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'Chappie' star Sharlto Copley reveals how he brought a robot to life

The official trailer for
The official trailer for "Chappie," starring Sharlto Copley.
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"Is artificial intelligence, if it came to be, as valid as human intelligence?" That's a question asked by Sharlto Copley, the star of Neill Blomkamp's latest movie, "Chappie," which opens Friday.

South African director Blomkamp ("District 9") reimagines what artificial intelligence could be in "Chappie," which explores what happens when a robot, originally designed to fight crime, is reprogrammed to learn and begins its life in a newborn state.

In the following clip from the film, Chappie is being taught to behave more like a gangster by his adoptive father, Ninja. Yes, that's Ninja from Die Antwoord, playing a version of himself in Blomkamp's film.

While you might never see his face, the voice and movements of Chappie are all acted out by Copley, who's appeared in two of Blomkamp's previous films, "Elysium" and "District 9."

He joined Take Two's A Martinez to talk about "Chappie."

How does your role in "Chappie" differ from the rest of your work with Neill Blomkamp?

"The most notable difference is, you don't see me. It's a process called performance capture. I really love it, because I love character acting. And this is like the ultimate disguise or prosthetic you could imagine. ... I act all the scenes with the other actors on the set, just as you normally would, wearing a special kind of tracking suit. And then the animators painstakingly animate, frame by frame, over me afterwards, down to every single finger movement. And it creates a really magical character. Something that really is integrated into the scenes. ... In this case, it was more studying just what the character was going to be that I was doing. You know, I'm playing, really, a child most of the time."

You're playing this child in essence that's growing up right in front of us. Where did the decision to create a robot with human emotions come from? Where did that start from?

"One of the big questions that the film asks, 'Is artificial intelligence, if it came to be, as valid as human intelligence?' You know, is an artificial life form as valid as we are? And it was a fascinating exploration into that idea.

I'd grown up, for example — I think a lot of us did — with films that would show any kind of computerized artificial intelligence as something that would most likely think humans are idiots and kind of just start killing us. And this film explores the idea of, if you had, for example, a genius IQ, as an artificial life form would be, does that mean that you wouldn't be emotional?

And Neill [Blomkamp] opts, in this case, to say, 'No. No. You would.' In the sense that, if I can calculate logically that it doesn't make sense for people to kill each other, for example, well, that would then allow me to be more compassionate and more human, almost, towards other life forms on the planet. You know? So it was a very interesting balance between intellect and emotion in this character and how those two work together."

The character, Chappie, since he's almost a blank slate, as an actor is that a challenge? Is that freedom to basically build him from scratch?

"It's fantastic. It's one of the best experiences I've ever had as an actor for that exact reason. Essentially, I'm playing from a baby to, ... I mean, he gets to about 10, 11 years old in his emotional maturity, and then, obviously, like a beyond-genius IQ. And a lot of, like, reacting from the characters around him.

He has these two parents. He has this creator, played by Dev Patel, who wants him to write poetry and paint pictures. And then he has this — sort of through a series of entertaining events — he ends up with a kind of a stepfather, played by Ninja from Die Antwoord, who is a gangster and wants to use Chappie to commit carjackings and armored car heists. And Chappie has to kind of choose the road that he wants to go down and the behavior that he wants to adopt."

Did anything change for you when the portrayal from Chappie went from an innocent to maybe more mature? Maybe a little evil in some ways?

"The interesting part for me was dealing with how much you would have the ability to control your own behavior in the case of playing something that is an artificial intelligence. Meaning that Chappie doesn't have the old brain survival instincts that humans have.

A lot of activities, or actions that human beings take, seem to come from very primal old brain kind of functions. Like, we know that it doesn't make sense to kill each other. We know it doesn't make sense to destroy our planet, but we just keep doing it anyway.

So we opted to sort of have this thing where Chappie would have some of those experiences. He would start to feel anger or revenge or greed or those things, but he would have, without that old brain automation, automated behavior almost. You know, you hit me, and I just hit you back. He would have a little bit of that, but then he would probably have the ability to go, 'But why? Why do you hit me, and why do I hit you? And if I keep hitting you, you keep hitting me, and then it's just a cycle that continues, so, actually, I'm going to stop hitting you.'"

Will there be a sequel?

"When [Neill] originally pitched it, you know, ... he was kind of planning to do more than one from the beginning, which he didn't do with 'District 9,' for example, which is kind of primed for a sequel. ... So, yeah, I guess we'll have to see what happens."

If you ever get on the dance floor, can you dance the robot?

"Can I dance the robot? Dude, I'm from Africa, I can dance anything!"