Gerard Butler Returns to His Action Hero Roots

The "300" star plays a Secret Service agent trying to single handedly end a White House invasion in "Olympus Has Fallen"

If he and his small band of Spartan soldiers could hold off the invading hordes of thousands in "300," then certainly a single-handed Gerard Butler must stand a real chance at taking out a few dozen terrorists who’ve taken over the White House in “Olympus Has Fallen,” right?

After venturing into rom-com territory and testing his dramatic chops, the Scotsman, 43, returns to fighting action hero form for director Anton Fuqua (“Training Day”) in what is essentially “Die Hard in the White House”: Butler plays a Secret Service agent pinned to a desk job thanks to a major work failure. His character finds himself the lone agent standing inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue after a takeover by a terrorist cell holding the President (Aaron Eckhart) and key staff members hostage while demanding a U.S. withdrawal that could alter the global balance of power.

Because you don’t just star in the film – you’re also a producer – what was the first thing about it that caught your eye?

I think it would have to be the basically when the attack happens in the White House and coming from every direction – from the inside, from the outside, and I suddenly find myself saying, ‘Holy s***, what have I got myself into here?’ This is so ballsy and powerful and surprising that I think this is a great idea. Let’s see where we can take it from here. It was about if we could make this believable and plausible and set up a scenario of a man in the White House who is very well-equipped but still against the impossible odds of these brilliantly trained extremists who are holding the president, his people and the world to ransom.

With the crisis room on the outside and a suffocating hostage situation in the bunker then we can have a great movie. And if you give those characters some real personalities that they can play with then we’re going to get some great actors. And sure enough we got Morgan [Freeman] and Melissa [Leo] and Aaron [Eckhart] and Angela [Bassett]. I think they had the same reaction to the script as well. It felt like we could really make an event movie that would keep your heart pounding and keep you on the edge of your seat.

As you brought in the consultants – the guys who know the real deal at the White House – to learn more about how the whole system operates and you began layering in more reality into the story, what fascinated you about the Secret Service, about security at the White House?

We weren’t just taking their advice to use psychologically, something you can just put in your performance, we were creating the story and the nitty-gritty details in what is going to be fascinating around what they were saying, because that’s where we felt that we could strengthen it and really pull the audience in – when you get in that building, what are you looking for?  What are you assessing? Are you going straight for the kill? What are you looking for if you’re a guy in there basically with no bullets in your gun up against forty two well-armed and exceptionally well-trained terrorists and you got to get down to the president?

But you’ve also got to do reconnaissance. You’ve got to establish lines of communication with the outside world. You’ve got to take their advice. You’ve got to start some kind of psychological warfare and start screwing with your arch nemesis. You’ve got to play games with him, make him doubt his plan. Start to terrorize them, turn their own tactics on themselves. All of that stuff was really fascinating using the intimate knowledge of the White House. What would I do? What would I be checking that they’ve done, assessing their capabilities? All really kind of cool stuff.

How’d you put all of that to work for you as an actor?

That is the thing that is just in the performance: their total ability and willingness to engage their enemies and at the same time their fearlessness and in fact going beyond that, a hatred in a way. Because they’re so trained to protect and in a way, respect and love the people they’re protecting, that they’ve gone so far away from the other side that they hate anybody who is trying to do damage to that. And I felt there was a lot of value in there for my character and indeed from an audience point of view because after this horrific opening you’re left baying for blood.

Your character didn’t just fire off a bunch of glib James Bond-style quips. He actually had this very straightforward, no-B.S. attitude in all of his dialogue.

Yeah, well, I wrote most of those lines! They were mine. You’ve always got to be careful that you’re staying out of the way of the Bond idea – or at least the traditional Bond: perhaps in some ways it’s more like the modern Bond that any humor comes straight from a tough-son-of-a-bitch kind of John Wayne attitude going for the laugh. It’s just that humor that comes out in tight situations. And in those, it’s always in the most dire of consequences that you can have the funniest moments.

What’s running through your head when you’re doing the full-on action sequences? Are you just a kid playing action hero or are you still trying to keep the actor brain in play?

You’ve got to stay in it. You’ve got to think, ‘Who am I fighting?’ ‘Is this a personal vendetta?’ ‘Is this somebody who’s just going to be gotten out of the way?’ You’ve got to think about your moves. You’ve got to think about how efficient you’re being or how emotional you’re being. So you really try to be in it because there’s a punch, and then there’s a punch with meaning. And sometimes you want to punch with meaning and sometimes you just want to punch. And so you always got to stay focused in those moments – even though, if I’m being honest deep down, yeah, it’s a kid getting to play.

Over the last several years Americans have really had to look at our country and look at ourselves and re-consider how we view ourselves. For you, as someone who came from another country and has found such success here in America, what’s your view of the country?

I’m somebody who lives in this country and has been given great opportunity. And I love, in some ways, the beacon of light that the U.S. has been in the world – and yet I can’t say that I agree with a lot of its foreign policies. And I’ve seen, being from another country, that the reaction to the U.S. amongst the people that I’m surrounded by in Europe or elsewhere that I found myself fighting them. Because I am coming from a more emotional perspective having lived here, I was also in New York during 9/11. I was also in London, by the way, during 7/7, so I’ve experienced terrorism – in fact it happened right in front of me in London when the cops were chasing suspected terrorists right in front of our film sitewhen we were filming ‘Rock n Rolla.’

I was being chased by Russian gangsters and meanwhile [real] cops are running past us with guns, four guys out of a car. So it’s not just about an attack on America. I mean this could be an attack anywhere and this attack, even though it is on American soil, it feels like people from Italy, from South Africa, they’ll all have a strong reaction to it because at the end of the day it’s killing of innocent people and people in service of their country whatever that country has to be.

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