EXCLUSIVE: Lena Headey on the 300 sequel, wielding a sword and becoming a genre queen

300 Rise Of An Empire Lena Headey

Lena Headey is back as Queen Gorgo in 300: Rise of an Empire, and she has a story to tell you -- literally.

Director Noam Murro's sequel to Zack Snyder's heavily stylized 2006 ancient historical fantasy, which fictionally recounted the Battle of Thermopylae in which 300 Spartans stood against the Persian army of Xerxes, takes place both before and alongside the events of the first film (Snyder produced and co-wrote the new one). 

Narrating events and appearing in key scenes is Headey's Queen Gorgo, who must lead Sparta after the death of King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) in 300. "I was intrigued when I heard about it because I thought, 'Well, everyone is dead,'" said Headey when we sat down during the film's recent press day in Los Angeles. "But I understand that the audience loved the first one so much. And I like the concept of trying to run this parallel view of what would happen in the first one. It’s a new way to go."

While happy to return as Gorgo, Headey says she is also content to see the Spartan queen play a supporting role. "It’s really Artemisia and Themistocles’ tale. So I’m very much a kind of sideline, which is fine by me," she explains. "I loved reading Artemisia’s role. I thought it was great fun, and I love Eva. I think she’s incredible. She just brings something kind of kooky and interesting to this. For me, it was just fun to sort of dip back in. I also got to hold a sword, and I’m such a boy, so that was quite nice. I was like, 'All right. I get a little fight. I’ll come back.'"

Gorgo does indeed see some action in this film during a major battle scene, which delighted Headey's 3-year-old son no end when he came to the set with her. "He now thinks he has a ninja for a mother, which is awesome," she enthuses. "But he did get worried by the time we did a third take on the fight and went, 'Ninjas be gentle.' I think in 40 years, when I’m 80, he’ll be able to see it."

Like the rest of the film's principal cast, Headey went through rigorous training to get her fighting technique down and said that she relished the chance. "I love it. I’ve always been a physical being. Like everyone else, I have moments of pure lazy hedonism where I’m like, 'I ain’t doing nothing apart from eating chocolate and lying in my bed,' but I love it. I really respond to it mentally. It puts you in a great place of strength and clarity. Being able to train with someone like Mark Twight [the film's fitness trainer] is a real gift, because he’s pretty special. He’s intense and he demands commitment ... he’s a lunatic in the best sense."

While some things have remained the same in the eight years since the first 300 in production terms, one thing that seems to be evolving is the role of women in a franchise like this. Whereas Headey was pretty much the sole woman of any note in the first movie, now she is one of two major female characters -- and Eva Green's Artemisia arguably dominates the film. Headey says she's pleased to see the barriers in traditionally male films breaking down.

"I think it’s changing  massively, much to my pleasure," she agrees. "I think there’s a sort of renaissance for women right now, and you’re not shelved anymore because you’re of a certain age. It’s like women are now being allowed to be written as interesting characters. Eva’s character -- the power she’s given physically, just physically, is impressive. And she’s toe-to-toe with the men in terms of their emotional strength. We’re always given these heroic men who maybe shed a tear for the loss of a loved one, but they kind of continue on. I like that Artemisia is just done. She’s just done. She goes out there and does it.

"So, yeah, I think things are changing. I think the TV world is kind of leading it as well, you know. All these great shows with incredibly fascinating female characters who were in positions of strength and leading storylines and holding stories. I feel like people are 'Oh, women are interesting and can be f--king nuts and can be crazy and ugly and mean and all the things that men have been celebrated as being.' It’s now becoming allowed for us, which is a f--king relief, because who wants to be the pretty lady sitting on a sofa, you know what I mean? It’s awesome."

Headey herself has been right at the epicenter of that, from her Queen Gorgo in both 300 films to Sarah Connor in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles to the deadly Ma-Ma in the severely underseen Dredd to, of course, Cersei on Game of Thrones. But despite having done sci-fi, horror and fantasy -- the genre trifecta -- Headey admits that she did not start out as a geek growing up.

"I didn’t have a great plan or anything like that," she explains. "It’s just that the characters have interested me more. And I don’t necessarily think of them sitting in a genre, because I think then that would dictate how you play them. I just think they’re human beings, and they’re contemporary beings, no matter if it’s 700 years ago. We still have the same emotions, so it’s just part of what you do. I’m kind of led by what I’m interested by and what I think would be exciting to take part in."

300: Rise of an Empire is out in theaters Friday, March 7.

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