Despite having appeared in some of the biggest films in cinema history, including two instalments of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, The Bourne Supremacy and Star Trek, Karl Urban doesn’t have the most recognisable face. It’s a phenomenon that, now he’s starring in one of the year’s most-anticipated action flicks, is surely about to change. Actually, no – unless we’re talking about his chin.
That’s because the 40-year-old New Zealander is playing the title role in Dredd; a film about the uncompromising justice-dispensing Judge of 2000AD fame who famously never takes his helmet off. Well, almost never. There was the 1995 Sylvester Stallone film, but if you’re expecting that kind of fluffy action, think again. Dredd 3D (to give it its full title) has gore that would put Hannibal Lecter off his dinner, fava beans and all. Set in a single tower block, it’s like a sci-fi version of The Raid, but with more human innards on display. Luckily, while filming, Urban managed to keep his innards where they should be.
Did any of the gore and violence make you queasy during filming?
Not while filming, but when I watched the film for the first time I saw some of the more graphic elements added in post-production. To me, that was the character of the film and in many ways, unlike a lot of comic-book movies that have been released recently, this film doesn’t gloss over the violence. The film forces you to explore the more graphic consequences of crime.
The Stallone version got a little bit of a panning…
A little bit, you reckon?
Just trying to be polite…
[Laughs] You don’t have to be polite to me. It got slammed.
When your role was announced, did you check the internet for reactions?
No, I’m more interested in what people have to say after they’ve seen a film rather than before it’s made.
Most of the film is set in one tower block. Did that claustrophobic feel appeal to you?
Yeah. It seemed to me that the film became quite an intense character study, looking at how these characters would deal with the pressure of the situation that they were in. Reading it for the first time, I thought, “OK, I get that this is kind of Die Hard meets Training Day.” It’s very accessible, and the relationship between Anderson [a rookie Judge played by Olivia Thirlby] and Dredd is the core of this movie.
It looks amazing as well. Did you have a favourite set detail or piece of imaginary tech?
There were some nice touches. Like the homeless guy with a sign that says “Will debase myself for 25 credits”. That I found quite amusing.
You wear the helmet for every scene. Is it a bit weird not having your face appear in a film?
I never really thought about it that way. The helmet, like the costume, was an incredibly important element to help me define the character. I couldn’t imagine doing the film while taking the helmet off. It wouldn’t have been the Judge Dredd I grew up with.
Were you tempted to get a stand-in to wear the helmet for any scenes?
[Laughs] No. I enjoyed the process so much that I wanted to be a part of this film as much as I could be. I did as much as I could and that was me riding through the streets of Cape Town. Why should I let a double have all the fun?
Did you get to keep the costume?
I got to keep the helmet.
Do you wear it around the house?
I’ve worn it once or twice.
Your CV is a sci-fi fan’s dream. Are you rewarding your inner geek with your career choices?
I’m a product of the Spielberg generation. I grew up, even before that, watching Star Trek as a kid. I responded to films such as Blade Runner, Alien, and obviously Star Wars and Indiana Jones. But I’m also incredibly proud of the work that I’ve done outside of that. Independent New Zealand films such as Out Of The Blue or The Price Of Milk, and stuff like Red or the Bourne series. But I haven’t planned my career, it’s just the way the chips have fallen.
You even named one of your sons after Indiana Jones. Did that take some delicate negotiation?
That was my wife’s choice. We were sitting around watching Raiders… one night and it’s that scene where Marion’s been abducted and she’s screaming out “Indyyyyy” and we just looked at each other like, “Wow, that’d be cool.”
Can you walk around New Zealand without being mobbed by people?
I guess I have dwindling anonymity.
Does that suit you?
The fact that it’s dwindling? I’m not a self-promoter. If I don’t have a movie to go out and talk about then I’m not going to put myself in the media, especially not in New Zealand. I lead a very low-key lifestyle.
Do your neighbours take a laidback approach to you?
I feel at home in my community. I have a wonderfully normal day-to-day existence.
Had any experiences with weird fans?
No. I think it helps that I play a lot of deadly people, so I guess more times than not people choose not to bother me [laughs]. Which is fine by me.
You’ve just wrapped another Star Trek film – was it fun filming it?
It was one of the most fun sets I’ve worked on. JJ Abrams is an incredibly funny man; very smart, very quick. Simon Pegg and Chris Pine are incredibly funny people. You inevitably spend a large portion of your day laughing or trying not to laugh.
Is it true that you were in the running to play Bond?
I had a preliminary meeting and was invited to test for the character, but I was filming another movie and couldn’t get released. But I’m glad that happened, because I think Daniel Craig is a superb Bond. He’s the best we’ve had, apart from Sean Connery, and I couldn’t see anyone else in that role.
Finally, your father’s German – what traits have you inherited?
I like beer [laughs]. While I was filming Dredd I wasn’t allowed to drink it. I cut loose when I finished. The first was the best beer of my life.
Dredd 3D is at cinemas nationwide from 7 September
(Images: All Star)