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New Zealand rising star talks about his role in 'Red'

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com
Karl Urban, right, plays a CIA agent who's trying to assassinate Bruce Willis' character in 'Red.' Urban, who starred as Dr. McCoy in 2009's 'Star Trek,' has been cast in the new 'Judge Dredd' movie.

Karl Urban. His name sounds familiar. But you can't seem to picture his face.

Is he the country singer? Maybe a political consultant? The wheels continue to turn. Nothing.

You might not be able to call up Urban's visage in your mental Rolodex on command, but you've seen him before. Chances are you've seen him quite a few times.

Over the past decade, Urban has appeared in more than a dozen films — including two installments of "The Lord of the Rings" saga — and helped reboot the "Star Trek" franchise with his turn as Dr. Leonard H. "Bones" McCoy. In 2012, the ruggedly handsome New Zealand native will transition from rising talent to full-fledged movie star when he takes on the titular role in "Judge Dredd."

In the new star-packed "Red," which opens today, Urban plays William Cooper, a cold, analytic CIA agent whose mission is to terminate a character played by Bruce Willis. We sat down with the actor when he was in town for last month's Fantastic Fest.

American-Statesman: What drew you to the character of William Cooper?

Karl Urban: He has a duality to him. He's a CIA hit man. He has a particularly brutal job, which he balances out with a family — he has a wife and a couple of kids. To me that was immediately very, very interesting. Further to that, I like the fact that my character starts off at one place in this film ... and through the course of the film I sort of come to understand what's really going on and get given the opportunity to do the right thing.

This movie has no shortage of stars, but I wonder how you felt having likely grown up watching Bruce Willis on screen like we all did, what it was like to do an action film with one of the quintessential '80s action stars ...

It's one of those situations where you find yourself at a point in your career where you're getting to collaborate with the very people whose work you have admired and respected for years. And certainly that was the case with this wonderful cast. I loved Bruce's work in many films, from "Die Hard" to "Pulp Fiction" to "Sin City," and I think he's very underrated in many ways. If you were to try and categorize him as just an action hero or an action star, you'd be selling him well short, because he's much more versatile than that. It's a wonderful experience. Going into a situation like this where you're getting to work with these iconic people, you never really know if they're going to be able to live up to your expectations ... and right across the board, my expectations were exceeded by the fact they're all very wonderful, down-to-earth people.

I am always amazed at how foreign actors — specifically from the U.K. or Australia or New Zealand — manage such solid American accents.

It's probably just a product of watching too much American television when I was a kid. But, seriously, dialect is an element in film — like learning to ride a horse or shoot guns or do reverse 180s in Mercedes G-wagons — those are specific skills that you have to learn for a movie. And to do so you have to dedicate time and energy, and this was no exception. I always enjoy it.

And I guess you could actually use that (accent) in the real world as opposed to some of those other more action-specific skills you've learned ...

I've got an obscene skill set I can never use in real life ... unless I become a bank robber or something.

Did you do much research on your character or the CIA going into the shoot?

I was fortunate enough to spend a morning with Bob Baer, who's a former CIA officer. I read all of his books. And that was a really fascinating process, just to get a clear understanding on the global geopolitical situation and the raw fundamentals of what the CIA is today and what they were when he was in the Company. And that's actually well-represented in the film. Bruce and Morgan (Freeman) and (John) Malkovich and Helen (Mirren), they're all part of the old school, and part of their way of doing things was really by utilizing human intelligence, recruiting agents, getting people to turn, getting them to talk; that's how they gathered their information. Nowadays, apparently, they rely a lot more on technology and satellites and tracing cell phones, running data haunts on people.

In a way, your character is a bit of an outsider to this other group of former agents. I wonder if in your career you've felt any correlation with that idea in the sense that you've come from New Zealand.

There's no 101 course that you can take that's going to educate you to the way the Hollywood infrastructure works. And to me it's quite a foreign environment, and I only now feel like I'm starting to understand what it is and how it works. Certainly there is a cultural divide that has to be breached. Now I feel more like I've transcended my nationality, and the challenge for me now in New Zealand is not be perceived to lose my cultural identity, which is very important. So I'm constantly looking out for good projects, good movies or theater to do in New Zealand, and I want to continue to contribute to the New Zealand film industry and make good films there — and not films that are derivative genre pictures but films that are really grounded in the New Zealand culture that an international audience can only get from watching a New Zealand film. I think the best types of the films coming out of my country are those types of films. If my presence in a New Zealand film is going to get that film a wider exposure, it could only be a good thing.

Speaking of wider exposure, you'll have the leading role in the upcoming 'Judge Dredd.' While 'Red' was based on a comic book, it doesn't have the following 'Dredd' has. Do you have any anxiety about nerd backlash?

I have no anxiety about it whatsoever, purely because I am one of those nerds. I grew up reading "Dredd." I've read the script and it's really great — Alex Garland has done a fantastic job — and the producers are very, very honorable in terms of making sure that everything that goes down is in accordance with the original vision that John Wagner conceived in 1977. I'm very excited about going into this.