In 480 B.C., King Leonidas of Sparta led his army of 300 to one of the greatest battles in history, the Battle of Thermopylae. The soldiers fought to the death against Xerxes I and his colossal Persian army. Their courage and fearless altruism led to all of Greece uniting against Persia. Warner Bros.’ 300, directed by Zack Snyder and adapted from Frank Miller’s graphic novel, shows how King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) boldly guided the men to their ultimate sacrifice.
ComingSoon.net/Superhero Hype! recently talked to Butler about what is was like to play the central character:
CS/SHH!: How do you approach a character between history and myth?
Gerard Butler: I think that it’s really trying to strike a balance between many things without getting too caught up in the different technical elements because I’ve never come across a character quite as powerful and intense and charismatic as this guy, and as badass. I mean, he’s a fu**er. And yet, you know that you have to rise to that element that it goes past even epic and becomes comic book. But at the same time, to only do that and never give him a heart and soul, then the whole thing means nothing. It involves choosing your moments. It involves, like for me, I really focused a lot on becoming as big and as strong and as confident in those things as I could possibly be. And even doing a lot of working out just before the takes and constantly doing that. Every time I trained, it made me feel more like a Spartan, more like a king, more like I was impressing my men and more like they would be willing to follow me. And also, that fire is burning inside you and then, you can completely go the opposite way and play it as a guy. I literally walked around Montreal with my shoulders back, my chest up. It was that feeling, just that feeling of real inner confidence and yet then you can have fun with the other things because it was actually difficult to suck all that in and let out – he has a lot of things going on. There’s an arrogance there, there’s a confidence, there’s a humor, there’s a dryness, there’s a compassion and there’s a certain amount of humanity and then the guy is a nut job. He’s crazy and there’s a fearlessness that borders on insane. To try and get all those in with a man who really doesn’t talk that much was a challenge. And then to do it all in front of green screen, so there’s a way of doing it and a way of talking about it, and as you can see I’m really not good at talking about it. I just do it.
CS: Were those really your abs in the film?
Butler: Yeah, yeah. I tried to borrow someone else’s but they wouldn’t give me them. That was seven months of training. There was always a part of me going, “Okay, am I going to stop doing this?” But I was really kind of happy and surprised that I kept it up. I kind of became a bit addicted to it or perhaps addicted to the advantages that it was giving me because after a certain point, I never once felt silly or strange standing in my cape. That started to become, a couple days after putting it on, one of my biggest allies, wearing that costume and feeling so strong, excited, you know, that your body was also an intimidating factor and inspiring factor for your army, as they all were. You’re surrounded by probably a few tons of muscle and when you pool that together and pull all that spirit together and have nothing but focus and belief and pure intention, the power of that, you become 1000 times stronger, that it actually makes sense that you could hold off an invading army that don’t have that belief, that are in disarray, that you could hold them off quite easily.
CS: Is it harder to create a character behind a mask like Phantom?
Butler: I’ve had to play characters where there’s a difficulty of expression. Maybe that’s what I like to do though. For me, what I learned, I started acting kind of out of nowhere, started in theater and actually my biggest thing when I started acting was people were always saying, “Great, but bring it down. Bring it down.” And the more I brought it down, the more I started to trust what I could genuinely feel inside and what I could say with the less that I did, the more that I could say. Then suddenly, things like, roles like The Phantom became a kind of beautiful thing to do, to try to say so many things while, one, singing and two, wearing a mask means that you have very little range. It’s really in the eyes and it’s the same in Leonidas in some ways because he can’t be expressive in a modern way, throwing his hands around like winking. You lose all of that and you have to, to me, if there was one moment in this film, if you were to see him suddenly be weak or modern, then the audience would lose faith in that. So no matter what else you were trying to express, it always kind of had to come from a foundation of absolute power and strength and solidity and gravitas.
CS: When did you realize this movie would be incredible?
Butler: When I saw it. No, I almost want to say that I had a kind of psychic feeling about it. Before I even knew what it was about, when Greg Silverman at Warner Brothers said, “Have you heard about this movie ’300′?” I don’t know what it is, but just the title “300″ was so simple and strong, it’s like a strong guy with a shaved head. This is it. Here I am. I’m not hiding behind everything. That was the one advantage of The Phantom by the way. You can also hide behind that mask. But I kind of knew that there was just something really cool about this. Then of course they explained the story and I was like, “Wow.” As you know, it’s my kind of story but also it felt like a story with a twist, the way our heroes perform, their morality, their methods, between each other and against the enemy. Then I took a look at the graphic novel and saw the three minute piece that they did and I thought, “Oh my God, this is insane. If this could be even 1/10th of what I saw in that piece, in that test, with the story that already exists here, then we are onto something really cool.” They had a hard time greenlighting it and sometimes that’s a good thing because you know that it means what you’re not making is something mainstream. You’re making a vision and that vision often really has to be impressed upon people and people have to be turned in and clicked into what that vision is. Which was another great thing about the film is I feel like Warner Brothers just kind of said, “Alright, listen. Zach, you obviously get this. There’s a lot of stuff we don’t really get what you’re trying to do but we trust that we have something here, so just go off and do it.” In that respect, it often felt like an independent film. We were just doing our own thing. Zach and I, I was amazed at some of the changes, big changes that we came up with just through a conversation on set. We’re about to go and it’s like, “Well, why don’t we cut all that? Or why don’t I just not say that? David narrates that, it’s probably going to be more powerful.” That just went to the studio and that’s what happened.
CS: How much training did you have?
Butler: I trained for about seven months pretty solidly. I was doing six hours a day. I took the film trainer but I also kept my own trainer. It was kind of a political decision. They didn’t really want me having my own trainer but I knew I had to increase bulk as well, for me, just for me. So I did that and I also trained with the stunt guys two hours a day, here in the valley, 120 degrees outside, it was so hot. And then I did the same in Montreal. So I took my own trainer outside the film. But it was great. He just became my little buddy and he was so passionate about my training. I also trained with my stunt double. I mean, its boring. I trained with everybody I could and I kept it up and I pumped in between all the shots as well just to really feel that intensity. So I did a lot.
CS: How much was you and your stunt double, like the scene where you take out 20 guys?
Butler: All me. Never, he didn’t film any of that.
CS: Was it one shot?
Butler: One shot, yeah. But you know what? We took a whole day filming that. Maybe there’s a break halfway through it but we would do it the whole way through. Literally, that is me. In fact, that’s why my stunt guy said because they did “The Matrix” and “Bourne Identity” and I really clung onto this fact because they said nobody in any of those films had to do a piece this long, uncut, with this many moves. So that took a lot of training and I almost didn’t do it. At the last second, Zack took half a day just to set up this special rig and he said, “I think we’re going to have your stunt guy do it.” And I died because I knew I was ready. He hadn’t seen me do it but then he said, “Well, go ahead, just rehearse it a little bit.” And then I ended up doing it and it was such a blast. Then there was a problem with the rig. It came out of focus. There was some problem with the mirror. It was a new rig that had never been used before, three cameras, so we ended up having to shoot the whole f**king thing again and that was depressing, but it actually came out even better.
CS: How carefully was it choreographed?
Butler: Oh, very, I mean, very carefully. I must have done that about 500 times training. And yet, still mistakes would happen every time and to be honest, that’s actually what makes it what it is. At a point, you go, “Well, you know what? If this was to look so smooth and perfect, it kind of takes away something from it.” The first day I did it, there was something amazing about that. It was full of mistakes but it was so raw and hyped and the mistakes actually made it look even better. Things that went wrong, you’d go, “Oh, how cool does that look that I hit him in the balls instead of the stomach?” Honestly, sometimes, I hate to say it, but when you pick up an injury, that’s the stuff that looks really good.
CS: And it’s all a long stretch of blue screen?
Butler: Yeah, the whole studio was wrapped in blue screen so in actual fact, the blue screen doesn’t become that much of an issue. It’s not like you’re constantly waiting for stuff to be moved and lasers to be pointed. You’re just filming on blue screen so you just film away like you would.
CS: Any costume difficulties?
Butler: A lot of chafing in the groin area. The weird thing is, the cape, I don’t want to sound like a pu**y because I trained really hard, but the cape, everything. It’s like if you were to, say, hold up that tape recorder, that’s fine. But if you’re to say hold that up for 16 hours, it gets pretty hard. And the cape is actually very heavy. When you first put it on, you don’t think about it but you naturally have to tense your shoulders to wear it. By the end of the day, you’d be just trying to lift it up just to get some relief for your neck. I had knots in my neck for months, down my left side because this is where the heavy part was. And doing the fight sequences, the cape would twirl and you’ve got 50 guys running towards you, and you go to stab them and sword literally is like this [stuck]. And you know that it’s 45 minutes to set up a shot again if that doesn’t happen. And yet, there’s a guy coming at you with a spear that if you don’t do that and he f**ks up, then you have a spear in your belly. A lot of the times, the sword would stick on the cape because this cape will just fly all over the place so you’re trying to literally be like, “Okay, spear, spear, spear, duck.” We fought twice the speed in this film. Normally, in a film you would do your bang, defense, bang, defense. This was bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. One, two, three different guys. It was kind of crazy.
CS: What are you working on now?
Butler: This. Actually, nothing at the moment. There’s a few things we’re talking about but I haven’t… there’s nothing I know I’m doing for definite.
CS: “P.S., I Love You” is finished?
Butler: Finished, done, I’m really excited about it. I think it’s going to be lovely.
300 opens in conventional theaters and IMAX on March 9.