Interview: Chris Columbus And The Cast Of Percy Jackson

After having seen Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, I was somewhat disappointed upon reaching the top of the Empire State building and not finding a doorway to Olympus. I may not have met Zeus, Poseidon and Athena, but I was lucky enough to be in the presence director Chris Columbus and stars Logan Lerman, Brandon T. Jackson, Alexandra Daddario and Pierce Brosnan.

Based on the popular fantasy book by Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief tells the story of Percy Jackson, an average teenager who finds out he’s the son of Poseidon. After receiving guidance from the wise Centaur Chiron, Percy teams up with his protector Grover and Annabeth, the daughter of Athena, to rescue his mother and identify the individual who stole Zeus’ coveted lightning bolt. The trio goes on a cross-country adventure battling any ungodly creature in their way.

Columbus has the stellar source material and the impressive cast, but the question remains; did he kick off a franchise with the potential to follow in Harry Potter’s footsteps. My hopes are high, but only time will tell. What I can say for sure is that if The Lighting Thief does spawn a film series, Columbus will have a team of humble and hardworking actors in his company.

With this film’s high franchise potential, do you think it’ll change your lives? Do you expect people to be mobbing you like at the film’s premiere?

Lerman: It was only at the theater because that’s where they really recognize you. This is a movie that I’m really proud of. Because of that it’s the biggest compliment when people recognize you for a movie that you’re very proud of. It’s the biggest pat on the back.

Daddario: For me it’s already changed my life a lot. I have opportunities that I never had before and I’ve learned so much and I’m incredibly lucky as far as anything beyond this point I’m sort of taking it day by day. I’m just really excited to be doing what I love and I think that’s the best part about all of this.

Jackson: Okay, we can’t say it’s not weird leaving a theater and we’re being dragged out in a crowd surf of kids that are screaming. But at the same time it’s very inspiring to see everybody love the movie and that’s the best thing.

Chris, how did you approach the idea of having Pierce play a Centaur and Pierce, how’d you respond?

Brosnan: Well, Chris was very sly. He went straight to my vanity and he sent me this beautiful portrait of me as this Centaur, which I looked magnificent. Of course my sons were instrumental in me playing in this film. They have read the books and they loved the books and Chris and I had worked together on Mrs. Doubtfire all those years ago and I’ve just admired him as a filmmaker and as a man and his passion and compassion for actors and storytelling. But we didn’t really discuss how to play this role or what to do as a Centaur. I love horses and I ride horses. I had a portfolio in my script of photographs of Centaurs. Then you begin to use your imagination. Chris obviously had a defined image because the portrait that he sent me of myself as Chiron was beautifully rendered. Then came the blue tights, which I really had no idea what to do. It’s very hard to keep ones dignity and humility when you stand looking resplendent from the waist up and then you look at yourself in electric blue tights with orange fluorescent spots.

Jackson: I feel your pain.

Brosnan: You feel my pain. You did! I saw you, Brandon, and I thought, ‘Oh! I’ve got a friend! We’re in this together!’

Columbus: For me it was just a matter of finding the gods themselves. I cast actors who had a larger than life god-like quality about them and who better to play a trainer of heroes, people like Hercules and Michael Jordan, than Pierce Brosnan? Originally I just wanted to work with Pierce again. We had a great time on Mrs. Doubtfire and it was really the case with all of these gods and goddesses. How do we find someone who you can believe as a god? Danny DeVito might have been a stretch, so we needed to find someone who really had that air about him.

Chris, how’d you find the balance between entertaining older and younger audiences?

Columbus: I’ve got four children of my own and I’ve spent the last several years going to various children’s movies and sitting through a screening of Pokémon one time. I almost physically deteriorated and thought about suicide so I realized that there’s a point where you can’t entertain the parents enough and for me, this film had to work on two levels; first level is make a wild ride for the seven to 16-year-olds and then for the older kids and the adults in the audience make it something that makes them feel like they’re 12-years-old again. So that was it. It was really the goal and so you’ll see that there’s a balance where kids are laughing at something when they’re watching a movie and then the parents giggle at something that goes over the kids’ head. You learn that from some of the best, the better children’s films over the past decade.

This is just the first of five books. Will there be more Percy Jackson movies? As younger cast members, is there any concern that you could be too old for subsequent films?

Lerman: Are we going to be told old later on? Chris and the creative crew aged it up for a reason, right?

Columbus: Yeah, the point of aging it up, which I just want to address because a couple of the fans of the books say, ‘Why isn’t Percy 11?’ and I thought, well, you’re dealing with a character who’s got an extraordinary amount of baggage in his life. He’s dealing with parental abandonment, he thinks his father abandoned him, he wants to know who his father is, he’s dealing with dyslexia and ADHD, dealing with the fact that he’s a troublemaker and been sent to various schools. I needed some complexity in the actor who was going to portray that. When I saw Logan in 3:10 to Yuma and when I saw Logan’s screen test I realized this is the guy. I had no qualms about making the character older. I thought it can only make it a better film if I have an actor of that quality and then surrounding him with actors as talented as Alex and Brandon and Jake Abel just was the goal all along. These kids are battling for their lives. They’re training to be heroes and warriors and gladiators and 11-year-olds running around with paper hats and wooden swords seemed a little lightweight to me.

What about the sexual tension concerning 11-year-olds?

Columbus: I can’t answer that. I’ll be with Polanski! [Laughs] That was quite the question, but I know what you’re saying. There’s just a certain amount of romantic tension that – there’s no question that Logan and Alex have a tremendous amount of chemistry. We looked long and hard for someone like Alex because I saw a lot of young actresses who weren’t eating properly and they could barely lift a fork from the table. I needed someone who felt like they could hold a sword and be a formidable opponent for Percy. The romantic tension was always something that I thought would be great in the film and they pulled it off beautifully.

What’s it like for the three of you to work with such a prestigious cast? Did you look at them as mentors?

Jackson: I had a stupid question for Rosario. I actually made a goof out of myself. I actually literally asked her to be my mentor. Besides the goofball of me I think looking at Pierce and looking at Steve Coogan and Uma Thurman and Rosario and everybody, it’s just always a pleasure to work with people who’ve been in the business longer than you. It’s always good to learn and bounce off energy with people who you watched when you were a child. To actually be on screen next to them is always a pleasure and is very humbling and at the same time you get to learn so much so it definitely is a blessing.

Daddario: These are actors that I’ve grown up with and admired my whole life. It’s really an honor to have the opportunity to work with people like this and learn from them and listen to them and I’m very very lucky. It’s a really a dream come true.

Lerman: I’ve always put it this way; acting for me is like a kid walking into a playground and, you know, these great actors like Pierce and Uma and these people that are so seasoned and so talented, they have a huge playground. And going into a scene there’s so much to explore with them because they have many places to go. So it’s just a lot of fun to see your heroes and work with them.

Brosnan: Likewise. It’s amazing with the three of you, really. I mean, your instincts are so sharp. They made me real. It was a joy.

Did you have an interest in Greek mythology before the film?

Jackson: I was very interested in Greek mythology always. We learned a lot about it in school, but, to be honest, we had to really brush up on our Greek mythology because we realized that you guys would quiz us – and please don’t quiz us today. [Laughs]

Daddario: I think one of the wonderful things about this series and about the movie, I’ve heard that kids have gone and learned more about Greek mythology just because of the movie and because of the books and I think that that’s really wonderful.

Columbus: It was fun to go back to the stories because some of the stories are very very dark and adult-oriented and not appropriate for a children’s movie, so we wanted to avoid some of those. Our version is almost more the Classics Illustrated version of the books. Hopefully the kids will be inspired enough and interested enough to start to read about Greek mythology and then that will truly scare them out of their wits!

How’d you approach the scene in Las Vegas?

Columbus: That was just a little homage to Pinocchio, to fantasyland in Pinocchio. Remember, people are saying, ‘Oh, it’s druggies,’ but that was 1940 and the kids went into a bar and drank pints of beer and smoked cigars. They, of course, turned into donkeys. So there are ramifications, obviously, for eating a lotus flower.

Jackson: It’s telling kids do not go to Vegas! [Laughs] And also you’ve got to look at the underlying message: if you have too much fun in life, you lose track of time and your quest doesn’t get done. So it teaches you how to get out of there and get focused and listen to that thing inside you that voice inside you. I love to have fun but I don’t let it get in the way of my work, in the way of my quest.

There are a number of intense fight scenes where you’re interacting with things that aren’t really there. Is that particularly challenging? What were your reactions when you saw the final product?

Lerman: Working with green screen you always hear actors say that it’s so difficult to act opposite nothing. For me, I thought it gave us a lot of freedom as actors to create the other character and just kind of lose yourself in your imagination. Chris creates this comfort level, a set that you can just lose yourself so easily. It just becomes a workout for your imagination so it’s a great time.

Jackson: Chris always does a good job as a conductor. He’s like Mozart with his notes. It’s like he yells out things that you don’t see. He’s like, ‘There’s this fire breathing at you!’ and you don’t see anything there, it’s a tennis ball, and you just have to act like it’s there and they draw it in later.

Daddario: Yeah, it’s a little like being a kid again. You get to use your imagination. You can imagine the monster as big and scary as you want it to be. It’s a lot of fun. It’s really amazing to see what you imagined brought to screen.

When did you first read the book? Did you want to maintain certain elements of the characters from the book or did you try to stay away from that and focus more on the ones in the screenplay?

Daddario: I read the book before I read the screenplay. I read it on my way to the screen test. I didn’t have the script available to me and I got a great sense of what the film would be like from the book and what Annabeth would be like. I think it only helped develop the character and after I read the script you start to make comparisons at first but then you just start to rely on the script.

Lerman: It would be cheating the audience if you didn’t read the book in the first place, so of course I read that to understand the basis for the movie. I used the script as my bible more than anything, just used that as a reference and based a lot of Percy off of that.

Jackson: I have two little sisters who are obsessed with Percy Jackson and I told them that I’m just auditioning for Grover and they went totally crazy and that’s when I read the book. I’m going through the book and going through the book and just trying to hurry up and learn it and I feel in love with it. Then I read the script; I feel in love with the script too. So it was like the way I developed the character. And Chris did a great job with helping me develop Grover because in the book he’s real timid and he’s real kind of nervous and I wanted to play him a little cooler. A little bit more swag, as we say.

Chris, have you ever wanted to act?

Columbus: Yeah, I was a horrific actor. I saw myself one time, I was in Home Alone. We had a newscast and my assistant director and I decided to be the newscasters and I saw the footage and I would have fired me if I had the opportunity. I was horrible.

Pierce, you did a lot of your role on stilts and this skill went back to your youth in Dublin. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Brosnan: When I started as a young actor I was about 17 and I had a street theater company called Theater Spiel and we would do children’s theater. I learned how to do fire eating and stilt walk was part of it as well. It was a very fertile time in the theater, experimental theater.

Is it like riding a bike? You never forget?

Brosnan: Kind of, yes. Painter stilts are quite comfortable to wear. They have a little platform and a foot in a spring. I didn’t fall over. I didn’t disgrace myself. That was my main worry, especially in the tights.

Perri Nemiroff

Staff Writer for CinemaBlend.