How did you make the leap from your breakout in District 9 to a lead role in this summer’s biggest blockbuster?
It was actually Jules Daly, The A-Team’s producer, who saw an early screening of District 9 and told [District 9 director] Neill Blomkamp she thought I would be a good fit for Murdock. So I got a call from Neill while I was on the District 9 tour. It was a dream, because The A-Team was my favourite show as a kid. To get the part, I shot a series of scenes in the hotel room where I was staying – I called them ‘Things that could happen to Murdock in a hotel room.’ I was just improvising with whatever I could find in the room. I then sent those to Joe Carnahan, the director, and that’s how I got the role.
We see a YouTube viral video phenomenon brewing.
I can imagine that is going to happen [Laughs].
How big a responsibility did you feel about living up to Dwight Schultz, the original Murdock?
It was very interesting when I met Dwight Schultz. It surprised me how well I related to him as a person. We approached playing the character in an almost identical way. I honestly think Dwight was ahead of his time.
He was actually fired after the first pilot and then when they saw the test results, they rehired him. They felt he had gone too far, that he was too over the top. I also had to put my butt on the line and commit to playing him in a way that was true to his character. Dwight started what I later recognised in people like Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey and Robin Williams. There’s a crazy playfulness in going from one voice to the next. I naturally have a different kind of intensity, which made him a little more dangerous, a little more like the guy who could shoot you in the head. But it was coming from that playful place.
So does Schultz approve of your interpretation?
Because Dwight created this legendary character, it was important to me to have his blessing. I showed him the improv tape that I created. I was standing behind him while he was watching it and I heard him giggling. He turned to me with tears in his eyes and he gave me a hug and said, ‘You are Murdock.’ He later put this quote on his website, ‘Murdock is dead. Long live Murdock,’ a reference to the Shakespearian quote, ‘The King is dead, long live the King’, when the new one takes over. That meant the world to me. I knew then that Dwight Schultz was pleased with my interpretation of Murdock.
Expectations are riding high on The A-Team, especially from seasoned fans. Is there anything you’d like to say to them?
I’m as big a fan of the show as there is. I had an A-Team gang at school. I had the action figures, all the toys. I even have a picture of me when I was 12 with BA Baracus on my birthday cake [Laughs]. I actually sent that to Fox as a joke when I sent in my audition tape. Having said that, I know you can’t please everyone.
Are you anything like Murdock?
I draw from my personality, where I don’t quite fit in as much with The A-Team. The glorification of violence would probably be where I see a difference. I grew up in a very violent place, so it’s uncomfortable for me to see violence as a cool thing. At the same time, as a man, you have an innate programming. I was very comfortable with a gun. Our weapons trainer, who was this ridiculously high-level guy, made a joke when he saw me with a gun. He said, ‘Oh, you’re South African. It’s in your blood.’
You’ve taken on some intense roles. Did your girlfriend bear the brunt of you burrowing deep for both District 9 and The A-Team?
I think that Wikus [in District 9] would have had more impact on her, because I had this hideous moustache and slept with prosthetics on when they couldn’t afford to apply another prosthetic the next morning.
To borrow a phrase from the film’s marketing campaign, do you have a plan B? What do you want to accomplish in Hollywood?
There’s a shortage of commercially viable popcorn movies that have an artistic quality and depth to them. As an actor, I don’t want to do a movie that might win me an Oscar but only 10 people go see. I love films that reach a mass audience. The critical acclaim for District 9 was a bonus that I didn’t expect. However, to get to more of that kind of material, I have to be more involved in finding and developing it. The producing, directing, and writing. I guess you could call that a plan B, where I don’t really depend on acting for my living. If I don’t do another movie, then fine. I’ll take my little action figure and say, ‘Well, you were important once.’ [Laughs].
The A-Team is in cinemas now.
The Guest List
The original A-Team TV show was huge in the ’80s, pulling in up to a quarter of America’s TV audience at a time. And a big show means big guest stars. Here are some of our favourites.
In a case of particularly bizarre plotting, Face finds himself forced to put on a concert by Boy George and Culture Club for a rough redneck audience.
The peroxide powerhouse appears in two episodes as an old friend of BA’s from their days in ’Nam.
The legendary soul singer (or ‘Chef’ in South Park) plays a musician marked for extermination by a corrupt prison warden.