“Dredd 3D”: Karl Urban Studied the Comics, Not Stallone

Actor keeps helmet on and aims for a purer, grittier vision of comic book character.

When you think about "Judge Dredd," forget the 1995 film in which Sylvester Stallone made an awkward fit in the armor of Mega City-One’s merciless law enforcer. Compared to Karl Urban’s grim take on the unrelenting hero of British comic books in "Dredd 3D," it’s apples and oranges – as far afield as Adam West and Christian Bale’s takes on Batman.

Urban is best known for practically channeling DeForest Kelley’s spirit as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy in 2008’s re-imagination of “Star Trek,” a role he will reprise in next year's sequel "Star Trek Into Darkness." A fan of the Judge in his comic book-reading youth in New Zealand (Dredd debuted in the UK comic “2000 AD” in 1977), the actor didn’t have to reference any prior performance this time around.

Have you tried to steer clear of the original “Judge Dredd” film, or what are your impressions of that film as you worked on this one?

Here's the thing: when I read the script it became obvious to me that what we were endeavoring to do was completely different. Tonally, you couldn't get more different. Going into this this movie I watched the Stallone version to see what worked and what didn't work, and the way that I wanted to approach the character was to not have the character be a posturing, bellowing character that was kind of grounded in ego. That wasn't the Dredd that I knew. To me it was far more interesting to have a character with this inner rage and struggling to contain it rather than letting it all explode.

So that's sort of the direction that I was going in, and I decided that what I wanted to do was find the humanity within Dredd – because he's not a superhero. He's a cloned man, but he's just a man. He's not a superhero. He doesn't have superhero powers. His heroism is defined by the fact that he's walking into a building while everybody else is running out. He does the things that most people wouldn't dare to do in real life. That was the challenge, and especially a huge challenge to convey all of this without the use of eyes, because the character oscillates from being a protector to being incredibly violent to having this wry, sardonic humor and displaying passion, protecting citizens. There's a weariness to him which I just really enjoyed.

The comic book was such a product of its time and place, in the 1980s when the urban landscape was starting to get scarier and more prone to violent crime, and legal loopholes made justice seem elusive. Do you think those themes remain relevant for the film in today's world?

To be honest with you, I didn't think about how this movie was going to be perceived for the relevance of it when I was making it. To me, my mission in this was just to a) honor the creation that [John] Wagner and Carlos Esquerra created back in '75 as best I could, and b) service the script and be in the moment and make the best film that we could. Everything that kind of happens after it, it's not something that's really on my radar. That's not for me to pull it apart and analyze it. I just wanted it to be a good, fun piece of entertainment.

Did you take that same approach with 'Star Trek' and another character that brings certain expectations with it?

Yeah, I think you can't. I think it's a mistake. There are so many things in this world that are actually beyond your area of control. All you can do when you're in a situation like that, despite the fan pressure, despite the expectation, the best thing you can do is not think about that stuff and just concentrate on the character and the story you're trying to tell. Then it's for everybody else to think about it.

Did you find it at all helpful to look at the source material?

Oh, yeah. I went through that, and that was a part of my whole process of entering into this. First of all, I spent 13 weeks in the gym lifting heavy things, eating seven times a day just to get physically where I needed to be with the character, to feel like the character. Then there was the part of the process which I liked the most, which was the investigative part. That was getting my hands on every graphic novel that I could. The real wonderful thing was that I discovered a whole lot of new 'Dredd' stories that I wasn't aware of, that had come out subsequent to my reading 'Dredd' as a teenager. It was stories like 'Origins' and 'The Dead Man's Walk Into Necropolis,' 'America.'

These are all really great stories and there's a wonderful maturity that developed in Wagner's storytelling where sort of a seed of doubt had been planted in this character about the sort of semi-fascist cop who was a desperate solution at a desperate time. He gets to a point in these sort of stories where he's starting to question that. To me that's fascinating. It's like the opening 20 years is just this guy doing a job and then suddenly there's this switch and this change as the character is written and he becomes a lot more complex and interesting. That's one of the things that I wanted to try and seed in this movie, the beginning of that weariness.

Was it always a mandate that you were going to keep the helmet on?

Oh, yeah – hugely important! My agent called me up and said, 'Would you be interested in "Judge Dredd"?' I was like, 'Oh, yeah. Send me the script.' I read it and I was immediately relieved to discover that the character kept the helmet on. So we set the meeting with the DNA Boys in L.A. and it was Andrew [Macdonald], Allon [Reich], Pete [Travis] and Alex [Garland]. At one point Alex turned to me and said, 'Just so you’re clear: you're aware that Dredd keeps the helmet on in this movie. It's not coming off at any point.' I looked at him and I said, 'I wouldn't be taking this meeting if he did.' So we were all on the same page.

As an actor, how do you retrain yourself since you can't use your eyes? What are you then conscious of trying to use to emote?

Well, then you have to look at all the other tools that are available to you. Your voice becomes extremely important, and in my research I discovered a passage in one of the comics, which described Dredd's voice as a saw cutting through bone, so that was kind of the starting point for my character. What you sort of feel and hear in the movie is my sort of approximation of what that is, and also, before, I wanted to do something that was distinctly different from the shouting, bellowing Dredd. That was of no interest to me. So that's how that sort of evolved. Other tools: obviously the physicality. What can I express with my movement, the weariness, when is he tired, when he is struggling to really contain his rage? And then it's really important to identify where the humor lies. That's one of the things that I loved in the comic, just that really dry, dark humor, so that became an important element as well.

What was your reaction the first time you put the entire Judge regalia on, and how difficult was it to do action scenes in that?

I was probably thinking, 'How the f*** am I going to do this?' honestly. Seriously, that was part of the process. Being in that costume and getting used to it, that took time. I wore it every day for two weeks before actually stepping in front of the camera and it still took more time to get used to it. It had its limitations. I don't think it was as limiting as what I've heard about the Batman costume for Christian [Bale], but it sort of really helped inform me – it dictated to me how the character moved.

What was it like going back to work on 'Star Trek' and playing ‘Bones’ McCoy a second time around?

It was surreal. It was four years since we'd made the last 'Star Trek,' and I remember coming to set for the first day and I literally felt like that I'd been transported on a time warp and Obama was about to be elected. We walked on and there's the exact same cast, the same crew, the same extras and it was so trippy, so weird, but so wonderful to start that again. This time everyone was a lot more relaxed with each other. When you develop a shorthand with colleagues who you've been through the war with, that's kind of the way that it felt. It was really interesting to see the evolution on everybody's processes.


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