Karl Urban’s first shot at fame was as gay paramedic Jamie Forrest in Shortland Street in 1993. Fast forward nearly two decades, and the Wellington-born star has joined the A-list – this week he appears on billboards worldwide as Judge Dredd in Dredd 3D, released last week.
“I haven’t planned my career this way. I certainly have been in a lot of genre-oriented films but I’ve also been in films like Red and The Bourne Supremacy and my New Zealand films like Out of the Blue and The Price of Milk, which don’t fall into that category at all,” says Karl (40), who has been labelled Lord of the Geeks after playing Eomer in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Bones in the 2009 version of Star Trek. “For me, it’s just about the character in the story and who I’m working with.”
There’s no doubt Karl is a huge film fan – to the point that his son is named after Indiana Jones. “That was not my choice. That was my wife’s choice,” insists Karl, who married makeup artist Natalie Wihongi in 2004. The pair have two boys, Hunter (11) and Indy (7). “We were sitting down one day watching Raiders of the Lost Ark. There’s that scene where Marion has been abducted. She’s going, ‘Indy’. [Natalie] looks and me and goes, ‘That’s it. That’s the name.’”
Although Karl’s star is on the rise in Hollywood, the Wellington native shields his family as best he can from the public eye and avoids the celebrity lifestyle, despite commuting from Auckland to Los Angeles regularly. “I try to keep a pretty low profile and I don’t put myself out in the media or try to become a celebrity,” he told TNT magazine last month. “Part of that is protecting my children. I want to ensure that they have as normal a childhood as possible.”
Karl was a huge fan of Judge Dredd as a child, and is delighted the movie stays so true to the original story – though getting in shape for the part was “brutal”. “It was gruelling,” he says. “I wasn’t a fun guy to live with for 14 weeks. But you know, that was the demand of the character. I needed to go to all those lengths in order to feel the part. So, it was twice a day for 14 weeks hitting the gym, all the military training.”
Some of the filming was so demanding, Karl and his castmates had to rely on stunt doubles – a decision that proved to be a good one when a stuntman was injured while trying to jump, handcuffed, onto a platform 15m below, fracturing his leg and dislocating his hip.
Now with a title role in a Hollywood blockbuster under his belt, the sky’s the limit for Karl, but he’s determined he’ll stay a typically grounded Kiwi bloke, starting with his passion for rugby. "If I'm watching a game and the All Blacks lose, it's best if I'm not around anyone because I'm in the foulest mood,” he smiles. “My earliest memories are staying up with my dad watching the All Blacks or playing [rugby] with my mates.”
While he doesn’t have much time to get onto the footy field now, Karl’s finding his challenges in other places – such as playing Dredd, a character who wears a helmet for the entire film. “[Wearing the helmet] doesn’t make [acting] any easier. In fact, it makes it harder. I mean, that was the challenge, how to communicate with the audience without my eyes. How do you convey an emotion like doubt?”
While his laid-back nature has helped him stand out in Hollywood, Karl’s not afraid to achieve his dreams. “I’m a very determined individual,” he says. “I like to get what I want.”
Although he has five big-budget films in the pipeline over the next year, Karl has no plans to uproot his family from their base in Auckland – he’s a Kiwi boy, through and through. “Like it or not, I’m a global citizen… so, while I may work internationally, I live in New Zealand and plan to always do so.”
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