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The man for the myth

Category: Interviews
Article Date: March 10, 2006 | Publication: The Vancouver Sun (British Columbia) | Author: Katherine Monk, CanWest News Service
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Gerard Butler plays a notorious Norse warrior in Beowulf and Grendel

Canadian director Sturla Gunnarsson calls Gerard Butler the "manliest man acting today." It's a tall claim in a business bursting at the seams with six-pack abs and dancing pecs of steel, but Butler has all the razor stubble and relaxed, alpha male presence to silence the skeptics with a single smirk.

"Sturla clearly knows a quality man when he sees one," says Butler with mock cockiness.

"I'm flattered, really, but I played up my manly side for this role -- for Sturla's sake -- because Beowulf couldn't be limp now, can he? Part of me was hankering to find his soft side."

Butler is only partly joking about finding the gentler side to the notorious Norse warrior who blazed a trail through early Anglo-Saxon mythology and remains a constant presence on university reading lists. Based on the ninth-century epic poem, Beowulf and Grendel tells the story of Beowulf (Butler), a noble soldier who is forced into a confrontation with a great troll named Grendel.

Directed by Gunnarsson (Such a Long Journey, Scorn) in the midst of Iceland's foreboding landscape, Beowulf and Grendel goes beyond the elements of the original work and actually attempts to paint a profound psychological portrait of the warrior's conflicted soul -- and that's the part that attracted Butler to the mix.

A rising star who appeared as a significant blip on Hollywood's radar in the wake of Dear Frankie and a supporting role in Lara Croft Tombraider: The Cradle of Life, Butler says he became an actor to explore the human condition, not to become a heartthrob -- but he only has control over the former. The latter is already a reality for the many women who see the Glaswegian actor as the best thing since fishnet tank-tops for men.

"I love a hero with chinks in his armour," says Butler, who is a real-life recipient of an award for bravery after saving a young boy from drowning.

"In this version of the story, we get a very layered study of what it means to be a warrior. He first goes on a voyage, a mission, but he ends up going on a very spiritual journey. It's an exciting hero epic because it deals with both sides -- the dark and the light -- not just of the narrative, but the characters themselves."

Butler sits back, barely folding his rather large, hulking frame into the small hotel room chair.

"You don't often get characters like Beowulf -- this archetypal hero -- who suffers so much from understanding. He takes responsibility for his actions, which pushes him to mature, but it also forces him to question his own purpose, and I found that very interesting. I adored his relatability. Even though he's this hulking force, he's very human and that's finally what makes a role interesting for an actor."

In the film, Beowulf is pushed to question by Selma, a mysterious witch played by Canadian actress, and now feature film director, Sarah Polley. Selma is the creation of screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins, but she fleshes out elements that were already present in the epic poem -- such as self-awareness beyond the call of duty, and the warrior's heaviness of heart.

"The movie takes on the structure of a dark, psychological test," says Butler, pointing out what made the story so attractive to J.R.R. Tolkien, who based his Lord of the Rings trilogy in part on Beowulf and Grendel.

Getting into character on the wind-worn tundra of Iceland's volcanic ice fields was not such an arduous journey for the actor who once studied law. With the wind constantly blowing camera equipment around, Butler easily located the elemental dynamic that flows through his character.

"I've had worse shoots than this one," said the man who once played Attila the Hun. "Honestly. I actually enjoyed the landscape, but I think I may have been one of the few people who did."

Butler says he's taken the lessons learned from Beowulf and translated them into his subsequent performances. He plays Spartan King Leonidas in the forthcoming 300, an updated version of the cheesy sword-and-shield drama 300 Spartans, based in turn on the lopsided battle of Thermopylae, where an entire army was thwarted by a handful of well-trained militia.

Butler is currently shooting Butterfly on a Wheel in Vancouver, alongside Pierce Brosnan and Maria Bello for Infinity Features -- the Vancouver-based production company that recently skyrocketed into the ether with its Oscar-winning Capote.

Butler jokes about his manliness often being a hindrance to his acting. "Well, being as macho as I am, I can't compete with Philip Seymour Hoffman. He's always going to win out for those types of roles -- and I'm not being facetious when I say this, but I would like to play the different types out there. I'd like to play the insane and infirm sometimes, but so far, I've been playing military types and warrior kings, which is fine too. I'm not complaining," he says.

"If anything, it makes me work harder. I want to bring the vulnerability to those roles, and that pushes you to find subtleties in a character that aren't on the page. If I have one career ambition -- as the so-called manliest man acting today -- then I would like to be remembered as the one who blended macho-ness with sensitivity.... without looking stupid or completely self-absorbed."

Copyright 2006 The Vancouver Sun, a division of CanWest MediaWorks Publication Inc.
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