Determined to remain loyal to the president and maintain one hundred percent success rate in protecting the leader of the free world, Secret Service agents often struggle when their assigned missions don’t go according to plan. But after falling from grace and struggling to find redemption after an unfortunate accident, the agents will do whatever it takes to get their life back on track. That’s certainly the case with disgraced Secret Service agent Mike Banning in director Antoine Fuqua’s new action thriller ‘Olympus Has Fallen.’ After being close to the president of the United States, but being fired for not being able to save the First Lady’s life, Mike will do whatever it takes to get his career back on track, even if it means putting his life in danger to save the commander-in-chief.
‘Olympus Has Fallen’ follows a group of terrorists who take down the White House (code name Olympus), leaving Mike (Gerard Butler) to try to save the president of the United States, Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart). The small group of heavily armed, meticulously trained extremists launch a daring daylight ambush on Washington, overrunning the White House and taking the president and his staff hostage inside an impenetrable underground bunker. As a battle rages on the White House lawn, Mike joins the battle, and finds his way into the besieged building to do the job he has trained to do all his life: to protect the president at all costs.
Mike uses his extensive training and detailed knowledge of the presidential residence to become the eyes and ears of Acting president Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) and his key advisers. With tensions rising, the radicals begin executing hostages and threaten to kill more unless their demands are met. America’s national security team must rely on Mike to locate the president’s young son, Connor (Finley Jacobsen), who is being sought as the ultimate test of the president’s loyalty to his country. Mike must also rescue the president before the terrorists can unleash their ultimate plan.
Butler generously sat down recently for a roundtable interview at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel to talk about the filming of ‘Olympus Has Fallen.’ Among other things, the actor, who also produced the action thriller, discussed what it was like switching from a producer’s mindset to an actor’s mindset while shooting his scenes; the reasoning of incorporating Mike’s relationship with Connor into the plotline; and where his American patriotism lies, even though he’s a Scottish citizen.
Question (Q): You acted in, and produced, the film. How did you switch back and forth, and were there moments when you had to put on your producer’s hat when you were in the middle of a scene?
Gerard Butler (GB): That’s actually a very good question. I was heavily involved in this movie during the development of the script. To be honest, we were working on it the whole way through. We were constantly trying to ground it and create suspense and interesting ideas between the dynamic in the White House, between me and the villain. We were always working on what would be the best dialogue in the situations.
Sometimes you would find yourself going, okay, I’m going into the scene now, I have to switch off and get ready. I learned that back with ‘Law Abiding Citizen,’ where my first day of shooting was one of my worst days ever. I had been so involved in the producing side, and suddenly I had to make a scene in the court. I thought, oh my God, I have no idea where I am. It actually turned out to be one of my favorite scenes in the movie. It always plagued me.
In this, there comes a point when you have to say to yourself, okay, you have to click in. I know where I’m at, and I get into the emotion and the psychological part. But to be honest, the one thing that helps me is when you’re so heavily involved in the creation of the script and the characters and story, and it takes you so much deeper into that world. So I find a lot of the time that you’re already there. You’re working on scenes you developed, and you have an understanding of what the scene was and what the characters intentions are. You’ve been working on it for months, so it’s a great way to climb into character, I find.
Q: Of all the skills you had to learn, what have you used, or could use, in real life? Have you ever used something in real life you learned in a movie?
GB: (laughs) Yeah, probably karaoke after ‘Phantom of the Opera.’ Unfortunately, that’s probably not as bad ass as you’d like to hear. You learn a lot in terms of fighting ability. Without a doubt, it increases confidence in your ability to handle yourself. Coming from Scotland, that was never a big issue anyway. But definitely, that’s an ability that allows a confidence.
When you have a confidence, you also have an ability to diffuse situations. People come up to me with a lot of energy. Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s positive, but sometimes its drunken, or it comes out the wrong way. I sometimes think violence comes out of fear. If you don’t have fear, you’re less likely to have the need to get involved.
Q: Have you ever diffused a bar room brawl, for instance?
GB: Yeah, I did that a lot more before. Somebody asked me about a heroic situation. I actually received an award of bravery when I saved a boy from drowning in this river when I was younger.
But I saw all these fights in Scotland. I remember people getting the sh*t kicked out of them, and I would step in, even for people I didn’t know. One time I almost paid a heavy price. When I went to help a guy up, he shouted at me to get lost, even though six guys were kicking him. I’ve always been that kind of guy. When I see something unjust, I can’t not try to stop it. A bit like Mike in this movie, who has to restore some justice.
Q: One of the interesting relationships in the film is between Mike and the young boy, Connor. You didn’t overdo it with that relationship.
GB: That’s a good point, because we used to have him all the way through to the end of the movie, in the White House with me. But we questioned, is the audience going to buy me, this ex-Special Forces bad ass, running around with a kid throughout the movie? It took it somewhere else. We felt the less, the better in that way.
I thought we established a very powerful, meaningful relationship between me and the kid from early on. It allows you to get really invested in that relationship. It gets a cheer from the audience every time. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I think how that turned out with Connor was lovely.
I loved his sweet vulnerability and his inner strength, which I think is a theme for this whole movie. It’s the vulnerability we have as people and as a country. But I also liked the strength and courage and heroism that brings out of us. He is the perfect example of someone who has to rise to the task and be a hero.
Q: Coming from Scotland, where does your American patriotism lie, and have you ever thought of getting American citizenship?
GB: As I was saying, we as a country, I was thinking, I’m going to get a lot of sh*t for this because I’m not American. I don’t have my citizenship, but I grew up in the western world. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, the buzz word you would use is America. It’s the beacon of freedom in the free world. You get attached to the American ideals and culture and politics in a large extent.
I think this movie isn’t just about being an American. It is very patriotic. It’s not just an attack on the White House, it’s an attack on the world. Just like 9/11 wasn’t just an attack on America, that was an attack on the free world. Also, the bombings on London wasn’t just an attack on Britain, it was an attack on the world.
You always go to the heart of a movie, and what it means at the heart. It’s not just about an attack on America; it’s about an attack on each individual, and what you do in that situation. You can take it away from politics. You use this as a way to be inspired, in terms of understanding what it takes, or that it is possible that in your darkest hour, you do rise up. But everyone takes a different message from a movie, and it isn’t always the on-the-nose message of fighting for your country. At its core, it’s good against evil, and the mythical journey of a hero.
Q: What went into the decision to make North Korea as the invading country?
GB: Well, it wasn’t actually North Korea that was the invading country. It used to be North Korea as an invading country, but we actually changed that. We didn’t want to star a massive political debate. When you make any movie, you pay attention to the current political tensions. Obviously, the tension between North Korea, South Korea and the U.S. is a big problem, as witnessed by recent events.
But what we wanted to do was not get involved in that debacle, so we made it a rogue organization. It’s a militia force headed by a mastermind who has his motivations. He’s a genius who’s also insane. But at the same time, he’s not a million miles away from Osama bin Laden. He has followers because it’s a cause other people would get behind.
It’s also very plausible that when this attack happens, there will be a political fallout. So of course North Korea would be involved, and it would cause tension between North Korea and South Korea. But it’s not that North Korea was originally the guilty party.
Q: You created the White House in Shreveport. What did it cost to do that, and what was that like?
GB: It’s amazing. One of our PR people said that when they were showing it to some political journalists in Washington, one of them was asking if one of the cafes Mike was in with Angela Bassett was a real cafe there. They totally believed it was set in Washington. They wanted to have that emotional attachment and memories with those places.
But the movie was shot in Shreveport, and probably isn’t another place in the country that looks less like Washington. But it was a mixture of choosing the right locations and building the sets when necessary. There’s a roundabout there and then a main road with a piece of grass. Then this White House starts popping up, and everyone in Shreveport is surprised, because everyone passed that White House.
They recognize you and know a movie’s going on. So they ask, is that White House with your movie? (laughs) Day-by-day, you saw it taking shape, and you thought, wow, this is really starting to look like the White House. Then you complement it with visual effects. Between that and shots of Washington itself, you’re amazed. At the end of the day, you’re in the action.
Once you’re in there, you’re in Washington. But we were in Shreveport, where it felt like 197 degrees. It was miserable being outside during the middle of summer, doing action sequences. After every take, I had to change my shirt because it was literally soaking, and I had to ring it out. Just standing there was unbearable, and then I had to run and fall down, too. So it was an intense experience.
Written by: Karen Benardello