Dwayne Johnson's Herculean labour of love

For actor Dwayne Johnson and director Brett Ratner, bringing out the mortal side of the immortal was a passion project, writes James Mottram

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 July, 2014, 3:35pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 July, 2014, 3:35pm

Like a towering titan of Greek mythology, Hercules looms large in popular culture to this day. The son of Zeus, known for his incredible strength and courage as he completed the so-called 12 labours, he's inspired comics, video games, cartoons, books, television shows and literally dozens of movies.

Hollywood, it seems, just can't get enough of him. "Hercules is the ultimate character. He's the first superhero," says director Brett Ratner, in what sounds like the perfect movie studio pitch.

You get one crack at Hercules ... especially when you want to make one that's a defining movie
Dwayne Johnson 

Already this year, we've seen Kellan Lutz play him in Renny Harlin's The Legend of Hercules. With the reviews for that January release poor and the box office weak, most seemed to be banking on Ratner's version - simply titled Hercules - to overthrow all-comers. It has the distinct advantage of starring Dwayne Johnson, the ex-WWE wrestler formerly known as "The Rock" - an apt nickname for an actor destined to play the man-mountain Hercules.

"I grew up loving and admiring Hercules," the 42-year-old Johnson admits. "There's that iconic moment where Hercules breaks his chains from the pillars and screams 'I am Hercules!' For me, as a kid, that was a mesmerising moment. I remember having a poster of Steve Reeves, in the old days, where those posters look painted, so I was always inspired by it."

The first actor to play the character (in 1957's Hercules), Reeves also appeared in a 1959 sequel Hercules Unchained. These Italian productions spawned a series of 18 more Hercules films featuring other actors.

Previously a bodybuilder, Reeves inspired a generation - with fellow beefcakes such as Arnold Schwarzenegger (in his first film, 1969's Hercules in New York) and Lou Ferrigno (who followed his career-making role as The Incredible Hulk on television by playing the character in 1983's Hercules) also taking a crack. Understandably, Johnson was obsessed. When he first arrived in Hollywood, back in the late 1990s, Hercules was the first movie idea he enquired about - but it fell on deaf ears. "At that time, I didn't have the ability to green-light anything," he says.

Now it's different, with roles in the Fast & Furious franchise, G.I. Joe: Retaliation and The Scorpion King turning him into one of Hollywood's biggest action stars. "There's nobody else of this generation that could've played this role," says Ratner, whose past movies include the Rush Hour series with Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. "We all loved Steve Reeves, we all loved Arnold. But for this generation, Dwayne is the ultimate Hercules."

Ratner, 45, can still recall the day when he first met Johnson, and discussed making a new Hercules film. "He comes to my house, he looks me in the eye and said 'I was born to play this role.' And when Dwayne Johnson looks you in the eye and says that, you friggin' believe him." By the time the director saw the actor in London during the hair, make-up and wardrobe tests, Ratner knew his instincts were spot-on. "I saw the transition. When I watched him looking in the mirror, he became Hercules. His whole persona changed."

Standing at a whopping 1.96 metres and weighing about 120 kilograms, Johnson does appear born to play this role. But even then he gained 16 kilograms of muscle for the part, something he had to maintain for five months during the gruelling shoot in a sweltering Budapest. "You get one crack at Hercules," says Johnson. "And especially when you want to make one that's a defining movie. We had one opportunity, and I felt that I was going to work as hard as I possibly could, transform my body and bring it in at a certain peak."

Based on Radical Studios' graphic novel Hercules: The Thracian Wars by Steve Moore, this latest iteration of the character dispenses early on with the age-old story of his labours, where he is tasked with slaying such deadly beasts as a nine-headed Hydra. Here he is no longer a demigod, having renounced his mythological origins, but a mortal who has become a sword-for-hire, asked by John Hurt's King of Thrace to prepare his men for a deadly battle against a tyrannical warlord.

"This isn't the story of Hercules. You've seen that before," says British actor Ian McShane, who plays the aged seer Amphiaraus. "This is him as a mercenary."

It's an interesting notion, with Ratner's film taking out the supernatural element to Hercules' story and turning it into a more earthbound tale. "It was really the demystification of the myth that got me excited," the director says. "Where all legends begin and where they end up. For me, it was such a unique twist: to do a grounded, realistic version of this story."

For Ratner, who had grown up wanting to make a sword-and-sandals movie, it meant not bombarding viewers with computer-generated imagery. Building practical working sets where possible, he wanted to craft a bloody, dirty version of Thrace and its environs in 358BC. "We built some of the biggest sets I've ever stepped on in my entire life. You felt like you were on the set of the movie The Bible. It was epic."

Ratner wanted to make an ensemble film with an emotional heart. "It wasn't just about Hercules. It was about his team as well." That team includes British actor Rufus Sewell as Autolycus, and Norwegian stars Aksel Hennie ( Headhunters) and Ingrid Bolsø Berdal ( Chernobyl Diaries). Hennie plays Tydeus, a fighter devoted to Hercules, who carries twin axes and doesn't speak. Berdal is Atalanta, an Amazon warrior, or "the kick-ass girl with the bow-and-arrow", as Ratner puts it.

"In Greek mythology, the Amazon is a really big deal," says the 34-year-old Berdal. "They talk about this duality, this femininity, this love side of female energy. Then you have the other part, which is demolition - which is the brutalness, the lust for blood and killing and revenge. And it was really good to do that kind of research, so it made sense that you can be both the vulnerable person that brings the love but also when the battle starts, there is no mercy."

While Berdal was known to slip off into the woods to pretend-hunt - all part of getting into character - nobody worked quite as hard as Johnson. Kept to a strict diet, he would get up at 4am to work out and maintain his shape before enduring three hours of hair and make-up. "He said to me at one point, 'Don't screw this up, Brett! I'm working so hard!'" Ratner says, laughing. "His commitment to this character was unbelievable. I would've been suffering just with the food part."

While the film will be shown in 3D Imax where possible, Hercules promises old-fashioned action, rather than the stylised approach of recent fantasy films 300:Rise of an Empire and Immortals. "It's not a three-hour shoot'em-up. It's Seven Samurai; it's a classic story," says McShane, perhaps putting a little too much expectation on the film by comparing it to Akira Kurosawa's classic film.

Still, it testifies to the ambitions of Johnson and Ratner, who've both seen their lifelong dreams fulfilled. Their labours are something that Hercules would admire.

Hercules opens on Thursday