Hunky star of the HBO mega TV series Strike Back dons a skirt and sandals for this sword-swinging epic sequel.
Sullivan Stapleton plonks himself down on the white leather couch and promptly slides off. Minutes later, here at the swanky penthouse suite in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, the couch sections part ways and I start heading towards the floor. It’s a comedy of errors for a minute there that has us creasing with laughter. Eventually we settle in to discuss Stapleton’s new movie, the action-packed war drama 300: Rise of an Empire.
The lean and handsome star of TV’s Strike Back, as well as the highly acclaimed Aussie crime drama Animal Kingdom, is following up his featured role in the LA noir flick Gangster Squad with a lead role in a gory “swords and sandals” epic.
If someone didn’t know anything about 300, what would you tell them?
“This movie is sort of like the first one, but different in that we fight out on the water. My character, Themistokles, unites all of Greece to fight, as one army, against the invading Persians. So it’s similar look to the first one, sticking true to that DNA, but we’re on boats! The story goes that it was just a rag-tag bunch of guys that Themistokles rounded up. They were fishermen and tradesmen and whatever, so they weren’t Spartan warriors. Unfortunately, they still wanted us to look like Spartan warriors. We’re not as big—those guys were basically born to fight. But unfortunately they did make us work out.”
You went through a series of auditions, running scenes with director Noam Murro to land the key role. Was your shirt on or off?
“Nah, I had my shirt on. Noam closed his eyes and said, ‘All I can hear is Russell Crowe.’ Actually, I’d like to work with Russell Crowe—I wanna see how that goes, especially since I sound like him, but cheaper.”
You had to slim down for this role. How grueling was all the training?
“It’s easier for me to get bigger than lose weight because I like food. I was still doing Strike Back in South Africa, so they sent a trainer over twelve weeks before we got to Bulgaria. I did my ten hours a day on the show then worked out three hours a day for the movie, for the first month. An hour and a half with swords then an hour and a half in the gym. That was pretty hard to sustain, so in the end we dropped the gym workouts with weights to an hour. Every day. It was quite serious and intense. When I landed in Bulgaria, I basically went straight to the gym. I wish I was joking but I’m not. It was good and fun, though. I found out that there’s a six pack under there.”
A CGI one?!
“No, unfortunately that was not an option. I wish. I dream of that day. The six-pack is gone now, though. I kept it, actually, for longer than I thought, but I just played a dentist in Kill Me Three Times. That’s a great little Aussie thriller that we filmed over in Perth with Simon Pegg, Bryan Brown, myself, Teresa Palmer, Luke Hemsworth and Alice Braga. It’s a murder mystery set in a small coastal town. Basically everyone is trying to kill one girl.”
Have you started on Tony Ayres’ drama Cut Snake?
“Yeah. That’s a really great script, another crime thriller, shooting in Melbourne, in my home town. It’s a small cast—really just three of us, me Alex Russell and Jessica de Gouw. I play a guy who gets out of prison and basically tries to entice his mate back into a life of crime.”
How was it working on Gangster Squad?
“That was my first American film and I was shitting myself. I really got chucked in the deep end. To work with those actors, like Gosling and Stone and Brolin, they were fantastic. They made it easy, especially Ryan. He’s a fantastic bloke. I didn’t get to work that much with Sean Penn, besides that final scene. These are ones when you sit there and go ‘I really didn’t expect that to happen.’”
Back to 300: Rise of an Empire—had you read the source material by Frank Miller?
“Nah. I’m not big into graphic novels, I never was, and I was too busy. I dunno how well that’s gonna go down with all the fanboys but I’m just not into comics.”
Were there storyboards, though?
“I don’t look at that stuff much. It’s hard—you get locked into it. A lot of the stunts—the fights—were story boarded. They were called ‘previews’ as in ‘previsualisation,’ and they had ipads, so we could see them, which is good. But you sit around and watch that, then you go do it and shit goes wrong. So, that worked when you sat down and drew that, but once you get out onto the set… Even though it’s green screen, in one of the battles we were fighting in two feet of real mud, which added a whole other element to the fighting. You’re standing there and all of a sudden you get stuck and you know it’s not s’posed to go like that!”
Your work on Strike Back involves a lot of hard-core, physical action and death-defying stunts, yet this movie, with the green screen element, feels like the exact opposite, with a lot of faking. How does it feel to switch from one to the other?
“Yeah, the green screen was daunting to me because it really is faking it. I’d never worked on stage. I kept thinking it was like treading the boards, which I was—I was treading the boards on a ship. But there’s nothing there. By the end of it was kind of fun. We were literally playing soldiers. Where are these imaginary Persians coming from? As long as we all had the same eyeline, it worked. I’m looking forward to seeing how people receive this one ’cos I’ve seen it and it’s pretty fucking good.”
Is there a sequel planned?
“I’m signed with Warners for two movies, whether it’s another one of these or something else is up to them. But my guy should wear pants in the next one. Hang up the skirt.”
Let’s get serious and talk about your feisty sex scene with Eva Green.
“That’s not serious—that was fun! Yeah!” Stapleton starts to laugh with embarrassment before blurting out, “You’ve gotta ask the questions because I don’t know what to say!”
How long did it take to shoot that?
“I paid the director, so we kept doing take after take. No, we spent a couple of days doing it. It was choreographed. Sex scenes are funny things to shoot. It was a half-naked fight, really, with a much better looking enemy than most of my usual opponents. Sex scenes can be hard, and I guess it depends on your co-star, but we got along really well and it was easy to work with Eva. Doing those kinds of scenes I think sometimes might be harder for the women, but she was great. She kicked the shit out of me. She’s tough.”
But you must be pretty used to sex scenes by now, seeing as there are so many of them in Strike Back.
“Yeah, somehow I ended up being the ‘nude dude’ in that show.”
So how come you’re the only lucky bugger who gets to root the chicks in Strike Back?
“I do not know. It just worked out like that. When I started the show, the first scene was a sex scene, then it turned into a naked fight with two stunties, and I was like, ‘Right, so that’s how it’s going to go.’ So after that I was all right with sex scenes. Literally, I had to sleep with this girl and we’re in bed, and then two terrorists come storming through the hotel and burst through our door and I jump up and fight them. It was harder on the stunties, because I don’t think they told them I wasn’t going to be dressed. I had to reassure then that we were just fighting—we’re not getting into anything else.”
When did you decide to be an actor and why?
“I never really set out to get to this level—I never thought this would happen. I joined an agency when I was young and just did commercials. It beat a paper round. Then, when I was a teenager, I started doing short films and on Miss Taurus, the director [Graeme Wood] took me aside and asked me if I was enjoying it, and I was. I had fun. I was playing roles that weren’t that far from myself, and the stories were about underage drinking and boys being naughty and all that. So he said I should consider doing it properly, but told me ‘Don’t go to acting school.’ I didn’t really like school, so I listened to him. I didn’t want to go that path. I think I got lucky. I got some roles and I kept going. I’d hate to be starting out as an actor now. In Australia there are a lot of actors and it’s quite a small industry. It was around Animal Kingdom that I was actually thinking of quitting and becoming a grip or a full-time builder. Thank god Animal Kingdom happened, because it’s a hard industry.”
Did you get your first big break on [popular Aussie TV soap opera] Neighbours?
“Shit. Ah, no. I only worked on that for six weeks, in my early twenties, so it kind of sucks that that keeps coming up. I wanted to be the Aussie actor that didn’t do Neighbours and I nearly made it. But I had my car stolen and almost got evicted from a derelict house. My agent rang and said, ‘I pretty much know that you’re gonna say ‘no’ but I’ve gotta ask because it’s an offer. She said, ‘They’re gonna offer you this much per week to do six weeks,’ and I said, ‘Nup. Tell them to double it and I’ll think about it.’ And she rang back instantly and said, ‘Yeah, fine,’ and I said, ‘For fuck’s sake!’ I didn’t think that’d be the reaction, but I did it. I don’t want to put the show down, but I didn’t have much fun there. It’s not my kind of place. It’s been going for too long and there are some old, bitter and twisted people who should have got out of the industry, then some young kids who have got far too much money and a lot of attitude, so you just go wow!”
How did you make the transition from Australia to the States?
“It was Animal Kingdom. It went to Sundance in 2010 and was a huge success. I came back to Los Angeles thinking I might be able to get an agent. Thank god my Mum had lent me enough money that I could stay here for a couple of weeks. I landed and got the agent and two days later auditioned for a TV pilot through Warners, for Joel Silver, called The Odds, that was based on Lethal Weapon movies. Unfortunately it didn’t get picked up. Well, things happen for a reason. I stayed here for a while then went home to Melbourne for Christmas. Just as I left, I auditioned for Strike Back. I walked out of there thinking, ‘No fucking way,’ because all the others were huge dudes, like proper American Marines. But I turned my coming home drinks very quickly into going away drinks because I had to fly to London for another audition and got the role.”
What does that tattoo on your inner arm read?
“It says ‘Animal Kingdom’ in Thai script. I just love Thailand. I was covered in animal tattoos for the film and when I was thinking of getting a real one, I wanted an Asian one but a snake or a dragon just seemed too cliché.”
Do you have any hidden talents, anything that would surprise your fans if they knew?
“I love cooking, especially Italian food, which is not great for the diet when you are making 300. I do a really good Spaghetti Bolognese, which in turn becomes a Lasagne, of course.”
But if you hosted Saturday Night Live, would you bust out the tap shoes or play a musical instrument?
“I can play the flesh flute. Really well. Nah! You didn’t expect that one, did ya?”
300: Rise of an Empire opens in US cinemas this weekend.
This article first appeared in Filmink Magazine, Australia.