SOFIA, BULGARIA. I’ve learned few things from my years of movie and TV set visits, but one thing I know for certain: Never dine at an all-you-can-eat buffet with the Greek army.
It’s early September 2012 at the Nu Boyana film studio on the outskirts of Sofia, Bulgaria and the Greek army is massing upon a repast of stewed steak, heavily sauced meatballs and unadorned, flaky white fish.
There are also potatoes, rolls and platters of deserts, but looking at the soldiers flanking me on all sides, I have my doubts that any carbohydrates are being consumed in the meal room for “300: Rise of an Empire.”
Craft service tends to be the great equalizer on a movie set, bringing together the burly Teamsters, wiry technicians and all but the highest echelon of stars, but on the “300: Rise of an Empire” set, there are some people out to make a point and that point involves more sit-ups and push-ups than I can wrap my mind around.
Apparently there was a very recent truce called on the set, because buff Greeks and buff Persians are dining side-by-side. All are covered with dirt and dramatically oozing wounds and many have backs marked with loud red whip-lashes. Humility plays no role in this feast, as the warriors chow down in outfits that would make an Olympic diver blush. Oddly, there’s a gender divide when it comes to modesty as a stunning woman at the soda station fills her cup dressed in a small, tightly cinched bathrobe.
Look, I’d love nothing more than to talk about the set of “300: Rise of an Empire” without concentrating on beef and the beefcake, but it’s hard to avoid. The sequel to Zack Snyder’s 2006 smash is taking up 6 stages at Nu Bayona — it previously simulated Los Angeles for “Black Dahlia,” all manner of locations for “Expendables 2” and wherever-the-heck “Conan the Barbarian” was set — and each set has become a loitering spot for battle-scarred male models, who barely bat an eye as an armor-clad horse is wheeled by.
And it’s hard to avoid discussing the fact that, like the first movie, “Rise of an Empire” could double as a recruitment video for the world’s most exclusive gym.
“It’s kinda weird,” admits star Sullivan Stapleton. “I think the first day they give it to you, you’re on your own in a wardrobe and then once you see all the boys runnings around in leather codpieces, you get used to it.”
Asked if this is the best shape he’s ever been in, Stapleton laughs. And laughs.
“Yes,” the “Strike Back” star chuckles. “Yes. Yes. Uh… Yeah.”
Stapleton is playing Athenian politician and general Themistocles in “Rise of an Empire,” which focuses on the naval battle of Artemisium, which happened at roughly the same time as the events of “300.” As he sits down with a group of reporters, he’s in “general” mode, wearing little more than a codpiece that he’s more than happy to show off for the press. After all, he’s put a lot of work into this.
“Every minute of every day,” he laughs. “It’s full-on. We’re on a diet. I”m especially on a diet. I”m not of the skinny variety of men. I probably sit 10, 12 kilos heavier than this, and I always said, ‘That’s just genetics. Just some blokes can’t get six-packs.’ That’s bulls***. We can all get six-packs. It’s diet and training which, unfortunately, comes at lunchtime or before work, sometimes after work and most of the time on-set. You’re just constantly training, push-ups, sit-ups, whatever.”
Sullivan, a fun-loving Australian, knows that “Rise of an Empire” is a big chance for him to boost his film career, with the first movie opening more than a few Hollywood doors. For this role, though, that means making some sacrifices.
“It sorta sucks, because I heard the last film, a few of the boys got up to a lot of mischief, but I can’t. It’s just too much,” he says. “If Themistocles didn’t speak as much as he did, I probably would, but I have to talk as well as fight. The fighting, you can fight hung over. You can’t talk hungover. Talking’s harder.”
It sounds like this is a real issue for Stapleton and one of the points-of-pride for producers regarding the script, which Snyder wrote with Kurt Johnstad. While Noam Murro’s “Rise of an Empire” will have ample action the talk on the set is about… well… the talk.
“At the moment, I”ve probably got more muscles than brains, but that”ll change,” Sullivan laughs. “I didn”t realize what I was signing up to. I actually thought it was going to be… Um, the first ‘300’ was lots of killing and swords and lots of fun. Themistocles talks a lot. He”s got a lot of things to say. I didn”t realize that. Not only has it been hard training and keeping in shape, but he”s a brilliant tactician and basically has to unite all of Greece. He was quite the politician. Unfortunately, they talk.”
The talk, of course, produces its own challenges for Stapleton, who speaks with a thick Australian accent in real life and plays an American on his Cinemax action-drama. Asked about his “Rise of an Empire” accent, Stapleton doesn’t hesitate to reference another Aussie sword-and-sandals legend.
“It’s just Russell Crowe out of ‘Gladiator,'” he cracks. “I think it”s supposed to be British. We’ll see. Yeah, I spend lots of time doing American, and it”s kind of that funny thing to just change. Also, doing ADR for that show whilst I’m here, that’s like going back and forward in-between British and American. And there’s a few Aussies on this, so it’s actually been kinda nice to hear my own accent and be able to speak in my own accent at the same f***ing speed, mate, and talk all that s*** and everyone knows that I’m saying.”
[More “300: Rise of an Empire” coverage and quotes, including Eva Green, on Page 2…]
When “300: Rise of an Empire” was still in pre-production, many names were tossed out as potential leads, but producers liked the idea of again using the franchise as a star-making vehicle.
“We had other people who wanted to be in the movie. A few people. Also a few big names. But we wanted to keep the same game that we used with the first movie,” says producer Gianni Nunnari. “We didn’t want to go with the big names. I think that we did meet with Sullivan before for another couple of movies and Warner Brothers, I think was very, very happy for a small role that Sully has in ‘Gangster Squad.’ We also heard that he was having a great situation in Australia with another movie. So there is the usual way that we do. We talked around. and he came, he tested fantastic. He was the perfect Themistocles and we went with him.”
Stapleton is talking to us in a specially arranged prop room, featuring many of the movie’s costumes and weapons and he’s so interested in the materials that he returns a bit later to pick over the weapons and kibitz on our conversation with Noam Murro, a man he jokingly calls “a taskmaster” and who, in turn, called Stapleton “f***ing awesome.”
“We’ve developed a good relationship,” Stapleton says. “He”s got a vision and maybe sometimes he doesn”t have that vision and we just explore it together and then come up with something. It”s kind of nice when he”s right and we have fun. He knows what he wants, but sometimes it takes us a while to find that. But it”s through rehearsal and trying different things and then we can deduct those from that and save what works, we’ll hopefully have an idea what works.”
The vision challenge, of course, is the heavy concentration on green screen that carries over from Snyder’s film.
“It takes a bit of getting used to,” Sullivan confesses. “Some days it can be fun. You literally do go back to childhood. We”ve got swords, and we”re on a ship and they put us on gimbals, which is good, so it sorta feels like you’re on the ocean. And then they chuck up a wind machine and tell you that there’s an armada of Persians out there and you’ve really got to imagine this stuff and that’s where it gets kinda funny. That’s where it’s like, ‘Wow. I am thirty-five years ol, and I”m standing in a pair of leather undies and my skirt”s blowing in the wind and I”ve got to pretend we”re going to die.’ It gets kind of weird, and you”ve got to take it seriously. Literally, I ask those questions and hope I portray it well, because sometimes you see some films and just go, ‘Yeah. That wasn’t so good.’ We’ll see how this goes.”
That same day, in a different part of the set, we catch up with Stapleton’s “300: Rise of an Empire” co-star Eva Green. While Stapleton was able to relax, joke and showcase his codpiece when he talked to the press, Green has to break from several hours of shooting in one of the many green screen stages. And unlike Stapleton, Green’s Artemisia entirely covered.
“I feel very strong. [Costume designer] Alex Byrne is just really great and we kinda work together to make me feel comfortable,” Green says. “She’s the only woman in this crazy man’s world. I hope I will be believable with all these men around.”
Of the set’s male-heavy atmosphere, Green laughs.
“Lots of testosterone. Lots of naked men, actually. And I’m fully dressed, so that’s quite cool,” she says.
She isn’t quite one of the guys, but Artemisia brings plenty of strength of her own. The real woman was queen of the Persian province of Caria and joined with Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, returning from the first film) in the Greco-Persian wars. That relationship has, not surprisingly, been embellished in “Rise of an Empire,” but Green is pleased with her character’s strength.
“My character is so ballsy,” she gushes. “She’s not like a girl in a film, a girlfriend or a love interest. She has some guts. She’s driven by revenge. She’s a very complex character, very exciting. It’s always been kind of a fantasy for me to play an action hero. I’ve never done that, so I had to train with swords. I love all of the Ang Lee films, the Zhang Yimou films, so it was kinda girl’s dream, you know.”
Born in Paris, but trained England and also at NYU, Green has rarely struggled to find strong roles to play, whether in “Kingdom of Heaven” or “Casino Royal” or “The Golden Compass.” Perhaps that’s why the producers claim the casting list for Artemisia was “Eva Green” and nothing else.
“It’s funny because that role, she was the only person that we thought could do it,” Bernie Goldmann says. “We just couldn’t think of anybody else that was really Artemisia and we offered her the role and luckily she said ‘Yes,’ because frankly there was no number two. It was her or kinda bust.”
And now, even in the midst of the chaos of shooting, Green is enjoying her character.
“She’s very bright, very manipulative and there’s also kind of a very interesting relationship with the lead, Themistocles,” she teases. “Yeah. There are many layers and you never know what’s in the back of her mind. She’s a baddie, but she’s a cool baddie, let’s say. She’s human too, so that’s important.”
And Stapleton is enjoying his character as well.
“His greatest strength is his love of Greece, I suppose, and compassion for his country and the survival of his country,” His weakness is probably his arrogance and the sort of blinkers that he’s got. He takes risks. I don’t know whether I can say whether he pulls it off or not. No, I can’t say that. You’ll have to watch the movie.”
“300: Rise of an Empire” opens on March 7.