updated 08/26/2009 AT 5:35 PM ET
•originally published 08/27/2009 AT 7:10 AM ET
No one is more surprised by the success of the sci-fi thriller District 9 than the film’s leading man, Sharlto Copley. The South African actor invades the big screen for the first time playing a nerdy government official assigned to evict aliens from their homes in Johannesburg’s slums. Copley, 35, tells PEOPLE, “It’s been a really bizarre but awesome series of events. I wake up everyday grateful.” Here’s what you need to know about this rising star:
District 9 is his first acting gig
Copley has spent most of his career behind the scenes, producing and directing commercials, music videos and short films. So when he agreed to help director and longtime pal Neill Blomkamp with his new film, he never imagined becoming a star. Says Copley, “Neill thought it was going to be a real fight to get me the part but [producer and Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson] said yes.”
He made commercials as a kid – fake ones
Though he never aspired to be an actor, Copley has been preparing since childhood: “When I was 12, I would take my parents’ camera and star in commercials or cooking shows with my friends,” he says.
What’s with the name?
Copley explained in a recent interview that his unusual handle resembles an Irish surname, Sholto-Douglas. “I’m not Irish, but my mother was listening to a radio show and there was some character in it named Sharlto,” he told the Alliance of Women Film Journalists Web site.
Don’t ask him about his hobbies
“I watch movies in my spare time, that’s what I do,” he says. His favorites? E.T. and the Terminator series. Copley is also a big fan of Jim Carrey and Robin Williams. “Robin Williams is an amazing actor. He has real heart and depth,” he says.
Copley says he’ll always call South Africa home – he lives there with his girlfriend of many years, according to Entertainment Weekly – but he’d consider moving for his career. “As a child I looked up to the United States and Hollywood as this place where your dreams can come true,” he says. “It’s possible, even if you’re on the southern tip of the African continent.”