Fantastic Fest: Karl Urban On Being The New Law

By  · Published on September 25th, 2012

Karl Urban is no stranger to genre cinema, it’s where the Aussie actor has made his bones, if you will. Or won’t, just, nevermind. He’s also no stranger to Fantastic Fest. And although he does tend to significantly throw off the handsome curve, his roles in Star Trek, The Lord of Rings, and last year’s alum Red make his presence here at the fest a welcome sight. It doesn’t hurt at all that he’s here this year for the hyper-violent, hyper-badass Dredd. His jaw prominent, and his actions speaking plenty where his actual words are few, we wondered what was going on under the helmet. We sat down with Urban to get the lay of the law.

When you were here for RED a couple years ago, we talked about Dredd. You’ve probably talked to 1,000 people since then, but…


Undoubtedly. I was very taken by your fandom of the character Judge Dredd. It really got me excited to see the movie. Now that it’s finished, that excitement feels duly justified. I’m interested to know if everything that you wanted to bring to the character ended up on screen?

Yeah, absolutely. I sat down on many occasions and had many discussions with Alex Garland about the character of Dredd, what we wanted to bring. Firstly, how do you approach this character? He’s an icon. It was important not to approach the character like you are trying to play an icon. It was important to humanize the character, to find he’s just a man. He’s not a superman. He’s not a superhero. It was important to just identify what humanizes him. So, for me, it was finding out where his compassion is, where his humor is. You know, he’s got a great dry sense of humor. There’s a certain world-weariness about the character. And then, also, I guess what humanizes him is his relationship with Anderson, because it’s really because of that relationship that you get to discover one of his faults. I think that’s really important as well.

She provides kind of the cracks in his stoicism.

Yeah. I mean if you think about it, the heart of this piece is a two-hander – it’s a story, ostensibly, about a senior cop and a rookie. They don’t like each other much at the beginning of this film. He certainly thinks she’s not worthy of wearing the uniform. But it’s his job to give her the test. And, indeed, in many ways she fails that test. But in many ways she excels. Suddenly Dredd is presented with a decision to make. For a guy who sees things black and white, right or wrong, I think it’s a really defining moment. It’s a moment that is the difference between dispensing justice and upholding the law. It’s a moment that represents a tiny fracture in Dredd’s world view.

Right. You mentioned trying to humanize him. I imagine that was really difficult to do with a character like this. But you did get to keep the helmet on. I know you said that was a sticking point for you.

It was just that was the way the character has been written since ’77. And thankfully, that’s the way that the character was written by Alex Garland in our movie, and that was a long nonstarter. I wouldn’t have approached this character any other way. If I had read a script where there were scenes where Dredd’s face was revealed, then I seriously would not have done this movie.

Right. I remember when you said that and I was like, ‘Wow. This guy clearly is the one that should be playing Dredd.” But I wondered, did that present special challenges when you are trying to humanize a character? Did it feel like doing Greek mask acting sometimes?

Well, I’ll tell you the challenge…First of all, technically it meant that there was more importance on the voice, there was more importance on the physicality of the character, because, you know, there’s a hyper focus on there. But it was compounded by the fact that the male archetype for Dredd is really founded in that Western sensibility, that man with no name – you know, talk low, walk slow, don’t say much. And that’s the type of character that Dredd is. He is…

A Gary Cooper type.

Yeah, or Eastwood. He’s a man who has his emotions in check. So you are already operating within a narrow bandwidth. And you are narrowing it even further…like denying the audience. So it was a huge challenge.

When actually filming, did that block off your vision? Did you end up running into things on set?

No, not at all. It’s a fully functioning motorbike helmet. The uniform is representative of a dangerous world. It was essentially a combat uniform. These guys are living in a distant future world that’s out of control. It’s bordering on chaos. They can only respond to 6% of the crime. So the uniform had to be reflective of that environment.

Did you ever have that concern, I mean obviously your sole focus is being faithful to the character. But did you ever have that concern as a career actor that you’re doing a movie where nobody can see your face? Or for you, was that not even a concern at all?

The thought never crossed my mind. I was like, “I’m going in here and I’m going to service the character and I’m going to service the story. I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.” Everything else, including fan expectations, just had to like outside my area of concern.

Absolutely. That’s remarkably selfless. Because it’s counter-intuitive to the way a lot of stars think. I mean that’s the reason, in the original, Stallone’s not wearing the helmet. It was all about creating a vehicle for him, whereas in this you are clearly servicing that character.

We just wanted to bring the character to the screen the way that it was envisioned. And to do that required us to approach the character with no ego, because Dredd is a character without ego. It was the right way to do it.

If this becomes a franchise or if they do another one, do you feel like you’ve kind of left everything you wanted to bring on the field, or would you be interesting in donning the helmet again?

There’s a lot of mountains this movie has to climb in order for that to happen. Sure. I would love to come back and to continue to tell the story and to continue to evolve the character. I think there’s such rich, fertile ground, so many great stories that we could draw…

We haven’t even done the dark judges yet.

No, I know. I would like to go there. Sure. If we could do Judge Death and the dark judges in the next one, that would be fantastic. But look, if that happens, phenomenal. I would be onboard. But if it doesn’t, I think that all of us who are involved in making this film are really proud of it. And the response that we’ve gotten so far from the audiences who have seen it and from the reviewers has been incredible. So really, this kind of film, I think it’s an instant cult classic. And for me it’s pretty dang good.

Absolutely. And speaking with Garland, he made a point that I didn’t even think of, but that Dredd actually ages in the comics. He’s given that ability. So you have the potential, if you were to move forward with the character, to also play him older. I mean have you thought any about that, about kind of evolving? I mean, again, we are playing speculative baseball here, but…

Totally speculative baseball. All I can really say is I would be up for it. But in the same sense, there’s no way that I’m counting any chickens here. It has to find an audience. That might not be in its initial theatrical run. It might be in DVD. Or maybe the financials will never stack up to warrant making another one. In that case we’re left with a pretty damn amazing graphic cult classic of a movie. That’s good too. That’s fine. Dredd is enigmatic. He is mysterious. And if this is the end of the line, then that’s a good note to end it on. Leave them wanting more.

Yeah, absolutely. Of the many scenes of the movie, of the many instances of Dredd dispatching justice, which was your favorite to shoot?

I guess I’ve really enjoyed working with Lena Headey. Hard to talk about that without the spoilers.

Yeah, absolutely.

I really enjoyed that. It was a lot of fun. The opening sequence, the bike chase into the hostage “negotiation,” to me sets up everything you need to know about him – uncompromising attitude, his humor, and just the sort of wily, laconic demeanor that he has.

How much riding did they actually allow you to do?

I did a lot. It was important for me to actually be in the moment, be in those scenes. When I’m watching film I can always sort of tell where the double is standing in and doing it. But it was really important for me that the audience be able to see me riding the bike and being in there. At the end of the day, why let somebody else have all the fun? That’s a fun day at the office – riding through the streets, where they had it blocked off with cops, and then I’m gunning it down, shooting a car chase. That was fun.

Dredd lives in kind of a fascist, dystopian society. And we also have a translation issue with this comic being more popular overseas than it was here in the states. Did you find it difficult to create a character that was faithful but also that an audience could root for?

Well, it’s a challenge to create any character. What I was aware of was the fact that there were things built into Alex’s script that endeared Dredd to the audience, beats of humor, beats of morality; you know, tiny kind of character evolutions. That opening scene that we spoke about before, one of the most important elements in that scene is the beat where the hostage thanks Judge Dredd. Because even though he is representative of a totalitarian system, we’re struggling to maintain order that has severely diminished the rights of the population. He does also serve to protect. So it was important to acknowledge that.

And there are people that would recognize his necessity in that society.


Well, this last question I completely understand if you are not able to answer, but is Bones going to be part of the away team this time?

Well, you will get your answer on May the whatever…

That’s what I figured. Can’t blame a guy for trying.

Fair enough.

Dredd is in theaters now. Go see it, says The Law. For more, keep an eye on our Fantastic Fest 2012 coverage.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.