Judgment is coming to cinemas this Friday. No, we’re not referring to EW’s weekly film reviews — though you should definitely check those out as well — but rather the arrival in multiplexes of Dredd 3D.
Starring Karl Urban and Olivia Thirlby the movie is the second adaptation of the British comic about a hardline, futuristic lawman. The first, of course, was 1995’s Sylvester Stallone vehicle Judge Dredd, which found Sly committing the cardinal sin of removing Dredd’s helmet and left many fans concluding all concerned should be sentenced to a lengthy spell wandering in the comic’s mutant-filled Cursed Earth.
Urban insists the Dredd 3D team made every effort to do things right this time. “That’s implicit,” says the New Zealand actor and Lord of the Rings star. “I was determined we were going to honor the original conception as best we could. My Dredd is a lot more stoic. There’s a great, dry sense of humor through the character. He is a hero but he doesn’t have superhero powers. He’s just one of those guys that’s on the front line day in and day out, doing an impossible job to the best of his ability.”
Below, Urban talks more about Dredd 3D, his hopes for a sequel, and not taking that helmet off.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Watching the Dredd 3D trailer, it’s clear you’ve perfected Judge Dredd’s downward-lipped scowl. I have this image of you standing in front of the mirror for hours on end, trying to get that right.
[Laughs] Not quite. But it was an interesting one. I felt that if the character wasn’t recognizably Dredd from the comics that a lot of people would feel shortchanged. But when you put that costume on the helmet it really informed your attitude. It wasn’t exactly comfortable to wear. So there’s a genuine tad of grumpiness that probably came through.
You were a Dredd fan when you were a kid?
Yeah, I turned on to Dredd when I was about 16, working in a pizza parlor in Wellington. The manager switched me on to it. It was kind of ironic at the time because most teenagers do rebel against everything to do with authority and the law and all that sort of stuff. I really gravitated towards this ultra brutal representative of the law. I just loved it. I’ve always had a passion for science fiction. Blade Runner is one of my favorite films. Star Trek. Star Wars. I grew up with that stuff. I love comics. It’s just a wonderful form of escapism.
Could you talk about the world of Judge Dredd, as depicted in this film?
The earth is kind of like a ruined, apocalyptic wasteland and humanity basically survives in overcrowded “Mega-Cities,” the largest of which is Mega-City One, which stretches from Boston to Washington. It’s a city just loaded with violence, crime, drugs, and death. The only people who can keep order amidst the chaos are the judges, who are a highly trained, extremely dangerous form of police officer. The judges serve as judge, jury and, when needed, executioner. Basically, the toughest, most feared amongst the all is Judge Dredd. And he’s one bad bastard.
And Dredd is testing a rookie judge?
That’s right. The story is basically a day in the life of Dredd as he puts his rookie Anderson (played by Olivia Thirlby) through her paces to see if she’s got what it takes to become a judge. And they get thrown into the deep end and it’s sink or swim and it’s the most deadly situation that a rookie could possibly encounter. Our villain in the movie is played by Lena Headey and she plays a character called Mama, the head of one of the most brutal gangs in Mega-City One. So Dredd and Anderson are up against an entire block of thugs that are out to kill them. Lena is scarily good in this film.
You have a lot more experience with these action spectaculars than Olivia Thirlby. Did you offer her any advice?
No. I didn’t need to. She came with her A-game and she was 100% committed and she’s fantastic in the film. She really kicks arse.
You shot the film in South Africa. You must have been as hot as b—s in the Dredd costume.
Oh my god, you have no idea. It was brutal. Absolutely. brutal. But worth it. We had a great time shooting in South Africa. We used these new film studios just out of Cape Town. Were were the first production to shoot there. But you’re right. There were some days it was so hot, I was completely soaked.
What’s it like acting with a helmet? I think Michael Caine said that movie acting is 90 percent about what you do with your eyes.
[Laughs] I know. It was an extreme challenge to say the least because an actor’s eyes are one of his most valuable tools to convey emotion and if you’re denied that then you have to look at your other tools. And certainly the voice becomes very important. Your body language, your general demeanor. It’s amazing how much one can convey without the benefit of the eyes.
And you definitely keep the helmet on?
The helmet stays on! They actually glued it on, stapled it on for the entire production. [Laughs] No, look, I’m a Dredd fan from way back and to me it would be egregious for Dredd to remove his helmet. He represents the faceless system of law and justice and to me that was always one of the cool things about the character, that his identity is a complete secret. There’s no Bruce Wayne to the Batman. There’s just Dredd. I liken it to getting it to the end of a Sergio Leone western and realizing that you didn’t even know the name of Clint Eastwood’s character. But you know what? It’s irrelevant.
Dredd was created partly as a parody of fascism and then became this hugely popular character. It is kind of weird to have this hero who is basically a fascist.
I’m not trying to drag you into a political quagmire here…
No no, no. I don’t necessarily agree that he is a fascist hero. I don’t necessarily agree with that statement. I think the times in which our story is set are quite different than our own and we may look at it and go, “Well that’s fascist.” But to me that extreme degree of instant justice and law and order is the single thread that’s keeping that community from falling apart and descending into complete chaos. So it’s kind of like the medicine meets the disease.
I understand comics writer John Wagner, who co-created the character, gave the project the thumbs-up.
Yes. He came out to set. I was thrilled to meet him, actually. To get his seal of approval meant the world to me, it really did. If there was just one person in the world that I wanted to be happy, it would be John Wagner.
What was it like riding those bikes?
The bike, it was fun to ride, but it was certainly a beast. [Laughs] Cornering was not its forte. But, mate, on a flat-out straight run it was fun. I just loved it. I’d just ride around the streets when we blocked them off for shooting. The coolest thing is, we had traffic cops there blocking the streets off and I was driving at these insane speeds right in front of them, all completely legally.
Does the movie leave the door open for further Dredd adventures?
Absolutely. I’ve always thought of this as an introductory piece. It really establishes Dredd, it establishes the world. We’re delivering to the audience and, if they embrace it and have as much fun watching it as we had making it, I’d love to come back and make more.
That would mean you’re involved in three ongoing franchises: Dredd, Riddick, and Star Trek. You do realize there are only 365 days in the year, right?[Laughs] My wife keeps reminding me of that. You know what? I feel blessed. I’m getting to work with some really amazing people on interesting projects. And busy is good.
Urban, Thirlby, and Dredd 3D writer Alex Garland will all be attending the film’s screening at Fantastic Fest this Tuesday in Austin, Tx. You can also watch the movie’s trailer below.