Interview: Olivia Thirlby and Karl Urban talk ‘Dredd 3D’

Olivia Thirlby and Karl Urban in 'Dredd 3D'. Courtesy Alliance Films.

As a childhood fan of the masked crime fighter known as Judge Dredd – making his second big screen appearance in a vastly more faithful adaptation from writer Alex Garland this weekend – actor Karl Urban really didn’t need to be asked twice to get involved with the project. From day one he was on the same page with Garland about his vision for the film and the direction the futuristic judge, jury, and executioner would take in Dredd.

Less familiar with the particulars of the comic but equally game to join up with Dredd’s cast aside from a passing knowledge and understanding of the character’s iconography was actress Olivia Thirlby, who plays the stoic lawman’s new and untested psychic partner in a scenario where the two of them find themselves trapped in a high rise community by an evil drug lord (Lena Headey) while investigating a triple homicide following a deal that went South.

While in town for the film’s debut at the Toronto International Film festival, Urban and Thirlby sat down with Criticize This! to talk about the film.

What was it like, Karl, having to work in the mask of Dredd the entire time, and, Olivia, what was it like acting opposite someone who has his face covered? Was there anything surprising to you guys?

Olivia Thirlby: Maybe it was how natural it all felt. I mean, with Karl being in that mask all the time, it just felt right. That’s a really common question that we get asked. I know Karl gets it a lot, and I get it even though I never wear a mask. We get asked what it’s like to have these windows to your soul covered up, and I think it was really natural and it worked quite well. Dredd doesn’t want anyone to see his soul, so that’s natural for him. And my character Anderson is psychic, so she doesn’t need to see his eyes to know exactly what’s going on. She’s already made the decision that she knows Dredd.

Karl Urban: For me, I don’t know if I was really surprised by anything really, persay. I knew it was going to be an extraordinary challenge, and it certainly did prove to be so. It was, I have to confess, somewhat daunting to approach the role and know that I wasn’t going to use one of the most expressive tools available to an actor, but that was the only way to play the character. So as a result I found that it was, for me, a wonderful process of discovery for how I was going to communicate to the audience without those eyes. Then you just start looking at the other tools available: the voice, the body language, you know, the physicality of the character. I had two things I realized. The first was this thing (points to brain). Just simply thinking about an emotion and how it will convey to an audience. Secondly, it really was an exercise in the actions speaking volumes for the character. I think there are certain points in the film that are definitive for Dredd. One is the way he treats a pair of kids in the movie when they point a gun at him and threaten him. He makes a choice there of how to treat them. Two is the gear shift that you see within Dredd when he sees there’s been a massacre and the loss of innocent lives that he’s been chosen to protect. You can see that for a man who’s highly trained and in control that he lets loose a little bit. He gets pretty brutal with his prisoner.

Ultimately, I think the biggest challenge for us was to define the humanity for the character, and the humour is important. The humour through the comics is key. That wonderful, satirical dark humour, and I think that was important to put that in there to humanize the character.

Have you read a lot of the comics?

KU: Yeah. I read Dredd as a teenager; the Quality Comics series that was being published in the 90s. One of the best and biggest things about this was going back and reading those stories that I really loved back then and discovering new stories and just seeing the evolution and maturity in the writing, and more importantly, the depth that came through in those stories, like in Origins where the character who was originally cast as being so black and white – totalitarian, fascist cop – all of a sudden develops this conscience where he’s questioning the whole system he’s been asked to uphold, and he ends up referring to it in the comic at “the big lie.” To me, that’s where the character gets really interesting, and knowing where he gets to in the end of the graphic novels, we were able to showcase kind of the first cracks in there. Dredd does something at the end of this film that he wouldn’t do at the beginning. When you have someone like this questioning his motivations and he’s a judge, that’s a really interesting place to be.

Olivia, what were your first impressions of the comic?

OT: I think the humours is what jumped out at me first and the most. The world they live in is just so bleak and gritty and kind of dark and scary, and you kind of need the humour. It does two things: it alleviates the pain and it also informs it somehow. Reading the comics, what surprised me the most was the amount of wry one liners. I was very happy to see that translate into the film, as well.

With the humour of the films so front and centre and with there being a past big screen adaptation of Judge Dredd that was so broad and cartoonish, did you think there was a real inus on your performances to keep that dryness to it?

KU: I guess for me, all I felt the pressure to do was that deliver the best performance I could and to service the script that Alex wrote. I think what you see here is a testamanet to his hard work and his collaboration with John Wagner and the obligation HE had to do it right. By the time we came on board it was there…

OT: The work was done.

KU: All we had to do was just step in and say the lines.

But there’s also the iconography of the character that was there even before Alex came on board and that will still be there long after the both of you have moved on. Was that something you were always wary of?

KU: Yes, and that’s a great point. I deemed that to be a dangerous aspect for me in terms of how I could have approached the character and played him as an icon. You can’t do that. What you can do is approach him and try to find the humanity within him and try to humanize him as much as you can. Because it’s what he does in the film and how he’s perceived by all the other characters and how he’s shot. All those things are what ultimately define him as an icon.

Olivia, in the comics Anderson gets her own spin off. Do you think this is something you would consider doing?

OT: I love this character. She’s my dream role, honestly. She has so many things wrapped up in this ball of woman. That’s one of the things I like most about her: that she is a woman and that’s actually her strength. So to answer your question: Yes. With fingers tightly crossed I would love to revisit the character. I don’t even need to fly under the Anderson banner. I would be happy to partner again with Dredd, because I think one of the strengths of this film was that it’s about a real partnership between two people who start off hating each other and end up going through something life changing together. I’m very satisfied with this film, too, as just a self-contained thing because I still think it’s still very much Anderson’s story. The entire emotional arc of the film is based around her. I feel established with Anderson in a way, already. She doesn’t need to have her own spin off because I love the relationship between her and Dredd, and that’s what I’d most like to see returning to the story.

KU: I’d pay to watch that movie.

OT: (laughs) Anderson: The Movie?

KU: Yeah! For me, the aspect of the script that appealed to me the most was that relationship between Dredd and Anderson. That was the core of the film and it was something that was very accessible on a human level and it was just interesting to think about. I love just how Olivia said that those characters don’t think much of each other, yet they still form this great partnership. As they warm up to each other, the audience warms to us. It was a really character driven script.

It’s not only the character of Anderson that I think is well written, but also Ma-Ma (Lena Headey). To have two woman characters in this film that were such strong female archetypes was just such a wonderful choice that considerably strengthened the direction of the film.

How much do you take into account potential fan reaction when making something in this type of genre film?

KU: First of all, I would define myself as a fan, so I’m already putting a lot of pressure on myself to get it right without having to take into account what everyone else in the world is feeling. I just feel like I’m hired to execute a performance of the character that best services the script. That’s what I’m focused on and I have to stay focused on.

Dredd 3D is now in theatres.

Top image: A scene from Dredd 3D. Courtesy Alliance Films.

Andrew Parker

About Andrew Parker

Andrew Parker writes for numerous blogs and publications, including Notes From the Toronto Underground and his more personal pop-culture blog, I Can't Get Laid in This Town. He is also the curator of the Defending the Indefensible series of films at the Toronto Underground Cinema.