In honor of the film's 20th anniversary, the actress shares her fondest memories from set — from worrying about tigers to soccer rivalries among the crew — and provides an update on the sequel.
Credit: Jaap Buitendijk/Dreamworks

Gladiator (2000 movie)

It's been 20 years since Gladiator came roaring into theaters and "Are you not entertained?!" became part of the pop culture lexicon forever.

The Ridley Scott-helmed historical epic stars Russell Crowe as Maximus, a former Roman general turned gladiator who seeks revenge against the corrupt emperor (Joaquin Phoenix) who murdered his family and forced him into slavery. Connie Nielsen stars as Lucilla, sister to the emperor, who works behind the scenes to assist Maximus and overthrow her brother. The film was a massive success, winning five Oscars, including Best Picture, and amassing more than $460 million at the worldwide box office.

In honor of the milestone anniversary, Nielsen, who can be seen next in the thriller Inheritance (out Friday on VOD), shares her fondest memories from set — from worrying about tigers to soccer rivalries among the crew to a "dead" man telling jokes — and offers an update on the sequel.

The massive scope of the film was evident from her very first days on set

"I was taken to set to say hi to Ridley before going into makeup, and I just saw him in the middle of filming the big battle scene against the Goths that is at the beginning of the film. And that was when I first started to get the scale that this film would have. I saw 3,000 Irish soldiers dressed as Goths on one hill, and then I think 3,000 British soldiers, if I'm not mistaken, on the other hill dressed as Romans, and then I saw just Ridley having a camera trained on a couple of dogs that were made to look like wolves bearing the Roman insignia… And I just knew from that moment on that it was going to be just so exciting to play these characters and that we were so safe in his hands. He just was so at ease with five cameras rolling at the same time, thousands and thousands of extras, and he wasn't even looking worried. He was just completely calm."

Richard Harris couldn't stop telling jokes between takes of his death scenes

"Me and Joaquin were shooting the scene of saying goodbye to [Harris' character, their onscreen father, Marcus Aurelius] before his funeral rites. We were supposed to be crying and desperate — or my character at least was supposed to be crying and desperate — and it was hard because between every take Richard would sit up as soon as we said cut and continue these extraordinarily funny stories about him and Peter O'Toole on tour as young actors of the British provinces with a Shakespeare play. And I still remember the actual punchline: He is there in deathly makeup, and he sits up and then is like, 'So Peter O'Toole had said his line and now it was my turn, but I was returning from the pub where I had just gone over to have a drink while I knew I wasn't on stage. I got caught up in some conversation with some really fine lady, until I realized I was late, and they came to get me. So I rushed back, and I hear the prima donna's line and that's my cue, and I'm still not quite by the stage entrance and she repeats it. And so I'm hurrying so much and I'm about to enter the stage when I stumble over a cable or rope, and I kind of land sideways, sliding onto the stage in front of the prima donna. I then gargle out my line, and apparently the prima donna smelled my breath, because she broke out on stage, Good God. Richard Harris is dead drunk.' And that was the story that we were listening to in between the takes of his death."

Russell Crowe had to do scenes with tigers, but was forbidden to play soccer in case he got hurt

"Russell was doing some of the scenes where there were tigers right next to him. And these tigers were meant to be held by three animal trainers that were dressed up as slaves and were holding on to the chain on the other side. Obviously, we often discussed if the tiger turned on the people holding the chains, what would be protecting Russell once they had run off? That danger was certainly on the forefront of our minds with Russell. So when Russell was forbidden to play soccer because of the danger that that could pose to his movement, he did think it was a little rich, you know, after standing on the other side of the chain of these tigers. I think he ended up playing soccer anyways, but he is a very bad loser. He got super-mad at the crew — it was a crew of Brits. And they were resoundingly better than his [team] and they won fair and square. But I remember he was not pleased."

Crowe was adamant that there shouldn't be a sex scene between Lucilla and Maximus

"I think that Russell very rightly felt that the romantic investment had to be heroic for his character. He was so right about that, in my opinion. He really felt that we could not go ahead and make the romance between Lucilla and Maximus more explicit than that; we could allude to a path or could allude to what could have been, but he needed to remain pure as a grieving husband in order to truly represent the values and the heroism of his character."

Ridley Scott fought to make Lucilla a progressive character

"It was one of the things that made me feel so grateful to be part of the whole film, really. Ridley really was intent on making this character an equal to those men, if not even more than an equal. And I think that he heard me loud and clear when I complained at our very first meeting of the way that Hollywood treats women. I think that he just is somebody who was very intent on making that character be the smartest person in the room, and it was also what made me so proud of playing that character."

Where the sequel stands

"So, we did hear from the producers. I think it's just a question of which film is coming first in Ridley's very tight schedule. And then I think it's a question of COVID and can we get back to work. But I would be interested in doing [the film], for sure. I mean, it's obviously a wonderful project, so of course I would be interested."

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Gladiator (2000 movie)
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