Growing up in New Zealand Dredd 3D star Karl Urban was an enormous fan of the original Dredd comics, particularly the ones where he appears in 2000 AD.
“To me, my mission was just to A) honor the creation that John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra first created back in '75 as best I could. And two, was just to service the script and be in the moment and make the best film we could,” Urban said to Movie Fanatic recently in Toronto. “I just wanted it to be a good, fun piece of entertainment.”
One of those aspects of the story that he knew as a fan would lend itself to the credibility of the project was everyone’s insistence that the hero keep on his helmet… something Sylvester Stallone did not do in his 1995 film.
“That was hugely important. My agent called me up and said, ‘Would you be interested in Judge Dredd?’ I was like, ‘Hell, yeah. Send me the script.’ I read it and then I was immediately relieved to discover that the character kept the helmet on,” Urban admitted.
"At one point Alex (Garland, producer, writer) turned to me and said, ‘Look, just so we’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 would not be taking this meeting if he did.’”
The difficulty then is to convey emotion without using something all actors depend on: Their eyes. “You have to look at all the other tools that are available to you. Your voice becomes extremely important. In my research I discovered a passage in one of the comic strips that described Dredd’s voice as a saw cutting through bone,” Urban said.
“What you feel and hear in the movie is my approximation of what that is. Other tools were the physicality. What can I express with my movement? When’s he really struggling to contain his rage? It’s also really important to identify where the humor lies. That’s one of the things I really loved in the comic is just the really dry, dark humor.”
Urban also relished in the idea that Dredd 3D would look, feel and be nothing like the 1995 film. “Tonally, you couldn’t get more different. Going into this movie I watched the Stallone version to see what worked and what didn’t work. The way that I approached the character was not to have the character be a posturing, bellowing character that was kind of grounded in ego. To me, that wasn’t the Dredd that I knew,” he admitted.
“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. I wanted to find the humanity within Dredd, because he’s just a man. He’s not a superhero. His heroism is defined by the fact that he’s walking into a building while everybody else is running out.”
As a lifelong fan, one would think putting on the Dredd costume would have been a momentous occasion. Instead, he had a different reaction. "I was thinking, 'How the (expletive) am I going to do this?'" he said and laughed.
"That was part of the process, was 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. Although it really helped inform me how the character moved."
In the film, Urban’s Judge faces off against the most villainous of foes, as stated in our Dredd 3D review -- Lena Headey’s Ma-Ma. The actor found her quite terrifying, yet strangely compelling.
“There is a scary, beautiful, violent, way off-beat, amazing performance that Lena has delivered in this film. She’s enigmatic. You’re drawn to her when she’s on the screen,” Urban said.
“There was one day we were shooting the scene where I’m confronting her. We’re at opposite ends of the room. I’ve got my helmet on looking at her and she’s looking at me. And she just starts laughing, manically laughing. And I just feel within me the rage growing. She is that (expletive) good. She knows how to push your buttons.”
Whether it’s his work here in Dredd or even his turn playing Bones in J.J. Abrams' sequel Star Trek 2, Urban cannot concern himself with fan fears. “There are so many things in this world that are actually beyond your control. 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.”