Yesterday was Aaron Eckhart’s 45th birthday, and judging from the way he was clutching a pair of reading glasses and occasionally hiding his face in his hands on top of a conference table, he was feeling it. “You know things,” he said to fellow Olympus Has Fallen cast member Angela Bassett after she predicts he’ll return to the stage in the future. “Will I fall in love?” Her response: “Yes, you will, but you gotta give it up. You want it to attack you.”
For an actor, there can be few things more tedious than the obligatory promotional tour to promote a movie, which is presumably why when Eckhart, Bassett, Gerard Butler, and director Antoine Fuqua gave interviews in Washington yesterday, they spent more time discussing the oddities of filmmaking than they did the movie (it’s hard not to imagine they’ve already given the same answers several hundred times already). For example: Morgan Freeman sings old-school top-40 hits between takes. Eckhart wants a role where he can be “in the gutter with a prostitute.” Butler was sweating so much during filming in the 115-degree weather in Shreveport, Louisiana, Fuqua said, it looked like he’d taken a shower fully clothed.
Olympus Has Fallen, the first of two let’s-blow-up-the-White-House movies to be released in 2013, stars Eckhart as the square-jawed, impossibly handsome President of the United States who gets kidnapped by a North Korean terrorist (Rick Yune), and Butler as the square-jawed, impossibly heroic Secret Service agent who attempts to rescue him. Bassett plays the head of the Secret Service, Freeman the Speaker of the House, and Melissa Leo the Secretary of Defense, who also falls prey to the well-armed attackers. “What I love about the movie is that it’s a hero’s journey for everyone,” said Butler, intently. “It’s at these times of great turmoil and danger that you see a nation come together.”
Although the movie, shot on film rather than digitally, does a remarkably good job of turning modern Washington into a war zone, it was filmed entirely in Shreveport, where Fuqua and his team built replicas of the White House and even Pennsylvania Avenue. “What’s going to be interesting is your reaction to the film,” said Eckhart. “It should give Washington a good scare.” He may be underestimating us—if North Korean war planes ever did rain bullets down on the Mall and clip the top of the Washington Monument, some cynical blogger would most likely christen the event with a cutesy nickname (Actualmageddon?) long before any real panic set in.
Butler’s firsthand experience with Washington is mostly limited to 2009, when he overslept (“which is not unusual for me”) and missed his access to the VIP seats for Obama’s inauguration, ending up watching the event by the Washington Monument with three or four people behind him and several million blocking his view of the President. For Bassett, the city has a more personal meaning—it was where she first fell in love with acting at the age of 15 when she saw James Earl Jones star in Of Mice and Men at the Kennedy Center. “I was the last person in the theater, and they were cleaning up, picking up programs, and I was sitting in my seat, crying,” she said. “I was affected so powerfully and completely, and I believed, and I thought it was so divine that theater could do that.”
Eckhart, who has a theater background himself, perks up for a moment. “Hearing her speak like that, I’m about ready to give it all up and go do three years in rep,” he said. “But the problem is that movies go three or four years in advance, and summer gets to winter, and winter to spring, and you’re more likely to say no to a play unless you’re really disciplined about it. That’s the dilemma of a Hollywood actor.”
If Eckhart does decide to quit films, he won’t have to go very far for advice. His costar in the movie Ashley Judd (she has a brief role as the First Lady) has been making headlines this week as she inches closer to a possible run for Senate in Kentucky. “She’s got guts for trying, and you have to respect her for that,” said Eckhart. But Bassett was more philosophical. “It’s interesting,” she said. “It’s a sacrifice, because we love what we do, obviously, and she does, too, so it appears she’s basically going to have to give up this passion for that one. I hope it’s as satisfying, and I hope she’s able to do good.”
Butler, resplendent in an angora-soft dark blue sweater, flitted back and forth between Celtic charmer (at one point, he actually pouted) and maniacal film fanatic (don’t forget he was one of the producers on Olympus). He spent a lot of time talking with Secret Service agents, SWAT team members, and other government agents while researching his role. “The thing that really got me is when you speak to these guys and they have such dedication and so much passion about what they do,” he said. “When they start talking about what they do to the enemy, and to people who are trying to hurt us, there’s such a gleam in their eye, and that’s how the audience feels as well.”
Fuqua (Training Day, Brooklyn’s Finest) hopes it pays homage to his and Butler’s shared favorite film: Apocalypse Now. “That film is inspirational because it has no CGI,” he said. “It’s so beautiful—it’s the Heart of Darkness, it’s Joseph Campbell. It’s the hero going up the river and finding that place, and then having to return, only he’s changed. [Gerard’s] character is very similar. He has to go through hellfire, back into the belly of the beast. It’s the classic hero’s journey.”
As for the almost-identical movie coming out in July, White House Down? Bassett and Eckhart were noncommittal. “When does that come out?” Bassett asked. “Who’s in it?” When told the answer is Channing Tatum, she looked nonplussed. “Is it a comedy?”
“Whoa,” said Eckhart in mock horror. “I’m not here, okay?” But he did have some insight to offer into why so many similarly themed movies come out in pairs. “It’s the collective unconscious. It’s the penguins across the ocean who have the same thoughts as the other penguins. We’re all penguins in Hollywood.”
Olympus Has Fallen arrives in area movie theaters March 22. For more information, visit the movie’s website.