It Wasn’t Easy: Rodrigo Santoro on Heleno and 300: Rise of an Empire

We got to know Rodrigo Santoro in American movies and television, perhaps as early as Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and Love Actually but definitely in 300 and “Lost.” Last year he made a passion project in Brazil and it’s coming to the States this week. Heleno stars Santoro as the Brazilian soccer (they call it futbol) player Heleno de Freitas, a volatile athlete, womanizer and star. We got to speak with Santoro during his U.S. press tour and talk about this dramatic work, and the upcoming 300: Rise of an Empire.

CraveOnline: Did coming to Hollywood and being successful here make it easier to go back to Brazil and get Heleno made?

Rodrigo Santoro: I wish. I wish. I don't think so. Heleno was a passion project for a while. It’s been five years we’ve been working on it and trying to put this together. I think the one person that really sponsored the movie, a Brazilian mogul named Eike Batista, we were shopping around and trying to put the financing together and then finally got a meeting with him and he really liked the project. He decided to join us, but it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy at all.

How did you connect with Eike Batista?

Well, he’s a very busy man and for almost a year I was trying to have a meeting with him because I knew that he was investing in culture. He has many different companies and he works with a lot of things as far as oil and natural resources. Anyway, I heard that he was investing in culture, not only in films but theater and art. Almost for a year I was trying to have a meeting with him and I finally got the meeting. He really liked the project and he really liked the whole concept of it, and he decided to join us.

Now that you’ve spent time developing your own passion project, do you have a greater understanding of what other filmmakers and actors have gone through to make their passion projects?

Oh yeah, absolutely, my friend. I truly think that it’s a great way of learning the process of filmmaking. Definitely as an actor, the experience you have, at least I’m talking for me, my experience as an actor is you go to the set and know what you’re going to do, know your lines, you rehearse, you do your scene, you go back home. As a producer, for the first time I saw the whole picture in a completely different way. Not only getting there much, much earlier and leaving later, but also participating in the process in a much wider way so that you start to understand a lot of things. You truly learn how to respect all the professionals that are working with you on set.

Like many biographies, Heleno’s story seems very epic, but it only takes place in a short time, doesn’t it?

Yeah, I would say from when he was twenty-something, 22 until his last days. He died at 39. It doesn’t try to be a biopic. The film doesn’t try to tell his story like the regular biopic where you start from childhood and you tell the whole story. It is a different take on that. It’s really trying to portray the man behind the myth, because this guy was a myth in Brazil. Still people when they talk about him, there’s so many stories. When we started to research about him, about his story, I joined the director very early in the process and we started to interview people that remember him, like 95-year-old guys and women that actually have stories about him or saw him playing or played with him. There are so many stories that we were completely fascinated about, but they were stories. I mean, who knows? So we really did that for a year and plus we had a book which was a biography written about him and then we had many pictures, but it’s still like a myth. We were trying to put together this puzzle and understand who was the man. That’s what the movie tries to do is study this character and try to portray him as a human being because he really had a lot of nicknames and adjectives. All the bad reputation that you can imagine, that’s what we heard when we interviewed people.

I couldn’t help but notice you talk about the soccer player Leonidas in one scene. Did you have a funny moment or did people point out the 300 similarity?

Oh, no, because Leonidas was this soccer player that at that time was kind of the guy who would be the competition for Heleno. He was a great player, but Heleno was way more popular than him. I know what you mean, but no, nobody actually made that joke before, even me. I never stopped to think about it.

Was the locker room scene after the loss, where he’s throwing the money at people and burning it, a very intense scene to do?

Yeah, yeah, that was difficult. It’s hard to pick one moment because it’s such an intense journey that this man had. His life was so controversial. There are so many tense moments but that scene is particularly difficult. We didn’t shoot many takes. I don’t remember how many. My relationship with the director was very, very good because we started to work together very early in the process. I was very involved with him since day one. We kind of were on the same page so when we were on set, we kind of knew where we were trying to go, where we were after and there was a lot of freedom, meaning we knew we had a scene in the script but he was always open to improvise and try to find something fresh if we were in the environment. For example, this scene that you just described, I don't know if you noticed but at the end of the scene there’s a locker that falls. He starts to kick the ball inside the dressing room and then the locker falls on top of him, and none of that was meant to happen. That was improvisation and it worked for the scene. What I’m trying to say is we had a lot of room to improvise and to try to find something interesting and real, like realistic and something that worked for the character at that moment. So I really had a lot of freedom and support from the director.

You did get to play Xerxes again and we’re looking forward to seeing what 300: Rise of an Empire looks like. Is it going to look very similar to 300 or a lot different?

Yeah, Zack Snyder who directed the first one is producing this one and he wrote it too. I think the idea is to really maintain the same style and language, but it’s a different director. His name is Noam Murro and I think it will definitely have the same look but I think it’s going to be different in a way.

Six years later was it very different returning to a blue screen film?

It was still a challenge. First of all, the whole preparation for that character            is an extreme transformation. I had to get back in shape and there’s a very specific thing as far as shaving and all the wardrobe which is very, very tricky. There’s a lot of makeup. I have a 4-5 hour makeup every day. It’s real work to get into that character. To revisit this character after a couple of years, I have never done it before and I thought it would be an interesting challenge. The whole thing about acting against the blue screen is already a challenge, but in Xerxes’ case, because the character is described by Frank Miller very specifically, he’s a giant, he’s nine feet tall, he’s hairless and his voice is like thunder. So in order to accomplish that, there’s some tricks, like special effects that you have to do. So whenever I’m on screen and there’s somebody next to me, they have to look much smaller. In order to do that, I act by myself basically, so I never really share a scene with another actor. That’s very challenging and in this one, that was even more present. In the first one I already did that but some moments I could exchange a little bit. This one was even more. I was really, really doing it by myself and it was very challenging, but it definitely taught me a lot and it was another great experience.

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel