Gerard Butler, the man in the mask

Category: Interviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: December 19, 2004 | Publication: SFGate.com | Author: John Clark
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Scottish actor Gerard Butler had to perform the most important film role of his career wearing a mask.

That didn't make the acting any easier: Butler has the title role in the film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera," and the phantom compensates for his limited expressive capacity by singing his twisted heart out.

That story is not a happy one. Disfigured and treated as a circus freak when he was younger, the phantom is spirited away to Paris' Opera Populaire, where he hides and becomes a kind of lethal music critic. Without revealing his face, he secretly tutors a young soprano, Christine (newcomer Emmy Rossum), and falls in love with her as she matures into a woman and a promising opera star.

However, Christine is torn between the phantom and Raoul (Patrick Wilson), a childhood friend who has become the opera's benefactor. It might seem like an easy choice for her, because the phantom is disfigured inside and out while Raoul is a rich dreamboat. But he is a bit bland, like an anchorman, while the phantom exudes a dangerous sexuality. He's the kind of guy girls are always warned about but can't seem to resist.

"Yeah, it's sexed up," Butler, 35, says of the finished film. "I think it also makes more sense than the stage version, because there it's more abracadabra and she's under his power. Whereas here there's more physical attraction. He's somebody who is in the prime of his life, who wants a partner and some good sex. It's more tragic."

This scenario, directed and co-written by Joel Schumacher ("Batman Forever," "The Client"), more or less follows Lloyd Webber's show, which was based on Gaston Leroux's 1911 novel and opened in London in 1986. "The Phantom of the Opera" went on to become the highest grossing theatrical production in history, earning more than $3 billion. It made stars of Michael Crawford (as the phantom) and Sarah Brightman (as Christine). Songs such as "Music of the Night" became the era's aural wallpaper.

Such a success is a hard act to follow. Lloyd Webber and Schumacher originally were going to make the film in 1990 with Crawford and Brightman, but the project was shelved when Lloyd Webber's collaborators protested that a film would harm the show's touring companies. Schumacher says he made a deal with Lloyd Webber in 2000, agreeing that the three leads needed to be played by young actors (which precluded Crawford, now 62, and Brightman, now 44), and that the actors would sing in their own voices.

Not a problem for Wilson and Rossum: He's performed in musicals on Broadway ("The Full Monty"); she appeared with the Metropolitan Opera at age 7 (she's now 18).

Butler, on the other hand, needed to prove himself. Although this is a heavy-duty singing part, he is not a trained vocalist. "I sang for fun in a rock band," he says, "and that's about as good as it gets."

After a series of vocal lessons, he auditioned for Lloyd Webber at the composer's London home, accompanied by a piano and a bad case of nerves. "I knew the voice was my main means of communication, so I wanted to become technically as good as I could and then forget about it. I wanted to hear (the phantom's) life story in every note."

Schumacher first caught Butler's act at a St. Louis multiplex in a forgettable film called "Dracula 2000," but liked what he saw. The director is known for discovering actors -- he cast an unknown Colin Farrell in "Tigerland."

"When (Butler) talked to me about the role, he was so emotional about the loneliness, the disconnectedness (of the phantom)," Schumacher says.

A native of Glasgow, Butler originally was headed for a law career -- he studied law at Glasgow University and then joined a firm in Edinburgh. But his heart wasn't in it.

"That was some of the darker periods of my life because I was very disillusioned with where I was going," he says in his beguiling burr. "I wasn't treating myself very well, and I was very unhappy. But I don't regret any of it. Had I got into acting when I was 18, I probably would have gone nowhere. I think that I had to go down the wrong alley to come into the right alley."

There followed the usual apprenticeship on the stage, big screen and television, including a lead role in the British stage version of "Trainspotting" and a feature film debut in "Mrs. Brown." Bigger roles followed: the title in the miniseries "Attila" and Angelina Jolie's untrustworthy sidekick in "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life." Next he'll be seen as a smoldering stranger in "Dear Frankie," and he's just wrapped a film about Beowulf and is in preproduction for a film about poet Robert Burns.

Asked if he had qualms about casting Butler as his phantom, Lloyd Webber says, "I'm not a vocal trainer myself, so I put him together with people who are, and the conductor of the movie, Simon Lee." (Despite all the success he has had -- seven Tonys, an Oscar, a knighthood -- the composer is so shy, he was visibly shaking while answering softball questions.) "I said, 'Look, do you think you can bring him through it?' And they said, 'Yeah.' Joel was very keen to cast him. I think he wanted somebody who had that authority and who was handsome. He's a big hunk, isn't he?"

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“THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA” (PG-13) opens Wednesday at Bay Area theaters.
John Clark is a Chronicle correspondent.