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Pulling No Punches: 300

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Trailer for "300"

Less than 12 hours after spending an evening watching Gerard Butler, as the Spartan king Leonides, hack, dismember and otherwise dispatch a few thousand Persian warriors, I’m sitting at a table with him at a Los Angeles hotel posing a poorly phrased question. It has to do with the cliché about stage-trained actors being told by film directors to “bring it down” for the camera. Giving the outsized nature of Butler’s performance in the smash hit 300, I venture a guess that this was something he never heard from the film’s director, Zack Snyder.

The 6’2” Scottish actor looks down for a moment before replying, in a burr closer to Groundskeeper Willie than Sean Connery, “I can’t help think there’s a criticism underlying that.” His voice rises as he looks me in the eye and demands, “Are you saying I didn’t do enough? Come on, out with it! What did I do wrong?”

It’s when he bursts into fake tears that I’m sure he’s kidding. You’ll understand my momentary trepidation if you’ve seen 300, as a lot of you obviously have: With a $71 million opening weekend, it broke all records for a film opening in the month of March. It’s a film that unapologetically plays to a market that likes things oversized, violent and unambiguous—and there’s no one in the film who embodies those traits more than Leonides, king of the warrior state Sparta.

Adapted from Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, 300 recreates the legendary battle in which Leonides and 300 elite troops went up against a massive army of Persian soldiers looking to take over Greece. Though the 300 inevitably perished, they provided both time and inspiration for the rest of the Greeks to band together and repel the onslaught.

Butler admits that the director “without a doubt always loved the upper, more powerful end of the performance. I very much trusted his taste in particular takes.” He recalls a scene of Leonides rousing his troops before battle, when they were experimenting with different ways to do it. “The final one I did was so big, everyone was thinking, This guy’s nuts, that was way too much. Even I felt it was way too much, and I said to Zach, ‘Okay, that was just ridiculous, right?’ And he goes, ‘No, dude, it was awesome!’ And that’s the scene they used in the trailer. I’ve heard some people say, ‘Is that all he does, just scream through the movie?’”

It’s a ferocious, uninhibited performance that should get Butler some overdue mainstream attention. He was a fledgling lawyer when he was spotted by theater director Steven Berkoff in a London coffee shop (shades of Lana Turner!) and cast in a production of Coriolanus. Once in the running to replace Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, Butler has done good work in little seen-films (Beowulf and Grendel, Dear Frankie) along with starring turns in larger films that didn’t fare so well (he had the title role in Joel Schumacher’s adaptation of Phantom of the Opera).

Recognizing a good part when he saw one, Butler told the producers of 300, “Give me this role and I’ll kill it. I am the guy for this role.

“These guys, they’re animals, and yet they’re very, very smart. Every single dimension of this film had a fresh and different feel and taste to it. And more than anything was the pure toughness and the masculinity of the piece, that’s what I really dug.

“I’ve played this kind of role before, and yet I knew that I’d never had a chance to play it on this kind of platform. It’s a unique film and this was a unique hero. I knew I could get across his strength and the power, almost like you’re sucking it in from everywhere around you. And I had that element of insanity which I bring with the Scots blood in me.”

Butler was even more entranced by the project when he learned how Snyder planned to film it, using state-of-the-art digital techniques to bring Miller’s highly stylized images to life. “I think I knew after meeting everybody and seeing the look of the film that if there was ever a film to put your whole heart and soul and physicality into, this was the one.”

Hard as it may be to believe for audiences who have seen the film but not Miller’s original graphic novel, the story was actually softened considerably.

“These guys are like animals,” Butler says. “Sometimes they almost feel like the villains, when they meet offers of peace with arrogance and laughter, the way they kill the peace emissaries, what they do with the bodies. It doesn’t seem to go along the normal Hollywood formula, [where] you wait while the hero sits there being a nice guy [up against the villain], and you’re like, ‘Kill the bastard! Get him now!’

“These guys, there’s no apology for who they are. Normally you feel that subconscious apology or excuse to the audience. None of that happens here. This is who we are, we’re never going to bend, we’re never going to become nice guys so you’ll like us more, but by the end of the film you will absolutely understand and be in awe of who we were and why we did what we did.

“And that’s the feeling I get that packs such a powerful emotional inspirational punch. It pulls you back into those feelings of mythology, those values that we probably wish we had, absolute belief and blind faith and commitment and truth.”