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300 - David Wenham interview


Interview by Rob Carnevale

AUSTRALIAN actor David Wenham talks about some of the physical challenges of preparing for 300, as well as the film’s overwhelming success and the role the internet played…

Q. Was it enjoyable to play the narrator in this?
David Wenham: I’ve got to say it was actually. It’s the first time I’ve had the opportunity as a character within the film to also narrate it. I was really excited about it and I loved working with Zack on that part of it as well. We put down a very temporary narration while we were actually shooting it which, for editing purposes, worked really, really well. And then it was a matter of tweaking it in post-production.

I got back with Zack and we did all these various things. I loved it actually because it’s really tricky. It has to work on quite a few different levels because, obviously, the film is actually seen through Dilios’s re-telling of this tale. Like any good storyteller, there’s a small amount of truth but he’s obviously embellishing the whole thing and making it sound much bigger than it was. It also has to work from an audiences’ perspective, reflecting as much of the story as possible without seeming like it’s exposition. It’s a tricky line to walk.

Q. How hard did you have to work to get into physical shape?
David Wenham: Ridiculously hard. The training on it was like nothing I’ve ever done; it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. But also one of the most rewarding things. We trained until your body would want to give up and collapse, or you’d want to physically vomit. The warehouse in Montreal where we used to train with the 50 stunt guys used to have these canvas stretcher beds off to the side, so when we used to have breaks between training we’d have our little snacks – which would normally be five almonds or a bowl of ricotta cheese that I used to gag on – and then just collapse until we had to get up and work again.

Q. The film is very close to being camp because of what these men are wearing and how they’re bonding. Was it difficult to take it seriously and not veer towards something different?
David Wenham: It was pretty easy actually. The perception of it is strangely different from the reality. Sitting here, prior to filming I would probably have thought the same as you. But after having spent two months training together, it became so normal.

To arrive there in the morning in Montreal, where it could be minus 27 degrees celsius outside, to walk inside that warehouse, take your clothes off, put on a leather codpiece and a cape became so normal because we were so used to it. That’s all we knew. So it didn’t even enter our minds being anything other than Spartans, and fighting together as a single unit.

Q. Was a lot of the training about building muscle memory and making the things you do in battle appear like second nature?
David Wenham: Absolutely. The training was split into two parts. We used to train every morning with this guy called Mark Twight and that was basically our physical training. His idea of training us was not just to put on big bulky, hard muscle, which is useless. They wouldn’t have been physically able to move with it. So what Mark does is create muscle that’s actually potentially there within you but just comes out.

Then, in the afternoon we’d do our fight training where we’d be able to use the muscles that we worked with in the morning. We’d go through drills and drills with the fight training until you felt like your arm was going to fall off. Or with the lunges, you felt as though your legs were about to collapse.

Q. Has Mark Twight worked before?
David Wenham: This is the only movie he’s ever done. He trains in a gym in Salt Lake City and he has 18 people in his gym. Over the last two months, his website has had 9 million hits because of this film.

Q. How come he hasn’t been used before?
David Wenham: Zack had trained with Mark and found his form of training so incredibly unique and useful. Zack had to fight to have him on the film because it was shot in Canada and for reasons that the studio have to explain they would have desired to have somebody in Canada train us. But Zack fought to have Mark do it. Obviously, it worked.

He’s an amazing guy. He’s done so many things but he slips under the radar. He holds most of the world records in mountain climbing with no oxygen and he trains cage fighters in America. He trains people to the limit of their physical ability; right out there on the edge. When he first sent me an email detailing what we were going to do and I saw footage of what we were going to do, I nearly freaked. I thought this is stuff that gymnasts or professional athletes do. It was Olympic stuff. I thought he’d be the end of us, you know, one of those people that yelled and shouted at us the whole time. But he wasn’t. He’s quite a small guy. But when he takes off his shirt, I tell you what there is more muscles in that guy’s back than has ever been shown in an anatomy lesson. He’s unbelievable.

Q. Have you kept the muscles?
David Wenham: No, unfortunately if you don’t use it, you lose it.

Q. Obviously, a lot of work on the film was completed after you’d finished doing your bit, in post-production. What did you think when you first saw it?
David Wenham: Impressed. Really, really impressed. I had some idea of what it was going to look like because I’d seen a test that Zack had done. We all had in rehearsal. But even so, it was still a terrific surprise to actually see it.

Q. How did he go about explaining what the whole scenario was going to be when it came to filming scenes with nothing there?
David Wenham: He was the only director that I’ve ever known that when we arrived every day there’d be a huge board up in the studio and his whole storyboard for the day was pinned up on the set. So, every actor and every crew member knew shot by shot to the finest detail exactly what we were going to do. It was never a surprise. If ever there was a question about what he was trying to achieve all you had to do was ask and he’d articulate it pretty well.

Q. Were you familiar with the graphic novel and did you get the chance to meet Frank Miller?
David Wenham: No to the first question, yes to the second. I read the graphic novel after I’d agreed to do the film and obviously I was trying to find my character. His first appearance was in the nude by a fire telling stories, so I freaked. Then I saw my next appearance was only in a pair of leather underpants and I freaked again! And then I found out we were shooting the film in Montreal and thought it was a really strange place to be filming Greece. I just didn’t get it at all, so I rang Zack and he laughed for about five minutes.

I did get to meet Frank when he came on set on a number of occasions. He was extremely supportive. The great thing about the film is that I don’t think there’s a bigger fan of it than Frank Miller. He is stoked about this film; he loves it, which is extremely fulfilling.

Q. The internet has an uneasy relationship with the film industry at the best of times but on this occasion it’s been credited with much of its success. How do you feel about the impact it’s had in 300‘s success?
David Wenham: Yeah, without a doubt. The buzz on this film was obviously created over the net. It sort of started in a way when Gerard and Zack went to Comicon at the end of last year and the reaction to the footage there was unbelievable. From there buzz was created on the net. I’d describe myself as a bit of a luddite really, I know how to do my email and not much more.

But I have gone on to a few sites and watched the increase in interest in this film over the past few months and it’s been incredible. So I think it was a smart decision by the studio. The MySpace site for 300 has been phenomenal.

Q. Did the huge box office still come as a surprise in spite of that?
David Wenham: Yeah. I don’t think anyone could have predicted it was going to make $70 million in the US over the weekend. I think the most optimistic forecast was around the $50 million mark. So that was out of the ball park.

Q. What was the secret ingredient?
David Wenham: I don’t know. I think there’ll be focus groups set up to discuss it so that the success can be replicated. I think it was a number of things. I think the trailer had a huge amount to do with it. It’s one of the most downloaded trailers in history. I think the unique look of the film was probably something that captured audiences’ imagination. There hasn’t been a film that’s looked like this before.

The closest thing is Sin City. There are action scenes within it that are hinted at in the trailer that people have been hugely excited by. I think some of those sequences are some of the best action sequences that have been commited to film. And it’s a sexy film too. I think people of both sexes have picked up on that.

Q. What are you doing next?
David Wenham: I’m going to do Baz Luhrmann’s new film, Australia and I’m going to be doing that for a pretty long time.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
David Wenham: It’s a Fox project but Baz is adamant that it’s Australian. It’s the biggest film ever shot in Australia. Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman is doing it. It’s an epic romantic adventure set in the late ’30s/early ’40s in Australia.

Read our review of 300

Read our interview with Rodrigo Santoro (Xerxes)