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Antoine Fuqua: Man of action

ALL SMILES: Antoine Fuqua with his cast members Angela Bassett and Gerard Butler

WITH US security heightened to new extremes since 9/11, it’s hard to imagine any terrorist group successfully attacking the White House. But this is the very scenario painted in Antoine Fuqua’s latest film, Olympus Has Fallen.

The new action thriller from the US director sees a group of heavily armed extremists from North Korea ambushing the White House and holding the president and his staff hostage in an impenetrable underground bunker.

Did Fuqua have any reservations about creating such a tale, given the ongoing sensitivity around the 9/11 terrorist attacks?

“I was sensitive to it, and that’s also why I wanted to do it,” explains the director, famed for the 2001 hit film Training Day starring Denzel Washington. “Unfortunately, terrorism is a part of our world, and I think it’s important for us to shine a light on it so if we’re not ready for something like this, we should prepare ourselves so that we are.”

Having met with several secret service agents as part of his research, Fuqua is confident that US security is equipped to handle such an attack.

“I met with some guys that know the ins and outs and I’m sure that [a terror attack] could never happen to that extent. I’m sure it could happen to some degree, but the guys I met with are ready for this type of thing. In order for it to go as far as I took it [in the film], they’d need a lot of inside help.”

Still, it’s not hard to be gripped by Fuqua’s action-packed tale, as the highly trained extremists begin executing hostages, leaving president Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and some of his key advisors fearing for their lives, while former presidential security officer Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) seeks to save the president.

With the White House in disarray, Speaker of the House Allan Trumball (Morgan Freeman) is appointed as acting president and does his best to manage the situation with assistance from head of Secret Service Lynne Jacobs (Angela Bassett).

ON POINT: Fuqua gives directorial instruction to Morgan Freeman

It’s an impressive cast with Bassett and Butler in particular putting in strong performances. Eckhart also puts in a convincing performance as the endangered head of state, but one wonders if Fuqua considered casting a black actor in the role to reflect the current reality of America having a black president.

“I always wanted to work with Aaron Eckhart and I also wanted to work with Morgan Freeman,” Fuqua explains. “Morgan’s done it before [played the president] and I really wasn’t thinking about colour when I was casting for the roles. I’m all about working with great actors.

“You’ve got Angela Bassett playing a secret service agent and in actual fact, her role was originally written for a man. But I wanted to work with Angela – gender or race wasn’t an issue for me.”

Fuqua explains why it has always been his ethos as a director to not make decisions based on race, but to work with the best man or woman for the job.

“I grew up in an all-black neighbourhood in Pittsburgh, but I ended up going to a mixed high school. I ended up having a mixture of friends and when I played basketball, I played with a mixture of people. So when I got into the film business, I looked for the best players just like I did when I played ball.

“I never thought, ‘he’s a black guy so I should hire him’ or ‘he’s a white guy, I should hire him.’ I just hired the best players.”

HEAD OF STATE: Aaron Eckhart stars as President Benjamin Asher

But Fuqua admits that his colour blind approach has earned him criticism in the past from those who felt he should have been doing more to help ‘his own’.

“There was a time when people came to me and said, ‘Antoine, you should hire more black people’ and I said ‘Yeah I will – if they’re the best person for the job. If they fit the role and they’re the best person for the job, then absolutely.’

“But I think when you hire someone strictly based on colour, if they’re not right for the job, you’re not really helping that person. If you hire your best friend or your brother for a job they’re not ready for, then the job suffers – and they’ll suffer too because word will soon spread that they don’t know what they’re doing! But I’ve given lots of opportunities to African-Americans in the film business and in other ways.”

Refuting the accusation of racism that has been long been leveled at Hollywood, Fuqua says that very few of his breaks in the film business were given to him by black people.

“I can’t sit back and say Hollywood is racist, as 99.9 per cent of the people that have given me my opportunities in this business were not African-American. Denzel [Washington] gave me a great opportunity when we did Training Day together, and I also became friends with Mr Sidney Poitier, who’s given me great counsel and advice. But in terms of people in the studio system, most of the people who have given me my jobs were not African-American.”

But with Fuqua also acknowledging that “most of the [film industry] executives at the top level are not African-American,” are the lack of opportunities he has received from black people the result of there being no black people in positions to offer them – or do black folks in Hollywood just do not help each other?

“It’s a bit of both. There aren’t many African-Americans in top positions, but those that are sometimes don’t help others. But I’ve got a different mindset. What I learned from playing sports is that when you get on the field, you’ve got to be able to hold your own – that’s what you’ll be judged on. If you can score, then you’re gonna play. If you can’t score, you’re not gonna play.

“So when the opportunity comes for you to direct, if you can’t direct and make some money and get people to sit in the theatre, you won’t get hired!

FAMILY GUY: Fuqua with his wife, actress Lela Rochon and three children

“Hollywood is a business and you have to look at it that way. I’m not saying it’s easy, but you have to find a way to show your talent.”

Another job Fuqua admits isn’t easy is balancing his career with his family life.

“Yeah, it’s tough,” confirms the father-of-three who is married to actress Lela Rochon (Waiting to Exhale, Boomerang). “I have a young daughter and son, and an older son in college, and it is hard at times. It’s so difficult to get a movie done these days so you have to take advantage of the opportunities when they come along – but your kids don’t wanna hear that! They want you to come swimming and play. So it is tough.”

But surely his wife understands the business better than most?

“Yeah, but she’s in front of the camera, while I’m behind the scenes, so our jobs are very different!”

Reflecting on his hopes for the future, Fuqua says: “I want to develop more and more and make the best films possible. I’d also like an Academy Award. But ultimately, each film is an exercise to get better on the next one.”

Olympus Has Fallen is in cinemas from April 17

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