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The man behind the mask

Category: Interviews
Article Date: March 4, 2007 | Publication: Chicago Sun Times | Author: CINDY PEARLMAN
Source: http://www.suntimes.com/entertainment/pearlman/281863,SHO-Sunday-movies04.article

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Butler goes from singing phantom to warrior king

LOS ANGELES -- Even when you're the king, the Hollywood paparazzi still treat you like a peasant. At the world premiere of his epic film "300," Gerard Butler was knighted and then slighted in the span of three seconds.

"For me, this sums up everything about fame that I hate," says Butler. "There was a horde of photographers standing in the press line going, 'Over here! Over here!' Then one female photographer leans forward, snaps my picture and yells, 'Who the f--- are you, anyways?' "

It turns out the guy who played the Phantom of the Opera is a bit of a phantom still in Hollywood.

It doesn't matter now because he was cast as King Leonidas, the leader of the Spartan army, in "300."

Butler, 37, still can't even believe he was the go-to guy for the tough and buff role that requires him to wear little more than a loincloth through most of the film.

"I just came from Italy and the first thing that happened to me when I landed was three different friends commented on me being fat," he says, laughing. "In fact, I have this stomach that if it's at rest looks like a pouch. I look like a guy who has one of those creatures from 'Aliens' waiting to burst out of that stomach."

To prove it, Butler stands up, lifts his shirt and lets his stomach go. He looks about five months pregnant.

"This is my John Hurt in 'Alien' impression," he jokes and then punches himself in the stomach.

The film is the epic retelling of the ancient Battle of Thermopylae, where King Leonidas and 300 Spartans fought to the death against Xerxes and his massive Persian army. Against the odds, they fought for valor and honor with the end result being a united Greece against the Persians and democracy for a free Greece.

"Filming this movie was insane," says the handsome Scot. "I had 15 stunt guys from 'The Matrix' trying to kill me by running at me full speed, screaming for my death and pointing real swords at my heart."

Butler walked away with a few souvenirs to remember the grueling experience.

"I have tendonitis in just about every part of my body," he says. "I have a beautiful rotator cuff injury and pulled my hip flexor. I hurt my inner arm almost beyond repair.

"I'm extreme," he says.

Then again, so was King Leonidas, the main character in "300," which is based on the Frank Miller graphic novel. The film is an epic adventure about one of the greatest battles in history and uses live action with virtual backgrounds to examine the never-say-die Spartan culture and its dedication to honor and freedom at all costs.

"It's just such a cool, kick-ass character and a great story," Butler says. "The story is informative. It's about history. And it's visually beautiful and emotionally powerful. This entire project was an adrenalin rush."

Director Zack Snyder says Butler wasn't the obvious choice for King Leonidas.

"I met Gerry at a coffee shop," Snyder recalls. "He came in, stood up and did his king act in the middle of Peet's Coffee on Ventura Boulevard.

"When he left, most of the people having coffee were even sure that he was getting this role," says the director, laughing. "I went home and said to my wife, 'This is clearly the guy.'"

It wasn't Butler's body of work but rather his body that inspired many discussions.

"Gerry promised me that he would work out and get huge," Snyder says. "He had a good idea of what shape he needed to get into to be a king. He also knew that he had to get to a gym. You don't just walk onto a set and do a film like this without a lot of training or you could get hurt really badly."

Butler cautions that his six-pack wasn't digitally altered for the film.

"Those are my real ab muscles. It wasn't a body suit, either," he says.

"I wanted to be the guy who looks like men will follow him into battle. I wanted those men to think, 'Of course we would die for him.' I wanted to see that in their eyes."

He began training three months before shooting began in Montreal, which would double for ancient Greece. Once he got to the set, there was also a "300" "boot camp."

"I made a promise to the producers and said, 'If you give me this role, I will kick ass and make this my life,'" Butler says. "That's just me. I push it to the limit. I never had a singing lesson in my life before I did 'Phantom of the Opera.' I had never been a warrior in my life either. Just give me a big task and I will accomplish it. I have no choice."

On the set in Montreal, Butler worked with a bodybuilding trainer and a mountain-climbing expert, plus a stunt team.

"We worked out in a warehouse with no air-conditioning where it was 120 degrees," he says. "I was practically naked and the floor was soaked with my sweat."

In the end it was all worth it.

"Every bit of pain I went through was for a reason. With every jolt of pain, I felt more Spartan both mentally and emotionally."

Next year, he stars opposite Hilary Swank in the romantic comedy, "P.S., I Love You." Butler plays the dead husband of Swank, who leaves her letters that help her cope.

It's the film where his suspenders broke, hit Swank in the eye and her injury stopped filming for a period of time.

"Hilary did get bloody, but it's about time someone else got bloody on a film besides me," he jokes.

 


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