When Karl Urban heard the lineup of the actors who were cast in Summit’s action-thriller Red, the New Zealand-born actor said he couldn’t pass up the chance to work with the likes of Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren and Mary-Louise Parker.
In early April of last year, SuperHeroHype went to New Orleans and hung out on the set for a day. Urban was very generous with his time and talked to us for 30 minutes about his character and what some of the challenges of playing a CIA agent were.
Q: Were you familiar with the comics for your part of the movie?
Karl Urban: I read the comic before shooting. Which, the comic is really like the first act; it’s hardly even the first act. It is really interesting to see how they have developed it and fleshed it out and injected a great more characters and comedy. The movie is a lot more complex.
Q: Who is your character?
Urban: I play a CIA agent whose name is William Cooper and it is my job to essentially hunt down Frank, Bruce’s [Willis] character. There is a lethal finding that has been put out on him, which basically means I’ve got a government sanctioned hit to take him out.
Q: You are the one that initiates the hit then?
Urban: I don’t initiate it. I carry it out.
Q: Is it a physical role for you then?
Urban: Yeah, it has been. It has been quite physical and, you know, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Toronto was a trip. Three weeks of nights in Toronto and it got down to… I think, at its worst, it was like minus 17. So I kind of wish it was inverse. I wish we were shooting three months here, two weeks in Toronto.
Q: So would you say you are the bad guy?
Urban: It is not that black and white, actually. I am an adversary for Frank. But, you know, as far as having an evil intent, the character is devoid of that. He is just doing his job. The interesting thing about this character is, through the course of the film, the more he learns about Frank and his network, the more he actually comes to understand the bigger picture of what is going on, which leads to sort of an interesting sequence.
Q: You’ve played all sorts of characters. Do you do a lot of research? For something like this where you are playing an agent, do you do that research or do you sort of just jump on it and say, "I’ve got this."
Urban: No, no, no. I think that’d be a mistake to enter into any role thinking that you’ve got it or you are, you know, armed with everything you need to fill it. And certainly this character was one that I read every book that Bob Baer wrote, and he was basically a retired CIA operative. And I met with him and had some good sessions with him, which was really interesting. A, not only hearing about his experience in the company, but also being able to gleam little bits, subtle little things that you can inject into the character. What else? Obviously, more weapons training, cars – all that sort of stuff. Yeah. So I just read… A lot of it was just trying to get some sort of informed perspective, so I did a lot of reading.
Q: Are there car chases in the film?
Urban: Yes there are.
Q: How important is it to take a role like this, with the success of "Star Trek," and get away from where you play a darker character?
Urban: No, I haven’t really thought about it in terms of its importance. I read the script and really responded to the character. He is a cool character; he starts in one place with one point of view and ends somewhere completely different. It’s got a great arc. The wonderful thing about it is that I play a CIA hit man but I have family. I haven’t seen that or had the opportunity to play something like that before, so there was quite a, sort of, like a real sort of fun dynamic to the role, which that is what attracted me.
Q: Do we see your family?
Urban: Yes, you do. You get to see him at work and then at home with his family. There are some classic scenes of doing a hit and talking on the phone with the wife about the kids! It’s so bizarre. I’m looking forward to seeing it.
Q: Does your wife know what you do for a living in the movie?
Urban: She knows that I work for the company, but that’s about it. It’s one of those things where you have an understanding, but, "OK. Dad can’t talk about work." You know, like, "Don’t ask!" So there are some days I’m coming home and I’m covered in bruises and banged up, which is what I do after meeting Bruce’s character. I come home in pretty bad shape and she is looking at me!
Q: When you are working with someone like Bruce, do you geek out at all, or do you want to geek out at all?
Urban: I’ll say a few things about Bruce. I’ve been watching his work for years. First of all, it was really refreshing to sit and meet him and find out that all your kind of expectations of who he might be is not… I’ll just say I wasn’t disappointed in who he was. He was very open and generous with time and his ideas. I think if he wasn’t such a major movie star, he’d make a phenomenal stuntman. He is one of the most coordinated actors I’ve ever worked with.
Q: Do you get any good funny lines in the film or do you play it pretty straight?
Urban: I play it pretty straight. I get thrown in some funny situations. My job is very kind of…"Kill him."
Q: You obviously have some hand to hand combat with some of the actors…
Urban: Well, I do. I have a massive fight sequence with Bruce Willis. Yeah.
Q: What’s it like to punch Bruce Willis?
Urban: Oh, it was great! One of my favorite bits in the thing is I take this coffee cup and hurl it as his face. And to his credit, he took it right smack on the head. It actually cut him and he started bleeding.
Urban: Yeah. I made him bleed.
Q: So Bruce is a bleeder, huh?
Urban: Bruce was fine. His makeup artist wasn’t too happy about it.
Q: The movie also has Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich. Could you talk about being a fan of theirs and what they were like?
Urban: Morgan and I sort of really didn’t have [anything together] to do within this film. But obviously, I have such a long-standing, deep appreciation of not only his work but John’s as well. Same with John – I sort of really only had a limited amount to do with him in the film. I’ve actually been out with John a few times and spent some time with him and he is classic. He is a unique, one of a kind gentleman. John Malkovich tells a story. He is coming back through the airport from being overseas. He designs clothes and he was bringing with him a whole suitcase full of samples of garments and stuff. And the customs guy said, "So, what are these worth? Are they worth something?" And John is like, "Well, I found myself in an existential quandary because I like the clothes. They are worth something to me; I designed them. So I said to him, "I like them. I designed them. They mean something to me. But if nobody buys them, they are not worth sh*t!’ And the customs guy confiscated the lot! He is constantly coming out with these little really insane stories. He is one of a kind. He’s classic.
Q: And what did you find in this experience? What challenged you as an actor? What challenged you in this location or this schedule? How was this situation different?
Urban: Wow, that’s a great question. There’s many ways I could answer that. I think, purely on a superficial level, the physical conditions that we sometimes were shooting in, it was challenging. Sometimes you’re outside and you just can’t feel your face. It was numb. It was that cold.
Q: Was this is up in Toronto?
Urban: Yeah, in Toronto. It was absolutely freezing. Challenge-wise…
Q: For instance, with your weapons training or physical training, anything like that, was that a challenge?
Urban: Yeah, the stunt training was definitely a challenge. It was interesting. The stunt guys on this are phenomenal. Buster Reeves is my stunt double and he is, without a doubt, one of the best stunt men I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. He’s a former kickboxing champion. He’s got the record for most kicks to the head. So, when I was into the training things to do my session, he goes, "Alright. I’m gonna come at you and you defend yourself as best you can." I’m, like, "Alright." He goes, "You tell me when you start feeling threatened." And he’s like 10 feet away and he starts moving, so he gets to eight feet away, and I’m, "That’s it." And he just bursts out laughing. He’s like, "OK." So, I think it was just his gauge of what have we got here. So, he went back upstairs and was, "Oh no. This is gonna be some work." Buster and Stewart, which is Bruce’s stunt double, they proceeded to show me the ins and outs of fighting. What they decided to do was show me every conceivable way that you could get choked out. But not on each other, on me. "Well, we could do this." And you see, like, "Oh yeah, OK." [knocks on table] They literally, nearly choked me out for a good two hours. The great thing about that was that it taught me what the end game was, what the objective in the fight was. If you come up against someone who is of an equal standing as yourself and you can’t take them out, that’s this whole mixed martial arts style, which is gone off. So, yeah, that was really, really interesting. And after that day I clicked into where I really needed to be physically and mentally for that fight. But that’s the great thing about this job. You get taught these amazing skills that you can never use in real life, whether it’s doing reverse 180s in cars or driving weapons. Hopefully you never have to use these skills, fighting…
Q: Do you like to shoot guns in your free time?
Urban: Yeah, I do, actually. I just went out just a couple of days ago with Buster and went to a range here. And we literally spent $600 bucks. We were there for a couple of hours, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. It was great.
Q: If you’re walking on Bourbon Street, can you blend in? Or do people immediately want come up to you, especially with "Star Trek" and the success of that film, do they immediately look at you and they know?
Urban: Yeah, I do get tagged a bit. But it wouldn’t be like Bruce walking down the street. He would attract a crowd of people. He’s got the rule of no eye contact. That’s it. Think about it, if you make eye contact with someone, then they will, more likely than not, come up to you and want to interact with you. So that’s how he gets through situations like that. I don’t mind it at all. I think that it’s par for the course. You wouldn’t be in this business if you had an issue with people coming up and wanting to interact with you on the street. And they’re the customers. And sometimes it’s nice to know that what you’ve done has been appreciated. It’s not like theater where you get that instant response, negative or positive. So, yeah, there’s been a bit of that.
Q: But you can’t walk around Bourbon Street and drink Hurricanes all night the way we can, right?
Urban: Well, actually. Hence, the glasses.
Q: Do you have an American accent in the film?
Urban: I do.
Q: Is that something you enjoy? Is that a challenge?
Urban: Yeah, it’s always a challenge. It’s something you have to work on. It’s one of those elements that’s no different to me than learning to fire weapons or fights. It’s just one of those elements that comprises the character that you have to spend time and energy on getting right.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about being like a young agent up against these old-school Cold War assassins?
Urban: Good question. Well, it’s interesting, because obviously, it is old versus young, and not just in terms of cast-wise, but technology. The new breed, which I represent, has sort of a massive technological resource at its disposal like satellites, phone taps, data haunts, which basically is all of your credit card information. Cell phones that can track where you are. That is the phenomenal thing that I’ve learned on this, is that you can get tracked on a cell phone not even having it turned on, because it always maintains a residual charge.
Q: You have to take the battery out, right?
Urban: Even when it is off. Even when it is off it will always take a residual charge. I think even when you take the battery out, I believe.
Q: Really? Wow.
Urban: I could be wrong on that. It’s got to store all your information, so it is constantly emitting something.
Q: You are a dangerous actor to know!
Urban: No, I’m not, but I do know some dangerous people. It is kind of that kind of world versus the human intel world which is the way they did it in the old days, which Bob Baer was talking a lot about, is that you actually had to go out there and cultivate these contacts and these agents. More and more these days, the CIA, the government is sort of relying more on data, which is satellite images and stuff like that, as opposed to actually getting out there and cultivating those ground contacts. And that is kind of what Bruce’s character operates. When I come after him, the first thing he does is essentially go through all his old contacts, which is wonderful because we can get this sort of vast array of eclectic, sort of, zany characters from old Cold War adversaries to colleagues on his team. We had a lot of fun with it. There is a lot of comedy in the film about old versus young and all that sort of stuff.
Q: What was probably the most shocking thing you learned in talking with the CIA…the former CIA guy?
Urban: Who killed Kennedy.
Red hits theaters on October 15. You can watch the trailer using the player below!