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Who IS Karl Urban?

March 7, 2001 at 9:28 pm by Tehanu  - 

The February/March edition of New Zealand’s leading fashion and lifestyle magazine ‘Pavement’ contained one of the best interviews available with Karl Urban, soon to star as Eomer. Pavement magazine has kindly allowed me to quote from them; all unattributed quotes are the words of Melanie Cooper, who wrote the story for Pavement.

‘Rings’ fans have spent a lot of energy discussing the merits of the film trilogy’s casting and it must be slightly frustrating for TORN’s visitors to form a picture of the lesser-known actors who only have a local track-record. Although he’s about to be seen internationally in Harry Sinclair’s farmer fairytale ‘The Price of Milk,’ outside of NZ Karl Urban is a relatively unknown actor up until now. Those actors may be enjoying their last year of relative anonymity, knowing that once ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ comes out, they won’t be able to walk down any street in the world without being hailed.

Pavement’s interview with Urban coincides with the international release of two New Zealand films that Urban stars in, Harry Sinclair‘s “The Price of Milk” and Glenn Standring’s “The Irrefutable Truth about Demons.” However Urban has been well-known in NZ for the past ten years. He grew up around film, with a mother who worked in a Wellington production company during the first flare-up of the NZ film industry. He entered the profession seriously at 18 doing the almost-inevitable apprenticeship on Kiwi soap Shortland St. (“…not the place to pick up the finer points of acting..”), then Xena and Hercules,before moving on to more challenging roles. We quoted an earlier article where Urban said ‘I’m basically lazy,’ and indeed he only works when he wants to. But what makes him want to work is the desire to communicate, to tell a story, and he’s now in a position to turn down roles that don’t have the depth that he wants. For instance, he turned down a fat offer from Aaraon Spelling for one of his TV projects. Said Urban, “It might have been all right if the character had some devious motives or evil intent but it was just the ‘hunk’ role. And with those acting roles, what you see is what you get.” Urban’s agent Graham Dunster puts it this way: “He would just like to do good things. He’s very sure that he doesn’t want to do crap.”

Now in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose his work, he seems to keep a sense of who he is and what matters to him – his partner Natalie and newborn son Hunter, and having time to take the dog to the beach, to surf, to go camping, or fishing, or indulge a passion for music. Life’s not all play for Urban though. He loves learning and recently he’s been taking classes for his technique with Sandford Meisner, an American teacher. ” The technique gives you tools in case your instinct fails you. Acting for screen is a combination of two factors – the technical aspect and the instinctive aspect – and this technique was really helping me focus on being true to my instinct.” That may have come in really handy with “The Price of Milk” which was filmed in weekly bursts of three days each, with constant script revisions that meant the actors often saw their lines just before shooting started for the day. In fact the story itself was nowhere set in concrete, which must have been hard for Urban, who ‘likens discovering his characters’ traits to the work of a detective.’ At first Urban hated working in that way, but eventually concluded “When you’re acting, the most you can hope for is that you respond truthfully moment to moment. You need to cut the strings of preconception and by doing it with Harry you don’t have a chance to create the preconceptions that could make a performance stale.” All of which was great preparation for Urban’s role in The Lord of the Rings. Urban found Peter Jackson’s directorial style quite similar, even though the vast epic of the Rings could hardly be more different to Sinclair’s quirky home-grown fairytale-on-a-farm story. “Pete’s like Harry, in many ways” (they’re good friends in fact) -” I mean, the script’s all there but ultimately [Jackson’s] got the picture in his head. He’s hands-on and he plays fast and loose. If a scenes’s not quite right, he’ll change it. If the actor isn’t getting it right, he’ll come in and tell you to make one small change and that’ll be it. He’s got his eye on the detail.”

Jackson says of Urban “Karl has one of the best screen personas of any New Zealand actor. When we were casting for Eomer, we offered it to Karl. We didn’t really audition widely for the role. We thought he was the perfect fit.” We probably won’t see Urban as Eomer for a long time, but “The Price of Milk” has received critical acclaim at various festivals and was snapped up by distibutors. No sign that he’ll be wooed away to an international career as a result. He’s passionate about the local film industry, and hopes that it will continue to make films that celebrate our own identity – for there is a fear that the ‘Rings’ may point us in the direction of ‘a more product-oriented output’ – i.e. following the Hollywood model of making genre-specific films that are made with both eyes on the dollar. But Urban still values the fact that Jackson chose to stay in NZ too. “I really respect Peter for choosing to apply his craft in thiscountry,because doing that gives our film crews the chance to work at the peak of the film industry and it trains new talent. It creates more interest in our films and it clears the way for new projects.”

It may just be selfish of me to say this, but with any luck Karl Urban will be part of New Zealand culture for some time to come.

The full article in Pavement has some fine photos of Urban, and since they are also planning to run some interviews with other ‘Rings’ actors in upcoming issues, it may be worth getting your own copies, which are available by contacting pavement@pavement.co.nz

Posted in Old Special Reports on March 7, 2001 by

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