Your parents and grandparents might regale you with anecdotes of catching Richard Burton and Liz Taylor in period garb at the movie palace. Your great-grandparents – as well as silent-movie buffs – might look fondly upon the days when Cecil B. DeMille still made silent epics with a cast of thousands. Say it together with me, boys and girls: spectacle. Being swept up in the massive scope of a period epic is a moviegoing pleasure that hasn’t really changed since the days of the original, pre-Charlton Heston Ten Commandments (1923).
So what happens when you marry the old-fashioned trappings of a Roman Empire yarn with the CGI-heavy aesthetics of contemporary films like Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow? The result is Pompeii, the latest 3D extravaganza from British schlockmeister Paul W.S. Anderson (Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil, Alien vs. Predator), which uses the eruption of Mount Vesuvius circa 79 A.D. as the backdrop for a kitschy hodgepodge of upstairs/downstairs romance, palace intrigue, politically minded swordplay and lava-propelled mayhem. Anderson even throws in a tsunami as well for good measure.
Several weeks ago I had the chance to step into the interview arena with two of the film’s stars, Kit Harington and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, during one of their promotional stops for the movie at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel. HBO fans will immediately recognize the actors, the soft-spoken Harington for his role as illegitimate royal offspring Jon Snow in Game of Thrones and the prolific, effortlessly charismatic Akinnuoye-Agbaje as bad-boy prison inmate Adebisi in Oz. The stars, who play rivals-turned-allies Milo (Harington) and Atticus (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) in Pompeii opposite a cast that includes Emily Browning, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jared Harris and hammy baddie Kiefer Sutherland, shared their Roman-epic movie memories, extolled the virtues of Anderson (aka Milla Jovovich’s hubby) as a not-so-closeted romantic, and detailed how they were able to soldier through gladiator boot camp.
RUBEN ROSARIO (pointing at the severe spotlight shining directly at me): Feels like I’m the one being interrogated. Did you see that?
ADEWALE AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE: “Now what do you want?”
RR: Well, I want to ask you some questions. All right, so I want you to go back in time a little bit. I’m wondering, both of you guys, what are some of your first memories of going to the movies and watching these kinds of gladiator films and films in Roman times. Did those come back when you were first reading the screenplay for Pompeii?
KIT HARINGTON: “I mean, I can’t profess to have seen a huge amount of gladiator films, if I’m honest. That’s one of the reasons why I found this one intriguing to do. I wouldn’t say they were a huge passion of mine growing up, although I have officially seen Gladiator 101 times because it was absolutely fantastic. But I never saw Spartacus. I don’t think I ever saw …”
RR: Not even the TV show?
KH: “Spartacus: Blood and Sand? I did actually watch a couple of episodes. It was very good. I don’t know why I didn’t get into it more, but I enjoyed it.”
RR (to Adewale): And you?
ADEWALE: “Only because I’m slightly older than Kit (laughs), I have a few more memories of growing up [watching these films]. I really did grow up with Ben Hur, Spartacus. I remember seeing Woody Strode. He was the great black gladiator in Spartacus. I always looked up to his great Adonis physique and his stature and his dignity. He was an iconic figure for me as a child. Some of those epics with Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas, I just fell in love with those movies, so when this movie came along, I mean, it was a childhood dream, to be able to participate in a modern-day epic, and also for it to be in 3D, and with these similar iconic characters, it was a real treat.”
RR: Now, it’s good that you mentioned the 3D. When you were shooting Pompeii, was it different to shoot a movie that’s intended to be in 3D for you guys?
KH: “Um, I didn’t really notice too much of a difference.”
ADEWALE: “I mean, there were a few instances, as you will see in the movie without giving away the plot, where I had to throw a weapon which didn’t exist, things like that or, you know, maybe positioning, accentuating certain angles, for the 3D, but I didn’t really see that much of a difference between the two-dimensional picture and a three-dimensional, not as an actor.”
KH: “No, I think for the crew, for the director and for the special effects guys, it’s a wildly different process, but for actors – I’ve done a couple of 3D films – I don’t think there’s much, what we do, there’s not a huge amount of difference.”
RR: It’s good that you brought up the actor’s process, because my perception of Paul Anderson is that he doesn’t come across as an actor’s director. What was your experience in terms of creating your character, shaping your character with him, and how does it compare to some of the other people you have worked with?
KH: “I would disagree about him not being an actor’s director. He gives you a huge amount of free rein, and expects you to turn up and know what you’re doing and know your character and done all your development process without having to mollycoddle you or mother you into the process, which I quite like. I find it quite liberating. But he allows you, as an actor, a lot of input in the film. With the script, there was a fluidity there that we could about what we felt, you know, if something was jarring about the character, we could change it.”
ADEWALE: “I agree. I think Paul is a man of few words, but the words that he does speak are very poignant and to the point, and I find that refreshing in a director, because as Kit says, he hires the actors he trusts. So he trusts that you know what you’re doing, but he has a very clear vision and he’s very tapped in to the more subtle, emotional strings of the movie.”
KH: “And as much as he’s obsessed with explosions, I say that because he is, as much as he is, he was so adamant about the love story running through and the friendship that me and Adewale’s character have. He was very interested in making sure that the characters’ chemistry worked, as well as the explosions.”
ADEWALE: “And you’ll see from the movie, that is one of the strongest elements, the relationships, whether it’s Milo and Cassia [Browning's character], or Milo and Atticus or Kiefer’s [character] as well. Those are some of the strongest elements in the film, this impending doom.”
RR: Well, let’s talk about Atticus. He’s a badass, with a very tough shell. How much did you draw on your own life experience when you actually approached that character?
ADEWALE: “Ooh, my goodness, it would be great to say I drew on a lot. Atticus as a character, he’s such an admirable human being because of the circumstances he’s in, and yet still has this nobility, honor and much grace by which he accepts his fate. I’m not sure that I would be able to have the same qualities if I were faced with his predicament as being an imprisoned slave and a killer. Obviously, I’m Nigerian, I’m African, so it was quite a delight for me to bring the spiritual side of Atticus. We put that in, inside the story, because I felt that as an African you would have a faith, and he would have a faith that he would have brought from his culture, so we retained that, albeit some fictitious simulation, but the notion that he would have an authentic African religion that would get him through his daily battles.”
RR: Did you guys have to go to gladiator boot camp for those fight sequences?
KH: “Yeah, boot camp is the word. We were training a few weeks prior [to shooting], physical training, and also we had a great group of stunt guys who worked us like dogs to get us to a stage where we looked like we were gladiators and we looked like we could fight. Yeah, I think it was referred to as boot camp. We ran every day before we started learning the choreography, so it was grueling.”
RR: There are a lot of films like Pompeii, period films that, because of the new technology, you see a lot of CGI. I know you guys were talking about how much you were impressed with the CGI last night at the screening. Are you concerned that some of these films are becoming a little too reliant on digitally rendered effects, especially when they’re taking place in a period that’s not the present or the future?
KH: “I think it’s a fine balance, and there are films out there which go too far and there are films which don’t go far enough. I think the reason this is being made now, hopefully, is that you can show with some degree of realism the mountain exploding, and I think, me personally, I think they got it right. I can’t wait to see it in 3D, cause actually, I haven’t seen it in 3D.”
ADEWALE: “Yeah, me neither.”
KH: “But apparently the whole idea of an explosion, that kind of blast out like that…”
RR: It comes at you.
Pompeii‘s effects-driven mix of sword-and-sandal derring-do and star-crossed (b)romance is currently blasting off the screen in wide release.