One morning recently, Gerard Butler walked into his hotel room, flicked on the news from North Korea, and for a moment felt like he was back on the set of his latest film. "It's almost like we had a crystal ball," says the 43-year-old native Scotsman, relaxing in a motorcycle jacket and jeans in London's Soho Hotel. "The headline was something like, 'Obama assures South Koreans that the US will back them up.' That's the opening scene for the movie! We used Angela Basset as the head of the Secret Service; last month they appointed a female head of the Secret Service. I'm just wondering what's next… Let's hope that's it!"
Directed by Training Day's Anton Fuqua, Olympus Has Fallen is the first of two big-budget assaults on the White House this year (the second, White House Down, is out in September). It's a return to the action-packed roles that Butler has forged a career around - the likes of 300, Law Abiding Citizen and Machine Gun Preacher. And, inevitable Hollywood touches aside, it feels remarkably close to reality. With the film landing in cinemas this week, we sat down with him to talk international politics, red carpet fittings and what he learned from the secret service…
GQ: This film feels remarkably prescient. Have you been following the news out of North Korea?
Gerard Butler: It's one of those things. It's always more interesting to make a movie about what is relevant in your society. What's the political global backdrop? What are our threats? What are we vulnerable to? Because that's what an audience vibes on - that is what people are interested in, universally. For many years it was the US against the USSR, then they became buddies and they stopped making movies about that. In fact, I have a great script right now which is still about that. It's one of the best scripts I've ever read, but just because it's about Russia and the US we're thinking, how do you change it to update it and make it relevant? Hence movies about terrorism, or about rogue states. But we were very careful to make it not necessarily about North Korea, but a very focused radical organisation with their own complex motivations. In the movie we present North Korea as it is: it's a dangerous opponent, and it is aggressive, but it doesn't instigate this attack.
What was the most surprising thing you've learned while working with the secret service?
Well, there was stuff that was surprising in terms of the layout and defence systems and then there was stuff that was useful in terms of how to play the character. When we first got the script, it was always a great idea - that's what attracted me to it, this ballsy concept - but what we didn't really have was grounded, realistic ideas of what would go on in terms of defence and attack of the White House. Terrorism, counter-terrorism - what it might look like in reality, not some cheesy Eighties idea of reality. (Laughs) We had them pulling out shurikens and throwing them across the room, and the plane came in with this pulse thing that would send out a pulse that blinded people. Although, interestingly enough, apparently the US now have this device that can send out a pulse that will fry everything over the space of a couple of miles. So maybe they weren't being ridiculous! But we said "let's ground it in something more simple". 9/11 was basically caused by box cutters and that changed the world. Suddenly you find it's an attack that in the context of the movie makes absolute sense and is completely plausible.
We also wanted to tie down the things that you would do in a real attack. I would speak to the secret service guys and say: when I first establish contact with the outside, what am I doing? So I'm checking air vents, deleting information, making sure I find somebody on the other side to communicate with, finding out who is in charge on their side, what do the enemy want, what are their capabilities?
You're also a producer on this film. What's the best advice you've received about the business side of making films?
Well, producing a movie gives you the opportunity to be more at the centre of everything, in terms of the material - developing the material, turning it into the movie you want rather than playing the role and seeing them take it in a different direction. You get to choose the director - I brought Anton [Fuqua] on board for this - you're involved in the casting, even the marketing. So it's a fascinating process which you're always learning. But my advice is to produce something that is meaningful to you and that you care about, because when you have that it's far more easy for you to dive into. A more technical tip would be if at all possible, stay owning the material because then if it does well you're on a goldmine, but it means that you have to put in much more of an initial investment. Normally to get a movie you have to sell all your rights foreign, then you're only partaking in anything domestic.
You've got some brutal fight scenes in this film. How did your training compare to the likes of 300?
In some ways it's the same; you dive in, you say "OK, what's going to be a selling point, what is going to make this movie stand out?" Do you want a typical fight sequences or do you want to make something memorable? The character being ex-Special Service and Secret Service meant he'd be adept in many different martial arts and also be able to improvise - so you might have to use a bust of Abraham Lincoln to smash a guy's head in [laughs]. I trained with two Navy Seals. I would also train with the Korean stunt guys, who are amazing martial artists. Then you would start to choreograph; how to do hand-to-hand combat and make it bad-ass. But remembering that they are bad-ass too. We want to show them being as formidable as I am; it's one guy against 40 very serious and very well trained commandos. Then you go from there. We also wanted to make the kills formidable.
What's your favourite piece of clothing in your wardrobe?
This is probably my favourite jacket. Can I tell you something? I just got this today! I came in and there were five jackets lying on my bed from the same company. It looks like Belstaff but it's not, it's… [Butler takes off the jacket and looks at the label] Matchless. It's awesome. I literally put it on, and went "oh my god, this is my new favourite look." But I do like that style… a motorcycle jacket that is not quite a motorcycle jacket. It is that Belstaff feel. I love Rogue as well. I think Rogue do some really cool, masculine, interesting stuff.
You brush up well on the red carpet, too. Where do you go for suits?
On the red carpet it's a completely different thing, you have to wear suits. I wear a lot of Brioni, and Ferragamo, and Dolce, all of those kind of things. I've got to tell you, this trip I've got a little more organised. What's crazy is before I go on a trip I know how many premieres I'm doing, how many photoshoots - so I will literally do four-hour fittings, where they'll say "OK, this is for the London premiere, this is for the Italian premiere, this is for this charity event." It normally comes at the end of a day when I've been doing press and running around town. You get home at 7 o'clock, and then by 11 o'clock you're like "if I have to try on another f***ing suit, or get pinned for another shirt, I swear to God I'm going to kill somebody."
Funny story actually: I was about to do a fitting one morning recently - the appointment had to be made at 8 in the morning because the rest of the day was crazy. Especially because I produced this movie, and I have to do a lot of marketing meetings and other stuff you don't normally have to get involved with. So this hairdresser comes round to my house, and he's cutting my hair and talking about the movie. I was still half asleep, when he said, "It's so crazy what is going on right now in North Korea. And now the Chinese are pointing their nuclear missiles at America." And I went (sits up sharply) "What?!" Now, in this moment, I'm half asleep hearing this and it's my reality. I said, "What, the Chinese?!" Then he goes, "Oh, sorry, the North Koreans." For about 30 seconds I literally thought, "oh s***, we're moving into a world war! This is real!"
Olympus Has Fallen is in cinemas now.