The man behind the mask;Gerald Butler, star of the movie version of Phantom of the Opera tells Ciaran Carty that playing the role almost broke his heart

Category: Interviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: December 5, 2004 | Publication: The Sunday Tribune | Author: Ciaran Carty
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MEET the Phantom of the Opera.

Or rather Gerard Butler. That's who he is without his mask and flowing cape. Except that even as himself he's still somehow the phantom. He finds it hard to step out of the role. "I'm that guy, " he says.

Fans of the Andrew Lloyd Webber hit musical about a mysterious stranger lurking backstage at the Paris opera who is besotted by a young singer and tries to take her off into his own world were outraged when the 6ft 3in tall, dark-haired Scot . . . better known as Attila the Hun and Dracula, and recently as Angelina's love interest in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider . . . was chosen by director Joel Schumacher to play the title role in the $ 33m movie version. "They couldn't forgive me for not being Michael Crawford, " he says.

He closes the window of a penthouse suite overlooking the Strand in London.

"Do you mind if I smoke?"

"I grew up with it."

"So did I."

He lights up.

"Don't misunderstand me, " he says. "I'm generally a very happy person. I love my life.

But there's a lot of fear and sadness, too. I've always had a love/hate relationship with myself."

All this hit home during the four-and-ahalf months he was filming. "It was the hardest job I ever took on physically and emotionally, and in terms of sheer pressure."

"Sometimes, you do a movie and you dread it coming out because you've seen it and you know it's not very good, " says Butler. "With this, even though I haven't seen it, I can't wait."

You can see why. Schumacher's idea . . .judging by the little we have seen . . . is to open out the action while keeping the sense of theatricality, rather like Moulin Rouge. All the stage sets are now actual locations. The frenzied coach ride to the graveyard is real.

The camera cuts from close-ups of Christine, played by 17-year-old Metropolitan Opera discovery Emmy Rossum, her childhood sweetheart Raoul (Patrick Wilson) and the envious phantom imbuing their love triangle with passionate intimacy.

After 18 years in London and 15 in New York, just after he burst on the Hollywood radar with The Lost Boys. Lloyd Webber has stuck with Schumacher through many aborted production deals. It seems that it may pay off.

Instead of a 25-instrument pit orchestra, there's a full symphony with 105 players and a 90-voice choir. "Every time I watch it I'm in tears, " Butler says. "Shaking, you know? It takes me back to that head space, that emotion."

With his engaging grey/green eyes and sardonic manner, it's easy to appreciate why Entertainment Weekly has been tipping the 33-year-old actor to take over from Pierce Brosnan as the next James Bond. Butler originally trained as a lawyer. He worked in one of the top law firms, which handled the queen's estate in Scotland.

"It was a very dark period of my life, " he says. "I spent every day pretending to be a fine, upstanding, rational man in a suit whereas actually I felt crippled and unhappy and desperate. It was a big deal in my family that I was going to be a lawyer. No one had ever done anything like that before.

But I hated what I was doing. It was eating me up.

"That's what I think the Phantom is all about. There are two things going on with him. There's his way of presenting himself, which is just perfect . . . the beautifully designed mask, the way he wears his clothing . . . there's an elegance and a power to it.

But inside that's not what's going on. There's so much pain and longing and frustration. He can't show that to Christine, because that's not attractive. It would be different if she was an older woman. But she's a child. She needs a father. She needs a guide. And she's drawn to that."

Perhaps that's why audiences can identify with the phantom. Gaston Leroux's original 1911 novel has inspired numerous movie and TV versions. The disfigured man with a mask was first portrayed on screen by Lon Chaney in 1925 ("The greatest inducement to nightmare that has yet been screened, " Variety enthused). Claude Rains played him as a shy violinist obsessed with a chorus girl in 1943. Herbert Lom's 1962 Hammer Horror phantom is best forgotten. Nightmare on Elm Street had a go in 1989, to cash in on the success of Lloyd Webber's musical, which opened the previous year with Some Mothers Do Have 'Em's Michael Crawford.

"All the Phantom wants in some ways is to be accepted as everybody else, " says Butler.

He has so much to offer the world in his art and his music and his passion and his creativity. And nobody wants to see it. They'd rather he was just out of the way because he doesn't fit in."

Butler doesn't deny the phantom's dark side. "He's quite egocentric, quite full of himself. He's proud and in some ways selfish and dogmatic. But then I think, too fucking right. Because he's been shown nothing but hatred. The only way he can get anything in life is to spit back some venom."

If there's a lot of Butler in the phantom, there's a lot more of him in Dear Frankie, a film by Shona Auerbach . . . filmed in Scotland before The Phantom . . . about a single mother . . . Emily Mortimer . . . who hires a stranger to pretend to be her nine-year-old son's missing father.

"I've lived such an odd life that I keep finding roles that I seem to know from life.

Some of my life has been fantastic and a lot of it hasn't, and most of the stuff that hasn't has been stuff that I did to myself, unfortunately."

Butler grew up in Paisley without a father.

"I didn't even know he was alive until he turned up one day when I was 16 years old.

My mother left him when I was two and brought my brother and sister and me back from Canada, where we'd lived. I saw my father again when I was four but the older I got the more I began to think it didn't really happen, although I never asked my mum about it. It was something I kept very much to myself. And then when he turned up, it was out of the blue. I came home from school and my step-dad . . . who was only my mother's boy-friend at the time . . . said, 'Keep your jacket on, your dad's home'. I walked into this restaurant, going to the different tables, wondering is this my dad, is that my dad, which I can tell you was a bizarre experience, not really a nice one. When I saw him I sensed at once it was him. I didn't realise until then how much sorrow had built up inside of me."

He breaks off, unable to speak for a moment. "I'm afraid I find it hard to talk about, " he says. "So, that scene in the movie where Frankie comes home, and his mother says, 'Frankie, this is your father, ' it was like looking at my own life. I could see in Emily Mortimer something of what my mother had gone through and how she basically sacrificed her life to bring up the three of us. I actually had a great childhood. We used kick the shit out of each other, but we were very close. But there are things that lie deep down in your soul that you don't know you have until they're brought out. My mum has been through so much with me. She's seen the wonderful parts of my life, as I have with hers, and she's seen the worst parts. She's had to help me through a lot."

Like when he was let go from the law firm just a week away from qualifying. "I was the first trainee solicitor ever to be fired in Scotland, " he says. "I think we both knew I wasn't cut out for law. I didn't have the heart for it. It was hard to ring my mother to tell her. I knew how upset and disappointed and heart-broken she was."

He went to London where he found work as an assistant to Sue Jones, playwright Steven Berkoff 's casting director.

"The second day I was getting her a coffee and Berkoff came in. We got talking. He asked what I did. I said I wanted to be an actor even though I'd never done anything professionally. I took a deep breath and asked if I could read for him. Yeah, absolutely, he said. I went in and read. I gave it everything. And he loved it. I got a role in Coriolanus."

Someone he was rehearsing with tipped him off about auditions for Trainspotting. "I'd no agent but I jotted down the number and they called me back. I read from the book, playing two roles, jumping from chair to chair. They were convinced I was on drugs.

I had to spend half an hour convincing them I wasn't.

"I got the part of Renton, which Ewan McGregor played in the movie. So getting fired was the best thing that happened to me.

In one day, your life can change, some times for better, sometimes for worse. Even when it's for the worse, it may turn out to be for the better."

After making his screen debut as Billy Connolly's brother in Mrs Brown in 1997, he flew out to Los Angeles to try his luck. Within two weeks he got the lead role in the mini-series Attila the Hun and the title role in Wes Craven's Dracula 2000. Soon he was filming Reign of Fire in Ireland with Matthew McConaughey. "Back to my roots, " he says.

"My mother's family were Floods who came from Ireland 120 years ago."

He read for The Phantom of the Opera without ever having seen the show. "I'd only a rough idea of the story. It worked out better for me. The day after I read the script I met Joel Schumacher, so I was fresh with what I'd just experienced."

His only experience of singing was with a rock band he formed when he was studying law. "It was a release from what I was going through. My secretary from the Law Society became our bass guitarist. Another lawyer friend wrote the songs."

The Phantom of the Opera and Dear Frankie are opening within a month of each other.

"I want to be with my mother when she sees them. They're going to have her weeping. I always wished I'd grow up and people would look at me and think, wow, sexy. Now people will look at me and weep. They're not roles that have women wanting to screw you.

They make women just want to hug you."

He lights another cigarette. "Which I love, " he says. "I'm big into hugging. I'll be happy with that."

iThe Phantom of the Opera opens on Friday, Dear Frankie on 14 January

Copyright 2004 The Sunday Tribune plc