It happened for John Wayne the first time John Ford tracked in on him,close-up, in “Stagecoach.” Steven Spielberg made sure it happened for Harrison Ford when he copied that shot in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
And it just might happen for Gerard Butler, that moment when his “leonine figure” (Variety) and “paragon of manhood” (The Hollywood Reporter) bites into an apple in “300.” It’s that quantum leap, from actor to movie star.
Butler, as Leonidas, the warrior king of the Spartans, has roared through the movie up to this moment. But there, in a grimly comic riff staged on a digital cliff littered with Persian dead, his playfully macho Scottish burr kicks in. And he has a snack.
“Oh, I’d looooove to take credit for that idea,” Butler growls. “We knew it would be funny, kind of over-the-top, the swagger and all. Eating an apple. Captures the whole spirit of the movie, the contrast between carnage and comedy.”
The movie became a hit, then a meme. The parodies go on (“Meet the Spartans” was a big screen version of short pieces like this, the most famous one).
Butler had been this close to the big time before. He had the title role in “The Phantom of the Opera” (2004). But that film’s failure to catch fire at the box office has him keeping his own counsel regarding”300,” the movie that could make him. He’s just relishing the moment, the work, and the physique he had to acquire to play a Spartan king wearing little more than a Speedo into battle.
“Lots of sit-ups, hours lifting weights, on the rowing machine, a lot of screaming and crying, just misery,” he says, laughing. “But working out like that focuses the mind for a role like this. ‘Endure this, and you become more like a Spartan every second.’ ”
It makes perfect sense that a Scot should play a Spartan, Butler says. It’s only fair.
“We had an Aussie play the most famous Scot (Mel Gibson as William Wallace) of them all. I myself have played Beowulf, the most famous Viking, and Attila, the most famous Hun. I think the fellow at the Opera was the most famous Phantom of them all, right?”
Playing these larger-than-life men requires not just time in the gym, but real acting and homework. He had to master “a very imposing way of standing”to play Leonidas, Butler says. “Confidence and masculinity in everything he does, his stance, his voice, his silences. Calculated cockiness. The Spartans,they earned that cockiness, just the way they lived and trained. You don’t show that to the audience, you let them come and find it.”
He’s tickled at the attention. And he’s amused by the baggage the movie has acquired on its way to release, the way critics and pundits are reading current geo-politics into this story of West fighting East, or the small state fighting the Superpower.
“I’ve heard very convincing arguments, both ways,” he says. “I can see the Persians as the Superpower attacking the weak, and I can see the Persians as the East attacking the West. That’s not why the film was made. It’s much more about mythical values and the most modern, entertaining way of telling this ancient story possible, here and now.”