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Monthly Columns

The A Team
June 2010
by Joan Tupponce
Category: Feature
At the age of 12, Sharlto Copley found a childhood hero in Howlin' Mad Murdock, the seemingly crazy chopper pilot on the hit 1980s television show "The A-Team." Today, Copley, who captivated audiences in the film "District 9," is bringing Murdock back to life in 20th Century Fox's "The A-Team," being released June 11."The A-Team" was one of my favorite shows as a child," says Copley, who grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa. "I had an A-Team gang at school. It was a real part of my childhood."When director Joe Carnahan ("Narc," "Smokin' Aces") first spoke with Copley about the part, the actor let him know that he was interested in playing Murdock. "I said to Joe, 'One of the reasons I want to do this is so you guys don't screw up my childhood memories,'" Copley says, laughing. "The opportunity to play Murdock was the thing that most attracted me."Carnahan says he was a fan of the culture the show created. "People loved this show so much. It was funny and campy. It was unique in its breed. It didn't take itself seriously."When he would ask fans of the show to tell him about their favorite episode, Carnahan found that no one could come up with a specific detail or plot. "People can't cite stories but they remember the guys in the show," he says. "The show relied on the charms of the cast. They were the centrifugal force of the show."The series, which ran from 1983 to 1987 and became a cult phenomenon, focused on the adventures of four Vietnam War veterans who become soldiers of fortune after being sentenced by a military court for a crime they didn't commit.Carnahan knew it would be a challenge to bring "The A-Team" to the big screen because it had been such a larger-than-life hit on television. Despite the difficulty of the task, he jumped at the chance to craft the remake, respecting the original show, but taking the action to a level that suits suits today's audiences."I've hung onto the things about the show that were important to me. I feel like we did a nice homage to those things without letting the tail wag the dog," Carnahan says. "I didn't want to make this slavishly devoted tothe television show. What would be the point? You could just watch the show. I wanted to move on and tell our own story."Carnahan made it a point not to camp up the film or make it tongue-in-cheek. "The greatest strength of this movie, like the television show, is that you love these four guys," he says. "We knew that we must engage the audience and the four characters were the key to that."To create the right mood, the film needed the muscle to jump off the screen in the theater, pulling audiences into the action with a gritty, real-world feel that steps away from the campiness of the television show. Carnahan and his writing partner, Brian Bloom, placed the action in the Middle East, during an impending troop withdrawal, to ramp up the intensity.During the writing process, the two never lost sight of the show's humor and team camaraderie, but were intent on making the characters relatable to today's audiences. The difficult balance of capturing the essence of the original team and contemporizing that was a creative challenge that everyone on the film was eager to take.At no point did Carnahan want to lose the admiration team members had for each other. Fans of the television show believed that this unlikely foursome really cared for and protected each other. It was that connection between the guys, both emotionally and technically, that made the A-Team a team in its truest sense.It was important to Carnahan to not only create that same chemistry when casting the four leads in the film but also to give it a fresh, modern feel. He never tried to cast look-alikes in a role. "Beyond a relative age, I wasn't looking for [exact duplicates]," Carnahan says. "Steve Cannell (who created the original show) was incredible in liberating us to do what we wanted to do with the movie. Not in any way did he restrict us."Carnahan's first task was to cast the pivotal role of Col. John "Hannibal" Smith, originally played by George Peppard. In the story, Hannibal acts as a modern-day Robin Hood, helping the oppressed while attempting to clear the names of his team members. He is the mastermind of the group, leading every mission and using some unorthodox methods to keep his team out of harm's way.Carnahan wanted someone with gravitas who had a world-weary, weathered look that said he had "seen it, done it and was better for it." His choice: Oscar-nominated actor Liam Neeson, who won praise as Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg's acclaimed "Schindler's List." His most recent films include "Clash of the Titans" and "After.Life," both released in 2010.Neeson's bravado, integrity and passion made him a natural fit for the role. He was drawn to the script because of the team camaraderie and the fact that Hannibal is a hero people can believe in, someone who would go to any length to save his men.There was one aspect of Hannibal's character – his penchant for smoking cigars – that didn't appeal to Neeson, an ex-smoker, even though he could understand why filmmakers chose to keep that prop in the script. In the film, just as in the television show, Hannibal lights up a cigar when he realizes his plan is moving along smoothly.The role of Lt. Templeton "Face" Peck, a charming, handsome smooth talker whose sugar-coated gushing could win the heart of any woman, was given to Bradley Cooper, who starred in last year's breakout comedy hit "The Hangover." Cooper also recently starred in "All About Steve" and "He's Just Not That Into You.""Bradley has been in romantic comedies," Carnahan says. "He's never been a suave, tough, gritty action star."Cooper's charm, good looks and likability made him the perfect candidate for the role. Copley found that Cooper's likability factor in the film was art imitating life. "When Bradley was in a scene with a girl, they would kiss. I hadn't read that in the script," he says, laughing. "He ended up kissing a lot of people [none of which] was in the script."Carnahan was pleased with Cooper's passion for the part, noting that he gave every shot "100 percent." The film gave Cooper a chance to slip into a role that had both humor and action. "We made Face edgier, a more Army kind of operator," Carnahan says. "He still wears a nice suit, but he's a nuts and bolts guy."Even though he stays fit, Cooper found that he had to "up the ante" for this role, sticking to a stringent diet and a strict exercise routine. To get in shape, Cooper even took an exhausting speed-hike up 2,800 feet of Vancouver's Grouse Mountain.When Carnahan approached Copley about the role of Murdock, the actor was eager to play his childhood hero. "I fell in love with Sharlto when I saw him in 'District 9,'" Carnahan says. "He brought a wonderful, childlike essence to Murdock. When he had to turn it around and be insane, he could do that. He was crazy like a fox."In the television show, Murdock had a genius I.Q. – he could complete any task handed to him – but always appeared to be slightly crazy, impersonating everyone from a surgeon to a prince to accomplish the task at hand. "I really related to the playful, crazy Murdoch character and to all of his accents, which I had always done as a child," Copley says.He sees the show, which had around 65 million viewers at one time, as "iconic." "It was just crazy," he says. "It was a bizarre combination of four guys."The issue of whether Murdock was mentally unstable was never resolved on the show. "It won't be resolved in the film either," Copley says. "We've kept a lot of the original essence of Murdock." During filming, he got to meet Dwight Schultz, who played Murdock on television. "It was like a dream come true."Grasping the various accents Murdock uses was easy for Copley, who has been doing accents and dialects his entire life. "I gave Murdock a non-specific Southern accent as his base voice," he says. "Once I get [an accent] I will stick to it. I was more concerned with being technically accurate. You can't be thinking about how to say the line when you're filming."After finishing a scene, Copley would have a dialect professional watch it to make sure the accent or dialect was perfect. There were two or three things that were a bit soft and Copley had the opportunity to go in and correct those words. "If it's something you can refine, you want to do it during filming," he says.Copley enjoyed working with the cast in Vancouver, where the film was shot. "I thought they knocked it out of the park," he says. "I loved the interactions and the comedic aspects."He formed a particularly strong bond with former UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, who was tapped for the coveted role of B.A. Baracus, played by Mr. T in the original version. In the show, B.A. was a capable driver and mechanic as well as a skilled fighter. His only fear in life: riding in a plane."We developed a good friendship and a close bond," Copley says. "We had a lot of fun with our characters. We both had love and a sacred reverence for what our characters meant to us."Casting the role of B.A. was one of Carnahan's biggest challenges. "Mr. T is a sweet, genuine human being," he says. "The television show let Mr. T. make B.A. in his image. When you start to mess with that, it gets dodgy. For my money, I wanted to hang onto the essence of the character but not the Mr. T image. We have kept who B.A. was with a nod to Mr. T." Look for Mr. T's favorite words, "pity" and "fool," to show up in the film, as well as his signature Mohawk hairstyle.When Jackson read for the part, everyone in the room "fell in love with him," Carnahan says. "He's the most raw actor in the group, but he is fantastic in his scenes."On set, Copley found Jackson to be funny and kindhearted. "That's not what I was expecting," he says. "He's very sweet and playful."During filming Copley did find one area where he was tougher than Jackson: swimming in a freezing cold lake. "We had to go under water and come back out," he recalls. "That's when I found his weakness, his kryptonite."To get the true feel for the camaraderie of the show, Carnahan and the four A-team members hung out socially before shooting began. "I got to see how they would interact," Carnahan says. "Liam stepped into the role of the father of three adopted sons. It just gelled."When it came to creating the action, Carnahan and Bloom went out of their way to add in scenes and plots that they hadn't seen in the show. "People are going to plunk down their hard-earned $10 so they can be entertained," Carnahan says. "That is all I want to do, entertain."He gave some of the actors the latitude to improvise. "There was a high level of improvisation," Copley says. "We all had a lot of fun with that."Actor Yul Vazquez also had a blast playing Gen. Tuco, the main antagonist in the beginning of the film. Vazquez has appeared in more than 30 films, including "Che," "The Take," "Traffic" and "American Gangster." "Tuco is sort of the catalyst for the A-Team coming together. He's an unhinged man, apoplectic," Vazquez explains. "He kidnaps Hannibal and Face and tortures them, which launches the creation of the team."Vazquez recalls that he had a "strange fascination with Mr. T" when he used to watch the show. "I used to have Mr. T stickers and a rubber stamp," he says, adding that after the show went off the air, he was given a Mr. T collectible doll. "I had never seen anything like Mr. T. He was on the cutting edge of a look that is more common today."When it comes to directors, Vazquez is a fan of Carnahan's. "He is one of those great directors who can balance the line between the action and the narrative stories," he says. "He gives his actors tremendous freedom."Vazquez enjoys playing the bad guy in the film. "It's fun to do," he says. "You get to do all this crazy stuff in a safe environment. The film has a great deal of stunts and I took a couple of falls on my own."In one stunt he had to go up in a helicopter with a skilled stunt pilot. "It's one of the most exciting things I have ever done," he says.To make all of the action scenes realistic, Carnahan had Paul Maurice, an active duty military adviser, work with the cast. "He trained all four members of the team very well," Carnahan says. "We wanted them to have an ease of use with the weapons and that's what he gives them. He [gives them the sense] that the weapons are deadly; that they kill people and they require a great deal of respect."The cast went through basic and, eventually, advanced levels of weaponry. Copley was pleased with the level of realism the training gave the film. Working with Maurice, who was wounded in Afghanistan, was a sobering opportunity, Copley says. "It brings it close to home."Even though the film is just being released this month, Copley is already looking forward to working on the second A-Team film. "This is the origin movie. [It's not] starting with the characters and dynamics in full gear," he says. "The second will be about a mission or project. We've all contracted to do more films if this one does well."Carnahan would love to do a sequel, as well. "I had the best time making this movie with these guys," he says. "The studio was unbelievably enthusiastic and caring."He remembers one moment at the end of the filming schedule as they were shooting a scene on the docks in Vancouver. "It was freezing," Carnahan says, adding that he likes to play music on set to help energize folks. "I started playing 'Baba O'Riley' by The Who and everybody, both actors and crew, started singing that song. It was so fantastic; one of those moments when everybody came together. I felt like people knew we were at the end of the road and everyone was going their separate ways. It was pretty great just to have that moment. It made my day."When the film opens, Vazquez hopes fans will feel the same excitement that he and the other actors felt on set. "You'll put your seat belt on and take that ride. It's cool."

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