Singers of the Night

Category: Phantom of the Opera News | Posted by: admin
Article Date: January 3, 2005 | Publication: Backstage.com | Author: Simi Horwitz
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Emmy Rossum and Gerard Butler go "underground" in the new film version of Phantom of the Opera.

"There's a lot of responsibility in carrying a film of this size." So asserts the 18-year-old, New York City-born Emmy Rossum, who seems stunned--and delighted even in retrospect--to have been cast to play Christine, the female lead, in Andrew Lloyd Webber's opulent $90 million Golden Globe-nominated movie musical, The Phantom of the Opera. Based on Webber's international theatrical extravaganza, the movie is slated to open nationwide Jan 21.

Undoubtedly it must be a heady experience for the virtually unknown performer. Nonetheless her remark irks actor/singer Gerard Butler, who plays her love interest, the Phantom. In a marked Scottish brogue the 35-year-old Glasgow native quips, "That's a nice thing to say in front of the other actor."

"Darling," Rossum retorts. "I'm aware it's not 'Christine of the Opera.' It's 'The Phantom of the Opera.'"

The two actors, who meet with me in a midtown hotel room, have their lighthearted sparring down pat, almost evoking a prepared performance on a nighttime talk show. They're a striking duo on-screen and off. That elusive chemistry is theirs, with Butler's rugged appeal and the lovely-looking Rossum's self-assured innocence.

But then that animal magnetism between the two performers is a primary reason they were cast as the doomed lovers in the 18th century legendary story set in the fictitious Opera Populaire. The Phantom is a facially disfigured tormented being, who haunts the catacombs beneath the opera house, while Christine, a waif with an angelic voice, finds herself powerfully drawn to the Phantom.

"We wanted a very young girl to play Christine," notes Andrew Lloyd Webber. "It's about the awakening of her sexuality." Director Joel Schumacher agrees, noting that he wanted to tell "a young tragic love story, with Christine having known the Phantom in the past. He is not a supernatural figure. He is a horny guy. Raoul [played by Patrick Wilson and the third point of the romantic triangle] represents Christine's romantic awakening, while the Phantom is Christine's sexual awakening--dark and obsessive. All the good stuff," he chortles.

But youth and lust were not the only criteria for casting. The stars of the movie--and it didn't matter to Webber or Schumacher if they were unknowns--"had to be able to sing," observes the composer. "You can't get away with dubbing today."

Tapped for a Golden Glove nomination for her work in Phantom, Rossum is indeed a highly trained singer. She was a member of the children's opera at the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center and has performed in 20 operas in five languages alongside some of the world's greatest opera singers.

By contrast, Butler was a hitherto untrained singer. "But he has a raw, rock 'n' roll voice that Webber loved," says Schumacher, adding that Butler's voice serves as a nice contrast to the lyric tenor of Patrick Wilson. "Gerry has a strong screen presence, and he personally connects with the loneliness of the Phantom. It's palpable on-screen. When he was talking to us about the character, he broke down."

Nonetheless, both performers faced major challenges. Butler, who is often cast as rough characters with dark psyches and sensitive souls, says he understands the Phantom's "passion and loneliness. I have an edgy perspective and abandoned myself to the role, although of course I'm not violent, and I had to work at understanding his motivation, his journey. And I'm not physically scarred. I had to get into the mind of someone with cranial disfigurement who has dealt from an early age with everyone else's disgust when they look at him. The physical disfigurement is a metaphor for what's going on inside of him. The Phantom is also very self-aware, and in some ways he plays at being who he is, sexual and ominous."

The most daunting task for Butler was singing; wearing a half mask on his face throughout was a further obstacle to singing easily. And then there were the excruciating prosthetics and makeup, which took nine hours to apply, he recalls.

"My [lower] eyelid was glued down and then held in place with a piece of string, which went around my face and down my back. I wore a bald cap and that had to be painted and glued down. Makeup got into my eyes, and they used alcohol to get it out. By the end I was screaming." Butler made virtue of necessity, incorporating his physical distress into the performance, he points out.

Rossum did the same. "I'm convinced wearing those corsets for 14 hours at a time deformed me for life," she says. "I was 16 years old and still growing at the time of the shooting. I could barely breathe, and with Christine's intense emotions I hyperventilated and almost passed out. I think her name is Christine for a reason. She is Christ-like."

Rossum adds that it was difficult for her to play a character who was as "emotionally fragile and conflicted as Christine. Her father is dead, and she is alone. She's coming from a place of fear and anxiety, a place I haven't been in life. So I had to pick at certain wounds in my own life to create those feelings and make Christine's experiences real to me."

Rossum embodies the Method. To understand Christine's sense of terror and aloneness, Rossum recalls studying film clips from the Holocaust. And to grasp that sense of place--in this instance the watery lairs beneath the opera house-Rossum toured the sub-basement catacombs below the Paris Opera House that are "dark and cold and dank. You can hear the water dripping. I use sense memory exercises to re-create experiences and places."

The daughter of a banker-father and photographer-mother, Rossum has been performing since she was 7, when a schoolteacher, who thought Rossum could sing, suggested she try out for the Children's Chorus at the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. At age 11, Rossum became a recurring character on the daytime soap As the World Turns, followed by guest appearances on such TV shows as Law & Order and The Practice.

When she was 13, Rossum made her movie debut in the film Songcatcher and won an Independent Spirit Award for Best Debut Performance. The movie, which also garnered the Special Grand Jury Prize for Outstanding Ensemble Performance at the Sundance Film Festival, caught the attention of Dolly Parton, who was so taken with Rossum's voice--specifically, her ability to sing in a Scotch-Irish ballad style--she wrote a mother-daughter duet for the two of them, which was released on the Songcatcher soundtrack CD. Other Rossum film credits include The Day After Tomorrow and Mystic River.

Indeed it was her experience in the latter--studying Sean Penn's performance to be precise--that most influenced her work in Phantom. "Just listening to the way Sean Penn was able to use his voice to convey so many different feelings. I treated all the vocal material in Phantom like dialogue. And since my voice is still developing, I wanted to be able to reflect those vocal changes in my performance. At the beginning, Christine's voice is innocent and pure. At the end, it should suggest sexuality and strength."

Rossum maintains that she was never pushed into a career against her will. "No, I did not have stage parents. And it never felt like work--although I was paid $5 while a horse onstage got $100." She smiles. "I learned early on that livestock is more appreciated than a singer."

Schooled through tutoring for most of her life, Rossum recently completed a course in art history at Columbia University and has every intention, between movie commitments, of earning her degree, with a double major in English and philosophy.

Butler, the son of an accountant, also boasts an unexpected side. He is a lawyer; more precisely, he trained for the legal profession and briefly practiced law in Scotland, although he was just shy of taking the Scottish equivalent of the bar exam.

But acting was his first love. He made his stage debut at age 12 in Oliver at Glasgow's Kings Theatre, and he spent a summer at the Scottish Youth Theatre in Livingston, where he received much encouragement. Still, when he moved to London to launch his acting career, he found it wasn't always smooth sailing. Indeed his first gig came via a chance meeting with British actor/director Steven Berkoff in a London coffee shop. Butler begged for an audition and won a part in Berkoff's production of Coriolanus at the Mermaid Theatre. Landing the lead role in the much noted stage production of Trainspotting followed.

Butler inaugurated his film career in the feature in the 1998 Oscar-nominated Mrs. Brown. Among his more recent credits are Tomb Raider 2, with Angelina Jolie, Timeline, Reign of Fire, The Mummy, The Jackal, and Dracula 2000.

What's next? Butler is looking forward to the 2005 release of The Game of their Lives, a 1950s soccer drama, and Dear Frankie, a family drama that screened at the Cannes Film Festival, receiving rave reviews.

Rossum is considering a small film about drug abuse. Slightly embarrassed, she concedes that many more scripts are currently pouring in for her perusal. "I am picky now," she says. "Before, I took what I got, although I always tried to work with good people: actors and directors I admire. And of course I want to continue doing that." Beat. "I would love to play the journalist Christiane Amanpour. She is a strong courageous woman who is always putting herself on the line." BSW