"300" – One-On-One with Gerard Butler

In January of 2006, CBR News trekked up to a rather cold Montreal for a personal set visit for the film "300." As the only press on the set that day, we were given incredible access to the stars and producers of the film. In the coming weeks, we'll bring you those interviews and our own set visit report.

"300" tells the story of King Leonidas of Sparta, who in 480 BC with 300 of his personal guard held the pass at Thermopylae against hundreds of thousands of Persian soldiers under the command of Xerxes. By all accounts, this was one of the most important battles in modern history. Following the outcome of the Battle of Thermopylae, the various Green kingdoms joined forces, ultimately defeating the Persian invaders, giving rise to the Greek empire and the first vestiges of democracy.

We start out our coverage of the film by talking with "300" star Gerard Butler, who plays the powerful King Leonidas. Butler had to work out extensively for the part, with intense work out sessions daily to prepare for the role. Our discussion lasted about 25 minutes and took place following one of those work out sessions, prior to the start of shooting that day.

"300" hits theaters March 9th.

Gerard, how are you holding up? This has been a pretty grueling production, on top of which you've had to go through some very intense physical training and it's a very challenging part you're playing.

It has been, but then again that's OK. I've taken on a lot of roles in the past that have required a serious amount of training and preparation. I don't think I've ever had to work quite as hard as I have for this in terms of physicality, but it was only a matter of degree – maybe an extra 15-20%. I'm used to it and I love that. I love when your work is cut out for you and you've got to keep your head down and do a lot of grafting and you go through a lot of pain and endurance, so you almost feel like you've earned the film once it's all done. When you see it, the experience is that much more memorable. It enhances your memory.

So, through that pain it's been amazing, but it's been long hours. I'm training every second I get, whether with the stunt guys or especially with Mark [owner of Gym Jones, the team that trained with the cast]. I was doing that for two and a half months before the movie started, six days a week. At one point I was over doing it. I had two trainers – I was training in two different gyms and I was training with stunt guys everyday, so some days I was doing six hours a day. After a few months your body really can't take that anymore, so come Christmas time I was considering getting a zimmer frame (walker) when I went back to Scotland, or getting a wheel chair to get some rest. I have a lot of aches and pains and I'm looking forward to the rest.

Has it been primarily weight training or fight training?

When you train with the stunt guys, it's learning your sword and shield, which I've used before, but these guys have a very specific technique which is kind of Filipino influenced. It really works in terms of the Spartan warriors because it's not that different. Then, also, you learn your spear, which is a whole different thing completely, learning the ways of movement and learning to work as a team, because that's what the Spartan's did. They worked as a unit. Then of course you're talking about it being filmed and you want to make sure it looks amazing, so you're doubly concerned with making the line look accurate, to walk together, work together, to do things in unison. And with sword fighting, there's a big difference between good with the sword and being really good with the sword – knowing how to move, what part of the body comes first, how you move the arm, how to make a strong finish, how to use your feet, all those things. That all just comes with practice and watching these guys who are the best I've ever seen. They're really incredible.

Do you enjoy that side of this, the combat fighting?

I love it. I have some great pieces in here. There's this one piece which I think might be one of the longest action pieces any actor has had to do uncut. It was crazy and took so much work. I have to say those days that I did it, I was so pumped up and full of testosterone and full of nerves. It's tough because you have hundreds of Persians running at you and they're covered up – you don't know who's who. When you do it in the gym, you know who's who – "Oh, that's Johnny and there's Chris, then it's Max." – but suddenly you have all these anonymous guys running at you full speed and you react a lot differently. It's crazy!

We were using this special camera rig with three cameras on it wrapped together and there were a lot of technical problems, so, sometimes if you mess up a shot, you wait 50 minutes to go again. So, you're pumped up, I'm working the weights, you're ready, you're warm, you're so full of energy and suddenly it stops. That's hard. You get this sort of empty, sick feeling because you just want to go. But, yeah, I love it. It's a buzz. It's exciting.

You've talked about the physical demands of this part, but what about the mental demands of playing a character like Leonidas. Are they there? Are they bigger than any other previous part?

No, they're not bigger. The tests mentally and emotionally I haven't felt as powerfully in this. The one thing about the Spartans is that a lot of times they are very emotionless and, in fact, that's part of what makes the movie so powerful at the end because you suddenly get a measure of just who these men were. Of course, these men have emotion, but they keep it so down inside because everything about them is power and control and fearlessness that any of that emotion is stuffed down inside deep. And with me playing the King, I think I feel it more than anyone because I always have to play against it, even more so in those particular moments of say, remembering my wife at the end. Rather than play into that, you play against it. Your way of dealing with that emotion finds you closing up even more. So, if you were to compare this to "The Phantom of the Opera," where I felt like I spent four or five months listening to the saddest notes in my soul and crying all the time, no, "300" has not been like that.

With this movie, I've had to work out how to balance a character that is as powerful as this, yet give him a human element and understand that he's based on a comic character that is so extreme in his masculinity. When you read "300" the comic book, you've never seen guys as tough as this, that go through as much as this, that endure as much as this, that suffer as much as this and they love it. And then, when you're a King, you have to go a step further. But if you push that too far, you loose all connection with the audience and you become a caricature. So, the challenge was really in finding that fine line between these different aspects of the character.

When they approached you about the part, did they hand you the graphic novel first or the script?

The script.

Allright, so you read the script and that excited you, so when did you get the graphic novel?

About a week later.

What did you think of it?

I loved it. I'm not a big comic book guy, I have read them before, but I'm not that guy who would go rifling through comic book stores looking for that one comic book. I loved "Sin City," I read that comic and have read a number of things from Frank Miller. I love the darkness and masculinity of those characters and their psychological journeys. You really climb into that, especially as a guy. So, I got into them, but when I read "300," I treated it as a film. I'm not making a comic book, I'm making a film. The script on its own was phenomenal. I read it and thought it was so unusual, and this was before I realized how much influence the comic book was going to have on the film. Often a film made from a comic book, it's just used as the basis for the film. Whereas here we are very much stylizing our presentation and at times completely replicating the comic and that's the tone and feel Zack [Snyder, director] is trying to get.

In a way, I wish we could have pushed it as far as the comic book had, but then you'd be making a movie where your boundaries become smaller in so much as you define it more and it becomes appealing to less people. I think we have a great balance where there is emotion, there's toughness, there's brutality, it's ferocious, but it's also a phenomenal story that moves you and is interesting with great politics in there. It has it all going on. Whereas, in the beginning of the comic book, the Captain almost kills his best friend because he beats up one of his soldiers, and you think, well, at least he's caring for his soldier, but then he commands his soldier to carry his Captain back when the soldier has already fallen from exhaustion. So, I'm left wondering if these guys are tough or just pure evil! [laughs] We get that these guys love to fight. That's what they were born to do and that's what they lived their lives to do. But there's all this other stuff for these guys, dealing with what happens when loved ones have to go and leave to fight a war. We focus nicely on that – knowing you have to leave your spouse and your child with the knowledge that there's every chance you might not see them again, so we explore what is going through their minds as well, both on the battle field and back at home. But, it doesn't dwell too much on that. It just feels to me like a really fresh and original way of telling this story. We've taken a lot more angles and risks than most of the similar stories I've watched.

The unique stylization of the film, and the story itself, helps allow it to really contrast against recent films like "Alexander" and "Troy," allowing it to help break out on its own and rise above the noise left by those other sand and sandals films.

I really do think it will live on its own. Having worked on this and having seen those other movies, it doesn't remind me of them in any way. Not at all.

What struck you the most about the part of Leonidas?

I love these kind of roles, but I think that right from the top of the story you see already that you're dealing with, well, in some ways he's laid out as your typical heel – he's a ruler, you know what he's been through to get there, it's spelled out what an incredible life he's had and that he was basically born a ruler, he just was of that blood. Then he immediately kills his messenger and all his men, just for simply bringing him news. So, you begin to realize you're not just dealing with your typical heel. This is what I love about not just this character, but this story, in so much as there's a framework set-up that they're only defending themselves, but within that framework is an element that shows in a way we're the bad guys. What frustrates me with watching movies normally is you always have to wait for your hero to get his ass kicked before they finally stand up, dust themselves off and say enough's enough. It's kind of the opposite in this film. We're there right from the start. We toy with our aggressors, we taunt them, we almost encourage them. We have an almost simplistic view in the way life works – we do not bow down to anybody and we live as free men. That's where we're going with this film.

Talk about some of the more precarious moments you've had in filming "300." Any scary moments for you?

My oddest moment was today, in fact, when I left my house. It's funny, I've picked up a few injuries on this film. I have a pulled tendon in my arm right now. I've pulled my hip flexer. I got drop foot and literally my foot was out of control for a week.

Drop foot?

Well, I damaged a nerve in my leg which caused the nerve in my foot to essentially die and my foot would just flop around.

That must have been scary!

It was because I didn't know exactly what was happening. I kept tripping because you don't know what your foot is doing. I would trip over curbs. I'd be standing in the gym, I'd go to move and I'd just fall over because my foot wouldn't move.

But, today, I was late for work again, I was running down the stairs in my house with my boots laid open, and I tripped over my boots and almost went head first down the stairs. At the last second, I grabbed the banister and was hanging over the stairs. My heart was in my mouth! If I had fallen, the way I had fallen, it would have been bad.

I've seen three guys carted off to hospital during this film – we're fighting in close quarters, I've smashed knuckles, I've been banged in the head and I've banged people in the head. But, how funny, that I could have injured myself to such an extent that I couldn't work, just leaving my house.

Zack would not have been happy with you!

I wouldn't have been happy with me. That would have broken my heart.

How'd you get involved in this role? How did that all come together for you?

I was sent the script by my agent and they set-up a meeting with Zack. And, that meeting, you've never seen two more passionate characters. I think everyone thought we were crazy. I was up and about, telling everyone about the physicality of these guys and how they would move and how they would fight, and I'm literally acting it out and throwing myself about. And then here's Zack who's a total fitness freak and such a strong guy. It's rare you get a director who really understands power and understands violence. This guy has trained with cops and the Navy Seals. So, in that meeting, he's there, he's punching the table and we were just both everywhere! When I left that meeting, I was hoping it went as well as I thought it did, and it did. Then, from there, the producers showed me this three minute preview that they did for the studio and it was then that I really understood where they were going with the movie and it was then that the pain started. Immediately the fear set in, "What if this doesn't happen? What if I don't do this?" Then it was just a waiting game. The film hadn't even been green lit at that point. But I was now armed with as much information as I needed to make a decision based on the script, the comic book and this three minute preview. That was really helpful – the preview is like three minutes of action and the tone and style of the film, but I could watch that all day. I could just put it in on a loop and watch it over and over again. Some days I'll ask for them to turn it on again and it's been like eight months that I've been seeing this thing! [laughs]

What's the next kind of roll you'd like to do to follow this?

Something completely different. I don't like doing two things that are the same back to back. I think I'm off to do a thriller next in Vancouver. It would be myself and Maria Bello and Pierce Brosnan. I haven't actually done a thrilled in America yet and I really like this script. It's not 100% definite, but it's looking good. [The film is "Butterfly On A Wheel."] I couldn't go and do something like this again – I just don't have the energy. But I feel like I've paced myself just right. I almost over did it, but I think I'm going to survive it because I can see the end is in sight.

This movie employs extensive use of green screens for special effects to be added later and very few natural sets. Green screen acting – especially on this scale – is that really a challenge for you as an actor?

Yeah. I don't love green screen because the pay off with green screen is at the end of the production, but seeing that preview was very helpful. When I saw that I realized just how incredible this film is going to look on an artistic level. They've gone to a place that they really didn't have to go, they could have made it a lot easier on themselves, but they are really trying to create a world that we haven't seen before. A fantastical, dream like world that really puts you in a mood with every scene. It's so visually exciting it will literally take your breath away.

The pay off for that is in the end, but unfortunately I don't fucking see that when I'm filming! [laughs] I just see green screen. That's really been one of my big challenges – finding that fine line between the human Leonidas and the comic book Leonidas and also trying to find that within the framework of working on unnatural sets inside a studio. But, the strange thing is, you can't help but let that affect your performance slightly and in a way it kind of gives an off kilter, slightly off balance performance, which I kind of love. It works perfectly with the whole feel of this film. So, I'm trusting that I haven't made a huge mistake in trusting that! [laughs] That's why I kind of feel like the pressure is taken off me a bit because when you see the design and style of this film, it comes through nicely. When you see that trailer and artwork, people will form their own judgments and I'm pretty confident that people will never have seen an epic laid out like this and presented like this.

Thanks, Gerard.

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