Karl Urban’s been kicking butt in big-screen comic book adaptations for 20 years. His resume reads like a Comic-Con line-up, but he’s taking on one of his most challenging roles yet in Amazon’s highly anticipated superhero drama, The Boys. Urban plays the gruff Billy Butcher, a man hellbent on gaining revenge against the “supes” who have made his life miserable. Of course, we’re not sure what Butcher’s personal stake in the game is when the show begins, but we know these caped crusaders must’ve done some bad sh*t to deserve the beating Butcher’s delivering.
The character of Butcher is an iconic Garth Ennis creation and one of the comic writer’s favorite anti-heroes, so stepping into his shoes brought its own set of challenges for Urban. We spoke with him about taking on the mantle of The Boys, the trickiest fight scenes of his career, and how even he was surprised by the amount of violence on the show.
You’re playing another comic book icon. What appealed to you about The Boys?
I sort of remember when the graphic novel came out. I remember seeing it, and it piqued my interest. Then I read the pilot and was so blown away by how fun and how progressive it was. It’s just a solid, character-driven story offering this take on the superhero narrative that’s currently massively successful. But the bottom line was I was hugely drawn to the character of Billy Butcher, who was this fun, roguish character.
He also happens to be Garth Ennis’ favorite creation so no pressure.
Yeah, Eric [Kripke] told me that at one point. I really didn’t need to know that.
You’ve taken on some recognizable roles in other franchises. Did you feel prepared to kind of shoulder that responsibility?
Yeah, listen it’s not the first time I’ve been in a situation where I’m dealing with a property that has a fan base. I really, you know, have to make the character my own, and that’s what I did. I drew a lot from the wonderful work that Garth had done and, and obviously, a huge amount of work was really done by Eric because he’s the one who adapted the story from the comics and transferred it to a different medium. The character of Billy Butcher in the TV show — there are subtle but important differences to the character in the comics. So, at the end of the day, I really kind of felt that it was important to honor what had been created by Garth, but then also kind of Eric’s vision and create something out of that.
Adapting a story like this to TV means changes must be made. Were there any big changes in terms of Butcher and his journey this season?
Yeah, I’ll give you one example. The character of Billy Butcher in the comics has taken what we in the show called Compound V, which is an element that enables superheroes to have superpowers. And you know, Eric was very adamant that he wanted to have a show about people without superpowers taking on people with, you know, these super abilities. It’s about the little guy taking on the man. And to me, that was such an interesting [premise] to work off. The challenge that that presents over time is, “How do you sustain the conflicts between those with no power going up against the most powerful people in the world?”
So any a**kicking we see is all you is what you’re saying?
They’ve certainly put me through my paces. If you’ve seen the pilot, you know right in episode one I get to fight our version of the Invisible Man called Translucent. It was probably the trickiest fight that I’ve ever had to do. We had to shoot three passes. One with a guy in a green onesie and then the second and third passes were with nobody. So, I was essentially fighting thin air, and that’s a lot tougher than you think, you know? Cause in a fight you’re reacting to what’s coming at you. With this, it’s all in your head. It becomes a whole different game.
As someone who’s been apart of the superhero universe, who’s had a role in the Marvel universe, what’s your take on how The Boys deconstructs the myth of superheroes?
I feel like it’s just a metaphor for celebrity culture. I mean, how many times have we discovered that some of our most treasured and valued celebrities have this dark and mysterious side to them? The superheroes in the boys are representative of modern celebrity culture, and that sort of pursuit of fame and acquisition of material wealth, acquisition of followers, the sort of hyper-awareness of social media currency. At the end of the day it’s like, “Okay, if there really were superheroes, what would they be like? Are they just as flawed and damaged and messed up as we are?”
We can’t all be Chris Evans, I guess.
Revenge is a big motivator for Butcher this season. Do we get to see why he’s so invested in taking down these supes? Does he have a personal stake in the TV version, like he does in the comics?
Oh yeah, definitely. It’s a very personal story for Billy. Through the course of the show, you get to understand and discover why he’s doing what he’s doing, and the similarity between what’s happened to Hughie (Jack Quaid) and what’s happened to Billy is striking. The character of Hughie represents someone who was, in many ways, an audience representative but he’s the one with the moral fiber. One of the things that I love about the show is that Billy Butcher finds Hughie and sort of recognizes his pain and then pretty quickly figures out a way to manipulate Hughie and use him to achieve his own agenda.
At this point, given Butcher’s questionable methods, is he a character we should be rooting for?
That’s a great question. I think that Butcher is the kind of character that you hope is going to do the right thing, but nine times out of ten will do the wrong thing. To me, what makes the character of Butcher interesting are his flaws. You can root for Billy because you’re always hoping that he’s going to do the right thing, and even if he’s doing the wrong thing, you can at least understand why he’s doing it.
I’m not sure how to convey how batsh*t crazy this show is so I’m going to ask, what was the most insane scene you shot this season?
Well, fighting an Invisible Man was pretty surreal. I don’t want to get into spoilers too much, but I sort-of take out a superhero later in the season, and the method which Butcher uses to do so even shocked me. I’m pretty desensitized to on screen violence, as a lot of people are, but this even shocked me. So that’s saying something.
Amazon Studios’ ‘The Boys’ premieres on July 26.