Butler did his interview with us on the 300 set visit fully clothed. Later, of course, we would see him running around in his ancient Greek diapers and cape, but for now he’s just a regular guy, not yet a Spartan Warrior.

300 could be huge for Butler. He’s appeared in many films, but not usually very well-received ones. He’s managed to create a serious fanbase with his good looks and charm, but movies like Reign of Fire, Timeline and Phantom of the Opera never crossed over to the mainstream public, keeping him something of an unknown with your general audience. But 300 is going to be a big movie, and he’s Leonidas, king of the Spartans, and his face and booming voice (“MADNESS?!?!? THIS… IS… SPARTA!!!!”) are all over the advertising campaign. 300 is hard work for the actor, as he talks about in the interview, but in a few months it could all be paying off.

We went and saw the trainer. What processes you had to go through? Where was your body prior to doing this movie and what you had to get to what we are going to see in the film?

I had let myself go a bit. I remember three unsolicited comments whilst I was on holiday in Italy this summer about me being fat from people that I didn’t even know, so I guess I had a bit of work to do. My frame’s always been pretty good since the days of Attila the Hun, and I’ve been fortunate in so much as I’ve done various jobs that have required me to work my body and do a lot of physical training. But I was probably at one of my lowest ebbs. So when I started training I felt like I had a mountain to climb – in fact I did have a mountain to climb. I trained… I always work hard for my roles, but I think I trained harder for this than I did for any other role.

Does this seem almost more mental than, in a sense physical; your mind has to overcome this obstacle that Mark is putting you through to get your body in shape.

Yeah, well the thing is, when I was training with Mark, I was also training with another trainer. So I was doing a two hour session with Mark and then I was popping off to my own trainer because I wanted to make sure that I also built muscle. Mark is much more conditioning of the body, but I was also concerned with getting big and strong and fitting the power and the character that I felt the king needed, especially because I knew that this guy, when you take a look at the way he has the braid in his hair and the beard, it requires something. I didn’t want to see that, which is a big head, a big presence of the head and then a skinny body underneath that. It didn’t matter how lithe or how strong I was, it wasn’t gonna work. So I knew I had to get big and strong as well. So there were times, in the earlier, the first couple of months where I was training 6 hours a day, because I was also doing two hours of sword fighting and it was this crazy place out in the Valley in LA with no air conditioning. That was a good way to lose weight; I sweated so much out there. Then I would train with Mark and then I would train with my own trainer and when I came here, I’ve taken a separate trainer as well, so in fact I’m training with this guy at five o’clock. I’ve been doing a lot of separate training in the gym. It’s as much what these guys do, it’s hard to go through; it’s as much a mental endurance as a physical endurance, but it’s been testing. It’s taken its toll on my body, I have to say, I really feel it.

Terrence Stamp hasplayed two comic book characters, and he has said he very seriously looked at the comic to figure out the way the guy moved between panels. I was wondering, looking at the book, if you had done anything like that?

Absolutely, I spent a lot of time looking at the comic and so did Zach. We’ve often… there are certain moments in that comic book where the king has such incredible stances or positions that we tried to emulate in the film. You know, certain moments that, if you were to read the comic book, moments would stick in your mind as a reader. We’ve done the same thing. I often find myself referring to the book, even when it’s not something we are trying to emulate, but just to get a feeling of the kind of mood he’s in, just from the position he’s in. So I’ve done a lot of that, and looking at the way he seems to move etc. But you do that, but then you have to temper it with the fact that this isn’t a comic book and there’s certain things that if you take it too far would just look ridiculous, standing next to everybody else you’re working with. I guess it’s trying to find that fine line between believability and the comic book nature of the piece, or the fantasy element. So it’s kind of hyper-real and real at the same time, and for me, I paid a lot of attention to trying to get the power of this king, which you really feel when you read the graphic novel, his absolute power and command, but then at the same time without making it too stiff, and lending the guy some more humanity that you think an audience can perhaps relate to, even more than the comic book. Because I think if you were to play him as severe as he is in the comic book… I mean, he almost kills his best friend and captain right at the start just for beating one of his soldiers. I think immediately you’d have an audience absolutely hating you. So it’s finding that fine line between this man’s absolute brutality when necessary, which I love, I love that he is a hero who pushes the definition of hero to the edge, in terms of sometimes you feel when you watch this film that the Persians are the good guys and the Spartan’s are the bad guys because we kick so much ass the whole way through the movie. I actually feel sorry for these Persians as they attack, because you know that they’re running forward going "Shit, we’ve got about 3 seconds to live," and we’re not just killing them, but we’re loving it, you know? This is what we were born and bred to do, and I really wanted to climb into that aspect of the fight and the war, whilst at the same time remembering that we didn’t start the war, you know? We’re being attacked, but within that environment we’re going to make it as bloody and as much fun as possible, because this is what we live for.

We were watching some film before lunch and speaking of fun, it looks like it might be some fun to be out there with some swords and shields and running around. Is it fun?

It’s great, you know. Listen, it’s hard as well. At the end of the day you’re… I finished at 9am on Saturday morning and I was aching. My back was killing me and my legs were killing me and my shoulders, because you’re carrying the shield and you’re slashing with the sword and you have a cape, which after 12 hours really starts to weigh heavy on you, it’s tough. But it’s also so much fun; I wouldn’t change it for the world. And I am working with the best stuntmen I have ever worked with, and not just in terms of the talent. They are incredibly talented, but in terms of how much they give you of their souls and how encouraging they are, how patient they are. I feel that I’m doing a pretty good job with the action in this film and I’m doing it all myself, but it’s down to this incredible training they’ve given me right from the start. They’re amazing, and no matter how I look on the screen, they made me look 10 times better by the moves that they do when you finish the scene and you watch it back on play back. You’re like "Holy shit! I look like a monster! I know I’m being pretty tough, but I know I’m not being that tough”. They make me look 10 times as good as I actually am.

And you’re wearing the leather loincloth.

The codpiece. How can I defend loincloth with codpiece? No it’s not a loincloth, it’s a codpiece goddamn it. (laughs)

Did you have any issues with it?

Not anymore. I don’t even think about it. I did at the start because, you know, I remember the first time that I tried it on, I had to walk past a lot of the crew who hadn’t really seen anybody dressed like this yet. So, I didn’t even have my cape on. I walked past in a pair of trainers, black socks and a leather codpiece, with nothing else on. And all the plasterers, and the joiners, and the electricians were sitting eating sandwiches just watching me walk past and I could see the smirks on their faces and I thought, “Is it going to be months of this?” But the funny thing is, now, they don’t blink an eye, I don’t even think about it, and also when you work so hard on your body and suddenly you’re proud of the way you look, I’m quite happy to show off! I’m pretty much happy to walk around naked any chance I get, because I know as soon as this movie finishes it’ll all disappear again, so I might as well enjoy being seen while I have it.

Did they send you the script or the graphic novel, and which one did you read first?

I read the script first and then actually it was a couple of friends in New York that were visiting me, and they knew of the graphic novel and went out and bought it in a comic book store and brought it back for me, so I read that, but that was literally three days after I read the script. And it was about 5 months before I got involved with the film, because the film wasn’t even green-lit at that point, but I had a fantastic, phenomenal meeting with Zach, where he couldn’t keep me on my chair. I was like jumping all over the place, trying to show him the strength, the character that I felt was necessary for this king – and for every Spartan, you know. I felt that every Spartan should be at least Russell Crowe, or better, in terms of toughness.

Were you surprised by the look of it, after you read at the script?

Yeah. Well firstly, when I first met, I didn’t realise it was all filming in a studio. That was never explained to me, but then when I saw… I don’t know if you guys ever saw the teaser that they did, a long time ago?

We’ve heard a lot about it. [We would be shown it later]

It’s like this film. You have to see… as soon as you see one thing, even if it’s just a photograph of the compositing in the back, so much of this film makes sense. you realise the world that you are entering into. The teaser explains the action more than anything and how it is going to be done, and it’s really phenomenal. When I saw that, I was already hugely excited, I loved the script, it’s such a wonderful story. I had a great meeting with Zach, and I could tell immediately that this was the guy who had such understanding and control of this script and this story and wanted to take it to all the places that I wanted it to go and I imagine so many members of the audience would want it to go. After that I was sold, but it just took a long time after that for the plans to be finalised and for me to be cast. You know, there are certain films that they chase you for and there are certain films that you chase and I think I would say I chased this one. I know when I see something and I want it, then get out of my way! (laughs)

For Phantom, the set was really impressive; it was all there for you to physically touch, smell and taste, and you step on the set here and there’s nothing there for you. Can you talk about that as an actor?

Yeah, this is definitely much more challenging. It is more difficult to experience, I think, the feelings that you would naturally experience just by being surrounded by the true environment, or as true an environment as possible in terms of it being in a studio. In the Phantom, you had that; you had the theatre, you were surrounded by the dancers or the crowds or you had an opera being performed. I had my lair downstairs; I had those elements to look at, to feel, to touch, to smell, whereas here, sometimes you’re just standing next to one false rock and you’re looking at an army of a million Persians that aren’t there, that are a blue screen, and you’re talking to an army of 300 behind you that really, at that point, might only be 10 guys. So, sometimes it’s 40 guys, but it just depends on the shot. But what I’ve learnt as an actor is that you don’t necessarily trust what you’re feeling inside, because often, when you’re performing – especially in this environment – it doesn’t feel as truthful as it has done in other films, which makes it, in some ways, even more interesting because you have to go to different places. You have to almost, I feel, in some ways even change my approach – sometimes, in a subtle way and sometimes in a way that… I just feel it changing naturally and I have to trust that, just like I found myself in theatre or film doing a performance where in my head I thought it was just awful and have people tell me it was the best thing they’ve seen me do, you know. I learn often not to trust what is going on in my head. Then the other thing is, I so often find you do a performance, and it feels one way and you see it and it comes out so differently, especially when you see it. Even just a shot, with those backgrounds, and you realise the world that you’re living in, because you can’t tell until you see it. I kind of like that; in a way it’s challenging and different and fresh that you’re doing it without the advantage of that, and in some ways if that makes it different and again slightly to the left or right of what is real and what is normal, then that adds to that slightly unnatural feel I think that we will have in the film, if that makes sense? It does in my head, but I’m not very good at explaining.

When you’re acting in a film like this, that has so much green screen, is it more like being in theatre where you have to create the world around you and you have the stage that has to be a different world than you’re really in?

Yes, I think so, that’s a good point and I hadn’t really thought about it that, but as you were saying it I suddenly thought yes, it does often feel like theatre. The only one difference is, in theatre, which is what I miss because I haven’t done it in a long time, is you get to tell the story from the start to the beginning and when you’re in the middle of it you’re not even thinking about it; you’re just there. You don’t even have to think about where you are and I miss that, but that’s a big difference between filming. But yeah, it does often feel more theatrical when you’re doing this, and again, it’s one of the constant things that I am always checking in myself, is going through that, getting that nice balance between, again, the comic book character and the real person. Or the theatrical element and the cinematic element, and not pushing it too much either way because I think you could do a more theatrical performance here – and sometimes you do and sometimes it works fantastically when you have an understanding of where you are or that particular moment – but it’s not something you want to push too far, too often. I think again you would end up having a character that would push the character away, and I’m always about drawing an audience in. But it’s what’s been fascinating about this project; I’ve been constantly checking and making fine adjustments and never knowing really what the fuck is going on. (laughs) But I love that, I love that, I honestly do. Sometimes I’m going, "I have no idea what we’re making here," but I do think that we are making something that will never have been seen before.

Have you seen any of the finished composite footage?

Not a lot, no, but I’ve seen some of the stuff. I’ve seen a lot of the photographs and what they could show me of them. I actually saw… I did this ridiculously long action piece, which I did all myself, and there was a problem with the focus, so we had to do it again. But they showed me it, to show me the moves etc. and it looked so astonishing, it’s incredible. Everything that they’re doing, whether it’s the artistry of the backgrounds, which is really what gets me, but also the camera techniques they’re using and the colour pallets etc, everything about this film is, to me, so fresh and original and brave and I’m so excited to see it. So, I’ve some stuff, but not a huge amount.

Did you do a lot of research into it? First of all did you know the story of 300 Spartans?

I knew the story, but I hadn’t studied the story. I knew of the story, so I did a bunch of reading into that, and I did some reading into… there was a couple of other books, like Carnage and Culture; books on war, books on generals, books on philosophies of battle. But to be honest, most of my research just goes on, on a daily basis, as I’m walking around being obsessed with the character that I’m playing, and how I play that character and how that works in cinematic terms because it’s actually quite surprising when you read the story of how actually accurate the comic book is, in so many ways. But what’s great about the comic book is also it pushes it to another level, that therefore allows you to play it in a way that you’re not going to necessarily find in your history books, but you’re going to find in you understanding of how to play this character in cinematic terms.

We heard about some of the minor injuries had been going on. How have you held up in all of this?

I’ve had a few. I’ve got a scar on my knuckle here where I tried to spear somebody and ended up punching the shield of a Spartan next to me! (laughs) I didn’t get very far. my spear was supposed to go all the way here and it got here and I punched the shield. I’ve had a bunch of bruises; I pulled my hip-flexor, I’ve got tendonitis now on both elbows and shoulders. I’ve gone through a lot in this film because I went from no training at all to training very hard and as Mark says himself, after a couple of months of that, it starts to take its toll. I think I overdid it at the start. That’s what I do; I dive into these things and I don’t always judge it very well, but I’m glad now, I’m glad. Anything that I’m feeling like that, I imagine our king would be feeling it as well, because I’m sure he’s had a few bumps and bruises in battles as well.