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Gerard Butler returns to land of heroes in ‘Olympus Has Fallen’
Gerard Butler’s journey back to the land of heroes has been a long and winding one.
The actor, who enjoyed his mainstream breakthrough as a ripped Spartan in “300,” says he’s always being pressured to stick with a winning a formula.
“Hollywood was saying to me, ‘Do ‘300’ again and again,’” he explains with a laugh.
Instead, Butler signed up for a handful of romantic comedies that found him partnering with Jennifer Aniston (“The Bounty Hunter”), Hilary Swank (“P.S. I Love You”), Katherine Heigl (“The Ugly Truth”) and Jessica Biel (“Playing For Keeps.”)
At the same time, he was determined to keep challenging himself with gritty, provocative movies. In between the rom coms, he appeared in Ralph Fiennes’ Shakespeare adaptation “Coriolanius” and Marc Forster’s character-driven drama “Machine Gun Preacher.”
“In the Shakespeare movie, I played a sort of tough, intense character. And in ‘Machine Gun Preacher’, whether people saw it or not, I played a character who goes to the end both emotionally and psychologically. That was about as intense as it comes but, unfortunately, those aren’t the ones that people see.
“So people say to me, ‘So you’re been doing a lot of romantic comedies?’ And I say, “Actually, no.’”
Which brings us to his latest actioner, “Olympus Has Fallen.” As far as Butler is concerned, it marks his return to full-on action hero mode for the first time since “300.”
“It was time to go back to that heroic, mythical kind of (figure),” says Butler, 43. “I wanted to take on a guy who has to face his own inner demons whilst trying to fight the outer demons as well. He goes on this journey that feels impossible but it brings out the aspects of a human being that we all aspire to.”
The screenplay was written by Boyertown Area High School graduate Creighton Rothenberger and his wife, Katrin Benedikt, who graduated from Exeter Township High School.
Produced by Butler, “Olympus Has Fallen” has already been nicknamed “Die Hard in the White House” for a plot that finds the actor playing Mike Banning, a lone secret service agent trapped, along with the President (Aaron Eckhart) and his family, at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. (codename: Olympus) following an invasion by the North Koreans.
Banning has a history. After a car crash, he saved the president but was unable to rescue the first lady (Ashley Judd.) When the Korean commandos attack, it provides Banning with a chance to redeem himself and save the world. The movie co-stars Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Melissa Leo, Rick Yune and Dylan McDermott.
“There’s all these very riveting, compelling ideas in there,” says Butler about the movie. “But, as an actor, I wanted Mike to be badass because when you get to that most primal level, when you’re watching movies like ‘Taken’ or ‘Law Abiding Citizen’ even, it comes down to payback and revenge.
“That’s a very delicious concept. You see a lot of people die in this movie. (Soldiers) die trying to defend this country. You’re left seething. You’re ripped apart. You’re appalled. You need to see people suffer, and then enter Mike Banning.”
Long before the production began, Butler worked closely with the screenwriters to shape the story and to add as much grit as he could to the action-packed tale.
Ironically, an almost identical movie called “White House Down” will hit theaters on June 28 with Channing Tatum as a secret service agent trying to protect the president (Jamie Foxx) during a hostage crisis.
“The reason I started (producing) was so that I could have as much influence as possible over the script,” says Butler. “We ripped this script apart and rebuilt it to be the freshest, most modern, most heart-pounding and most provocative action thriller we could get. We wanted to give it some sophistication and interesting characters whom you could follow and get connected with on this journey.”
Butler didn’t hire director Antoine Fuqua, but he was grateful when the “Training Day” helmer came on board.
“Antoine immediately said, ‘how do we make this attack as shocking and yet as plausible as possible?,” recalls Butler. “Antoine was (instrumental) in grounding the story in reality and making it logical and methodical. We really wanted to create that situation where you literally believe that the White House is besieged, and that there is a real hostage situation going on underground.”
Over the course of making the movie, Butler performed as many of his own stunts as possible. Not surprisingly, he came away from the film with more than a few nicks and scratches.
“I actually started taking photos of my injuries because I cut all my hands,” he says. “I was hit in the eye by a bullet casing that hit a wall and then hit me in the eye. It hit me so hard, I thought I’d been punched in the face.
“I was hit by another bullet casing in my back. You’re always getting hit by debris from explosions. Every explosion that happened it was, like, ‘put Gerry five feet from there. Here’s your earplugs.’”
One of the film’s stuntwomen, Meggin Penkal, confirms that Butler took his work seriously while also making time for a few laughs.
During the invasion sequence, Butler was tasked with picking up Penkal and another stunt women, scooping them to the side of the road, throwing them down and covering them with his body.
“Gerard had to lay on us for a few minutes until the director yelled ‘cut,’ and he started tickling us,” recalls Penkal. “I had to tell him to stop because I was laughing so hard ... He can be goofy.”
A native of Paisley, Scotland, Butler enjoyed his breakthrough in 2004 playing the title character in the film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera.” Since then, he’s racked up a number of hits, including “RockNRolla,”“How To Train Your Dragon” and “Law Abiding Citizen.”
While Butler usually brings a hint of humor to his roles, in “Olympus Has Fallen,” his character is all business.
“Antoine’s direction to me, even before we started the day, was, ‘Bad intentions, Gerry.” I love (my character) being an Army Ranger and also Secret Service so he knows how to irradiate.
“He knows how to kill. He knows how to make people suffer but he also knows how to do recognizance, how to find information, how to establish lines of communication, how to formulate plans, how to think on his feet. So you’ve got all of that but he’s still just one guy with no ammo who’s against 42 terrorists who have the President.”
Fuqua credits Butler with making Banning feel like a flesh-and-blood human being.
“Gerry has the presence, and the weight to pull this role off,” says the director. “He’s intense and totally dedicated. The guy didn’t sleep. He called at three in the morning to talk about the next day’s scenes. He was obsessed with getting it right and I had to love him for that.”
When it comes to “Olympus Has Fallen,” Butler is most proud of the fact that he tried to layer the film with themes provocative enough to inspire a few post-viewing conversations.
“We have all those elements about facing up to fear and testing your loyalty and trying to understand yourself in the movie,” he says. “We ask, ‘What is this all about?’
“Antoine is big into those questions as well. That’s what I love. He’s a director who is masculine but at the same time he’s incredibly sensitive and really about the relationships (between the characters.) He (understands) the inner workings of who we are as human beings.
“So, it’s an action movie and yet Antoine is right in there with you going, ‘Who are we? What are we about? What does this all mean?’”