As if any further proof was needed that Karl Urban is unlike most movie stars, along comes Dredd. Here you have an action movie where you never once see the eyes of the leading man. He has no forced moments of romance with his leading lady, Olivia Thirlby. He has no unnecessary origin story. All Dredd has is a helmet that he never takes off, a gun with a whole lot of bullets in it, and a twisted sense of humor that comes with being judge, jury, and executioner in a grim future teetering on anarchy.
If you've written off Dredd because you remember how silly the '90s Judge Dredd starring Sylvester Stallone was, please give it a chance. This new version, which was actually made independent of the studio system, could not be farther from that wacky, lame Hollywood attempt to dumb down a hero who is iconic for his comic brutality. It's an inspired, audacious piece of sci-fi featuring the best performance in an action movie so far this year.
We recently sat down with Urban to talk about bringing Dredd to life the way he was always meant to be, and how he walks the line between a humanized law-bringer and a wisecracking psychopath.
Fandango: What was your first contact with the film, and how did you react?
Karl Urban: Well, first of all, I was on holiday with my family. I got an email from my agent advising me that there was some interest from the producers of Judge Dredd in me, and that was the first I'd heard about it. I had some reservations. I was very aware of Dredd, though, so I asked her to send me the script, and I couldn't put it down. I found it be an action-packed, character-driven narrative. The character of Dredd that I responded to in my youth was there on the page in an uncompromising, hardcore, gritty vision. I was happy to get to the end of the script and find that Dredd's identity remained a mystery, that he kept the helmet on.
That was key for me. If I'd read the script and it had scenes that revealed Dredd's face, I would not have done the film. That's just not Dredd. That's not the Dredd I grew up knowing, and it would have been non-starter. So I met with Alex [Garland], Allon [Reich], Andrew [Macdonald], and Pete [Travis] in Los Angeles, we all sized each other up and decided it was a good fit.
Fandango: Was there any push back from your management saying, "No, you can't do a movie where you never see your full face"?
Urban: No, there wasn't. I was adamant that this was something I wanted to do. It meant something to me, and the wonderful thing was it gave me the opportunity to explore and reconnect with these characters that I really responded to many moons ago. I discovered a whole raft of new stories that had been written after I stopped reading the comics, and what I found was this wonderful maturity and depth that had developed, especially with the character of Dredd.
As he got older and more jaded and questions the whole system he's charged to represent, to me that's so fascinating. Knowing where the character ends up, our job was to figure out how to foreshadow that in this movie. You can see that in some of the weariness and the jadedness in the character. He's already got it, and that comes from a life of dealing with sh*t day in and day out. Also, the actual arc of the character, it would be a shame if the audience walked out and went,"Well, he didn't change," because for Dredd it's actually a huge change. He is a stoic monolith, but he does something at the end of this film that he would never have done in the beginning.
Fandango: You've been in quite a few action films, so how do you differentiate your various versions of gruff badasses?
Urban: That's actually really important to me. I'm aware of how easy it is to be typecast in Hollywood. I'm already looked at, to a certain extent, as an action guy, so wherever I can break that, I will. It's important to me to change that, to play a hero in one movie and a villain in another. A character like Dredd, who is an antihero, whose heroism is defined by his toughness, and bravery and courage. And then play a character like [Star Trek's] Bones, who is not a physical character at all. He's an altruistic, loyal friend, and it's wonderful to be able to mix it up.
Fandango: The jokes that Dredd makes in this movie don't always have an obvious target. Do you think he's making them for the others around him, for himself, or for the audience?
Urban: I think it's for himself. I think that if I were to honestly analyze it, you'd need a sense of humor to do that type of job. To deal with the absolute human carnage every day, I think he's having a bit of a laugh on the inside where he can.
Fandango: It's one of the most humanizing elements of him, but it's also one of the most psychopathic.
Urban: It's a bit disturbing! For sure there's a blackness to the humor, but I think that's just a reflection of the world and environment around him. Living in a world that is really tinkering on the border of collapse, and he's this figure that is unblinking, walking on the precipice. Imbuing him with a sense of humor is just vital, and without it I think he would have been too far out of reach. He's not a robot, he's not a superhero, so if he's running or ducking or diving, he's going to get fatigued. Find out where his heart lays, and you can clearly see it when he makes certain choices in the film.
Fandango: You've taken on quite a few fan favorite roles in properties that are highly scrutinized. How does that work for you as a performer, and do you think it brings different challenges than an otherwise normal role?
Urban: Here's the thing, I take on a role because it appeals to me, and I do movies I'd like to go to the cinema and see. When I'm making a film, it's my responsibility to develop and bring as fully a dimensional character to screen to the best of my abilities. Anything beyond that, like fan expectations, lay outside my immediate area of concern. There's nothing I can do about it. It doesn't service me to digest other people's opinions. But once I've done my work, if people enjoy it, that to me is the greatest reward. And when I saw this movie for the first time with an audience at Comic-Con, they were laughing, cheering, engaged in the movie. Beats that Alex and I had discussed two years ago were landing, and it doesn't get any better than that.
I don't care about awards or any of that sh*t. To have people come along and are entertained by what you've made, there is no greater reward. That is why I do this.