Free Fire’s Sharlto Copley Talks Shootouts, Snakeskin Shoes, and His Newfound Respect for Stuntmen

There’s a moment in Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire – basically a feature-length, nearly hour-and-thirty-minute shootout between two rival groups of criminals after an arms deal goes sideways – where someone screams over all the mayhem and gunfire, “I forgot whose side I’m on!”

It’s a great punchline. So great, in fact, it’s been heavily featured in all the TV spots and trailers to date. Because it perfectly distills the sentiment Wheatley and his screenwriter/wife Amy Jump are going for with their latest movie.

See, the Martin Scorsese-produced crime comedy is a send-up of your usual movie firefight; a disorienting, chaotic clusterfuck featuring a bunch of overly-aggressive men (and one woman, Brie Larson) who can’t seem to figure out how to back down once the fateful first shot’s been fired. Rather than celebrate the action genre’s slick, stylized gun violence, it underlines just how ridiculous and pointless it all is.

It’s a stance that makes Free Fire stand out as we barrel towards another bombs-and-bullets-heavy summer movie season. And it’s what first attracted Sharlto Copley to the film, where he plays a mouthy international arms dealer. (After District 9 gave the South African actor his breakout role, he’s since become something of an action movie vet.) We caught up with Copley in Toronto after Free Fire’s TIFF premiere to talk about what makes this movie different from your usual summer shoot-‘em-up.

You’ve done summer blockbusters, a couple big Hollywood action movies. But something like this takes a very different approach to your classic movie shootout, even though it’s probably got the same number of explosions and flying bullets. If not more. Was that part of what appealed to you about the project?

In a way, I was reluctant to do this movie at first, because I didn’t want to do more shooting and shoot-‘em-up stuff. And then I sort of found a way into it, talking with Ben, that I would get the chance to do a fun character, and Ben was going to give me a lot of free reign. So that tempted me.

I try with these violent movies to find something deeper. This, for me, was like the ultimate case of a male fight that goes wrong. You know, that sort of typical male machismo. I grew up exposed to a lot of that in South Africa. And I mean, it’s [common] throughout society. Just that male energy, that no longer hunts for food, that has nowhere to go anymore. And as a species, it’s interesting to see what happens when that male aggression is left unchecked. It doesn’t end well.

It’s almost like a cautionary tale. Put that many guys in a room with that many guns…

Yeah. Exactly.

But at a certain point, it feels like they’re acting like little kids with toy guns. Only there’s real bullets.

Well, I think there is a satirical edge to it that Ben brings to it. Allowing there to be humor. But that is what happens when people are aggressive. Like, at any point, if everyone was sensible about it, we could all just walk away alive. Just put everything down. But when you’re a “tough guy,” there’s only one way tough guys end. Tough as you may think you are.

One of the things that I really appreciated about this movie is how disorienting the action feels. Which is probably a lot more realistic than the shootouts we’re used to seeing.

Yeah, the chaos of it was very realistic. And Ben shoots very quickly. Being [set] in one location, they have it lit so you can move very quickly– I have to say, as many action movies as I’ve done, the sheer bombardment of gunfire and the loudness of that, there’s really an effect of disorientation that happens to you. With just the sheer volume of gunfire.

Because you were using mostly practical effects, right? As opposed to CGI.

Yeah, all of it. So although people are like, “Oh, you’ve done lots of action movies,” this was really relentless, in terms of just the sound. And also, very dangerous in terms of the numbers of times, for me, my character, that I was next to something that was going to explode. And it could explode in your face if it explodes at the wrong timing. There were a couple of moments that were really hairy for me. And, obviously, getting set on fire. I’ve never done that. I did that myself.

That was all you? No stuntman?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. That was pretty serious. They cleverly shot that scene last. Everything else was in sequence. And to this day, they won’t give me a firm answer as to, “Guys… did you shoot it last in case it went wrong? So you had the [rest of the] movie.” They go, “No, no, it was just a practical thing.”

That’s just the way it happened to work out.

Exactly! I was like, “But everything else was in sequence, guys!” Thankfully it went well. It was a great stunt team. We had some of the best burn guys in London doing it. But it was the scariest stunt I’ve done, by far. Like, by far.

Did you want to do it, or did they have to talk you into it?

I did want to do it! And then, when I got there, on the morning, I was like, “Oh shit, man. This is way more serious than I thought.” I was all gung-ho at first, and then when I saw how serious everyone was around it… All the stunt guys, and they have like four guys with fire extinguishers. Also, in this case, I was putting myself out, and I wouldn’t know if I was fully out. So the code was: if you’re too hot, if you feel anything too hot, just hit the deck and then everybody jumps on you with fire extinguishers. And actually, on the take, I wasn’t fully out. Real respect to stunt guys. Who do it every day.

Is that a “one take” scenario?

Yes. [Laughs.] That was all we had, man. That was all we had.

Like you said, you’ve done your fair share of action movies by now. So you’re pretty experienced. But is it easier when you’re playing a character like this that doesn’t necessarily have to look like an action hero? When you don’t have to look—

Competent? [Laughs.]

Exactly. Like somehow who knows how to handle a gun.

I mean, yes, it takes the pressure off you, for sure. But we made that decision late – my character, I think, came together last. He wasn’t written as South African, he was originally written to be English. So Ben gave me more latitude, and that was one of the things that appealed to me about the role. We only decided on the morning of the first day of shooting how competent he was actually going to be.

At a certain point, I was like, look, an international arms dealer South African in the ‘70s would’ve probably been the most lethal guy in that room. So there was a lot of discussion about well, is that what you want? More like Kruger in Elysium. Like, am I going to play that guy? Am I going to be the guy that’s quiet and devastatingly lethal? And then we decided, well, OK, I get to be the mouth, and the flashy guy. Let me act like I know what I’m doing. So I’ve got the aggression, but I don’t have the skills to match.

I think the character gets described as an “international asshole.” Is there a trick to playing a good asshole character?

I think for me, it’s just playing certain stereotypes. The idea of a character that thinks he’s more hardcore than he is. Which in a certain way, is probably every man on Earth. Every man is the king of his castle. And then pushing that to a more obvious degree. As soon as you push it a little harder, it becomes funny. We get to laugh at those weaknesses in ourselves. We get to laugh at male macho-ism in Verne.

I think those themes are one of the reasons you see this movie get compared to something like a Sam Peckinpah movie. Along with, obviously, the 1970s setting. What do you think setting this in that era adds?

Visually, I would be much less interested in seeing the film if it was set now. As a film fan, seeing that kind of retro-ness all the way through, even into the logo design, the poster designs, I think there’s something kind of nostalgic for film people. And the theme’s obviously pretty timeless: a bunch of guys going crazy. But I think by introducing Brie’s character and this feminine energy into that environment, I think it probably has a bit more of a modern and more sophisticated take on that male/female dynamic.

And, of course, you get all that great ‘70s facial hair.

You get to do facial hair, and I got pink socks and snakeskin shoes and gold chains. And it turns out, my wife really dug that look. [Laughs.] It’s her favourite look on me. I don’t know why, but I’ll take it.