SOFIA, BULGARIA. I've learned few things from my years of movie and TV set visits, but one thing I know for certain: Never dine at an all-you-can-eat buffet with the Greek army.
It's early September 2012 at the Nu Boyana film studio on the outskirts of Sofia, Bulgaria and the Greek army is massing upon a repast of stewed steak, heavily sauced meatballs and unadorned, flaky white fish. 
There are also potatoes, rolls and platters of deserts, but looking at the soldiers flanking me on all sides, I have my doubts that any carbohydrates are being consumed in the meal room for "300-rise-of-an-empire" class="autolink">300: Rise of an Empire."
Craft service tends to be the great equalizer on a movie set, bringing together the burly Teamsters, wiry technicians and all but the highest echelon of stars, but on the "300: Rise of an Empire" set, there are some people out to make a point and that point involves more sit-ups and push-ups than I can wrap my mind around. 
Apparently there was a very recent truce called on the set, because buff Greeks and buff Persians are dining side-by-side. All are covered with dirt and dramatically oozing wounds and many have backs marked with loud red whip-lashes. Humility plays no role in this feast, as the warriors chow down in outfits that would make an Olympic diver blush. Oddly, there's a gender divide when it comes to modesty as a stunning woman at the soda station fills her cup dressed in a small, tightly cinched bathrobe. 
Look, I'd love nothing more than to talk about the set of "300: Rise of an Empire" without concentrating on beef and the beefcake, but it's hard to avoid. The sequel to Zack Snyder's 2006 smash is taking up 6 stages at Nu Bayona -- it previously simulated Los Angeles for "Black Dahlia," all manner of locations for "Expendables 2" and wherever-the-heck "Conan the Barbarian" was set -- and each set has become a loitering spot for battle-scarred male models, who barely bat an eye as an armor-clad horse is wheeled by.
And it's hard to avoid discussing the fact that, like the first movie, "Rise of an Empire" could double as a recruitment video for the world's most exclusive gym.
"It's kinda weird," admits star Sullivan Stapleton. "I think the first day they give it to you, you're on your own in a wardrobe and then once you see all the boys runnings around in leather codpieces, you get used to it."
Asked if this is the best shape he's ever been in, Stapleton laughs. And laughs. 
"Yes," the "Strike Back" star chuckles. "Yes. Yes. Uh... Yeah."
Stapleton is playing Athenian politician and general Themistocles in "Rise of an Empire," which focuses on the naval battle of Artemisium, which happened at roughly the same time as the events of "300." As he sits down with a group of reporters, he's in "general" mode, wearing little more than a codpiece that he's more than happy to show off for the press. After all, he's put a lot of work into this.
"Every minute of every day," he laughs. "It's full-on. We're on a diet. I’m especially on a diet. I’m not of the skinny variety of men. I probably sit 10, 12 kilos heavier than this, and I always said, 'That's just genetics. Just some blokes can't get six-packs.' That's bulls***. We can all get six-packs. It's diet and training which, unfortunately, comes at lunchtime or before work, sometimes after work and most of the time on-set. You're just constantly training, push-ups, sit-ups, whatever."
Sullivan, a fun-loving Australian, knows that "Rise of an Empire" is a big chance for him to boost his film career, with the first movie opening more than a few Hollywood doors. For this role, though, that means making some sacrifices.
"It sorta sucks, because I heard the last film, a few of the boys got up to a lot of mischief, but I can't. It's just too much," he says. "If Themistocles didn't speak as much as he did, I probably would, but I have to talk as well as fight. The fighting, you can fight hung over. You can't talk hungover. Talking's harder."
It sounds like this is a real issue for Stapleton and one of the points-of-pride for producers regarding the script, which Snyder wrote with Kurt Johnstad. While Noam Murro's "Rise of an Empire" will have ample action the talk on the set is about... well... the talk.
"At the moment, I’ve probably got more muscles than brains, but that’ll change," Sullivan laughs. "I didn’t realize what I was signing up to. I actually thought it was going to be... Um, the first '300' was lots of killing and swords and lots of fun. Themistocles talks a lot. He’s got a lot of things to say. I didn’t realize that. Not only has it been hard training and keeping in shape, but he’s a brilliant tactician and basically has to unite all of Greece. He was quite the politician. Unfortunately, they talk."
The talk, of course, produces its own challenges for Stapleton, who speaks with a thick Australian accent in real life and plays an American on his Cinemax action-drama. Asked about his "Rise of an Empire" accent, Stapleton doesn't hesitate to reference another Aussie sword-and-sandals legend.
"It's just Russell Crowe out of 'Gladiator,'" he cracks. "I think it’s supposed to be British. We'll see. Yeah, I spend lots of time doing American, and it’s kind of that funny thing to just change. Also, doing ADR  for that show whilst I'm here, that's like going back and forward in-between British and American. And there's a few Aussies on this, so it's actually been kinda nice to hear my own accent and be able to speak in my own accent at the same f***ing speed, mate, and talk all that s*** and everyone knows that I'm saying."
[More "300: Rise of an Empire" coverage and quotes, including Eva Green, on Page 2...]
A long-time member of the TCA Board and a longer-time blogger of "American Idol," Dan Fienberg writes about TV, except for when he writes about movies or sometimes writes about the Red Sox. But never music. He would sound stupid talking about music.