Interview: Karl Urban on Star Trek and beyond

New Zealand actor Karl Urban talked to SHANDELLE BATTERSBY about playing the Enterprise's moody medic on the eve of the film's world premiere in Sydney this week

So how did you get the role?
I heard they were rebooting Star Trek and was very interested in being a part of it, having watched it since I was a boy. I don't know if I was a Trekkie or a Trekker, but I loved the original show. We set up a meeting with J.J. [Abrams] and I thought it went horribly wrong. I went into the meeting and he said "so we're doing this Star Trek film and it's going to be really exciting, have you got any questions?" I said "Yeah, yeah, what's the story about?" and he said "Can't tell ya" and I said "Well I guess I've got no questions". There was silence and I thought "Oh God, I've blown that, and walked away thinking it wasn't going to happen.

Two months later we got word that J.J. wanted to see me for the role of Bones McCoy which I was absolutely thrilled to bits about and so went in there and started my audition and he started laughing. I hadn't done live theatre for quite a few years and to get that immediate response back that the joke you are telling is funny almost threw me. I finished the take and he was sitting there looking at me going "wow, that's it, that's Bones".

He turned around and looked at producer Brian Burk who was already on his BlackBerry going "I think we've got the guy" and so was April Webster the casting director.

Is that one of the most immediate responses you've ever had to an audition?

Ever. As an actor it doesn't get any better than that. Driving away, replaying that in my mind, I was thinking "did that really happen? Am I really on the verge of embarking on this journey of taking this iconic character and breathing new life into him and exploring new territory?". We heard pretty much within the hour that I had the part.

How did you celebrate?

I got outrageously drunk. I got together with my agent and got a couple of bottles of Veuve and went to her house and drank the night away.

Going back to playing a medic, like in your Shortland St days, must make a nice change from all those weapons carrying roles?

(Laughs) That's right! I'd come to a point where I'd taken one too many action roles! The thing about Hollywood is that once you've proven you can do something, you keep getting offered that thing. And the danger is if you keep accepting that, then you very quickly get typecast. I'm so thankful to J.J. for taking a leap of faith with me and casting me in a comedic genre - something I have not done since [New Zealand film] The Price of Milk. I feel grateful to him because now, touch wood, it will open up new avenues, because I desperately would like to get away from the gun-wielding, sword-fighting, running-around-the-bush guy.

Actually making a Hollywood movie in Hollywood must be a nice change from running around the international great outdoors ...

Absolutely - when I started acting, my dream was to go to Hollywood and make movies in Hollywood. When I started making Hollywood movies eight years ago not one of them was shot in Hollywood. I always ended up in New Mexico, New Orleans, Vancouver, Moscow, Berlin ... anywhere but Hollywood.

A big thrill for me was working at Paramount which is steeped in rich Hollywood film-making history. When you go to the soundstage, that they have the bridge of the Starship Enterprise built on, there is a plaque outside the studio listing the films that have been filmed there - like The Maltese Falcon, Godfather, Indiana Jones - just to be in that environment was really thrilling.

So how does the Enterprise Sick Bay compare to the clinic at Shortland St?

I don't even remember the one on Shortland St!

Did you look at the earlier but older Dr McCoy from the TV series for reference points?

Two years before I found out they were making Star Trek, they released these DVD box sets and I got them and started watching them with my son. He was in hysterics - he loved them but was laughing at things like the posters of star systems up on the bridge. For the new generation of kids who are so clued up on technology it seems a bit archaic, but what was interesting to see was how drawn in he became because it was character-driven.

In my opinion Star Trek was always a cult of personality before science fiction. You wanted to see the conflict between the characters - the grouchy, irascible Dr McCoy argue with the rational, logical Spock, and see the hero, James T. Kirk make a decision and then go and bone the green girl. To me, that's what was most intriguing about it - the fact it was a character-driven show with such strong personalities. Reading the script for this reboot I was thrilled to see they had held on to that.

The character is a bit cranky isn't he?

This character is irascible and cantankerous, and often downright grumpy but beneath that is one of the most altruistic, caring, loyal friends you can possibly have. The remarkable thing about him is he does not care who you are, he will speak his mind. His moral perspective, regardless of who he is arguing against, is always sound. It doesn't matter that he's more Jim Kirk's friend than Spock's - he will always give you the straight up, honest ground.

Why do you think he's so cantankerous?

I think he's a little bit bipolar actually!

You were in The Lord of the Rings. Now you are another world of extreme fandom ...

When I first got the role I was driving down a road in LA and was stopped at the lights and across the road there was a guy dressed in a Star Trek oufit. That was the first clue I had about what I'd got myself into. As far as conventions and the fandom go, I'm on the fence. I love the fact it's cherished but I've also seen Galaxy Quest!

LOWDOWN
Who: Karl Urban who plays Dr Leonard "Bones" McCoy

Past roles: The Price of Milk (2000), Xena Warrior Princess (1996-2001), Ghost Ship (2002), The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003), The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), The Bourne Supremacy (2004), Doom (2005), Out of the Blue (2006), Pathfinder (2007)

- NZ Herald

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