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Immortal Combat

Category: Interviews
Article Date: March 10, 2007 | Publication: Times Online | Author: Unknown
Source: TimesOnline

Posted by: maryp


Gerard Butler is leading Spartan forces out of a graphic novel and on to the big screen in 300. Will Lawrence met him


"I’m sorry, what was that? I’m afraid I was looking at the cleaner’s arse in that window over there.” He gesticulates with the cigarette dangling from his right hand. “It’s quite big. The window, I mean, not the arse!”

Sitting by a fountain in the sun-drenched courtyard of a Los Angeles hotel, the actor Gerard Butler is in an ebullient mood. His latest movie, the lavish swords-and-sandals swashbuckler 300, is about to hit cinemas, and Butler is as animated today as he is on screen. “I’m always saying stupid things in interviews,” he continues, taking another drag on his Marlboro, our eyes wandering back to the window. “I actually get in trouble a lot by saying these jokey things, journalists printing them, and then people think I’m really arrogant. I’m not, really.” He stops and smiles. “I guess I’m just enthusiastic !”

This 37-year-old Scotsman has every reason to be. The stunning visuals of his latest film, an adaptation of a graphic novel by the Sin City creator Frank Miller, have had the internet buzzing for months. The film recounts Miller’s interpretation of the battle of Thermopylae in 480BC, in which King Leonidas (Butler) and 300 of his Spartan warriors defended Greece against the Persian hordes under Xerxes.

Miller’s novel was inspired by the 1962 film The 300 Spartans, and like its predecessor, 300 is a live action spectacular. In the new version, however, the actors played out their scenes against a “green-screen” background. On to this the director Zack Snyder and his team superimposed sprawling, digital landscapes that look like panels lifted from the pages of the graphic novel. The overall effect is even richer and more vibrant than in the recent Frank Miller adaptation Sin City, and as Butler and his phalanx of Spartans move through this gold and crimson world, it seems as though they are gliding across an oil painting, their swishing swords adding splashes of red to the palette.

“It is an incredible world to inhabit,” says Butler, “and I love that about it. This is an incredible story, almost incomprehensible. These men are real heroes, who act like you want heroes to act, without the moral conundrums. They just get on in there and do it, almost like Dirty Harry does. When you think of what Leonidas did, who would we have that could do that today? Who’d stand up like that?”

Leonidas and his troops certainly stand up in this movie, forging themselves as archetypal heroes from a time before Judeo-Christian thought, in which honour and heroic sacrifice were deemed to be the pinnacles of human existence. Unlike the block-buster films Troy and Alexander, which many feel botched the revival of the classical epic, 300 is a simple and courageous tale, simmering with rage and stitched together by a string of dazzling battle sequences. It will most likely prove a breakthrough role for Butler, whose sincerity, deep voice and, to be frank, astonishing muscle definition (he’s the one snarling on the previous page) will establish him as an Alist leading man.

“It’s funny,” says Butler, rubbing at his stubble, “but I always seem to attract more attention when playing this kind of role. People often forget that I’ve done other things, such as Dear Frankie, The Jury, The Miracle Match. It’s just that these epic characters are more memorable, I guess.”

Butler’s roster of epic characters thus far includes the marauding Hun chieftain Attila; Beowulf, the sword-swinging hero of Anglo-Saxon myth; and the Phantom, the lonely spectre that haunts the big-screen version of Lloyd Webber’s musical. Attila, which was shown on American television in 2001, attracted the second-highest ratings recorded by a TV movie at that time, and helped to establish Butler’s reputation in Hollywood.

“I’m very grateful for these parts,” he says, “even though these kinds of roles are not really where my keenest interest lies. I said before 300 that I was going to take a break from this stuff for a while, but how could I resist this script?” He didn’t, and even though playing the warrior hero is not what excites him most, these are the sort of roles with which Butler does seem to have a natural affinity.

“From the first day I took on the role of Attila I was surprised at how easily I could connect with those kinds of öber values, of strength, honour and courage and heroic sacrifice.

It was the same when I was playing the Phantom. I knew that I was tapping into something so deep; and Beowulf and Grendel was deeply spiritual, weird and profound.

“It’s something that I always seemed to understand, not overplay, and tap into. But I never really knew why. I’ve learnt recently that these types of characters are archetypes. I’m really into that kind of mythology right now and I have been reading some Robert A. Johnson and Carl Jung.”

Mythology and archetypes do not feature in many actors’ conversation, and Johnson and Jung are absent from most of their reading lists, but beneath Butler’s light, bustling and bantering exterior, he is a contemplative soul.

He was born in Paisley, Glasgow, and was raised along with his brother and sister by his mother — his parents had divorced when he was young. Butler had no contact with his father until he was 16 years old, although the two became close friends

until the latter died when Butler was 22. Butler describes his twenties as “crazy times”. After graduating from university he began training to become a solicitor, although he says he had no real interest in the subject and spent much of his free time living the life of a free-spirited yet emotionally muddled young man.

“They were crazy times. There was a lot of drinking — I think that it was fuelled partly by fun and having a laugh, but also because of the pain I was going through at the time. Looking back, it wasn’t that healthy, but it has toughened me up.” Taking on the challenge of giving up booze — he hasn’t touched a drop for more than nine years — paid dividends for Butler as he began enjoying his first successes as a screen actor.

“I’m past all that now, I have no connection with drink at all,” he continues. “We face challenges every day. And that’s one of the things that I like about 300; it’s a representation of what we face in our own lives, what we find overwhelming, those challenges, the times when we have to question our own integrity. I have an addictive personality.” This trait might prove a challenge in his personal life, but it has had a positive effect on his work. Butler had to train solidly for months to build the rippling physique that Leonidas possesses on screen, and, he notes, the exertion becomes compulsive.

“A lot of the stunt guys are addicted to training, and that infects you. I had quit smoking at that point and this became the perfect addiction, because there’s a certain stamina — some muscle in your mind about endurance — that gets bigger and stronger. And with that comes the development of the character: the discipline, focus, and confidence in your strength. I was training with my own trainer for a couple of hours a day in Los Angeles, and then I would train with the film trainer for a couple of hours a day, and then I would go off into the Valley and train with the stunt guys. Then when we went to shoot in Montreal I took on another trainer — for my own time and dime.”

Given the very physical nature of his bludgeoning performance in 300, it’s no surprise that he says he is exhausted now. His immediate plans are “to sleep a lot”, to avoid any work on strenuous action flicks, and to finish work on his New York apartment. Butler divides his time between America and Scotland and he feels that settling in New York will allow him to travel easily between Scotland and LA.

“Right now I’m just going to relax, and carry on working on my plan to take over the world,” he says with a broad smile. “I’ll build my space station, that kind of thing.” While revamping his pad and building that space station, he will also have to live with his growing reputation as a Hollywood heartthrob. With 300’s displays of rippling muscle and rather camp overtones, Butler is attracting legions of fans, of both genders. “Being seen as a heartthrob is quite funny; although it is a compliment of course. I’d rather that than have people saying, ‘That Gerry Butler is an ugly f****r!’ ” He laughs. “And then I can just get back to looking in the mirror!”

300 is out on March 23. A special IMAX version is also being released

LIFE IN A SPARTAN REGIME

The city states thrived in Greece in 700-350BC, with Sparta in the south the most feared. It was a military state, in which every grown male was a soldier, and forbidden another profession. Each Spartan was granted a farm, run by slaves, which provided his subsistence.

The Spartan soldier’s rigorous training began in the womb. A pregnant Spartan woman had to perform strenuous exercises to ensure her child was strong. Weak babies were killed.

At the age of 7, boys were taken from their mothers and raised in harsh communal surroundings until the age of 20, when they became full warriors.

The army was organised by age groups and all men lived and ate in barracks, even after they were married.

In the 8th century BC, Sparta gradually conquered her neighbours and most of the vanquished were taken as slaves.

Bravery was the greatest virtue for every Spartan, cowardice the greatest failing. A Spartan soldier was to return from combat either carrying his shield or lying slain upon it.

The Spartan army, as well as being the only trained, professional force in Greece, employed sophisticated tactics. Men were trained to fight in a phalanx, using a tightly packed grid of overlapping shields to form an impenetrable, mobile unit.

The Spartans’ most famous battles were fought during the two Persian Wars, first at Marathon in 490BC, then at Thermopylae and Platea a decade later, and during the Peloponnesian war, against their rivals, the Athenians in 431BC.

Even though the “father of history” Herodotus estimates that Xerxes brought a million men to fight the Spartans at Thermopylae — a figure that 300 indulges — modern historians estimate his army at 100,000.

The best line from the book and film — Persian soldier: “One hundred nations descend upon you! Our arrows will blot out the sun!” Spartan soldier: “Then we’ll fight in the shade” — is lifted from Herodotus.

Sparta eventually crumbled in 362BC, when its army was defeated by the Thebans at the great battle of Mantinea.

 


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