In director Antoine Fuqua's new action thriller, Olympus Has Fallen, the White House — code-named "Olympus" — is invaded by North Korean terrorists. The president and his staff are held hostage in an underground bunker, and their only hope of coming out alive is a disgraced Secret Service agent.
In theaters March 22, the film opens at a politically sensitive time, perhaps by coincidence. North Korea is much in the news for its nuclear threats and its rocky relationship with South Korea.
"We have the opportunity to put on the screen our worst nightmares, and then we can look at that and say, 'Let's not let that happen in reality,' " says Fuqua, who's known for the gritty, action-packed Training Day, Tears of the Sun and Brooklyn's Finest.
The idea of making an attack on the White House look real was appealing, Fuqua tells host Michel Martin, and he wanted to take the audience on a roller-coaster ride.
The opportunity to work with Fuqua drew Angela Bassett to the project. The Oscar-nominated actress had been longtime friends with the director, but this was their first time on set together.
"Working with Angela, that was a dream," Fuqua says. "I've been wanting to work with her since I started making movies. She's going to always deliver, that's for sure."
Bassett plays Lynn Jacobs, the intelligent, passionate director of the Secret Service. The actress says she was humbled and pleased to play a woman in such a position.
The secretary of defense is also a woman — Oscar winner Melissa Leo. Fuqua says he didn't put a lot of thought into whether the roles should be women or men. He says that when he read the script, he just wanted strong, intelligent individuals.
Fuqua enlisted the help of former Secret Service members to prepare for the film. The consultants were on set to answer questions and share their experiences.
"Some stories we wanted to hear. Some [were] too much — you wanted to cover your ears. But they were right there with us," Bassett says.
Other Hollywood heavyweights were also on set: Gerard Butler (disgraced Secret Service agent Mike Banning), Aaron Eckhart (President Benjamin Asher), Ashley Judd (first lady Margaret Asher), Morgan Freeman (speaker of the House/acting President Allan Trumbull) and Rick Yune (terrorist Kang).
Fuqua says the star-studded cast intimidated him, but working with them was a dream come true.
"When I come to the set, they're already prepared," he says. "They know what they're going to do. They have an idea of what their character is about. They're the top of the A list. So for me, it makes my life much easier. I'm just there to give them what they need from me as a director. And then they bring their magic. And that's the beauty of it."
The director admits that he would've gotten more studio resistance if he had made the same casting decision five years ago (an African-American man as the acting president, an African-American woman as the Secret Service director and a Caucasian woman as the secretary of defense). But he still would've pushed for it.
"Because they're the best actors for the job for me," he says, "these are the people I envision in my head at night. So for, me as a director, you have to stick to your guns."
Artists are known for imagining future possibilities, and Fuqua and Bassett both envision a female commander-in-chief.
"I think that a female president is coming," Fuqua says. "It's not necessarily because it's the right thing to do — I just think it's going to be the right person for the job. 'Cause I don't think people always vote based on the right thing to do."
Asked if they think the White House staff will see Olympus Has Fallen and like it, Fuqua and Bassett laugh. Maybe not just yet, they say.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, you may have heard that Republican Senator Rob Portman has had a change of heart about his past opposition to same-sex marriage. I have some thoughts about that in my Can I Just Tell You essay in just a few minutes.
But, first, we want to tell you about a new thriller that will be making your heart race in a theater near you, particularly if you like them with a strong dose of realism and a side of current politics. In the new action thriller, "Olympus Has Fallen," the White House, code named Olympus, is invaded by North Korean terrorists. The president and his staff are held hostage in an underground bunker and their only hope of coming out alive is disgraced secret service agent Mike Banning.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN")
SEAN O'BRYAN: (as Ray Monroe) Well, what's he doing in the White House right now?
ANGELA BASSETT: (as Lynn Jacobs) You want to add something? I suggest you get the facts straight.
O'BRYAN: (as Ray Monroe) How do we know we can trust this guy?
BASSETT: (as Lynn Jacobs) Banning is ex-Special Forces, Ranger battalion. He will move mountains or die trying. I know him.
MORGAN FREEMAN: (as Speaker Trumbull) Does anyone else in this room have any intelligence coming out of the White House? Then we have no choice.
MARTIN: That was Sean O'Bryan as a Pentagon staff member, Angela Bassett as the secret service director and Morgan Freeman as the speaker of the house and acting president. And joining us now to talk more about the film is the Oscar-nominated diva herself, Angela Bassett. Also with us, director Antoine Fuqua, whom you no doubt remember from "Training Day." They are both here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio, actually just steps away from the White House.
Thank you both so much for joining us.
BASSETT: You're welcome. Thank you for having us.
ANTOINE FUQUA: Thanks for having us.
MARTIN: Mr. Fuqua, you are known for doing some action-packed gritty films like, of course, "Training Day," "Brooklyn's Finest." What did you find appealing about this project?
FUQUA: I just wanted to have some fun. You know, I thought the idea of attacking the White House and making it feel real and exciting and take the audience on a rollercoaster ride - you know, why not? It has everything in it that a filmmaker would want.
MARTIN: As a former White House correspondent, I did not find that fun. I found it very, very frightening through the entire ordeal. I'll just put it to you that way. Angela Bassett, why did you want to participate in this project?
BASSETT: Absolutely, the opportunity to work with Antoine. I'm a big fan of his work, him as a person, so when he came - you know, came to me, it was, yes. And then I had an opportunity to read the script.
MARTIN: You'd never worked together before?
BASSETT: No, no.
MARTIN: But you've been friends for a while.
BASSETT: Yeah, many, many years.
MARTIN: Any trepidation about being directed by a friend? Sometimes, you know, friends at home, friends at work...
BASSETT: Well, that's right. Well, you know...
MARTIN: Not always a good combination.
BASSETT: Well, you always hope that you're giving exactly what it is they have in mind because, you know, he - I mean, he makes big pictures and very specific pictures and such clarity. So you hope you're giving exactly what he thinks he needs.
FUQUA: Oh, gosh, working with Angela - that was a dream. I've been wanting to work with her since I started making movies. She's going to always deliver. That's for sure.
MARTIN: Tell us about your character, Secret Service director Lynn Jacobs.
BASSETT: Yes. She's the director of the Secret Service and I imagine that she had to - you know, and she's, you know, supremely intelligent, passionate. I was very humbled and pleased that we get to see this, that we have this woman at the table in the room in this position and that, you know, Antoine made this casting decision.
MARTIN: Yeah. I was going to ask you about that. You know, it's interesting that this film is coming out at the time that the Obama Administration is assembling its second term team. And I'm just interested in, not just your character, but also your choice for secretary of defense as played by Oscar winner Melissa Leo. Why?
FUQUA: I didn't put a lot of thought into whether it should be a female or not. Honestly, it was something when I read the script and I just thought, I need strong individuals, intelligent, strong individuals. And, naturally, my instinct took me right to Angela. Angela's Secret Service, as far as I'm concerned.
MARTIN: But, you know, there was a deputy director. Barbara Riggs was a deputy director. I don't know if you knew that and I don't know if you remember this whole scandal involving the Secret Service agents who were misbehaving...
FUQUA: In Columbia.
MARTIN: ...on an advance. Did you know that the regional director who called them to account was an African-American woman? Did you know that?
BASSETT: Oh, no. I didn't know that.
MARTIN: So you didn't know that. You didn't know any of these folks?
MARTIN: Well, how did you prepare for it?
BASSETT: Well, we were fortunate to have, you know, on location during the entire filming, tech advisors who were members of the Secret Service, so they were there for us to answer any questions. You know, they're incredible human beings and, you know, some stories, we wanted to hear. Some was too much. You wanted to cover your ears. But they were right there with us.
MARTIN: And, also, I was going to ask you about that. We had alluded earlier to the fact that you were directing, you know, your friend, Angela Bassett, in this, but you also had a very - I mean, you've worked with heavyweights before, but you had a very heavyweight cast, you know, Gerard Butler, who's also one of the producers of the film, Aaron Eckhart, who plays the president, Ashley Judd, who plays the first lady, Morgan Freeman, you know, of course - I mean I'm not a director but I am curious about what it was like to direct all these people who all stars in their own right.
FUQUA: It's a dream come true for any filmmaker. I mean it makes your life easier because, you know, when I come to the set they are already prepared. They know what they're going to do. They have an idea of what their character is about, you know, they're the top of the A-list. So for me it makes my life much easier. I'm just there to give them what they need from me as a director and then they bring their magic and that's the beauty of it.
MARTIN: Isn't that intimidating to to direct these...
FUQUA: Oh, of course.
MARTIN: It is. It is?
FUQUA: Oh yeah.
Oh, yeah, of course.
BASSETT: I was intimidated.
FUQUA: I mean Angela, Melissa, Morgan walk on the set, you know...
BASSETT: That's right. Robert Forster.
FUQUA: Robert Forster. Good God, you know, I have to at least act like I know what I'm doing.
MARTIN: Now you can admit it. We mentioned Morgan Freeman. I just love a clip from the film between the two of you. Your character is appointing his character, then speaker of the House, as the acting president. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE MOVIE, "OLYMPUS AS FALLEN")
BASSETT: (as Lynn Jacobs) Mr. Speaker, as both the president and the vice president of the United States are unable to discharge the duties of their offices, I'm officially placing you under Secret Service protection. You are the acting president of the United States.
FREEMAN: (as Allan Trumbull) Are they alive?
BASSETT: (as Lynn Jacobs) They are.
MARTIN: We actually talked with Morgan Freeman last summer when his film "The Magic of Bell Isle" came out. I really have no reason to mention that, except that I get to name drop that I met Morgan Freeman.
MARTIN: That's the only reason I mention it. But I did want to ask, it's interesting, again, going back to the casting, you have the speaker of the House is an African-American man. You have the director of the Secret Service is an African-American woman. You have the secretary of Defense is a woman. Do you think that this is a casting decision you could have made five years ago?
FUQUA: I think I would've got more resistance, possibly, from a studio five years ago. I mean I would've pushed it anyway five years ago, but I think I may have had a little more resistance then.
MARTIN: And you would've pushed it, why?
FUQUA: Well, because they're the best actors for the job for me. You know, these are the people I envision in my head at night. So for me as a director, you have to stick to your guns. When you have these individuals in your mind, you have to fight for that. You have to make sure that that's what happens, because you know...
MARTIN: You do wonder if artists are sometimes ahead of the curve in imagining what will be as opposed to just what is. I mean we often sort of appreciate artists for their ability to describe what is, but I sometimes wonder if really what we are after is what will be. I mean a lot of people pointed out that, for example, Jimmy Smits on "The West Wing" played a young president of color before a young president of color was actually elected.
So I guess I want to ask you to put your forecasting hat on and tell me what else is going to happen next in our politics.
FUQUA: We'll have a female president.
MARTIN: Of color or not?
FUQUA: I don't think it matters right now. I think right now because we need to vote for the best person and I think that a female president is coming. It's not necessarily because it's the right thing to do, I think it's just going to be the right person for the job, because I don't think people always vote based on the right thing to do. Sometimes they vote based on their personal prejudice. I just think that there's going to be a female that's going to stand there and everyone's going to see the truth.
MARTIN: And based on the fact that you appointed two women in the tough national security jobs for, in your administration, that you put together for this film, is it your sense that that first female president will likely be a conservative? Will they likely be a person with a national security background?
FUQUA: I think it'll be someone with a national security background. You want somebody in office in these troubling times that has an understanding of how things work. I don't think you want anybody in there that's just a rookie, so...
MARTIN: What about you? Based on your experience in taking on this role, the advisers whom you met, do you think they're ready for a female leader of their departments?
BASSETT: Based on this one, yes. I mean what I appreciate about this film or different - you know, art, entertainment, is that, as you say, we shine the light on what is possible, which should be, you know, so that maybe it just moves us off being stuck. So I agree. I think it's quite likely that very shortly, in not-too-distant future, you know, that there will be a female president.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are speaking with Oscar-nominated actress Angela Bassett and director Antoine Fuqua about their new film, "Olympus Has Fallen." Talking about what is versus what will be, as I mentioned, as a former White House correspondent, I found it kind of heart-pounding to contemplate the idea of the White House being taken over in that way. And it's also interesting that you wanted to create a scenario that really could happen.
FUQUA: Mm-hmm. Absolutely.
MARTIN: And I wanted to know how you feel about that.
FUQUA: We have the opportunity to put on the screen our worst nightmares and then we can look at that and say, let's not let that happen in reality, because now, especially after September 11, we all know that it can happen with box cutters.
MARTIN: I'm wondering what it's like being steps away from the real White House. Do you think they'll see the film? Do you think they'll be screening it? Do you think they'll like it? Do you think maybe not?
MARTIN: Maybe not.
BASSETT: Maybe not quite just yet.
FUQUA: Not today.
BASSETT: Maybe in a few.
MARTIN: When they've left office. Do you mind if I ask each of you, you've both enjoyed - I hope it's enjoyed - long marriages in a business that is known to be hard on them. Angela Bassett in particular, you've talked about this. You've written a book with your husband, Courtney B. Vance, who's also an accomplished actor. Do you feel like something of a role model in this regard? And I wonder if you feel you have anything to share about the secret of that for people who are not in businesses which are not known to be as tough.
BASSETT: For me it's all about negotiating.
BASSETT: And, you know, allowing the other person to, you know, satisfy their souls, you know, their passions. Courtney is in New York now on Broadway, you know, and we have to negotiate, OK, the kids, the us, the time. When there's something I want to do, I want to go to Shreveport for months and, you know, do this project, or New York recently on the heels of him coming to New York to do "Lucky Guy," and it's like we're both going to be gone, but do you really want do that? And the answer is yes and it's go. I don't want to be held back and I don't want to hold him back from his passion, so it's allowing people to, you know, satisfy their souls.
MARTIN: What about you?
FUQUA: Well, let me just put it to you this way. As director you make your movie and everybody sort of listens to you and your on it for months and you know, you're like, you've got this power. And then you go home and no one cares what you have to say.
FUQUA: But, so yeah, that's that. But, yeah, I agree with Angela. It's negotiating. And it's also accepting each other for who you are, period, and then prioritizing what really matters in life, you know, because we live in the world of making movies, and there's a lot of fantasy in that. You go away and you disappear into that world, especially, you know - and for me I'm in it for almost a year, you know, you just have to always keep the focus on - in our case and Angela's as well, I'm sure, you know, your children and the respect and love you have for each other, and then it kind of falls into place. Whether you want it to or not, your children will slap you around a bit. I know mines do, so...
MARTIN: Antoine Fuqua is the director of the new action film "Olympus Has Fallen." Angela Bassett is one of the stars of the film. Thank you both so much for joining us today. Good luck.
FUQUA: Thank you for having me.
BASSETT: Thank you.
FUQUA: Appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.