In rendering a world more than 3,000 years removed from the current day, Petersen’s cast had to bring the film’s iconic characters to life with authenticity, while conveying the timelessness of their human drama.
“This story is very complex,” stresses the director. “There are so many different characters who are all interwoven with each other ‘ they’re all part of an incredible human landscape. This is an ensemble piece, with important characters, and you cannot just pull two or three out, because then the whole thing will fall apart like a house of cards. So to cast these roles was fascinating, and I think the cast is what I’m the most proud of. The actors we have are just unbelievable.”
The casting of the unconquerable hero Achilles was key, and the filmmakers turned to Brad Pitt, star of such diverse films as Fight Club and Ocean’s Eleven and Golden Globe winner for his arresting performance in 12 Monkeys, to bring the legend to life. “Brad has both the talent and the magnetism to make Achilles believable as a tremendous warrior and charismatic leader without sacrificing his humanity in the process,” says Petersen.
Pitt was intrigued by his complex, multi-faceted character. “Homer does an amazing job revealing his character very subtly, particularly since The Iliad isn’t told in a linear fashion,” says Pitt. “Little by little, Achilles’ personality unfolds. One moment you think he’s this cold-hearted killer and then Homer goes back in time to show another facet of Achilles, and you find out that in the past he’s actually operated from a place of great humanity and grace. And so it’s this conflict and these contradictions that Homer keeps exposing to the reader to form this transcendent human being.”
The film’s ensemble cast boasts both rising talent and illustrious veterans of the stage and screen. Prince Hector of Troy is played by Eric Bana, star of Ang Lee’s Hulk and the critically acclaimed Australian film Chopper. “Hector appealed to me straight away,” the actor recalls. “Hector’s very noble and very brave, qualities that are classically appealing in both a cinematic sense and in a personable sense. Hector has a wife and a child, but I really get the sense that for him, his family is the city of Troy. Even though it’s such an epic movie, I find it to be quite an intimate story in that essentially it boils down to the ramifications of very intimate relationships, and from those very small relationships spawns this huge action and drama.”
Orlando Bloom, who first received widespread acclaim for his work in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, plays Hector’s younger brother, the recklessly charming Prince Paris. “For me, the draw in terms of Paris was that he’s the anti-hero,” says the actor. “Paris is not like any character I’ve played. He’s the second son to Priam, and he’s lived a very sheltered life. He’s been nurtured and hasn’t had to think about the responsibilities of becoming a warrior or King. Although he’s in an environment that is a hugely political, dangerous world, his own world is very simple, until he basically creates a war because of his lust and his love for one woman. Two countries collide, which leads to him lose everything he knows, and he does all of this for love.”
An exhaustive international search for the actress who would play Helen, the queen whose beauty launched a thousand ships, led the director to German actress Diane Kruger, who had previously starred in Mon idole. “Helen can come across as quite vain and self absorbed in The Iliad, so her actions for her own selfish reasons can be hard to forgive,” muses Kruger. “The Troy script makes Helen more human, showing how lonely she must have been living in a golden cage and forced into a marriage with a man twice her age ‘ her unhappiness is allowed to come through. When Paris and Helen meet, she suddenly has hope for the love she’s never experienced. The hope of freedom, even for awhile. I’d like to believe Paris must have been attracted to her not only for her beauty, but for her vulnerability and her aura of sadness.”
Versatile actor Brendan Gleeson plays Menelaus, the king she leaves behind. “Menelaus is a Spartan who has gone slightly soft,” says Gleeson, whose past credits include Gangs of New York and 28 Days Later. “The Spartans were famous for being warlike and terribly hard, but his warfaring days are coming to an end. I came to quite like Menelaus, although he’s not a particularly attractive character. He’s a middle-aged man with a beautiful younger wife, and he’s visited by such a middle aged man’s greatest fear — which is that a younger man will come and take her away. Everything seems to disappear from him. But essentially he’s an honorable man, and the reason he goes to Troy is for his wife, and to retain his honor.”
Menelaus’ brother, the avaricious King Agamemnon, is played by distinguished actor Brian Cox, who has earned widespread critical acclaim for his performances in films such as 25th Hour and L.I.E. “I think in Agamemnon’s mind, Troy is this rather new-age hippie place,” he says, “where everybody’s living an isolated life, separate from the real world, and separate from the way the world is progressing, and he wants to make them part of the real world in quite a horrific way. Agamemnon is drunk with his own position, and there’s a suicidal aspect to his pursuit of Troy ‘ the great power machine finally overstepping itself for that one little thing. It’s the old cliché: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Peter O’Toole, a seven-time Academy Award nominee and the recipient of an honorary Oscar for his contributions to cinema history, portrays the venerable King Priam of Troy. “Priam is his own undoing,” considers O’Toole, who brings to his role a wealth of experience playing legends and leaders, beginning with his eponymous role in the landmark epic Lawrence of Arabia. “It is hubris in the peacemaker. Their world is a warrior aristocracy, but Priam is an exception to this ‘ because of his safety behind the walls of Troy, he has succeeded in holding a peace for many years. He isn’t going to attack anybody, but he’ll defend Troy against anyone who dares come near it, and the walls of Troy have never been breached.”
A poignant and painful encounter between Priam and Achilles provides the film with some of its most moving moments. In anticipation of filming the intimate dialogue, Petersen had the set moved into a hotel ballroom in Mexico to assure absolute silence so his actors could completely concentrate without distraction. His preparations paid off. “It was so still there,” Petersen reminisces. “I’ll never forget that. Brad was sitting there after the scene was done and he was almost in a state of shock. And Peter O’Toole ‘ what can I say’ That was one of those moments in filmmaking you will never ever forget in your life.”
“That is one of the greatest scenes I’ve read,” Pitt concurs. “I was very excited to do this particular scene and very excited that I was going to get the opportunity to do it with Peter O’Toole. To this day it’s certainly a highlight of why we do what we do. It was fantastic.”
Rose Byrne, star of the films I Capture the Castle and Goddess of 1967, plays Priam’s niece Briseis, a young virgin acolyte to Apollo who is captured by the Greeks and given to Achilles as a tribute. “I admire so much about Briseis,” Byrne enthuses. “She’s seventeen years old and she’s lived this sheltered life in Troy and suddenly she’s a prisoner of war, but she holds her dignity and her strength under distress. At the end of the day, she becomes a warrior.” The character ends up having a profound impact on Achilles, and therefore on history itself. “She becomes the emotional core of Achilles,” says Byrne. “Because to be sympathetic to him you’ve got to see that he does have a soul.”
Joining the cast as Achilles’ mother Thetis is cinematic luminary Julie Christie, winner of the Best Actress Oscar for her starring role in Darling. Christie’s role is pivotal in revealing the quandary that will ultimately decide the course of Achilles’ life. “Thetis is a bit of a seer,” says Pitt, “and she sets Achilles’ dilemma up for him ‘ that if he doesn’t go to war, he will have children and they will love him. And his children’s children will love him, but after that he’ll be forgotten. The other option is, he can go to this war, and he will do great things that will be talked about for thousands and thousands of years. But he will die in this war. Thetis reveals to him that if he chooses to go to war he’s condemning himself to death.”
Knowing that Achilles will not enter into battle lightly, Agamemnon sends Odysseus, King of Ithaca and Achilles’ trusted friend, to appeal to the warrior to fight. “Odysseus is a very shrewd, clever tactician,” says internationally recognized actor Sean Bean, who plays the king. “He’s a brave man, a man of honor and a good warrior, but his role in this story is more that of an ambassador or diplomat. Odysseus understands Achilles better than anyone does, and can see why he’s reluctant to join in battle with Agamemnon, whom he distrusts. Achilles is very fond of Odysseus, and he listens to him ‘ and there aren’t many people he will listen to. They have great admiration and respect for each other, and if anyone can persuade Achilles to join forces with Agamemnon in battle, it’s Odysseus.”
“Our story deals with what mankind is all about,” Petersen concludes. “It’s not black and white. It’s not, ‘here are the good guys, and there are the bad guys.’ That’s old-fashioned storytelling. This story is modern in a sense that it deals with the reality of human drama. Life is much more complex and interesting, and because of that it’s also more tragic.”
Rounding out Petersen’s superb cast are Saffron Burrows as Hector’s devoted wife Andromache; Vincent Regan as Eudorus, Achilles’ compatriot and captain of the Myrmidons; and Garrett Hedlund as Achilles’ beloved cousin, Patroclus.