Interview: A-Team star Sharlto Copley

The night before my interview with Sharlto Copley, he is photographed alongside co-star Bradley Cooper, arriving at the US premiere of The A-Team on Sunset Boulevard in a tank, wearing a helmet and saluting to the huge crowd that have gathered outside the theatre.

As Hollywood entrances go, you can't get much bigger but in person, Sharlto Copley, the South African-born actor who plays crazy helicopter pilot Howlin 'Mad' Murdock, is gracious, polite and as is often the way with big screen actors, slender, lithe and glowing with health.

He's also uncommonly nice but that might have something to do with the company he keeps. When I knock on the door of his luxury suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, the 36-year-old actor is entourage-free and chatting to his long-term girlfriend Jeanne-Melanie and mum Linda.

After brief hellos and introductions, they remove themselves, as Sharlto, who says he is still recovering from the premiere party, sits on the sofa.

"We arrived on a tank, can you believe it!" he says before putting his sunglasses on. I nod, staring at the reflection of myself in his lenses suspecting that perhaps a diva is lurking in there after all, when he suddenly whips the glasses off.

"I'm sorry, that seems a bit rude," he says, fixing me with an apologetic look. "I'm just a little tired today but it's nothing, let's go for it."

As routes to Hollywood stardom go, Sharlto's journey is particularly interesting because far from the tried and tested drama-school/never-ending auditions/starving actor rotation, he was for many years a businessman in South Africa, and a wildly successful one at that.

Born in Pretoria but educated at the British prep school, St Andrew's in Grahamstown, an 18th century English settlers town, young Sharlto was obsessed with television and movies.

His parents, Bruce, a university professor and Linda, a housewife, encouraged his natural creativity and love of the arts, although his mum was always strict about what he could watch, which wasn't hard as South Africa was still an apartheid state.

"I had a big imagination," reveals the actor. "Television only came to South Africa in 1976 and it was very limited, so I used to listen to a lot of audio tapes as a kid. I was fascinated with fantasy and particularly responded to English stories such as Peter Rabbit or authors like Lewis Carroll. I would listen to the voices and accents, then sit for hours trying to copy the different dialects."

His childhood heroes were Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams, and no joke, his favourite TV show was The A- Team. He even got an A-Team cake with a picture of BA Baracus, aka Mr T, on it for his 12th birthday.

"And I was in The A-Team gang at school when I was ten," he laughs, when I mention the cake. "But then another group in our class started an A-Team gang and we decided that we couldn't have two so we agreed to have a little war down on the school field. The idea was that whoever lost the fight would not be The A-Team any more. It was a high stakes things. At that age anything like that is a big deal, so we had the fight and I'm proud to say that my team won. And guess who was Murdock!"

After school, plans to head to Los Angeles and study drama were shelved when he had the chance to pitch for one of the new television licences the South African government were handing out.

The actor, then barely 19-years-old had an idea for a youth channel, and with two partners managed to secure the investment needed to start the business. Their pitch was successful and they were offered the opportunity to start ETV, South Africa's first private terrestrial broadcast network. Never one to do anything by halves, he threw himself into a creative director's role, becoming South African's youngest ever television executive at the age of 25.

"We wanted to do an MTV-type channel, and the government told us that they had five or six licences, and that it would take six months to decide who to give them to. In the end, it took five years and they gave out just one licence," he says, as he tries to explain how it was that he got side-tracked for so long. "We won the licence in 1997 and went on air the following year. I was responsible for running a six hour block of programming. It was a unique opportunity and I figured I would stay for six months but it turned into five years. The next thing I knew I had hundreds of staff and a business to run."

But the acting bug never left him and in his early thirties he took steps to pursue his creative ambitions. "I had four or five companies so I was very distanced from the creative work at that point," he remembers. "I knew I had to shift focus so I started making short films and by the time District 9 happened, I'd walked away from the business world."

The role of Wikus Van Der Merwe was the key to his second career and after District 9 was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar the acting world was his for the taking.

However, his love of the show wasn't enough by itself to land him the part of Murdock, and he had to create his own opportunity to be seen by director Joe Carnahan.

"I was promoting District 9 when casting started so I shot a series of scenes in my hotel that I called 'Things That Could Happen to Murdock in a Hotel Room,'" he says. "I was literally just improvising stuff. I had a communication with a flower. I heard voices. I had a hygiene issue in the bathroom. I acted as if BA was playing his rap music next door too loud and I couldn't sleep. That kind of stuff."

His skill for mimicry and improvisation landed him the coveted role alongside Bradley Cooper as Face, Liam Neeson as Hannibal and martial arts fighter Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson as BA Baracus. But it also did something bigger; it gave him the chance to meet his hero, the actor who originated the character of Murdock, Dwight Schultz.

"When Dwight arrived on The A-Team set I was quite apprehensive because he's an iconic character," says Sharlto. "But we got on really well and I thought I should show him the test that I did for Murdock, which you know, was all just me doing my version of his character that he'd invented. I was standing behind him while he watched it. He giggled at all the right moments and then he turned to me with tears in his eyes, gave me a hug and said, 'You are Murdock'. It was a very moving moment and later he wrote on his website, 'Murdock is dead, long live Murdock'."

As Sharlto recalls this story, it becomes apparent that being passed the torch was a big deal to this kid from Pretoria.

"Yes, it goes a lot deeper than you may think," he says, his voice full of emotion. "This was really something for an 11-year-old kid who wanted to be in movies. The A-Team was the first show that really inspired me, and Murdock was the guy that made me want to do characters and voices. Dwight took a character that was a lot flatter on paper than it eventually was on television and went for the craziness, did the voices and the impressions. He brought all that incredible stuff to the role and you know, the studio actually fired him after the pilot.

It was only when they tested it with the audience that they rehired him because the reaction was so positive. When you see that sort of decision in an actor, that's real genius."

Sharlto's new career is going from strength to strength, even though to a casual outsider it appears to be some kind of happy accident.

"You could say that but in a weird way there was a part of me that kind of knew I would end up here. That might sound completely weird but I used to have visions of going to Hollywood and making movies. When I would visit the cinema I would sit in my seat 'til the end of the movie. Some of the characters I saw would resonate so strongly with me that I would actually feel like I made the movie."

These days he's joined on his travels by his girlfriend Jeanne-Melanie Haasbroek, an ex-model turned film producer/director, who he's been dating for the past 11 years. For the Hollywood premiere, he made sure that his mum was in town and he's also close to his younger siblings: brother Donovan, a musician and sister Marisa, a fashion designer. Does he find it grounding to have his family so close?

"I don't really understand when people say they need their family to help them to keep their feet on the ground because for me it's more about support," he explains. "The level of self-involvement that actors end up having almost by default is enormous. Everything becomes about you, whereas before for me, it was about projects, companies, my staff – something other than my absolute self. The spotlight is relentless and not necessarily in a good way because there's no distance between you and what you do for a living; it's a 24 hours a day onslaught, so that's why I lean on my family."

Still, Sharlto's business sense gives him a keen awareness of how Hollywood works and he's quick to admit that he's now part of an enormous cash-cow.

"People see money out of you," he says bluntly. "I'm from a business mentality so that's what I see and also I know as quickly as it can come, it can go. There's an enormous amount of pressure to make the money and keep hitting it. But you can't buy into that whole 'Will you be a big deal tomorrow?' because ultimately you're going to fall at some point and do something that doesn't work. It's just about trying get more hits than failures."

Keeping his next projects close to his chest, he is however happy to talk about his love for Scotland, revealing that he has Scottish/English heritage. "It goes back a couple of generations," he says, adding that Edinburgh is one of his favourite cities in the world. "I love the atmosphere and I desperately want to perform at the festival some time," he says. "I love walking around the castle; there's something solid about it, something that shows the world that it has stood the test of time."

Rather like Sharlto himself, I suggest. "I know from hiring people that I'm usually the last man standing. I'll work 'til I die. It's not always easy getting the balance right. I spent years trying to force things to happen and failed in some way or another, but once I stopped pushing, that's when things started to go right."

And with that, he shakes my hand, puts his sunglasses on again and gets ready for his next appointment. Tank optional.

The A-Team (PG) is released on Wednesday

• This article first appeared in The Scotsman on 25/06/2010