Wanna be Spartan something? Interview
Category: Interviews | Posted by: maryp
Article Date: March 21, 2007 | Publication: Birmingham Post | Author: Alison Jones
Publication/Article Link:Birmingham Post
Star of the new blockbuster 300 Gerard Butler talks to Alison Jones
(link to audio at bottom of article)
"I’d order a coffee in Starbucks and go ‘hey, look at my abs’ because I figured I was never going to have them again so I might as well show them off while they existed."
Sadly, Gerard Butler’s ripped torso is but a distant memory, diminished by a combination of lethargy and fondness for frothy coffee and sugar-loaded sodas.
But not before they were immortalised on screen in 300, the graphic – in every sense – retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, in which 300 Spartans held a numerically superior army of invading Persians at bay for several days before being overwhelmed.
Inspired by the work of graphic novelist Frank Miller and directed by Zack Snyder, who made zombie blood-fest Dawn of the Dead, 300 took $70 million in its first weekend in the States – $5 million more than it cost to film – making it the largest March opening in history.
It should make a star out of its lead, who previously starred as the Phantom of the Opera in the indifferently received movie of the Lloyd Webber musical and the bittersweet Scottish drama Dear Frankie.
In order to achieve 300’s highly stylised look, much of the action is filmed against bluescreen with the bloodsoaked battlefields added later through CGI.
However, what is not faked is the physiques of the actors as they moulded themselves into the most elite fighting force in the ancient world. Spartans were bred for battle, the weak and the disabled were ruthlessly weeded out from birth.
Babies that didn’t measure up were left to die on the slopes of Mt Taygetos.
Playing the Spartan King Leonidas, Butler felt he should lead by example by packing on as much muscle as a young Schwarzenegger.
"I didn’t just train with the cast I trained on my own as well and I always had someone by me to pump on set. I kept that up for months and months. It was a way to get into my mind that I deserved to lead and to feel it was in their minds too, that I was an actor who’d impressed them by the work I was willing to do."
At first Snyder visualised his crack fighters as being lean and lithe but Butler, perhaps mindful of the fact that he would spend most of his time in little more than a cod-piece and helmet, had other ideas.
"I knew I had to wear this big beard and this big helmet and I didn’t want to be this big head on this skinny body. You see so many movies like this where this English actor comes out with his twiggy arms and this very cerebral, academic English voice, shouting at these armies. I never bought that for a second.
"I was aiming for the stars. I wanted to look super-human, like nobody else had ever looked before. I tried to make it as extreme as possible, just like a Spartan."
An inclination to indulge his sweet tooth held back his progress for a while – until the exercise endorphins and his own competitive nature kicked in.
Butler enjoys a challenge, such as learning to sing for Phantom and seeing how far he could physically push himself in his training for this.
"For the first month of training I’d still find myself in Starbucks going ‘can I have a piece of lemon loaf’ or ‘give me a muffin’.
"We were on a ridiculous diet. At lunchtimes we could have a piece of chicken and four pistachio nuts or something. But if you stuck at it you could really see results."
With almost every free moment devoted to training or working out with the stunt men, coupled with a high protein, low fat diet, Butler looks so buff on screen that audiences have suggested it wasn’t just the scenery that was computer enhanced.
"I was a bit annoyed when people suggested I was wearing a body suit, when I thought of all the work involved. Then I’d look down at me and think ‘this doesn’t look real’."
His pursuit of perfection went beyond simple narcissism and helped him to tap into his character’s psyche.
"When you are training on that level it pumps you up with a lot of testosterone. I was so into it it was slightly insane. But when I was standing there in costume, having just pumped, I would feel like an animal, ready to take on a million people.
"I don’t know whether I could have fought my way out of a paper bag but I felt like I could take on an army."
However, because they were filming in Montreal, in the appropriately named Icestorm Studios, where temperatures outside plunged to minus five, there was no opportunity for flaunting the six pack at pool parties. Which is why Butler found himself flashing unsuspecting baristas in the local coffee shop.
"Girls say ‘oh I don’t like muscles’ but when you have them you sense more of an attraction the more ripped you become. It is very sad because I am not at all ripped now’," admits Butler, who at 37, is still single.
"I went through a lot of pain because I stopped training immediately after this ended and I literally spent the next six months on a massage table."
The phenomenal reception the film has received should be more than enough compensation for his suffering, particularly as 300 has defied some harsh criticism which has seen it accused of political insensitivity in its depiction of a battle between East and West.
The Spartans emphasis on creating a militaristic master race has also drawn comparisons with Hitler’s ambitions to accomplish something similar. Butler, who trained as a lawyer before turning to acting, parting company with the law firm he was working for a week before he was qualified to practice, is adept at side-stepping the debate.
"The most ridiculous thing I’ve heard is that we’ve been accused of using the word Persian too many times. I said: ‘We are fighting the Persians. What are we supposed to call them? Bananas?’.
"No matter what story you are telling there will always be some group... digging. I think if attention was paid in every film to to those concerns no films of any interest would be made. Nothing ground breaking or edgy or brave.
"I think this is far more forceful in terms of what it means to you as a person. Xerxes (the Persian aggressor) could be a representation of the greedy, ego side and Leonidas the pure, purposeful part.
"That’s what inspired me and that is what I get from it, the romantic element. Those mythical qualities of love and faith and courage and sacrifice are what blow my skirt up on a spiritual and emotional level."
After the war-mongering excesses of 300, Butler's future projects include the low key heart-wringer PS I Love You in which he plays Hilary Swank's late husband who leaves behind a series of letters to help her cope with his loss, and the kidnapping thriller Butterfly on a Wheel, co-starring Pierce Brosnan.
As well as demonstrating his range, they should allow the charismatic Butler to finally deliver on the potential to be a star that he has exhibited since his movie debut in Mrs Brown.
As he edges towards his forties he recognises that fame has come a little later for him than most leading men, but he says he does not begrudge the years he gave up to the law.
''I said at 15 I wanted to be an actor and everybody said 'That's great, now let's talk seriously'. I could get that.
"There were probably three working actors in the whole of Scotland in 1985/6.
''So I went into law. Then I thought I could do my diploma, then I thought I should at least do my traineeship and the next thing you know seven years have gone past and you are facing up to reality of winding up 65 and retired having lived a career I didn't want. It just didn't sit right with me.
''I love where I am. I feel I am exactly where I should be and if tomorrow my career should fall apart that is exactly what should happen.''
Link to Audio: Gerard
Butler tell how he
built up his physique