Karl Urban's varied Kiwi acting career has seen him battling demons, losing his voice, and playing both lawman and heavy. Since appearing in the last episode of The Lord of the Rings trilogy in 2003, Urban has worked mainly in American film.
Karl Urban grew up in what he describes as a "renaissance period" for New Zealand filmmaking. His mother worked at a Wellington production company, and the young Urban was inspired by watching iconic 80s movies like Smash Palace and Utu.
When Urban was eight, friends of his mother got him a small role in the Ettie Rout episode of TV series Pioneer Women. As a boy peeking through a window, Urban got to utter the line "they've got no proper clothes on".
At high school he acted and directed on stage, and made some short films. At the age of 18, having decided to pursue acting, Urban portrayed a heroin addict on an episode of police series Shark in the Park. Small roles followed in Gallipoli movie Chunuk Bair, and TV show White Fang.
In 1992 Urban got his big break, joining the cast of TV3's first drama series Homeward Bound. The small town family piece won rave reviews, but uninspiring ratings. Urban played lazy but gifted teenager Timothy Johnstone.
The following year Urban joined the cast for the second season of Shortland Street, During his six-month stint as paramedic Jamie Forrest, he was the street's first openly gay character, and his off-screen kiss with teenager Jonathon McKenna (Kieren Hutchison) marked the first same sex kiss for primetime NZ television. Urban went on to reunite with fellow Streeters Claire Chitham and Jodie Rimmer on horseriding drama Riding High.
1997 was the year that Urban's career really shifted gear. He played both Julius Caesar and Cupid in episodes of Xena and Hercules, and co-starred alongside Danielle Cormack in the failed pilot for Amazon High. Urban also appeared in his first two feature films: he played a small role as a heavy in Scott Reynolds' under-appreciated Heaven, and a larger role in Anthony McCarten's ensemble piece Via Satellite. In the latter film Urban portrayed a cameraman who beds Danielle Cormack's character, then the following day finds himself assigned to film her.
Soon after Urban joined Cormack again for pastoral love story The Price of Milk. Signing on for his first lead role too courage, since director Harry Sinclair refused to tell him exactly what it was about. Sinclair's improvisational, relatively unrehearsed approach to moviemaking called on new acting muscles, since Urban is normally a strong believer in preparation. Urban later said that having to respond truthfully in the moment meant he had no chance to "create the preconceptions that could make a performance stale."
The same year Urban starred as anthropology lecturer Harry Ballard in Glenn Standring horror movie The Irrefutable Truth about Demons. Filmed around Wellington, largely after dark, Demons was the story of a man of science "forced to swallow his skepticism about the mysterious forces of evil and the entirely flexible nature of reality" (Variety). Reviewer David Rooney praised the film's thrills and brooding atmosphere, writing that Urban "makes an appealing lead".
Urban was nominated for best actor awards in the NZ Film and Television Awards for both Demons and Milk. The latter film proved to be "quite a big door-opener". After watching a rough cut of his role, Peter Jackson cast Urban in the last two episodes of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Urban played horse-riding Rohan warrior Eomer.
Having already made a number of "mercenary runs" to Los Angeles to gain contacts in the film industry, Urban made his American debut playing one of the salvage crew on 2002 horror tale Ghost Ship, released in the United States six weeks before The Two Towers.
In an interview with Pavement magazine in 2002, Urban argued that Kiwi actors often found it difficult to get work locally once they reached a certain level of home soil exposure. From Rings on, he worked almost entirely overseas.
Since then Urban has appeared with Vin Diesel and Judi Dench in sci-fi film The Chronicles of Riddick, and in video game adaptation Doom. The opening scenes of hit sequel The Bourne Supremacy (2004) — in which Urban plays Russian hitman Kirill - see him pursuing Matt Damon's character through the streets of Goa. He also took one of the major roles in Comanche Moon, the mini-series prequel to Lonesome Dove, and endured a gruelling outdoor shoot to star as the the Viking hero in failed adventure Pathfinder.
In 2006 Urban returned to New Zealand to join the ensemble cast of the Robert Sarkies-directed Out of the Blue, based on the 1990 Aramoana massacre. Urban played Nick Harvey, one of a handful of under-armed policemen who hunted for gunman David Gray. The film won widespread acclaim. In 2008 Urban won the award for best supporting actor for the role at the NZ Film and TV Awards.
Since then Urban has been working his way up cast lists on a spate of mainly American projects. He played Doctor 'Bones' McCoy in the acclaimed JJ Abrams reboot of Star Trek and two sequels, appeared in Golden Globe-nominated caper Red, and was the baddie in vampire tale Priest.
In 2012, the year Metro named him 'Auckland's sexiest man', Urban starred as British comic strip character Judge Dredd in Dredd 3D. The film won positive reviews from The Guardian, Village Voice and America's Entertainment Weekly — the latter writing that as the futuristic lawman, "Urban manages to give a credibly wry performance using little more than his gravelly, imitation-Eastwood voice — and his chin" (Urban plays Dredd entirely from under a helmet).
The following year Urban took on a rare television role, as co-star of Fox television series Almost Human. Set in 2048, the show saw him playing a detective who must reluctantly work alongside an android. The series was cancelled after one season.
Urban was back in New Zealand to act in Disney's 2016 remake of Pete's Dragon. In the same period he found his career hotting up considerably, with starring roles in thrillers Stoic (opposite Antonio Banderas), Hangman (opposite Al Pacino) and Bent (opposite Sofia Vergara). He also shaved off his hair and got a beard, for a role in Taika Waititi's Thor movie, Ragnarok.
In 2018 the Ischia Global Film and Music Festival in Italy gave Urban a Global Icon Award, as his thriller Bent made its European debut at the festival.
Melanie Cooper, 'Urbane Cowboy' (Interview)- Pavement, February 2001
James Croot, 'Kiwi Karl Urban named a global icon by Italian film festival' Stuff website. Loaded 10 July 2018. Accessed 10 July 2018
Darren Franich, 'Dredd 3D (2012)' (Review) - Entertainment Weekly, 19 October 2012
Michael Helms, 'Urban Renewal' (Interview) - Fangoria, November 2002
David Rooney, 'The Irrefutable Truth about Demons' (Review) - Variety, 6 June 2000
Unknown writer, 'Karl Urban films racy scene with Hollywood babe Sofia Vergara' - The NZ Herald, 8 April 2017