After 300: Rise Of An Empire had an opening-week global gross of $136 million and SullivanStapletonresuscitated the franchise potential of a first film that ended with a bloody pile of 300 dead Spartans, the town is asking: who the heck is this Sullivan Stapleton, avenger of Spartans, scourge of Persians and the latest guy in town with a star look and a six-pack? And more importantly, when is he available to reinforce to Hollywood that he’s got the goods to become its next leading man?

I caught up with Stapleton as he was home in Melbourne, recuperating from a concussion suffered in Bangkok while he was there filming Strike Back, the Cinemax series he stars in with Philip Winchester. He has done barely any press. That knock on the head kept him from being able to fly, which knocked him out of the chance to do the tour for the 300 sequel. A few things about Stapleton: he’s Australian, and like most of the actors who grew up in the business there before coming to these shores, he’s got a working-class attitude and is not at all full of himself. When you speak to him, you call him Sully. He looks like an edgier version of Pierce Brosnan, and in an age where Hollywood continues to build franchises around young actors who’ve barely passed puberty, Stapleton is (gasp!) 36 years old and is the first new face to come along in the action game in awhile who actually looks like a man. Though he will the first to admit that getting older takes a toll.

strike“My head is good now, but I’ve been thinking I must be getting older, because I took a hit to the head that hurt a bit more than it did when I fell all the time when I was a kid,” he said. “It was an accident, my head hit the road, and they put me in a hospital in Bangkok and then I came here to my mom’s house for rest, relaxation and more tests. Unfortunately, it means that I couldn’t do the 300 tour, which was sad for me because I love that film. I am so thankful to the bosses at Warner Bros  for giving me that job, and the guys from Strike Back who have allowed me time to get over this head wound. Obviously, that opening weekend helped the cause.”

Stapleton really had his “who’s that guy” moment in the David Michod-directed Aussie film Animal Kingdom, which launched Joel Edgerton, Jacki Weaver and Ben Mendelsohn. Stapleton shone as a member of that frightening crime clan, but they killed him off as he was just getting warmed up. Still, the impression stuck.

“I started here in Australia, playing a lot of roles but never the lead guy in shows here,” Stapleton told me. “I always tended to play the rougher guy, the criminal who gets caught or shot by the cops. Or the boyfriend from the wrong side of the tracks. I guess things happen when they are supposed to. I was acting, but I also got involved in building, and I also started gripping. There came a point where I said, OK, do I go into building or gripping full time, and give up this acting thing? And then that great film Animal Kingdom came along, and that was that. And that led to me getting on Gangster Squad, Strike Back happened, and that awesome 300 came along and things are going real well with that. And back home here, I’ve just done two movies in Kill Me Three Times and Cut Snake, that I’m real proud of.”

seizeStapleton said he will soon be able to re-start Strike Back and when he has completed his final season of that show, he will be available for Hollywood jobs starting in the fall. His reps at WME and Australian reps at United Management are handling the volume of sudden interest, but Stapleton is pretty unaffected by the attention. But not completely.

Said Stapleton, “Dude, I know you write articles, but are you a reader? Do you read Men’s Health? I’m on that cover, man. That’s how the world has changed for me. They said, do you want to be on this cover and I said, really? Me? I don’t work out every day.”

I’ve seen him in the guilty pleasure series Strike Back, where he seems to bed a gorgeous agent or nemesis in every episode. He looks way more aerobicized in 300. Does he, I ask, owe that six pack to 300‘s VFX wizards?

sixp“Ah, yeah,” he laughs. “I’d be telling you a lie if I said that six-pack was CGI. I trained hard enough to find out that all of us actually have six-packs under there somewhere. I loved that first 300 and looking at Gerry Butler and all the guys who played Spartans, that was kind of a big incentive to work out.”

The Greek forces he led seemed like welterweights compared to their heavyweight Spartan countrymen, and Stapleton was surprised that the training stressed losing weight more than gaining it. “I thought the workout would be putting on a shitload of muscle, but the ancient Athenian Greeks were apparently skinnier than I imagined, so I had to lose weight more than anything. I was doing the show at the time when the trainer came to South Africa. So after 10 hours a day of shooting Strike Back, I did three hours of training. Half of that was in the gym with weights and an hour and a half with the swords. It was like being a grownup manly boy. I’d put down my gun after shooting at people all day in Strike Back, pick up the sword, and then it was all cutting and thrusting. At points, I would say, I’m an ancient Greek politician with no time to work out. Why am I eating just meat and fish, because I love food and red wine. But I just loved being in shape.”

Warner Bros seems to like Stapleton. After using him for a key role in Gangster Squad and now 300, the studio has a couple of options with the actor, one of which most certainly will be another 300 installment, as his Themistokles comes to an inevitable showdown with Persian god king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). Right now, Stapleton is focused on keeping his head from swelling, figuratively and literally, and slowly planning to test out the opportunity that a global hit will provide him.

xerxes“When the show’s done, I want to come over to the States, and meet some of those guys who might give me a job and have something else to talk about with guys like you,” he said. “I can see it has opened doors. As for the sequel, it’s a huge story, and those battles between the Greeks and Persians went on for years and years. I hope to God we do another sequel. If we don’t, hopefully they put me in another film. And did I say that I’m on the cover of Men’s Health?”