Rodrigo Santoro Interview, Frank Miller's 300

Posted by: Sheila Roberts
At the screening of 300 in LA for press we had a chance to sit down and talk to Rodrigo Santoro about his latest film 300. Mr Santoro  is already one of Brazil's most sought-after young actors and is quickly building an impressive career in the U.S. He was introduced to American audiences in 2003, first in the acclaimed Showtime movie "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone," with Helen Mirren and Anne Bancroft. He then co-starred with Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu and Demi Moore in the summer actioner "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle." Later that year, he joined the ensemble cast of the hit romantic comedy/drama "Love Actually," in which Santoro played Karl, the handsome office love interest of Laura Linney's character. On the heels of those projects, Santoro won the Chopard Trophy as the "Male Revelation" at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.
 
Santoro was previously honored in his native Brazil for his work in "Bicho de Sete Cabecas (aka "Brainstorm"). Santoro's portrayal of a young man forced into a mental institution by his parents brought him a number of Best Actor Awards, including the first-ever Best Actor Award from the Brazilian Academy of Arts and Film, and the Cinema Brazil Grand Prize, also for Best Actor. He later earned another Cinema Brazil Grand Prize nomination for his work in 2003's "Carandiru," which broke all Brazilian box office records at the time of its release and was Brazil's entry for the Foreign Film category at the Academy Awards. Here is what he had to say about his role in 300.
Q: What was the audition process? Just strip down and go and say ‘hey, does this fit?’

Rodrigo Santoro: No, totally different. I was back in Brazil shooting a film and one of the producers in the film, Gianni Nunnari, who is Italian and has been to Brazil many times was very aware of my work back in Brazil so he was the one who brought up my name and actually asked me to come to L.A. to audition for this part. But I was shooting something there and I could not come and he goes, ‘so put yourself on tape.’ I did that but I was shooting something there in Brazil and in order to play this character, I had to lose around 35 pounds. I was like really, really skinny. This man was about to die so… The thing was that they saw the audition tape, they really liked it, but they go like, ‘he’s too skinny.’ Then I said, ‘no, I’m just shooting a film where I have to be like that’ and then I think they decided just to bet that in four months I would get back and become a giant. So that was kind of the process.

Q: What was the challenge for you to play this character amidst the technology that was going on around you?

Rodrigo Santoro: It was a real challenge because I have never done anything like that, you know, working with the blue screen and working with blue walls with nothing around you. We did have the graphic novel as a source, as something that we could [use] to inspire ourselves but once you’re there working, it’s just nothing around you.

Q: So do you just try to draw upon your imagination?

Rodrigo Santoro: Totally. I found that it was great training. It was a great exercise to live in the world of imagination completely and [it requires] a lot of concentration. I tend to, every time I step onto the set until the time I go back to the hotel, I just try to be in character all the time. It was a lot of work just to be concentrated and keep that energy and just maintain yourself in character.

Q: How much does a graphic novel help you learn about how the character moves and walks and talks?

Rodrigo Santoro: I would say that the way it helped me was that when I first saw the picture, I was actually salivating because I thought ‘My god, what a character’ and it has a soul already. It already exists. I think Frank Miller… it’s not just a drawing, it’s something else, there is a soul in there. But what I tried to do was just bring it to life. Regarding the way he moved, I… because Xerxes is such a self-proclaimed god... He’s someone believed to be above everything and everyone on the planet -- sort of like this ego trip where he’s like beyond everything.
 
I try to work with my body since I think it’s important for this character. The body language was important – the way he carried himself in order to portray this god king of Asia, of Persian – just smooth but at the same time carry yourself as a god, how would it be. So it was just a lot of improvising work, trying to find the perfect way to move and to carry yourself and finding the truth. It doesn’t matter if you just stand there and put your chest out. It was a little bit more subtle than that, just trying to find the right feeling, how was it like to feel as this god.

Q: Is there room in a piece like this which is based on Greek history and mythology to do research or do you rely totally on the graphic novel?

Rodrigo Santoro: No, I did a lot of research on the Greek historian Herodotus which I found was the best source actually. I think it’s a great combination of reality and fantasy here because we do have true historical facts, but the way we tell the story, it’s hyper-real, it’s fantasy. Yeah, I did a lot of research and there were some things there in the Herodotus that were actually very interesting for me [to use] to build Xerxes. One of them was that Darius, Xerxes’ father, had more sons and for some reason the power went to Xerxes. It’s controversial. Nobody knows exactly why. There’s a sculpture in the Palace of Persepolus of Xerxes facing Darius, his father’s sculpture, and there’s an inscription saying that he was his father’s choice. So he wanted to make sure that…
 
I think that just tells us that he was pretty insecure and actually ultimately weak. That’s why I think he put out that figure. I don’t know but maybe that could be where Frank Miller took the inspiration to build Xerxes like that – just this sort of god and more of a ruler-tyrant style. But I see him as this very insecure [person] and weak underneath. But he just put out [means projected] this powerful god figure in order to protect himself.

Q: You mentioned before about the special effects and the CG but most of this was real. There was no blue screen or green screen for a lot of it. When you see the final product, is that what you were seeing when you were shooting it?

Rodrigo Santoro: No, not really. You don’t really have an idea of what the final result will be. I was amazed, you know, when I saw everything together. It’s amazing but while you’re there shooting, you don’t really have an idea. Like a couple of shots I did by myself, a couple with Gerry Butler, sometimes I spoke to somewhere else. It’s a pretty intense process.

Q: Would you want to do something like that again? Do you think this is the future for filmmaking?

Rodrigo Santoro: Well, I would, definitely. It depends. If I have the chance to play a character like that, I definitely would. That was very, very interesting. It taught me a lot.

Q: You talked a little bit about getting into the role. How hard was it to get into the role with all that make-up and jewelry? It seems like it just overtook you.

Rodrigo Santoro: Yeah, the costume helped a lot. I think the gold is sort of part of him. The make-up was a long process – between 4 and 5 hours every day which was actually great for me because it was my time to get into the character. It was sort of like this ritual. The first day I thought was long but then the next day I realized that it would be great for me to just get into it. The next day I went in for 5 hours or whatever and I took that time just to perceive and dive in and get into the character. All that helped a lot because since I think this character is a little bit on an ego trip. He’s kind of egocentric I think. I found those 4-1/2 hours a great opportunity to really be with myself and just be tripping and it was all about me. (laughs) It was very ego, very ego.

Q: So you could relate to the egocentric nature of the character when you were alone there thinking about the character?

Rodrigo Santoro: I think it was just a perfect opportunity for me. I had my earphones. It was a different dimension. I was in a different world and it was about his world because that’s kind of what his character is about. It’s about what his perception of reality is which is just his reality. It’s not the reality that corresponds to the other characters. It’s his reality.

Q: Had you known of the graphic novel before?

Rodrigo Santoro: I knew. I have a friend who is really, really into it and when I saw Sin City, I had already heard about Frank Miller and when I saw Sin City he showed me 300, the graphic novel.

Q: This was before you had even…?

Rodrigo Santoro: Oh yeah, much before. And then I looked at 300 and I went, ‘Wow, this could be a great movie.’ And then I heard about the movie from this producer, Gianni Nunnari, and then I went, ‘Wow, that’s great’ and then he said, ‘Yeah, we don’t know.’ I think they were thinking maybe that I could play a Spartan or I could play…and then when he mentioned Xerxes, I remembered right away (claps hands), ‘Whoa! That guy?’ and went back to the graphic novel and then again I was like, ‘Wow! That’s great. That’s awesome.’

Q: What kind of doors does a movie like this open for you?

Rodrigo Santoro: I don’t know. The movie’s not out yet. I don’t know exactly.

Q: But there’s been a lot of buzz around it.

Rodrigo Santoro: The response has been amazing. I don’t know. I hope good doors. What I really hope with the film is that people go see it and I wish it could reach a very wide audience – not just people who are into graphic novels. I think it’s a great ride. It’s a great experience. It’s very original. I’ve never seen anything like that so even though you may find it violent, it’s a graphic novel, a comic book, a sword film, but it is a very interesting ride so that’s what I actually hope. The rest is consequence.

Q: Are you doing anything else at the moment?

Rodrigo Santoro: Well right now I’m shooting the TV series Lost.

Q: Which you just joined, right?

Rodrigo Santoro: Uh huh.

Q: What can you talk about?

Rodrigo Santoro: (whispering) Anything [means nothing]. If I say, I have to kill you. (laughs) I can’t say anything about it because I don’t know.

Q: Are you one of the Others or are you one of the…?

Rodrigo Santoro: I can’t say a word, my friend. I’m so sorry.

Q: When will your episodes begin airing?

Rodrigo Santoro: We were on hiatus so now Lost is back. Anytime.

Q: Anytime?

Rodrigo Santoro: Stay tuned. (laughs)

Q: What’s it like working with an ensemble cast like that compared to working on a film like 300? Can you compare or contrast?

Rodrigo Santoro: It’s hard to compare but the Lost experience is very unique as well because you do not know what’s going on. You really don’t know what’s going on until two or three days before you get a script.

Q: You get a script in advance then?

Rodrigo Santoro: No. Just a little bit before. It depends. It varies. Sometimes you get 3 or 4 days, sometimes a little bit more. So for me who just joined the cast, I don’t know my backstory so I do not know what I’m playing so there’s no building a character like this. It’s upside down. I mean it’s a completely different process. You cannot build. You got it? Alright, that’s it, and just go there and live the moment.

Q: Did you move to Hawaii?

Rodrigo Santoro: Yeah.

Q: There’s so many people in the show, how much time do you get off?

Rodrigo Santoro: Well, we have time off because every episode is more about one character so we’re not working all the time so I got to surf a lot. (laughs) It’s great. It’s a dream.

Q: JJ Abrams and Damon Lindelof are famous comic book fans. Did you guys talk 300?

Rodrigo Santoro: Oh yeah, we talked. We were actually talking yesterday. I was talking to Carlton Cuse, one of the writers, and he said he was really excited to watch and I go, ‘Yeah, man. You got to watch it. You’re going to really like that.’

Q: The tropical climates of Hawaii have got to be a marked improvement over the cold of Montreal.

Rodrigo Santoro: Oh yeah, completely. Montreal was cold, man, and believe me I’m used to it. I don’t feel that cold and usually I can take it but Montreal… and with that wardrobe? Like walking from the studio, it was like this (raises hand high) much snow to the trailer. I wouldn’t go to the trailer. ‘I’m staying here.’ I made a little corner for me inside and I said, ‘That’s my trailer. I’m not going out there at all.’ It was like freezing.

Q: How was doing the scene when you walk down from your little mobile temple onto the field?

Rodrigo Santoro: Little? You thought that was little?

Q: I could imagine that his big temple would be 8 times as big or something like that. It was a mobile temple.

Rodrigo Santoro: Yeah, yeah. (laughs) Well it was insane. When I saw that golden, huge, massive throne carried and I actually step on those guys’ backs, I thought ‘My god, do I have to do that?’ ‘Yes!’ It was a real trip. It was like ‘What am I doing here?’ Alright, just go for it. That’s what it is. By the time I was there shooting, I had already spent 4-1/2 hours there so I remember... There’s a funny story. I had this velvet blue cape -- heavy, very heavy – plus all the chains around my neck so I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a lot to carry!’ I was actually having a hard time going up and coming down the stairs without stepping on my cape and all that. It was just a joke. Don’t get me wrong. But I just clapped my hands and went like, ‘Don’t I have a helper to hold my cape?’ (laughs)

Q: You were really into it?

Rodrigo Santoro: I had to be. I’m telling you it was blue screen. You had to trip. So this guy from the costume department walks up and goes, ‘From now on, I’m your helper.’ And he was, he was always carrying my cape around and I felt bad for the guy and I’m like, ‘You don’t have to do that.’ ‘No, no, no, I want to do that.’ And that was great.

Q: Were there any mistake made, any missteps, anything that happened that was funny?

Rodrigo Santoro: Funny? That was the funniest thing actually that happened, that I had this guy help me out with the cape. Nothing really funny.

Q: Did you ask to keep that costume?

Rodrigo Santoro: I did ask. They would not. (laughs)

Q: What would you do with the costume?

Rodrigo Santoro: I can’t tell you.

Q: Wear it at home around the house?

Rodrigo Santoro: I would keep it. I thought it was so interesting. At least some chains, you know. I actually have a piece [of the wardrobe] of most of the characters that I’ve played. I always ask for something. But this one they said, ‘No, no, no, no, no. This one you cannot take’ and I said, ‘Please man. Any piece.’ ‘No, no.’

Q: When you play a guy like this, what are the dangers of making him too evil?

Rodrigo Santoro: Tricky, man. Very tricky. Very risky. At the same time I was like ‘Wow, what a character’ and on the other hand, I was like ‘Oh my god, this is going to be so difficult.’ I just made a choice to try to make him a little ambiguous and a little like not here or there or more of an entity. I don’t think he’s human. The voice was amazing because Zack asked me to work in my lower register if possible. He said, ‘I want the movie theater to shake when you open your mouth. They’re going to do a lot of computer work afterwards.’ So you had to go for it. That’s what I tried to do. You have to make a choice. There are so many ways to play [it]. I didn’t want to play a caricature even though we were in this kind of comic book, operatic, stylized world, we had to be believable. So you just had to go for it and I think all the actors in the movie did the same. They just made a choice, ‘Okay, let’s go and tell the story.’

"300” opens in theaters on March 9th. Based on the epic graphic novel by Frank Miller, 300 is a ferocious retelling of the ancient Battle of Thermopylae in which King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and 300 Spartans fought to the death against Xerxes and his massive Persian army. Facing insurmountable odds, their valor and sacrifice inspire all of Greece to unite against their Persian enemy, drawing a line in the sand for democracy. The film brings Miller’s (Sin City) acclaimed graphic novel to life by combining live action with virtual backgrounds that capture his distinct vision of this ancient historic tale

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