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Man of action

Category: Interviews
Article Date: March 4, 2007 | Publication: Sunday Times (London) | Author: Craig McLean

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He is the pure Scottish beefcake about to star in Hollywood's latest sex-and-sandals epic. But, Craig McLean finds, Gerard Butler is a warrior with a soft centre

It's another sunny morning in Los Angeles, and I'm off to meet a superhero. That is, I have an appointment with Gerard Butler, Hollywood's roughest, toughest, all-new action hero. In his new film, 300, a period epic based on a graphic novel of the same title by Sin City's Frank Miller, Butler strides across the screen like a seriously narked colossus. He plays King Leonidas, leader of the elite Spartan warriors, who face up to the mighty Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480BC.

And let me tell you, the man is buff. Our hero doesn't so much have a six-pack as a ten-pack. His muscles have muscles. Even his pointy beard looks as if it could break your arm. With the aid of strategic shaving -of his chest and, yes, his groin -the definition is heightened. Frankly, it's intimidating. "Once we set up the framework -these are the heroes and they're only defending their own land -we were allowed to just go insane," grins Butler, with testosteroned relish, remembering mistily the slow-motion arcs of spurting blood and dismembered limbs of the film's most pumped-up battle scenes. "We could kick ass, cheat, be brutal, be evil, and yet stay on the right side of maintaining the heroic element in the film. It's an unbelievable true story that deals with those mythological values -honour, sacrifice, courage. It's a warrior ballet."

Today, Butler is sitting in front of a fistful of fags and a slab of burger meat walloped onto a bed of fancy Californian greenery. It's a few months since 300 wrapped, but he's still an impressive-looking specimen: broad, powerful and with a hearty strut that is part Glaswegian laddishness, part Hollywood-approved swagger. Butler and 300 have been getting rave reviews around town. Lord knows what the film will do to Butler's legions of female internet fans - or "tarts" -who already make pilgrimages to conventions in his honour all over the world.

So, Gerry, tell us, what does it take to be a hero worthy of this, an ultimately modern version of the epic to end all epics? On the face of it, the answer is beefcake. The Spartans were double-sword-wielding, death-defying warriors, remember. Butler and his fellow actors began in the spirit of Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Lundgren and the muscles from Brussels, Van Damme.

For seven gruelling months, they plunged themselves into punishing diets and three different training regimes. They did circuits "so intense, if you'd done more than six minutes, you'd have died". They lugged big chains, jogged with tyres around their necks. "It's just you against those weights," he says. "Every time I was pumping, I was pulling in more energy, more determination, more focus, more power."

Stirring stuff. But is Butler still a hero off screen? He may have had his fair share of macho roles, from Beowulf to Attila the Hun, but stand him alongside the average paunchy British male and the man suddenly starts to look less like the toughest hero ever -and more like the campest. The sight of him may prompt frustrated British women to seek out the nearest Chippendales gig, but it will also send muscle marys spiralling into shivers of delight. Muscles, it seems, are no longer the automatic solution if you want to be macho.

Ah, but there's so much more to Butler. This hard body has a soft centre. The erstwhile rogue -who comes from a tough town outside Glasgow, had youthful brushes with the law and spent his twenties in a fug of binge-boozing and reckless behaviour (he had a thing about jumping in front of cars and smashing wine glasses on his forehead)

-is now in touch with his feminine side. Recently, he has immersed himself in meditation and spirituality, while at the same time doing up his New York apartment. During all those months pumping iron, he says, he wasn't just building up his pecs. "It was something that was more internal, too -it was about building character inside yourself."

Butler is a hero who isn't just beefcake. "That's the actor I was for that role," he shrugs. "Just as for The Phantom of the Opera, I was walking around singing.

You've got to trust that people won't only look at you in Phantom and think, okay, he's a musical guy. And not see you in 300 and think, okay, he's Rocky."

And with that, an LA bitch named Lolita climbs into Butler's lap and lovingly licks his biceps. She is his miniature pug, and he clearly dotes on her. Even modern heroes have their weaknesses.

300 goes on general release on March 23

Copyright 2007 Times Newspapers Limited
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