In director Antoine Fuqua's new action thriller, Olympus Has Fallen, the White House — code-named "Olympus" — is invaded by North Korean terrorists. The president and his staff are held hostage in an underground bunker, and their only hope of coming out alive is a disgraced Secret Service agent.
In theaters March 22, the film opens at a politically sensitive time, perhaps by coincidence. North Korea is much in the news for its nuclear threats and its rocky relationship with South Korea.
"We have the opportunity to put on the screen our worst nightmares, and then we can look at that and say, 'Let's not let that happen in reality,' " says Fuqua, who's known for the gritty, action-packed Training Day, Tears of the Sun and Brooklyn's Finest.
The idea of making an attack on the White House look real was appealing, Fuqua tells host Michel Martin, and he wanted to take the audience on a roller-coaster ride.
The opportunity to work with Fuqua drew Angela Bassett to the project. The Oscar-nominated actress had been longtime friends with the director, but this was their first time on set together.
"Working with Angela, that was a dream," Fuqua says. "I've been wanting to work with her since I started making movies. She's going to always deliver, that's for sure."
Bassett plays Lynn Jacobs, the intelligent, passionate director of the Secret Service. The actress says she was humbled and pleased to play a woman in such a position.
The secretary of defense is also a woman — Oscar winner Melissa Leo. Fuqua says he didn't put a lot of thought into whether the roles should be women or men. He says that when he read the script, he just wanted strong, intelligent individuals.
Fuqua enlisted the help of former Secret Service members to prepare for the film. The consultants were on set to answer questions and share their experiences.
"Some stories we wanted to hear. Some [were] too much — you wanted to cover your ears. But they were right there with us," Bassett says.
Other Hollywood heavyweights were also on set: Gerard Butler (disgraced Secret Service agent Mike Banning), Aaron Eckhart (President Benjamin Asher), Ashley Judd (first lady Margaret Asher), Morgan Freeman (speaker of the House/acting President Allan Trumbull) and Rick Yune (terrorist Kang).
Fuqua says the star-studded cast intimidated him, but working with them was a dream come true.
"When I come to the set, they're already prepared," he says. "They know what they're going to do. They have an idea of what their character is about. They're the top of the A list. So for me, it makes my life much easier. I'm just there to give them what they need from me as a director. And then they bring their magic. And that's the beauty of it."
The director admits that he would've gotten more studio resistance if he had made the same casting decision five years ago (an African-American man as the acting president, an African-American woman as the Secret Service director and a Caucasian woman as the secretary of defense). But he still would've pushed for it.
"Because they're the best actors for the job for me," he says, "these are the people I envision in my head at night. So for, me as a director, you have to stick to your guns."
Artists are known for imagining future possibilities, and Fuqua and Bassett both envision a female commander-in-chief.
"I think that a female president is coming," Fuqua says. "It's not necessarily because it's the right thing to do — I just think it's going to be the right person for the job. 'Cause I don't think people always vote based on the right thing to do."
Asked if they think the White House staff will see Olympus Has Fallen and like it, Fuqua and Bassett laugh. Maybe not just yet, they say.