Thankfully, it was also obvious to Copley's longtime pal, writer-director Neill Blomkamp, who asked the actor to improvise a character for test footage that eventually morphed into sci-fi stunner "District 9." Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson ultimately cast the 30-something unknown Copley in the lead role of Wikus Van De Merwe, a callous government agent who goes through a shocking transformation while encountering a marginalized extraterrestrial population in South Africa. Copley's searing performance made him an instant favorite with hard-core movie geeks and highbrow film critics alike; now he's fielding scripts while preparing for his first big Hollywood role as Captain "Howling Mad" Murdock in the upcoming would-be blockbuster "The A-Team."
"It's been such an amazingly humbling process," says Copley of his rise to fame. "To suddenly have all these opportunities—I'm really just flowing with things and seeing what happens."
On landing the 'District 9' role:
"I would get these things from Neill saying that I was definitely doing a cameo in the movie. I thought I'd be a producer on the film, and then he called me and said, 'I'm going to offer you the lead part, and Peter wants it and I want it, so it'll happen.' What he told me later was that although he'd kind of already been making his mind up while he was watching me do [the test footage], he was concerned that he might have to get through the studio and realistically they just wouldn't go for it and that Peter wouldn't even go for it. But he did. And it changed my life."
On his approach to Wikus:
"I took each scene in the first draft of the script, and I developed a chart for myself of how intense Wikus was going to be: how sick he was, how angry he was. I broke it down. It was a bit ridiculously analytical. And then I totally just let all that go. Most of the really fun stuff for me would happen in the moment of actually performing on camera."
On getting in touch with his dramatic side:
"I had done a lot of characters that were lighthearted and comic and funny in my life; that's mostly what I used to do. But I'd never done heavy dramatic stuff. Peter and Neill were describing it to me as 'Borat with aliens' at the beginning of the movie. So even though I knew this arc was going to happen, I had a vision that it would be more comic, I guess. When I think about it, I can't believe that Peter and Neill made that decision on me without knowing that I could do [the more dramatic scenes]. It's quite miraculous. The dramatic stuff was a surprise for me. I started doing all the kind of cliché things that I'd always teased actors about: I would take five or 10 minutes before I did a heavy emotional scene and just start zoning out and ignoring everyone around me and start getting into the gravity of the emotion. I guess I'm a little bit Method in that way. I like things to be real."
On his 'A-Team' audition:
"I was on the 'District 9' publicity tour, and I put myself on tape in my hotel room in Austin, Texas. I did a whole bunch of voices and then a few specific scenes that I thought might happen to Murdock in his hotel room. I edited them together, and I sent them to [director Joe Carnahan]. We did one more screen test after that for Fox with the full lighting and wardrobe and everything, but it was off that first stuff that I put on tape in a hotel."
On pursuing acting:
"I never considered it as a career at all. I remember telling friends of mine that a career as an actor seemed to me to be very much a combination of a lottery ticket and something that would be very brutal: just constantly having to go to casting after casting, and there's a type of sensitivity that I think good actors need to have to the human condition, which I think makes actors very vulnerable to the brutal side of the business. I'm having to be quite vigilant to protect myself from that now and to not allow that kind of thinking to interfere with the creative process. It's an interesting job. It's way more complicated and layered and difficult than I thought. I was in the business, so I thought I had a handle on it, but it's like Wikus: Until you've actually walked in the shoes of somebody, you don't know."
-Served as an actor-producer on "Alive in Joburg," the 2005 short that inspired "District 9"
-Acted in high school and studied speech and drama through Trinity College of London
-Is readying himself for the nomadic nature of the acting lifestyle, "but South Africa will always be home"