'I had a lot of anger about not spending my childhood with my father'
Category: Interviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: August 8, 2004 | Publication: Scotland on Sunday | Author: CATHERINE DEVENEY
GERARD BUTLER’S father turned up on the doorstep of the family home in Paisley when Butler was four. Cocooned in the self-absorption of early childhood, he was too young to understand the significance of the stranger. So shadowy a figure was the dad of the unexpected visit, so insubstantial, that in future years the actor came to wonder if he had made him up. Perhaps the visit never really happened at all. Perhaps it was just a dream. "I never really asked my mother about it," Butler says now, 30 years later. "But I always wondered, ‘Did I just imagine that? Did he really turn up?’"
At 16, he dreamt about his dad. It was definitely a dream this time. In the intervening years his father had been in Canada, but he stole softly back into his son’s life through his subconscious. Butler’s parents were both Scottish, but his mother had returned from Canada with three children under the age of six when Butler was two. "I went through to my mum’s bedroom," he recalls, "and I said, ‘Mum, I’m never going to see him again, am I?’ And she said, ‘No, I don’t think so. I don’t think you are.’"
Butler didn’t need much preparation for his latest role in Dear Frankie. He knew it. He wore it like a pair of comfortable shoes, long ago broken in.
It is the story of a little deaf boy, Frankie, and his mother, played brilliantly by Emily Mortimer. Mortimer is on the run from Frankie’s violent father, but she creates a fantasy for her son. She tells him the name of a real ship and says his father is a sailor, even writing letters from this imaginary dad and sending them via a post-office box. Frankie (played by Jack McElhone) tracks the ship around the world, but when it docks in the Scottish town where the family is living, he naturally expects a visit. Mortimer needs to find a dad for the day. Enter Butler.
Clearly, the plot is hokum. Apart from anything else, a mother desperate to get a stand-in dad at short notice would inevitably get a man with the girth of a sumo wrestler and the height of Snow White’s dwarves. Instead, a brooding Butler, 6ft 3in and sporting an Elvis leather jacket, lands on her lap. As if. But if the literal truth of Dear Frankie stretches credulity, the emotional truth is utterly convincing. "We were well aware that we had to keep away from schmaltz and being overly sentimental," says Butler.
On the whole, they do. It is beautifully shot, has a terrific cast, and the central relationship, between Frankie and his mother, is moving. One male critic called it a "gobbling, squawking turkey", but then some critics cope better with beheaded soldiers or gangland bloodbaths than they do with more tender emotion. The audience at the Cannes film festival was less macho. The film got a cheering, standing ovation, so unexpected that Butler doubts anything in his career will ever make him feel quite that way again.
But then Butler understands the real emotions behind not having a father. Is that why the role was appealing? "Totally," he agrees. "It was really a cathartic experience. It was one of the easiest jobs I ever did because I so naturally felt I understood the situation that was going on. I really felt the character, and sometimes when you do that you don’t want to think too much about it. Every scene was as I both hoped and imagined it would be."
There’s a scene where Frankie has run away, and Butler played it over and over in his head like his own personal movie reel. He knew that scene: where everybody stood, what everybody felt. "Sometimes I can be a pain if a scene doesn’t go the way I imagine it to go. I said, ‘They have to be standing here and here and here...’ I just felt strongly that there was a physical shape to it. I had seen it in my head so many times, where she says, ‘Frankie, this is your dad,’ and he looks up. It gets me every time," says Butler, an entire movie beginning to unfold in the expressions on his face. He sounds emotional too, and it becomes hard to know if he’s talking about himself or Frankie. Probably both.
"Because it’s a child, and when you think of yourself in those lovely moments you had as a child, you feel so vulnerable and unprotected. And that little boy didn’t ask for that. What has he ever done to anybody? And suddenly he’s put in this position of being told, ‘This is your dad.’ You imagine him looking up and thinking - what is he thinking? And I think about the years when I used to wonder, ‘Where is my dad?’"
Don’t get him wrong, he says later, calmer. It didn’t screw up his entire life, not having a dad. But it taught him stuff. At 15 he had dreamy visions of being in the movies. But then he had what he describes as "an epiphany". "I just thought I should stick in at school and get a really nice professional job and marry a nice woman and have kids." It is doubtful such a dream of stability occurs to a 15-year-old unless there is a good reason.
As a result, Butler studied law at Glasgow University, although he doesn’t remember ever actually wanting to be a lawyer. Off campus he played in a band and behaved more like a rock star. He developed a drink problem, like his father before him. Just alcohol? "Mostly alcohol. Some drugs as well. And wildness. A lot of the time I had this craziness, an uncontrollable energy that was, ‘I could stand here, or I could throw myself in front of that car.’ Sometimes it was an exciting feeling, on the edge." But ultimately destructive? "Self-destructive and self-loathing," he acknowledges. He once jumped from pillar to pillar on the roof of a 46-storey building. And he literally hung, drunk, from the railings of a cruise ship at five in the morning, singing ‘We Are Sailing’. They wanted to throw him off next morning.
The trouble was that he had spent years creating a life he didn’t actually want to live in. "I was miserable. I used to go home and count the hours until I had to go back to work. I couldn’t sleep. When I was 16 I had terrible panic attacks about dying. I had so much to look forward to. At 24 I thought dying might be a relief."
The week before he qualified, he got sacked from his law firm. "I was on warnings and I just... days off and..." He pauses. "I was hardly the kind of person to satisfy rules about codes of conduct and integrity." To get that close and be sacked sounds like deliberate sabotage: I don’t want to do this, but I can’t say so, so please sack me. "Maybe," he says. "Yeah, absolutely. I was pretending to be this lawyer in a very traditional Edinburgh firm, but I felt like a little Glasgow boy who was totally at sea and could barely scramble a meal, let alone deal with clients and do complicated legal work."
But through all the misery, he felt "guided" by a higher power. He was being allowed to mess things up so he could take another route. "I once heard a guy say that you couldn’t have any regrets until the day you die, because only then does everything fit into place. The day I was fired was the worst day of my life, but now I think, ‘If that hadn’t happened where would I be? Would I be alive?’"
The day after being sacked, he left for London to begin his acting career, starting with a bit part in Coriolanus. "I was sitting with nothing after all those years of studying, so why not aim for the stars?" Was his mother mad at him? "Mad," he repeats immediately. "But I think more sad. I think she got to the stage where she just didn’t know what to do. I’ll never forget a letter she sent me when I went to London. I know how hard it was for her to write it. She just said, ‘Whatever you do in life, I don’t care so long as you are happy.’ We have always had quite a tempestuous relationship. She can drive me crazy and I know that I have driven her absolutely crazy, and still can. But I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her, and I wouldn’t be what I am if it wasn’t for her."
Butler no longer drinks. But he has an addictive personality - he smokes 60 cigarettes a day, and the day after the interview has an appointment to start his 26th attempt at kicking the habit. Acting, too, has become an addiction. "I have a very addictive nature, and unfortunately I have become addicted to my work. I love acting - and that’s great - but it doesn’t quite solve the problem."
As an actor, you are surrounded by people. But it’s often new people, on each new set. Relationships are difficult to sustain. Butler has a friend who is just like him. They cry at romantic movies and have big romantic ideals. But they are rubbish at the real thing. "I’m sure there will be a few ex-girlfriends reading this thinking, ‘Aye, you’re f**king right there, mate,’" laughs Butler. But he’d like to be a father one day. "There are certain moments when you think, ‘God, wouldn’t it be great to have a little kid.’"
When he hears the word ‘father’, what does it make him feel? He exhales slowly, deeply, like he’s gently releasing his thoughts on the breath. There is a long pause. "I don’t... I don’t even... I have a sense of ‘father’, but I don’t know if I can put it into words. You almost want to start describing the functions of a father, but I never really, in terms of an actual father, had one. I have a fantastic stepfather, but in terms of an actual father I wouldn’t really know. The word ‘father’ makes me feel something. It makes me feel something, but I don’t know... I think almost... heartache," he says, and his voice lilts upwards, as if in a question.
FIVE weeks after dreaming of his father, 16-year-old Butler came home to find his mother’s boyfriend, later his stepdad, waiting. "Keep your jacket on," he was told, "your father’s here." They met in a restaurant, Butler walking past tables of strangers and wondering which face he should know every curve and line of. "I was literally going, ‘Which one of these guys is my dad?’"
Words seemed inadequate. "I thought, ‘What do you say? This is my f**king father in front of me.’ Until I sat down, and then I said, ‘Why didn’t you get in touch?’" Butler cried then, hours of tears for years of absence. "I couldn’t stop. I could barely speak. I always remember that, and thinking, ‘Where did that come from?’ I didn’t know it was in there until those words came out: ‘Why didn’t you get in touch?’ It was such a mixture of pain and anger, but relief and joy and just complete... surprise. I can’t think of a better word than surprise." He laughs. "Oh hello, there’s my dad!"
It was the start of a special relationship, but the possibility of having a father had gone. "It was like having a friend, a very crazy one." His father owned a shop selling novelty umbrellas and hats. "My dad was nuts. He was a very entertaining man, the best story-teller, the best joke-teller, like a big kid. I realised I had a lot of anger in me about not having spent my childhood with him, but when I met him and got to know him I realised he was just trying his best, the way he knew how. He was quite an irresponsible man, but I don’t think he had a lot of evil in him. He was very childish in a way, but a good man. I am really glad I got to know him."
Prone to mishaps, though. He went to Africa to buy gold but got conned with copper and he ended up in hospital with malaria. Butler was supposed to rescue him, but then his father’s French-Canadian second wife said she would go. "I weel go," says Butler, adopting a French accent. "I am French and nobodee weel make a fool of me..." She broke her leg and ended up in the bed next to her husband. "Now the two of them are in f**king Togoland with 70,000 worth of copper, and a massive fall-out with his business partner, who abandoned him. They eventually made it back home, even more broke than before."
When Butler was about 23, his father developed cancer. "He told me he was dying, and basically said. ‘Let’s go on a Caribbean cruise.’" Later, Butler spent the final few weeks of his father’s life at home with him in Canada. "I am especially glad I could be there in his last moments," he says. "I felt his fear in the end, and I could really see how important it was to him that I was there. He was pretty much in a coma, waking up only for minutes at a time, and when he woke up he knew he was dying. He wanted to hold our hands, and he would say, ‘I am so glad you are here.’ Then I was glad I was there."
He gained so much respect for his father in those last weeks. Before he began losing consciousness, his father had laughed and joked. "I loved his swan song, that he went out with such a brave face. I hope I could be as brave as him if the same thing happened to me, to keep such humour."
His father never lived to see his son’s acting career. Butler starred opposite Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, which is success in anybody’s book. But right now is an interesting time for him. He’s on the cusp of the super league, having won the lead role in the film version of Phantom of the Opera, which will be released in December. The role was both physically and emotionally exhausting. "The Phantom descends into madness, heartache, loss and tragedy. Towards the end, when you see my deformity, I was getting up at 3.30 in the morning and going in for five or six hours of prosthetics. Then I was crying my eyes out and screaming and shouting, and finally getting to bed at ten at night so wound up that I couldn’t sleep."
And the result? "I haven’t seen the whole thing, but I know I did the best I could. I’m more excited about this than any movie I’ve ever done. I think everybody involved is hugely, quietly confident. I saw a ten-minute preview and it makes my spine tingle, and I can’t stop myself from crying."
Is it frightening that the role could be life-changing? "Frightening and exciting." But he already knows acting is not everything. "I have enough experience and foresight to know that my career will never make me happy. It can cover up cracks and give me a lot of fulfilment, but it can never fully fulfil me because a career is not a spiritual thing. I would be scared to think that it could. You have moments of convincing yourself it could because you always base your happiness on some future event - ‘If I get that part, everything will be all right.’
"Even when I said, ‘If I can only get sober, I’ll be happy.’ No. I got sober, I’m much happier, but it didn’t make me 100% happy. I used to think if my career took off as an actor, I’d be happy. No. It has made me much happier, but not 100% happy."
He says he is much happier than he once was, but you do sense the circle is not quite complete. At the end of Dear Frankie there is the possibility of a future relationship for Butler, Mortimer and the child. Is that what is missing for Butler? "If I were to fall in love and have a wonderful relationship and a family, I could imagine saying, ‘Wow, this is what it’s all about.’ But how many people have that? But if you could say it would be a relationship that was good..." He laughs. "And the film would go mega. And my family would live forever. Then I’d be happy!"
Dear Frankie is being shown on August 27 and 28 as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. For further information and tickets, log on to www.edfilmfest.org.uk or call 0131 229 2550