Gerard Butler: From Viking god to loincloth
Category: Interviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: September 15, 2005 | Publication: Toronto Star | Author: RITA ZEKAS
Sensitive enough to play Phantom, Robbie Burns
But manly enough for Beowulf and Greek warrior
I didn't study the epic 9th century Anglo Saxon poem Beowulf in university.
So before I screened the film Beowulf & Grendel, co-starring Gerard Butler and Sarah Polley, I assumed that Beowulf was a great Norse warrior and that Grendel was his love interest.
How was I to know that Grendel was in fact a hulking murderous troll? A "fi fi fo fum, I smell the blood of a Danish man" troll who bowls with the heads of Danes.
Polley actually plays a seductive and provocative witch named Selma. Butler plays the mythic conquering hero Beowulf, who is the Hercules of his culture. He swims for miles in his chain mail and all he suffers for it are eels clinging to him.
The film, shot on location in Iceland and directed by Sturla Gunnarsson, is set in 6th century A.D. Beowulf sailed from what is now Sweden to help out his old mentor Hrothgar, the king of Denmark and a father figure, get rid of the troll.
Instead of being a cheesy Viking epic, it is hilarious and poignant, despite more beheadings in it than Braveheart. The dialogue is hysterical. My new stinging epithet is "You look like walrus s---."
When Beowulf takes leave of his own king, the king tells him, "Find a wife. Our sheep have had enough."
The notes describe it as "a story of blood and beer and sweat, of sick jokes and a fear of the dark."
Butler looks like a Viking god. No wonder he was on the short list to portray the next James Bond. But he claims that he was not in "serious contention."
Butler, 36, was born in Glasgow and spent some of his early youth in Canada. He made his film debut in 1997 as Billy Connolly's younger brother in Mrs. Brown. He played Angelina Jolie's love interest in Tomb Raider 2, co-starred in the indie hit Dear Frankie and played the lead in The Phantom of the Opera. He will soon be seen as the poet Robert Burns in Burns.
Butler cuts an imposing figure, standing well over six feet. He says he is building up his flat butt for his next film. He has to wear a loincloth.
"It's a Warner Brothers film with a budget 10 times larger than this," he explains. "It's called 300, based on the Frank Miller comic book and is based on the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. It is Gladiator meets Matrix.
"It is very dark and powerful and more based on reality than this. What I love about this story is that it never goes the way you expect. It also has such a melancholy, but truthful message about the lack of understanding for anything different. For the first time, Beowulf has underestimated a foe who is actually very intelligent and is proving to be a great warrior. Beowulf was never really challenged. This is the first time a person really shakes him."
As does Polley's character Selma. "In the poem, there are no female characters," Butler says. "When you read Viking literature, the men went to war and the women stayed behind but after the battles, the men listened to the women. Even today, women in Iceland are very powerful."
Also in the poem, Beowulf was not as conflicted as he is in the film.
"The big question is whether he did good or evil and he has to face the consequences. He has to account for what happens when he executes Grendel."
Butler had not read the poem prior to signing on. He loved the script.
"It is a wonderful story," he says. "The characters are more interesting because they are more layered than in the poem. No character in the poem questions whether Grendel is good or evil. Why was his father killed? He stepped on the king's land to take a fish.
"It speaks of tribalism and ethnic cleansing. I think the movie is a metaphor for racism and man's unwillingness to accept other religions. They have a lot of fear. They loathe Grendel and his kin because he's not them. I love that everyone (in the film) has a POV."
And it's not easy being a legend.
"Beowulf's men need action. He's shaken up by this woman (Selma). He's shaken up to see this king, who was a father figure, become someone he can't trust. He's reverted to a child because of alcoholism."
After this film opens, there will probably be a Beowulf action figure.
"No," Butler insists. "It's interesting to play this role because it humanizes Beowulf rather than him being a macho character."
He enjoyed working with Gunnarsson, even in the horrifically frigid months of October and November.
"I dug the way this man works. He thinks at a level of primal intensity that I find wonderful. I love what he gets from the actors. This is not necessarily a massive production but it is an effective piece of cinema."
As for me, I'm still fantasizing about that loincloth.