For several years now, New Zealand-born Karl Urban has been the guy filmmakers turned to if a character had to ride a horse, chuck a spear or run through the forest primeval in a breechcloth.
In the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy he was Eomer , one of the riders of Rohan. In “Pathfinder” he played Ghost, a warrior of an Indian tribe battling Viking marauders.
Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Eric Bana, Bruce Greenwood, Karl Urban, John Cho, Winona Ryder, Ben Cross, Simon Pegg
(Paramount Pictures; US theatrical: 8 May 2009 (General release); UK theatrical: 8 May 2009 (General release); 2009)
But in director J.J. Abrams’ new “Star Trek,” opening Friday, the 36-year-old Urban gets to do something else entirely.
He gets to be funny.
More than that, he gets to portray a younger version of a character that every student of pop culture knows intimately: Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, the often-acerbic ship’s surgeon on the Enterprise.
“This was a fantastic opportunity for me,” Urban said in a recent phone call from Hollywood. “I’m so grateful to J.J. for the opportunity to do a character so fundamentally different from anything I’ve done in such a long time. You certainly can’t call Bones McCoy an action hero.
“The other thing that makes this so great is that I’m a long-term fan of the TV show. As a kid in New Zealand I would religiously be in front of the set every Saturday morning when ‘Star Trek’ came on.”
In the new film Urban looks and behaves uncannily like the late DeForest Kelley, who played McCoy on the series and in several big-screen incarnations.
“J.J. set forth a mandate that it was up to each of us in the cast to decide what aspects of these established characters we wanted to bring to the younger versions of them.
“I tried to approach that not as an actor but as a fan ... if I wasn’t in this movie and was just somebody going to see it, how much continuity would I want with these characters that I grew up knowing and loving?
“I decided I’d want a lot of continuity. My job was to identify the spirit and essence of what Mr. Kelley had done for 40 years and filter it through myself. The challenge was to not only honor that legacy, but to continue to explore it with a fresh eye.”
Given the roars of audience approval that greeted Urban’s Bone-sian delivery of classic McCoy eruptions at a recent screening of “Star Trek” (“Dammit, I’m a doctor, not a physicist!”), it appears that Urban pulled it off.
“I read one reviewer who put forth the opinion that the most engaging parts of the movie are the character beats between the moments of sci-fi spectacle.
“Which is fantastic, because that was always the inherent strength of ‘Star Trek’ — it was a character-driven show. You might forget about individual stories, but not the characters. They’re the glue. You engage with them and care about them.
“That’s why as a kid I was such a fan. I tuned in to see how these e clectic, culturally diverse characters would overcome their individual differences to defeat a common adversary.”
Making the movie was about as much fun as he’s ever had on the job, Urban said.
“The challenge was to stop laughing before the camera started rolling. We were having such a great time, and that chemistry is evident on screen.
“And I was giddy through much of the filming. It was surreal to be on the Enterprise’s bridge in a Starfleet uniform delivering some of the iconic lines of my childhood.”
Urban thinks this latest “Trek” is the closest to Gene Roddenberry’s original.
“If you’re a Trekker there’s a lot in this for you. Lots of jokes and winks, but done in a respectful way.
“And if you’ve never seen an episode, this is a wonderful opportunity to get in on the ground level and enjoy a truly phenomenal film with lots of heart, some tragedy, comedy.”
It’s not a bad showcase for Karl Urban, either.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing what opportunities come off of this. I hope that in some quarters my performance will bring on paradigm shift in how I’m viewed as an actor. I want to keep working with the caliber of director and actors I did on this show.
“I guess I’ve been spoiled.”