'I'm used to ending people's lives on camera, but this is a guy who spends his life saving people'
Action star Jason Statham plays a deep-sea diver tasked with rescuing the crew of a submarine in new blockbuster The Meg. He tells Laura Harding why he relished the role ... and the chance to perform some stunts
Jason Statham has made a career out of playing hard men and bad guys. From The Fast And The Furious franchise to Snatch, The Transporter and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, he hasn't had much time to cram in heroics.
But that all changes in his new blockbuster The Meg, in which he finally gets to come to the rescue.
He plays deep-sea diver Jonas Taylor, who is trying to save the crew of a submarine that is under threat from a 75ft-long shark, known as the Megalodon.
"I'm used to ending people's lives on camera, but this is a guy who spent his life saving people, and I thought there was something cool about that," Statham says.
"He also has a good sense of humour and I could certainly relate to some of the emotions he goes through. And the physicality the role required was something I'm very familiar with.
"So, given all those things, Jonas was a character I thought I could do some kind of justice to, and that's what I tend to look for.
"I like the conflict he is up against. People were saying he was a crazy man, that he'd lost his mind. But he had an instinct that something was down there. And now he gets to prove himself right."
In the film, Statham's character is still recovering from a traumatic brush with a massive creature powerful enough to crush the hull of a nuclear submarine.
The attack killed two of his friends and kept him out of the water for five years, until the emergence of a Megalodon at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean threatens the lives of a crew from an oceanic research institute off the coast of China.
"I think this is the ultimate popcorn film," Statham says enthusiastically.
"It gives you what people go to the cinema for: entertainment, suspense, action and even a few laughs - all of the things audiences want from a big movie-going experience."
The shoot also gave Statham (51) the chance to get back in the water after his former life as a champion diver.
He competed as part of Britain's national diving team in the 1990 Commonwealth Games and at one point was placed 12th in the world.
It was while training at London's Crystal Palace National Sports Centre in London that he caught the attention of film crews and photographers, and began his transition to the Hollywood tough guy he is today.
So, when the rest of the cast - which includes Ruby Rose, Rainn Wilson and Li Bingbing - had to go to swimming school to make the film, Statham was exempt.
Stuntman Josh Randall describes the action hero as "a legitimate athlete in his own right", adding: "He didn't need much coaching. But he still needed to prepare, so we sourced some special gear for him and set up a little gym in his home.
"He had all the bases covered; he knew what he was doing, in and out of the water."
Stunt co-ordinator Allan Poppleton, who has worked with Statham on five other films, agrees.
"Because of Jason's diving background, his understanding of the physicalities of a stunt is amazing," he says. "It meant we could design the action to suit his proficiency level, which is obviously high and the production gained from that."
But it's not just diving from boards that Statham is so good at, he is also no stranger to a scuba suit.
"I have always had a fascination with the underwater world and have been scuba diving for almost 20 years," he reveals.
"The oceans are so vast and, rationally, I think most people have a fear of what's down there and automatically assume the worst, especially about sharks.
"Sharks are one thing that take no prisoners.
"A great white would put the fear of God into any swimmer, so you can only imagine what something three or four times that size would do to you. You wouldn't want that chasing you down."
While some of the film, which is based on the best-selling novel MEG by Steve Alten, was shot on the open water, the production also built two huge tanks in New Zealand to capture a lot of the action.
An enormous exterior tank, holding approximately 2.5 million litres, served as the water surface tank, while a separate dive tank - 18 metres in diameter, five metres deep and holding approximately 1.26 million litres - was built indoors.
These made it possible for Statham to perform some of his most exciting stunts himself, including one in which he dives from a boat and ends up being chased by the huge shark.
"A portion of that was filmed in the ocean, because they needed me being towed with the boat in the background, and you can't really fake that," he says.
"It was important that we were able to shoot that in an authentic way. But the part where I get yanked out of the water at high speed had to be done with rigging.
"It would have been too dangerous to do that off the back of the real boat, so we did that element in the tank.
"I get a big kick out of being thrashed about and doing those sorts of things. There's a sense of achievement in it for me."
The Meg is in cinemas from today