ve arrived in. It’s really just channelling the character through you.

Q: Do you prefer one job over the other?
A: I would say, because I’ve been behind the scenes so much, it’s probably in my genetic makeup. I’d probably still do it. If I had to choose, I’d prefer the acting.

Q: And if the film turns out to be a huge success, you will be the target of much of its reception, because not only are you the star, but you’re a new star, which is a good media angle.
A: It seems so. Being on the front side of it, you’re essentially getting, in a way, a lot of the glory. The director gets it too, in the sense of his career, but there’s hundreds of people who worked on the movie, hundreds of visual-effects artists who practically killed themselves working until all hours of the morning. And I’m the one who gets to travel around the world.

Q: One thing that struck me is that the team worked on a $30-million budget, and the film looks as professional as anything that costs four times that amount.
A: It was a combination of Neill’s visual-effects background, knowing how to cut corners for that team. His eye, the way he works, he’ll set up pieces that appear to be massive moments, but if you actually analyze them, it’s like one creature lifting a car. Just a standard “jump.” It’s the way he sets it up in the story, the emotion behind that one moment, rather than trying to have 19 cars hitting each other at the same time. And shooting in South Africa costs about a third as much as it does anywhere in North America.

Q: I’d like to get your thoughts on the film’s combination of styles. The audience sees real documentary footage, staged news reports, security footage, home video – do you see a connection between that and your career as a broadcaster?
A: From that first test what I really enjoyed was allowing my character to be born on camera, as he’s doing a corporate video. So stuff like making the [cameraman] into a character and playing to the camera, that just came out from the start. I used it to connect the audience to this odd character.

Q: What about acting with the CGI alien [Christopher Johnson]?
A: We had a guy named Jason Cope, a friend who we’d worked with before ... he’s great improv actor, and it was important in those scenes to have someone to bounce off of. So they had him in a grey suit which they could paint out and replace when we needed to.

Q: So he was filmed and then mapped over?
A: They first had to paint him out, it wasn’t really standard motion capture – or “performance capture” as James Cameron is now calling it – it was more like they rotoscoped him.

Q: Was it challenging for you, as a performer, to act with that?
A: No, because he was there. And when he wasn’t, in probably about 20 per cent of the footage, there’s a freedom. Neill would have me running down a hill and I’d say, “Where is he?” and he’d tell me “Wherever, man, you decide!” A lot of times, I would just look one way and yell, and they would put him in after. It’s an easier thing to do in action than in something that’s very emotional.

I didn’t play to green screen, which is the opposite way that a lot of these films seem to be going. You hear a lot of actors complaining about having to sit for three months on a stage. I think [the audience] can feel the stage, because the actor’s dead, he’s got nothing to go on, no environment. No matter how good you are, that’s hard, you can only move about half a metre to the left. If we did an improv, we could decide if someone is going to come in from somewhere completely different. We could just swing the cameras around and put the suited guy on the other side of the room, just change the whole thing. There’s no tight storyboard.

Q: Is that something you think we’ll see more of in the future, filmmaking done “on the fly?”
A: I think [Neill] has set a bar with this, with its realistic feeling. However you make your film, people will, for the next little while I think, be talking about District 9, and whether a film feels as real as it does. Every few years, there is a film that has a benchmark feel. The Matrix had one, Jurassic Park. I really think he’s made a film like that. And it’s a film you don’t want to miss on the big screen, like if you only ever watched Blade Runner on video.

Q: That’s true. I didn’t like Blade Runner at all until I saw it in a theatre, and I think in a similar way, the effect of District 9 won’t be the same if it’s not in that environment.
A: Especially with all the different kinds of media in it, you have to wonder what it would look like on the big screen.

Q: Can you comment on the political overtones, or lack thereof, in the film?
A: Well, there’s all the obvious metaphors. Apartheid, separation, even things like California wanting to build a fence between themselves and Mexico. There’s a lot of relevances that people can pick up, on a lot of complicated issues.

On my personal journey I’ve always been interested in people, in what makes an individual person. Something I used to do, that Neill knew about, was my use of accents and voices in daily life, just for fun. I think each of those is your mind creating a little identity, a new ego for yourself. Fundamental for that to exist is the need for separation from everything around you. My character goes through that process: how do you separate yourself as a human being from everything else, other life forms, other religions, other races, even other sports teams? And you do it to varying degrees. When it’s an extreme case you will kill those people, because they are so different from you in your mind.

Q: District 9 is an extreme version of that: the humans deal with creatures who can in some ways act and move like them, but are fundamentally different.
A: Yes. I think people are acting from a position of either thinking they’re doing the right thing, or complete naiveté where they just don’t get it. We separate ourselves from the planet, the environment. People think, “Those spider eggs, there, in the corner, I can just kill those eggs. I’m not going to have those eggs in my house.” So when Wikus burns the alien’s eggs it’s literally the same, in his mind, as you taking a spider’s nest and crushing it. You’re under the complete assumption that because you can, it’s totally fine for you.

Q: This film isn’t just a human story then, it involves nature as a whole?
A: I think so. To me the human stuff was obvious – apartheid, I know all that, I’ve lived it.

Q: What conclusion do you think Wikus arrives at? His ending isn’t exactly “happy,” and his relationship with Christopher involves some amount of betrayal.
A: That’s the thing – as a sentient being, your ego will always try to put itself first. Even the creature goes through that, where he turns on Wikus, in a sense.

Literally every step, Wikus is forced to confront things. He’s at the stage by the end of the film of warring between his deeper essence, his humanity, and his survival/ego instinct. And only right at the end does that get pulled away, and the humanity just wins over. It’s certainly not a “Wow, now everybody’s going to be friends” type of ending. He’s going through that very painful process. Everything that he’s relied on, that he’s valued, is being torn away, so I think that he’s at the last edges of that.

Q: Has the team talked about spin-off or sequel material?
A: Only since the press started asking us! Neill and I have both said we’d love to do another one, and there’s a full world to go back, like a prequel or forwards or whatever. The prequel side is particularly interesting, I think, because the aliens have been there for such a long time.

If Neill participated again, that would be a very important factor for me. It’s very rare that a sequel can top the original, though I prefer Terminator 2 to the original, and that’s because they had the right team again. Same writer, director.

Q: This time you might have a lot of people throwing money at the production, saying you can make District 10 for $150 million.
A: Now the story will be just a full-on war, there’s gonna be a million aliens and they’ll all be shooting from the first shot!

Read our review: District 9

Staff writer Jesse Skinner tackles anything and everything thrown his way but has a natural bent for film, music and current events.