Interview: Gerard Butler Gets Shakespearean to Protect the White House

By  · Published on March 22nd, 2013

Gerard Butler has rocked out to Andrew Lloyd Weber jams in The Phantom of the Opera. He had movie audiences screaming “This is Sparta!” And he’s also played his fair share of romantic comedy leads. Though Butler tests his boundaries in his latest film Olympus Has Fallen, both producing the film and starring as Mike Banning, a former Secret Service Agent who pretty much single-handedly takes on a group of terrorists who have hijacked the White House.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), Olympus Has Fallen chronicles Mike’s journey as he makes the choice of saving the President of the United States (Aaron Eckhart) instead of the First Lady (Ashley Judd) when they get into a car crash one snowy evening. Six months later, Mike is no longer in the Secret Service, but he finds himself back in action when the White House is taken over, and he seems to be the only man to take care of business.

Butler sat down with us to chat about the extensive research that he put into the film, as well as whether or not he would try his hand at starring in another musical, and what it was like to tackle Shakespeare in Coriolanus.

So, I know you also produced Olympus Has Fallen. How did that come about?

The script came to me in the normal way and I was offered the role [of Mike] and was asked if I would produce it. I took a look at it and said, “I’ve never produced a movie of this size.” So it was new territory ‐ I love new territory in anything in my life, moving into another gear and challenging myself. And I immediately came across this story that was ballsy, audacious, and could create an atmosphere of such suspense and terror, and yet at its core be an inspiring, patriotic hero’s journey.

But it wasn’t there yet. The script was really nice, but I took it to Antoine [Fuqua], ’cause he’s my boy and he’s an incredible filmmaker. He could really give this the grittiness and realism that it needs, while being able to deliver on great performances, and great characters. Really, he’s very deep and artistic and substantive, so we took it and said, “Okay, how do we make this sing, how do we make it scare the beheeby Jesus out of everybody and have them on the edge of their seats?”

Did you do a lot of research with actual Secret Service Agents?

Yeah. Not just research on how to play the role, but research on how to make the script as interesting as possible. For me, my biggest issue was that I didn’t want the audience to have me in the White House and not know what I was doing. I didn’t want to just be standing around. I always had to be going somewhere, having an intimate knowledge of the White House, adhere to protocol, and reconnaissance or eradication… I always had to be moving with purpose, or the movie was going to die on its feet.

So, you spend time with advisors from the White House, Security Advisors, Secret Service agents, Special Forces, SWAT teams… you get their way of handling a gun, the kind of fighting they would use, and then also find out, what do you do? The first thing you do when you get into a house with forty-two terrorists and you don’t have a gun? [Laughs] What do you do, what do you say… do you hide? Do you check out the systems? How good are they? How do I establish a line of communication with my people? How do I start playing games with my opponents? When do I take them out and when do I let them live? All these questions that I think, when I watch a movie, that’s what I want to see.

The thing that Antoine and I both talked about was making these characters as human as possible. Realizing we all make mistakes. It’s easy to paint a badass guy, but we also see officials that live in that gray zone that we don’t know really what they do, but when we see them, we realize that they might be experts, but they’re just human.

We’re doing screenings right now, and I had one reviewer say, “I’ve only ever heard ‘edge of your seat’ described, I never knew what it meant. Now I do! I spent the whole time with my bum on the edge of the seat gripping the arms!” And that’s what I think you get out of this, because we made it as human and as real as possible.

I noticed also your character did a lot of stealth killing so no one knew he was coming. Like that attention to detail you were talking about…

Yeah, that’s not how it was written. There were a lot of gun fights, even in the beginning. And I was saying, “This is nuts, you think I’m going to be pulling that trigger, knowing after that, every single person is going to be coming my way?” There was a particular scene where I was about to use my gun, and then I put it away. I hope people get that ‐ that the longer I can go unnoticed, the more damage I can do before I can take the White House back. [Laughs]

There’s a Hollywood upswing of musicals right now, post-Les Misérables. Would you ever want to do another one after The Phantom of the Opera, and if so, what would your dream musical role be?

Oh my God. Um… I don’t know. Probably like Company or something like that. Or Into the Woods.

Having done Phantom, which I loved… in some ways it’s rock, but in other ways it’s a traditional musical… you know, maybe doing something that’s more contemporary or upbeat. Though you know, at one point, we were talking about developing The Music Man

Oh, that would make sense…

So, who knows. It would definitely have to be something out of the ordinary.

Beyond musicals, you’ve done a lot of diverse types of films in your career. What was it like tackling Shakespeare in Coriolanus?

You know, my first job as a professional actor was in “Coriolanus.” I was just in the ensemble and I was actually assisting the casting director, letting the actors in and ticking their names off. And I spoke to the director and said, “I want to be an actor. Can I read for you?” And I read, and I got the role… and it was my first job ever. The play represents one of the most exciting periods of my life, when I was Off-West End in London and it always remained very special.

So when Ralph Fiennes got in touch and said, “I want you to play opposite of me in Coriolanus,” you know, for one, I was jumping up and down, and two, I’m standing opposite Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox… the most incredible cast. And yet it’s not something I’m well-versed in and I love a challenge. How do you bring your talent, your rawness, and your own understanding and life into Shakespeare? And I loved it. I tell you, I loved the challenge of facing off against Ralph. I learned so much.

And now I actually love the idea of doing another Shakespeare play. Maybe, at some point, trying Macbeth, just going for it. “Unseemed from the knave to the neck.” Somebody mentioned that to be the other day, in terms of what do I feel in [Olympus Has Fallen], once it’s all set up. Once [the terrorists] have caused destruction they caused, what we wanted to set up was an audience begging for blood, and relying on Mike to be that guy, not just tactically, but there has to be that extra bit of hatred that goes towards this militia that have caused the deaths of innocent people. What do you want to see? You need payback, you need revenge. That line from Macbeth, “Unseemed from the knave to the neck.”

Olympus Has Fallen is in theaters today.