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Brandon Auret on 'Chappie'

South African actor, Brandon Auret, is best known for his roles in Elysium, Durban Poison and District 9. Spling caught up with Brandon to find out what it was like playing a madman named Hippo in Chappie, the latest thought-provoking sci-fi action thriller from Neill Blomkamp. Chappie opens nationwide on March 13.

Brandon Auret as Hippo in Chappie

What's Chappie about?

It's about 120 minutes. (Laughs) With Chappie, it's about greed, what makes a person a human being? Is it the ability to think and feel, the idea of consciousness and what is consciousness? Does it necessarily have to be in a human body to function? Are you able to move it and take it to something else and how does that work? When will robots not need humans anymore?

Chappie is rebooted and his entire life starts all over again from a little kid. He's been influenced by Die Antwoord, two really evil people and how does he make the choice between what is right or wrong? If you're unable to be a righteous human being, it's not a lack of religion, it's a lack of empathy. It's about all of these questions and how they relate to a robot... and there's lots of firing and guns and stuff blowing up.

Another thought-provoking sci-fi?

That's what I love about Neill's movies... if you're going to find out what his movie is about, you're going to have to sit through it a few times. Neill never really has one theme running through his movies he has this complex of themes and underlying stories. He's a very deep thinker, old Neill. This is about a robot who is able to operate, think and feel real true emotions.

Can you tell us a bit about your character?

Hippo... oh, he's an odd one. He's the catalyst of everything that goes wrong in the film... he's the reason Chappie becomes Chappie. He's a bad-ass drug and arms dealer who runs Joburg, but he doesn't see it that way, he thinks he's a businessman. It's come at a time in South Africa where lawlessness is a way of life and he is King. Hippo's just chaos and the most amazing character I've ever played.

Why "Hippo"?

This is how I justified it to Neill. In Africa the animal that causes more deaths than any other animal on land is a hippo. That's why they call him Hippo because he's got the highest death count in Joburg. Hippo's about as African as it gets... cyberpunk African, proudly South African with an accent. I'm not going to say what accent though. It was a choice we made and went with and ended up loving so much. He's got crazy gangs... I got to shoot a lot of weapons, fire a lot of rounds. I think on our first two days we went through about 11,000 rounds.

How did you prepare for the role?

I put on about 11.5kg of muscle to get into the character because originally the character was meant to be a big black guy. When I spoke to Neill, I said don't worry, I've got this character and you need to give me 3 months and I'll be sorted. He's a tough guy and a wonderful character, he's got a sense of humour about him.

Can you tell us about your training regime?

A friend of mine is a personal trainer and it's not like in America where I got my own personal trainer. I got a diet, supplements and a training programme and it was a matter of really committing to it and just doing the plan they had laid out for me. I was eating six meals and training twice a day, cardio-vascular in the morning and then really heavy weight training in the afternoon. I only had 11 weeks, so it was hard.

The dieting was hardest for me not having sugar, not having dairy products... steaming all of my food, eating my vegetables raw... I really take my hat off to guys who do this professionally because that kind of committment is unbelievable. It was 11 weeks of training and 3 months of maintenance. The first thing I asked for when they called a wrap was a pizza, a burger, a Coke and chocolate. I pigged out and felt sh*t afterwards, but it was worth it. It forced me to look at how I eat and changed my whole lifestyle... I try eat as healthily as possible. It's amazing, you turn 40 and you have this need to live longer.

Especially when you're doing most of your own stunts?

Shane was an amazing stunt double, but I've always had this thing... if I'm going to portray a character, it needs to be my character. You can't expect someone else to do it. I ended up doing all of my own stunts, except one. Then again it is a trust factor I have with the stunt co-ordinator. I really want to do every stunt, we rehearse it and if it's going to be too dangerous and the production doesn't want me to do it, then I walk away but at least give me the opportunity to say yes or no. I love what I do!

Did you share any scenes with the big stars: Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver or Dev Patel?

Yes, I spent a lot of time with Dev because he's involved with Die Antwoord and they're my nemesis in the film. I didn't get to share a scene with Hugh or Sigourney, but I did get a lot of time to spend with them on set. Not out of their choice, out of my choice... I was there on my days off, "Hey man, what's up Wolverine?" (laughs). It's a big thing... it's really weird that Neill's going to be doing the new Alien. When I met Sigourney Weaver, I didn't see her... I saw Ripley and it was the same with Hugh Jackman... when I met him I said "Hey man, I hear Wolverine's in this movie." They were really cool and amazing.

Chappie - Brandon Auret Interview

District 9 and Elysium had political subtexts... does Chappie fit into that world?

I don't think so. The whole political thing in the movie has been taken out because it's set in a time when there isn't much in the way of political parties, it's a free-for-all, people are running the country... it's more about the human thing. You find when you're watching the movie that Chappie, the robot, is actually more human than any of the humans that are around him, which is a big thing. The movie is more about being conscious human beings and not just human beings... becoming aware of not just our lives, but how our lives affect other people's lives. We need to become more conscious about being human. Every action ripples throughout time.

I see Sharlto voiced and motion-captured his performance, did you get involved in any of those scenes?

Sharlto and I had a couple of scenes together. People need to understand, he didn't just do the voice of Chappie... he spent everyday in his little spandex grey outfit with white balls, running around. Sharlto's movement, mentality and growth of Chappie was phenomenal... he grows up from being a little boy to a man in this machine.

It's based on his short film, Tetra Vaal, which was set in South Africa... where was this shot?

South Africa, all of it. Neill loves coming here... Johannesburg, Cape Town. You can see that by the way he shoots the movie. Neill keeps the team together... a lot of people that worked on District 9, worked on Chappie. Film-making isn't easy and when you have people that come onto a set with their own agenda and attitude, it doesn't make things easier. We're all there to make a movie, so let's not make it difficult.

Maybe that's why my relationship with Neill is so strong, for me it's what I do. I go there and don't moan, bitch and complain about things. If my caravan is smaller than the next person's, I don't care... it's a place to chill while we're doing scenes. I'm not a celebrity. I'm on my way to becoming a known actor, but this celebrity thing doesn't sit well with me. I find a lot of people who call themselves celebrities in the entertainment industry have nothing to offer... their life goal is to become a celebrity. I wake up every morning, thinking "I'm going to get the next job". That's what it is for me.

Celebrity culture, it's a power game... you're trying to wield this tabloid currency...

It's crazy... at the end of the day I don't want people to judge my life... I'm not perfect. I'm the first person to admit that. If you're going to judge me, judge me by my art. I'm as human as everyone else, just because I'm on the big screen doesn't change who I am.

I was asked yesterday, why did I leave Isidingo?

It was a massive decision for me. You become stuck in your ways and you fall into an acting rut and it's always good to have someone to help you out of that. My acting coach, Rene Tredoux, said to me... "Brandon, you didn't become an actor to play one role for the rest of your life." That hit home for me, because it's not what I wanted to be. I knew I had to make a decision that may f**k out.

You go out there and nobody wants to work with you, because you've been typecast. I remember walking into an audition and the casting director said "Okay, Doep... Brandon are you ready?" And I said, you've already put me in that box... I'm not going to even audition. I'm going to walk out of here with my head up. It took me about 2 1/2 years to get out of that. I needed to change the way I look... which is where the character acting came out.

Were you jealous of Hugh Jackman's mullet, tell us about your unique hairstyle...

Neill and the make up department spent about 2 weeks going through different hair styles, trying different things. We came up with this crazy character, we changed the clothing, the tops and the hairstyles until we came up with Hippo. They took my hair added extensions and knotted them into those little nodules. The dreadlocks were glued into my hair and in one of the scenes, one of the dreads got stuck in the car door and I had to carry on running, so I just ripped it and carried on. Brendon, the hairdresser came to me with the dreadlock and it had this tuft of hair with all the roots. I had this hole in my head and we just carried on.

You almost scalped yourself. You'll probably find that dread will find its way to eBay...

(Laughs) That's the weirdest thing. I got an email from a guy, who bought all of my gear from Elysium. On my jacket I had "Proelio Procusi". He emailed me to find out what it means... "Forged in Battle". It was quite weird that this dude took a picture and there was my stuff on a stand, the entire outfit with my gun, jacket and boots. I was like "I want that!"

It was quite amazing to hear how much he paid for all of that. My props supervisor on Chappie had a whole hippo tooth and I suggested they make a knife with the tooth as a blade. They came back and had carved an entire knife out of this tusk... the handle and the blade.

Brandon Auret in Chappie

So can you tell us if you die in Chappie?

I say to Neill, the more dramatic my death, the more chance I have of being in his next film. District 9 I got blown up. In Elysium, I got ripped apart with a rail gun...

So you're going to be pulled apart by horses in this one?

(Laughs) I don't want to give it away. There has been talk about a sequel. I think it'll be better to leave it open to the audience to make their minds up about what happens to the character. It's an interesting movie... I love what Neill's done with his promotions around Chappie. I love the story and I've seen what he's been sharing. People have no idea what's coming their way.

I've seen bits and pieces, but even when I look at the cuts that they've done. They're not giving away too much, it's not even a third of what the movie's about. I'll be in New York for the premiere on the 4th March, and it opens in South Africa on 13 March. Also going to spend time meeting with agents, and then taking a holiday and visiting Vegas. My opinion is that Chappie is going to be bigger than District 9, Elysium... probably one of the biggest grossing films of 2015.

Have you had any discussions with Neill about anything to do with Alien?

I haven't spoken to Neill about it at all. I'm not too concerned about whether he'll consider me for the film or not. Neill's been not only good to me as a friend, he's been good to me as a director and someone who's also forced my career into a different gear. When we spoke about Chappie he said to me, "Brandon, I don't know if there's a part in this movie for you".

I told him "Please don't take this the wrong way, but you've done enough for me. You've serviced my career, you've put a want into me to do more big films." Whether he uses me or not in Alien, I'm just glad he's directing it. I hope they're using Sigourney Weaver and that Ripley comes back. I'm such a fan of her in the Alien trilogy. I think when Neill worked with her on Chappie, the two of them started talking.

Otherwise, what's next for Brandon Auret?

I have a couple of things in the pipeline. I had a chat with Simon Kinsberg during the filming of Chappie... he's just been asked to increase the Marvel universe and he's producing and writing the next two Star Wars films. If there's an opportunity for me to be in the films, it would be a childhood dream come true. Return of the Jedi is my favourite film of all-time. It's the movie that made me want to become an actor. We'll see where it goes. It'd be a full 360 for me if I look at the kind of films that influenced me... Full Metal Jacket, Rambo, Return of the Jedi.

My own company, A Breed Apart Pictures, are producing our first film, Making a Killing. We shot a 30 minute short to market it and we're going overseas to get money. It's a big budget action film about mercenaries in the Congo. I don't know what it is, I always find myself playing these military films. Although I played a completely different character in Durban Poison, so slowly but surely there are other options coming my way.