In the hard-nosed adaptation of the popular British comic book hero from director Pete Travis and writer Alex Garland, Dredd (Urban) is charged with showing a rookie cop (Thirlby) the ropes. And in the ultimate case of sink or swim, Anderson is forced to learn -- fast -- during a routine drug bust, when they're locked down in a 200-story apartment block by a psychotic slum lord (Lena Headey) who doesn't want them to get out alive.
With "Dredd 3D" set to premiere as the opening night film of the Toronto Film Festival's Midnight Madness program, Moviefone sat down with stars Karl Urban and Olivia Thirlby to talk comic books, partnering up, and, of course, that iconic helmet.
Unlike Sylvester Stallone's Dredd, Karl's helmet stays on the entire movie. How was that experience for the both of you? Was there anything that surprised you about it? Olivia Thirlby: Maybe how natural it felt for Karl to be in that mask. I've been asked what it's like to, as an actor, have those windows to your soul covered up, and I think that it was very natural and it works quite well. Of course, Dredd doesn't want anyone to see his soul, so it works pretty well for him.
Karl Urban: For me, I don't know if I was really surprised by anything. I knew it was going to be an extraordinary challenge, and it certainly did proved to be. It was, I have to confess, somewhat daunting to approach a role and know that I wasn't going to use one of the most expressive tools available to me. But that's the only way to play the character. So as a result, I found that it was a wonderful process of discovery of how else I can communicate with somebody. And so you just look at all the other tools available: the voice, your body language, the physicality of the character. And really, what I discovered was a couple of things: one was, seriously, just simply having the thought and feeling the emotions we're making, what actually does transmit to the audience. It really was an exercise in the actions speaking volumes for the character.
There are certain points in this film that are really definitive for Dredd. One is the way he treats kids who are pointing guns at him and threatening him -- he makes a choice there of how to treat them. Two, there's a gear shift that you see within Dredd when there's a massacre. There's lots of innocent lives [lost], of people he is charged to protect; you can see that he, for a man who is highly trained and in control, he lets loose a little bit, and gets very, very brutal with the prisoner. And to me, that was ultimately a chance to define the humanity of the character, and the humor of it. The humor through the comics, I think is key, that wonderful, satirical dark humor, and it was important wherever possible to put that in to humanize the character.
Had you read much of the comics? KU: Yeah, I did. I read "Dredd" as a teenager, the Quality Comics series that they published in the '90s. And one of the best things about this was going back and re-reading those stories that I really loved back then, and then discovering a whole bunch of new stories. And just seeing the evolution and maturity in ways of writing, and also maybe the depths that came through in the character, like [in] stories like "Origins." Where the character is -- who was originally established as being so black-and-white -- developing the conscience where he's actually questioning the whole system that he is charged to uphold, and he's referring to it as "The Big Lie." And to me, that's where the character gets really interesting.
And knowing where he gets to in the end of the graphic novels, in this film, we were able to really showcase the cracks in there. Because in our film, Dredd does something at the end that he would never do at the beginning. He starts off where he gets assigned to assess this rookie, and in Dredd's mind, she's already a fail, you know? And at the end of the film, Dredd is proven to be wrong to himself. And I think that once you open that door, and your job is a judge, that's pretty interesting territory.
Olivia, I take it you probably weren't a big Dredd fan growing up. What was your first impression of the comics and characters? OT: I think the humor is what jumped out at me at first. The world that they live in is so bleak and gritty and violent, you kind of need the humor. And reading the comics, that was what surprised me the most, the amount of wry one-liners. And I was so happy to see that come through in the film.
Since there's already been another adaptation of the character, did you feel any pressure to distance your performances from the 1995 version of Dredd? KU: The only pressure I felt was to deliver the best performance I could, and service the script that Alex [Garland] wrote. And really, I think what you see in this movie is a testament to his hard work and energy, and his collaboration with ["Dredd" creator] John Wagner, and the obligation that he felt to do it right. By the time we came on board, you know, it was there. And our job was just to get in and say the line.
But there's still that iconography attached to the characters, already going in. Was that something you were wary of? KU: Yes, and that's a good point. And I think that's the danger of acting to me. I could not approach the character and play him as an icon. You can't do that. What you can do is approach him and try and find the humanity within him. It's what he does in the film, and how he speaks, and how he's shot. All those things define him in our film.
Olivia, in the comics, Anderson gets a spin-off of her own. Would this role be something you could imagine doing again, maybe with Anderson as the hero? No offense to Karl. OT: I love this character. She's my dream role, honestly. She's so many antithetical things wrapped up in this ball of woman. And I like that about her. That she's a woman, and not acting like a man in this world, and that is a strength, to be a woman. So, to answer your question, yes. Fingers crossed, it would be a dream to revisit this character. [But] I don't need my own "Anderson PSI" banner. [Laughs]
I'm happy to be a partner with Dredd, and I honestly think that's one of the real strengths of this film, that it's a valid partnership between two people who start off not liking each other and then go through something like this together. And I'm really satisfied with this film too. I think it's very much Anderson's story, and the arc of the film emotionally, it totally has to do with Anderson. I feel that Anderson is established in a way, that she doesn't need to have her own spin-off. I loved the partnership between Dredd and Anderson, and that's what I'd be most interested in returning to.
KU: I'd go see that spin-off movie though.
Karl, you said you were a fan of the comics. What did you see in this script that got you the most excited about doing the movie? KU: I think the aspect that appealed to me most was the relationship between Dredd and Anderson. To me, that was the core of the film. And it certainly was something that, on a human level, was accessible and interesting. I like the fact that at the beginning of our story, as Olivia said, these characters don't think much of each other, and yet they form such a great partnership. And that changes everything. As they warm to each other, the audience warms to us. Alex Garland wrote a real character-driven script, and not only is the character of Anderson extraordinarily well-written, but also Ma-Ma [Lena Headey]. To have two female characters in the film who are such strong female archetypes, I thought that this was such a wonderful choice and strengthened the film immeasurably.
How much do you think of the fans, and what their reactions might be, while you're making a movie like this? Or do you just trust that if you get it right, the fans will respond to it? KU: First of all, I would define myself as a fan. So I put enough pressure upon myself to get it right without having to take into account how everybody else in the world will feel. My responsibility when I'm hired is to execute the character to the best of my ability. And that's what I'm focused on. I'm not focused on what other people will think.
"Dredd 3D" opens in theaters in North America on September 21.