Maleficent: Sharlto Copley on the Male Perspective

Maleficent may be many things, but it’s fundamentally a film about a woman’s point of view. So playing the film’s central male character, played very specifically as a villain, would be a challenge for any actor. The task fell to District 9 star Sharlto Copley, who portrays King Stefan as a man who lets ambition distract from his personal responsibilities to the people – and specifically, the women – whom he thinks he loves. 

I sat down with Sharlto Copley to discuss the film’s broad portrayal of Stefan and the thought process necessary to bring such a figure to life in a film that argues against him at every turn. He presented an intriguing thought process that led him to equate the fantasy character to contemporary men who make equally abhorrent decisions, but over a long period of time as opposed to all at once, as is dramatized in Disney’s Maleficent. Check it out and let us know what you think of his approach.


CraveOnline: So you look like you were having fun in this movie…

Sharlto Copley: Well, what makes you say that? [Laughs.] Because it didn’t feel like it when I was being the guy. I mean, off-camera, when the camera wasn’t rolling I was having fun. So you’re correct that most of the time I was having fun, but the character was quite intense.


Yeah, this is one of the most unapologetically evil people I’ve seen on camera in a while. I guess you in Oldboy would be the other one. But I saw your villain in Oldboy was coming from, as warped as it was. Here he just seems symbolic of corruption, in many regards.

I guess you can see that from the final edit of the film. I think there was, and this often happens where a villain has to be more simplified for the sake of storytelling, but there was certainly much more, and there was a lot of stuff that we shot that went much more into for example why he was doing what he’s doing. Which essentially was, when you’re talking about the basic archetype, that I think is still in the film, is very much male ambition and drive, and what happens when that is left unchecked, and when that runs away with itself.


It plays allegorical.

So people say exactly what you do, “He’s such an evil character!” And then I would sort of say, “But hang on, it’s a fairy tale, it’s caricature.” If I were to say to you the man who goes and makes $100 million, and trades in his wife for the younger, better looking version, doesn’t spend time with his kids, they fall apart, wife becomes an alcoholic, kids are behaving as delinquents, why? Because daddy’s never home. Why? Because daddy’s trying to be a big deal in the world. That’s a lot of men, whether they make the $100 million or not. This for me is that version. I was okay with playing this bad guy because he’s sort of the cautionary tale for men in a very female-centered film.


That is the thing. Even in the original Sleeping Beauty, the world of men and women is very separate. Men control politics and the women control everything magical.

Right, right.


Here there’s that sense again that everything has the potential to corrupt you and make you selfish…

…is male! [Laughs.]


It’s very male, let’s be honest here! There’s a place for that, and that’s interesting. But tell me about the material that you shot but didn’t make it in the movie that evolved Stefan as a character a bit more, or got us more into his head.

It’s a lot more to do with the fact that he would have arguments with Maleficent about, what’s wrong with [wanting] to be ambitious? I want to do something and I don’t have magic, so what I can do is take stuff out of the ground. I can build cars, look what people can do. Like humans, we can do cool stuff. Like we build, we do stuff.


He wanted to use his power for benevolent ends.

Yeah, yeah, yeah! So he’s feeling inadequate. If you just imagine it from a male point of view, he doesn’t feel equal to her. He doesn’t feel like he’s an equal partner because she’s literally got wings and he’s hanging on her feet at the beginning, which as a kid is fine but as you get older it’s like, “Hang on, I want to be the man in this relationship.” You know what I mean? So that is one of the things that he’s trying to prove to himself, to her, and one of the drivers for him of where he eventually feels like she just doesn’t get him. She’s too different as a magical creature. “You don’t get what humans are like, what we’re about.”

And [he] makes the ultimate… again, metaphorically, in a worst case scenario, if you’re prepared to gradually destroy your family for your career, would you do it in one go? Would you sacrifice your true love and your partner to get all the things you’ve ever dreamed of? Would you do that? Most men would say no, but then you see people doing it gradually over time by their behavior. In this case there’s a dramatic moment that’s very difficult for him, where he must go and betray her in the worst sort of way you can.


It’s the worst way imaginable. You drug and then in many respects you violate her.

Well, the violation is, for me the metaphorical fairy tale element for me is, “I’m taking your wings. I’m betraying you.” And again, to me the number of broken relationships where you could see the one partner took the other’s wings, metaphorically, is all over society. I didn’t violate you, I took your wings because we had that trust. And I violated the trust.


But when you violate that trust over one specific incident the way it is here, it seems to go from a natural human tragedy to something just very visceral, and very terrifying. I think it has the potential to hit people as a very striking metaphor.

Yes. Yes. Well, it has the potential. Usually what I find in these things, people don’t really too much beyond that, at simple storytelling. Meaning, exactly as you said as you came in here, “Well, that’s just a very evil guy.”


That’s not what I meant

But you know what I mean. Most people don’t do what you’re doing, which is really get into it and say, “Hang on, what’s the moral of the story for my children?” For me, it’s “Love will save you from pain if you let it,” because it saves Maleficent and doesn’t [for Stefan] because Stefan’s too far gone. To me there’s a lesson for the fathers: spend time with your children, because that’s what they want from you. This guy thinks he’s protecting [Aurora], like the man who’s making money thinks, “I’m making money for my kids. I’m giving my kids a great upbringing.” She wants you to be with her. She doesn’t need the money so much as she needed you.


That’s one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the movie, when Aurora comes to see you and you’re like, “Get her out of here! Not now!”

And in his mind he’s protecting her from this evil person that’s coming. So again, I think for me there’s metaphorical things that I could hang onto all the time to justify why the character would behave the way he would.


Was there a lot of it on the page or did you have to come up with that justification yourself?

There was a lot of it originally on the page, and a lot of it didn’t make it into the film for, again, for simple filmmaking needs, of the bad guy must be bad to a certain degree. And he’s going through this thing of having to do some really dodgy things, and you’ve got a movie star who’s prepared to go “I hate you” to a baby, and know that she can bring back the audience. How many movie stars that are beloved, that are not character actors, they’re known as “movie stars,” loved by millions, who will do that? As soon as I knew she had the chops to do it, I knew that this is an actress who can do this. One of the very few that I can think of who could possibly be able to, let alone actually choose to do it.


You should have said you hated the baby. That might have redeemed you in the audience’s eyes!

No! You joke but I would have taken… I did, I actually said, for me, I could have this where he redeems. Where there’s this happier family ending where he sees at the very of the film, when he realizes what he’s doing, when he lets the love in.


You could have gone there.

But for me the character loves her the whole way through the film.


Loves his daughter?

No, loves Maleficent. And his daughter. It’s like his only real true love was Maleficent, and this thing of having betrayed her… because that’s why his conscience, that’s why he goes crazy is he betrayed the one person who really did love him when he wasn’t the king. [Laughs.] You know?

William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline’s Film Channel and the host of The B-Movies Podcast and The Blue Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.