Even though the original film called itself "300" to commemorate the number of Spartans at the center of its epic conflict, Zack Snyder's 2006 adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel was for all intents and purposes about Gerard Butler's King Leonidas. But eight years later, Snyder passes the directing torch to relative unknown Noam Murro, and his film, 300: Rise of an Empire, seems equally appropriately titled, given the incredible rise and diverse ensemble it follows. From Leonidas' widow, the vengeance-seeking Queen Gorgo, to the ambitious Athenian soldier Calisto out to prove his mettle to his father, the follow-up truly seems to encapsulate an empire's worth of characters.
Comic Book Resources joined a small group of press at the recent Los Angeles press day to speak to that ensemble, which included Lena Headey (Queen Gorgo), Eva Green (Queen Artemisia), Callan Mulvey (Scyllias), and Jack O'Connell (Calisto). In addition to talking about how this film's focus shifts to include a broader variety of characters, in particular extraordinarily strong women, the quartet talked about their costumes and preparation for their roles, as well as the challenges of bringing a sequel to life that pays tribute to its predecessor as well as forages its own path with new ideas that distinguish it.
Eva and Lena, can you talk about the position of these women in this world?
Eva Green: First of all, it's quite rare to see strong women in an action film kicking some ass, so that's cool. [Artimisia]'s like a man in a woman's body. She's ballsy and very brave. She was traumatized as a child, and she built this armor around her to survive. She became so driven by vengeance, blinded by vengeance, and completely obsessed, and she's bonkers, a maniac and bonkers.
Lena Headey: Gorgo's just back for a bit of revenge, I'd say. Simple.
Was it nice to be back in this group?
Headey: It's a different group. Some of us are dead. But it was a great thrill to hold a sword. I like that about it.
Did any of you reference the first film with your performance?
Jack O'Connell: I was very keen to be able to introduce a youth element to the story, and obviously it was relevant to the paternal relationship with Callan's character, Scyllias, and how that sort of battle mentality can potentially age an individual. I guess Calisto is younger than myself but, perhaps, more mentally mature, which I didn't think featured in the original picture so it was a new idea from the writing team. I was in a position where I was kind of at the peak of my life, the prime of my life, anyway, physically. I've since peaked, and now I've got documentation.
Callan, how would you follow up that?
Callan Mulvey: I felt that stylistically that part of the world had been taken care of, so it was primarily up to us to just find those humanistic threads to our characters and portray those relationships, particularly with Calisto, in a realistic way.
O'Connell: I certainly took a lot of inspiration and very useful tools from seeing Sullivan [Stapleton]'s approach, who unfortunately isn't here today. I feel he, along with Eva, really led the piece, in terms of endurance anyway. I think he shares that with Themistokles perhaps, a version of. But for me, as a young actor aspiring, it was definitely beneficial to be on set with the likes of him. I hope that's relevant.
How was the physical regimen you underwent for this film?
Headey: I loved it, but then I'm a sadist and a tomboy. But the sad thing is when it's over, it all kind of goes, "Bluh."
Mulvey: I think everybody went straight to fat camp once we stopped filming. I think, for me personally, I never want to look at chicken and broccoli again which is basically all we ate. Just lifted things constantly. We were learning all our fight sequences right up to the shoot and training throughout the shoot so it was quite exhausting. But the great thing was they trained us in such a way you weren't trained to have your chest look like this or an aesthetic look. You were trained so that you could move and you really see that with everybody in their fight scenes that they could actually move the way they were supposed to and you didn't have to have the stunt doubles in as much.
Green: I was kind of lucky because I didn't have to be naked like the guys so I was allowed to have my glass of red wine in the evenings. I'm so not physical so that was such a big challenge. You feel very powerful, actually, but not straightaway. It's very scary at the beginning to have to do all the squats and lunges. It's like, "Oh my God." It's painful. But then it helps you for the fights. You can go quite low. After a while you feel very proud of yourself and that was the best thing. I adored it. The stunt guys are just amazing because they're so passionate. They love it and they're fun. It was my favorite bit I have to say.
O'Connell: I think my favorite element was feeling triple hard and ready to go, hard in a strong sense, not... [Laughs]
What was the choreography like for learning all the fight sequences and stunts?
Green: It's like a dance. I've always been an enormous fan of those Chinese films, "Hero," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and all that. So I felt like a little girl and I had great masters. At the beginning, you can't think too much. You just have to do it. So that's a great thing, just let it all out. Just go for it. But it takes a while to digest it and be able to do it. It requires lots of work.
How comfortable or uncomfortable were the costumes to wear, especially during the fight scenes?
Mulvey: Just one word: Vaseline [Laughs]. You're wearing leather underpants. They're not the most comfortable garment to run around chopping people's heads off in. But the negatives were taken care of by plenty of Vaseline to stop the chafing.
O'Connell: I'd just like to second what Callan said. We went through a lot of Vaseline. [Laughs] We actually shared some, didn't we?
Mulvey: I have to say he loved it. We had an incredible costume designer. I'm sure there was a lot of thought going into what we would have to do within these costumes and it was very easy to move in them, for myself anyway.
Green: Alexandra Byrne is very talented and very brave. I love that outfit that she made with the golden spikes erupting from my back. I look like kind of a dinosaur or something. It was very cool and very easy to move. Sometimes my hair got caught in the spikes but you don't see that in the film. Otherwise, it's my favorite outfit. I looked like a weird animal. It's cool.
Can you talk about the recurring theme of family in terms of how it affects the characters throughout the film?
Headey: Speaking from Gorgo's point of view, the Spartan law is honor before anything else, and the fact that she loses the love of her life, there is nothing else to be done apart from avenge him. So, in terms of her, it's pretty straightforward. There's only one way to go.
The first film is very mythic, and demanded a kind of theatricality from the actors. This film explores the ambiguities of war somewhat more realistically. What challenges did the actors face balancing a sense of mythmaking with something more emotionally authentic or relatable?
Mulvey: I think you have to be as realistic as you can, but at the same time, you need to give a performance, and it needs to be heightened because there are such high stakes. Although the battles and all of the physical elements of the film which you have to do as an actor certainly help create that, I think you just be as real with that as you can and make it high-stakes. And also, if you keep that real, everything around you, because we were in a green room on a soundstage with a bit of dirt and there's green walls around you, and you have to trust in the amazingly talented crew and postproduction people to create that world, and do a lot of the work for you.
O'Connell: It's kind of a variation on what Callan said, in the sense that I felt there were two primary priorities with this role in particular, and there was the emotional nature involved in it, and also physicalities, which to some degree were pretty extreme. I believe we all did our own stunts here, so that enabled us to introduce anything sort of outwardly extravagant into the fighting styles -- which meant we could afford to be subtle, I guess, with the realities. Which I think with a piece like this gives it a real heartbeat, you know? It's very astonishing to watch, but to also to really feel and empathize is, as an actor that's a luxury to be able to perform. But there was definitely a distinction between physicalities and emotion.
Green: And also, Noam loves classical music, opera, so he used to play opera music. He wanted not for us to be afraid to be theatrical, in a good way -- I mean, my character is full-on, so to go all of the way and not play natural. So it's kind of great, it's cool.
Headey: I think there's a kind of giant science to it, do you know what I mean? It's like you're playing a mother who's losing a son or a father who's losing a son or a son who's losing a father -- there's something at stake, and it's not like you have to write every single word down. Some of it is just done with pure emotion -- and, you know, this piece is about war and death. So I think we're already set up to be emotionally raw; I don't think it needs much more than that. You don't need to do some big theatrical acting, because that's mental. [Laughs]
Based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller, "300: Rise of an Empire" opens March 7 in theaters.