ONCE WERE WARRIORS - by Whang Yee-Ling

Two great nations. At war over a woman. Whang Yee-Ling meets the living legends in this week’s historical epic blockbuster Troy.

When Paris of Troy seduced away Helen of Sparta, her husband King Menelaus launched a thousand ships and started a decade-long war between the ancient civilizations of Greece and Troy.

Theirs has been called he greatest story ever. So of course the movie dramatization would be one of Hollywood’s grandest, most ambitious.

Opening this week, Troy is the US$185 million adaptation of the 8th Century BC literary classic The Iliad by the poet Homer. The historical adventure set in 1200 BC has empire-crushing battles and ill-fated romance. It has swords and sandals and men in skirts, and, whew, what men. Brad Pitt, buffed and bronzed, toplines as Achilles, the invincible warrior leading the Greek army. Australia’s Eric Bana co-stars as his adversary Prince Hector, brother of Paris and sworn defender of the city of Troy.

German actress Diane Kruger is the new discovery as Helen.

And Orlando Bloom as Paris, Brendan Gleeson as Menelaus and Peter O’Toole, Brian Cox and Sean Bean are the others in a teeming cast.

Their producer-director is Academy Award-nominee Wolfgang Petersen of Das Boot and The Perfect Storm. During April 2003, they began their 15-month shoot in London. They then moved to Malta. The 85-degree heat caused fainting spells; an extra, a former Mr Malta bodybuilder named George Camilleri, injured his leg in an action stunt and died from post-surgery complications.

Morocco was to have been the next location until the uncertainties of the approaching Iraq War rescheduled the production to Mexico. The Temple of Apollo, the Statue of Zeus, the 40-foot Trojan Horse, 8,000 costumes, 4,000 shields, 3,000 spears and 20,000 arrows: The 200 tons of props and equipment were dismantled and crated via two Russian Antonov air freighters, only for two hurricanes to strike Baja California Sur, destroying even the supposedly impenetrable Gate of Troy. The major sets had all to be rebuilt.

Adding to the delay and the already massive budget, was Pitt’s torn Achilles tendon: The actor was out of action for three months to recuperate.

Somehow, they survived their own Greek tragedies, and Pitt, Bana and Kruger are in a hotel in Beverly Hills today relaxing with 8 DAYS. Pitt and Bana, in T-shirts and jeans, and chunky brown boots on Pitt, are sharing a couch: Kruger is curled up across the room, a frail wisp of a blonde.

We set our tape recorder down on the table, beside our well-thumbed copy of Homer’s poem.

8 DAYS: How did you immerse yourself in the world of Troy, which is 3,200 from today?

Brad Pitt: I was looking forward to the skirts.

[Laughter all around]

Pitt: The Iliad is one of the all-time greatest stories rife with great parts that demanded great actors, and we were really fortunate everyone showed up for it. It’s required a lot of researching, getting into it. For me specifically there were the physicalities and the dialects to contend with.

Did you ace literature in school?

Pitt: No. I probably spent more time figuring out how to get out of classes. Eric was a good student [playfully elbows Eric Bana].

[To Pitt] You attended the University of Missouri.

Eric Bana: [astonished] What did you study, man? What did you do?

Pitt: I actually didn’t graduate. I was in journalism school. Fortunately, Troy is material a lot of people had researched so there was ample to peruse. For me that’s the most fun of going into a project like this. It’s a time of discovery; you’re finding your barometer for your character.

And the physical aspect?

Pitt: That’s not as important as the dissection of the story. It’s just what we do. We all changed our hair, we changed dialect.

[Nods at Diane Kruger] Diane had to gain seven kilos for her role.

Pitt: How much is a kilo?

Diane Kruger: Like two pounds.

Bana: I never had to pay attention to numbers on the scale. Both Brad and I knew we had to be in great shape to be in Troy not only because it’s a visual medium and we were playing warriors, but, the reality is, to get through a film this size in such a period of time you had better be in really, really good condition from the start. It was a matter of physically being fit, and technically able to do all we were required to do. A by-product is that you obviously look fit but by no means did I say to myself [clenches jaws and claps determinedly]. ‘I gotta lose 10 pounds!’

Brad turned 40 last December. Getting into shape couldn’t have been fun.

Pitt: Well, it’s not as easy when you were 20. You don’t really care when you’re 20. It’s amazing what an impending midlife crisis can do f or your motivation. Shaping up was difficult. But, as Eric said, we knew what was going to be asked of this and what we wanted to get out of it. To get there, you’ve got to put yourself through discomfort. So be it.

Achilles was the greatest warrior known and we may be tempted to compare his quest for glory with yours, as a Hollywood idol.

Pitt: One aspect of the mirror is the fear of mortality, hence a quest for immortality in the sense of some kind of fame. Yeah, you can make those comparisons. They were probably rock stars of their era, these warriors.

Achilles also had quite an ego, which a Hollywood star can presumably relate to?

Pitt: [Long pause] You mean do you need a big ego to play a guy with such a big ego?

[Squirming] Er, well, is it easier?

Pitt: I don’t know, I don’t know… Maybe. I don’t know.

Did you really injure your left Achilles tendon or was that a wise-guy rumour?

Pitt: In a twisted bad irony, yes it was true. But it didn’t hold us back or anything. We had bigger things to contend with, like hurricanes.

How did you keep your spirits up under such circumstances?

Kruger: Karaoke.

Bana: Sushi and karaoke. The beauty of being part of a big cast on a production that takes a long time is you inevitably forge friendships you don’t get when you’re shooting a short-run movie in the city. That happens organically. We had a fantastic, large group of people. I’m sure everyone made friends. That’s what gets you through at the end of the day. We were blessed, you know.

Diane, compared to Brad and Eric you’re a newcomer. Tell us how you became Helen.

Pitt: There was an exhaustive search.

Kruger: I had been in Los Angeles maybe twice, so I really didn’t know anything about the movie. My agent from Paris called me when I was in Montreal filming Wicker Park [an upcoming romantic thriller] and suggested I send in a tape of myself, which I did. Warner bros called me back and I had to do it again. Didn’t hear from them for weeks and weeks. Then they flew me out to London and I met the producers. Didn’t hear from them, and then they flew me to LA…

Sounds grueling!

Kruger: I remember sitting in the Warner Bros office in Los Angeles. It was huge and had 150 Oscars the studio had won. It was very intimidating, and this man is like telling they’d seen thousands of girls who could launch a hundred ships [laughs]. They basically tested me for four months before I got the part and at the end of, I was like, ‘You know what? It doesn’t matter if I don’t get it.’

Did you get along well with director Wolfgang Petersen because you’re both from Germany?

Kruger: I did feel very close to him. You know, I’m just starting out as an actress so there were moments when I was unsure and he made me feel special and confident. He would sometimes say things in German to me, not to exclude everybody, just to make me feel welcome.

Pitt: He spoke to me in German.


Pitt: It wasn’t good.

Which of you men would do like Menelaus and send an armada of ships to reclaim the woman you love?

[Uncomfortable laughter from Pitt and Bana; Kruger giggles.]

Bana: I don’t know about ships… maybe a car.

Pitt: Ducatti.

Bana: brad knows me too well. In all honesty, speaking as a parent [Bana has two children], I think everyone would do that for a child. For a partner it’s more of a stretch. It’s a very romantic notion. Paris’ was obviously a very special love…

Pitt: For a very special woman.

Bana: Yeah, I think I could understand it more if it’s over a family member.

Pitt: This thousand-ship business puts a lot of pressure on Helen because everyone’s in the Trojan War for a different reason. She’s certainly the catalyst; she sets off this chain of events for everybody else’s motive whether greed, pride, revenge…

You don’t think this movie is a love story?

Pitt: I think that’s one small aspect of it. We’re dealing with also betrayal and quests for glory, and Troy is a land that has a harmony and peace the Greeks don’t have with Hector representing this idea of equality and humanity… So it’s much more complicated and convoluted.

We’ve noticed a surge recently of historical war epics. There was Master and Commander with Russell Crowe fighting the Napoleonic Wars, The Passion of the Christ was another retreat into the past, and Colin Farrell is finishing Alexander of Alexander the Great.

Bana: [Leaps to feet fiercely] They have nothing on us!

Oh, no.

Pitt: Everything is cyclical. There hadn’t been this genre for a while and then Gladiator came along and was good and successful and it opened the doors for it. Soon, we’ll run this into the ground and go in another direction.

Bana: You don’t think about what other films are being made when you’re making a film like Troy. The word Alexander, we never see it on the set. It was such a big job, what we were doing. We never spoke about the fact that, ‘Hey, we’re going to be the first big one out for the year.’

Pitt: If they’re all done well, they’d be companion pieces for each other.

You’re saying the trend is nothing more than coincidence?

Pitt: Are you asking if there’s something in the collective consciousness? Maybe we’re in a time of war and that… That could very well be because the themes in Troy, the nature of the story itself, hold so many dynamics that resonate today. So that could very well be. Yes, that could very well be.