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Epic journey

Category: 300 News
Article Date: March 17, 2007 | Publication: The Scotsman | Author: LOUISA PEARSON

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Gerard Butler is running late. he's out hiking in Malibu and can't get a signal on his mobile phone. For those of us who thought Malibu was all about bikinis and beaches, the fact that there are hills to climb and forests to hike through comes as a surprise. An hour later he's ready to be interviewed, sounding breathless from his exertions. "I set out on this hike and I guess coming back down took a lot longer than I thought it would," he laughs. "Anyway, I'm over at my buddy's house now. It's the most perfect place you've ever seen - right on the beach with a view out over the ocean." That's the vision of southern California we're more used to and, by the sounds of things, Butler ("call me Gerry") is getting used to it.

The 37-year-old actor from Paisley is currently hot property in Hollywood. After a decade of getting his name known, it seems he might finally have a blockbuster on his hands. Butler stars as King Leonidas in 300, one of the year's most hyped movies. Based on the Frank Miller graphic novel, it tells the tale of 300 Spartan soldiers who went into battle against an invading Persian army of thousands. Imagine the battle scenes from Lord of the Rings filmed with the dark, stylised look of Sin City, and you'll have a rough idea of what to expect. Industry insiders say it has test-scored higher than any Warner Brothers movie in history and initial reviews are glowing. If 300 succeeds in getting enough bums on seats, it could do for Butler what Gladiator did for Russell Crowe.

He may be struggling under the weight of expectation, but Butler's not showing it. Instead, he's talking about the turnaround in his feelings towards living in Los Angeles. "I've always been one to sit and bitch about LA," he says, "doing the typically Scottish thing and saying, 'There's too much traffic, there's too many people,' but in fact if you make an effort you'll find incredible hikes, bike runs and some of the most beautiful scenery you can imagine."

He has been enjoying the lifestyle so much, in fact, that he's decided to add a Hollywood apartment to his property portfolio (he already has homes in London and New York). "Normally I rent places temporarily because I'm in town, then I'm out of town for a long time, and I've often found it hard to connect to LA," he says. "Finally getting a place that I can put a bit of my own personality into has really helped."

It sounds as if Butler is settling in for the long haul, tentatively buying into the idea that his time has come. In recent weeks, he says, he has had meetings with director Ron Howard, producer Joel Silver (the man behind the Matrix, Die Hard and Lethal Weapon films) and he's involved with a Coen Brothers script, a remake of the 1960s comedy Gambit.

"The people I'm in talks with now are the people I've always wanted to work with," he says. But even if his career is fast becoming A-list, he insists he won't become a fixture on Hollywood's social scene. He likes to keep his personal life personal (he's single and recently came out of a long-term relationship) and has no interest in being photographed falling out of night clubs or turning up at every red carpet event in town. He's so laid-back about showbiz glitz that he even managed to miss the Oscars. "I was actually supposed to go to a couple of the post-show parties, but I fell asleep on my sofa," he says. "I woke up at 4:30 in the morning and my little puppy was on my lap, so I just got up and went to bed. The next day, I bumped into writer Peter Morgan, who was up for an Oscar for The Queen, so I said 'congratulations', not knowing if I was just saying congratulations for the nomination and all the success, or if he'd actually won. I still don't know."

One of the biggest surprises when chatting to Butler is how easy-going he is. He giggles, laughs and makes fun of himself, a trait that isn't always found in actors. Publicity shots from his films tend to bring to mind words like "brooding" or "mysterious" - you don't see many photos of him with a big grin on his face. It's a face that's recognisable to most Scots, but despite his long back catalogue of films he's still not a household name. He made his movie debut in 1997 as Billy Connolly's younger brother in Mrs Brown, and since then has starred alongside Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, taken the lead roles in Wes Craven's Dracula 2000 and the big-screen version of Phantom of the Opera. He appeared alongside Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey in Reign of Fire, featured in the Michael Crichton adaptation, Timeline, and was praised for his role in the British film, Dear Frankie. He's been busy - there are plenty more films on his CV besides these, but few of them have set the box office alight. Still, Hollywood seems happy to keep taking a chance on him.

Ten years in the film industry have taught Butler not to get carried away on a sea of hype. His face was on magazine covers all over the world for Phantom of the Opera, and the "next big thing" tag has been applied to him over and over again. He knows that this sort of attention is no guarantee of success. "Often, you feel there's a buzz around your movie," he says, "then you realise that's just because it's your movie. In fact nobody's ever heard of it or goes to see it. All it takes is for your agent to call and say, 'You know what, I just heard it's not great.' In ten words it all goes down the drain. So you wait for that to happen."

But with 300, Butler says the buzz is real. The film's trailer has been watched over eight million times on MySpace and the film has generated huge interest on internet sites. Good reviews are in from Variety and the Hollywood Reporter and when Butler snuck into the back row of a test screening he says he was blown away to see the audience reaction. "I was full of trepidation and anxiety, thinking 'I know it's going to let me down,'" he says. "And it blew me the f*** away. This energy seemed to spread through the crowd; we had people roaring and jumping out of their seats. The reaction was insane."

Considering the way he threw himself into training for the role, it's no surprise Butler was glad to get such a positive response. The Spartan wardrobe is just that, leaving a lot of flesh on show. To ensure he looked the part, he threw himself into an epic fitness regime. "The rate I was working out at was ridiculous," he says. "I did take myself to breaking point. I had two different trainers that I'd do a couple of hours with each, then I'd go and train with all the stunt guys." The end result was a body that Arnold Schwarzenegger would approve of, but one which was near collapse.

"After about three months your body starts to give up and you've got to spend a few months giving it back some respect," Butler says. "My idea of respect was just to stop everything, which is the worst thing you can do. The day the film finished I thought OK, if I have to walk inside another gym I'll either shoot myself or somebody else. So I stayed away and kind of went back to my good old Scottish lifestyle of drinking fizzy drinks, smoking a lot of cigarettes and not particularly watching the diet."

A year on from finishing 300, Butler seems to have found his balance again, enjoying life, hiking in those Malibu hills and working out with a trainer at a more human level. It's a lifestyle and a career that might easily never have happened. He was born in Glasgow, the youngest of three children, and the family moved to Canada when he was still a baby. When his parents split up he returned to Scotland with his mother and siblings, growing up in Paisley. He lost touch with his father, Edward, but they were reunited when Butler was 16, forming a close friendship before Edward's death from cancer six years later.

Butler showed a flair for acting and performed with Scottish Youth Theatre, but he took the "sensible" option and decided to study law at Glasgow University. After graduating, he spent two years training with an Edinburgh law firm, but says he was deeply unhappy. His drinking spiralled out of control, leading him on one occasion to end up hanging from the railings of a cruise ship in the wee hours of the morning, singing We Are Sailing. Two days before he was due to complete his training, Butler's employers decided enough was enough, and sacked him. Does he think they'd have expected he'd end up as a Hollywood leading man?

"Oh God, no," he says. "I'd never have imagined it. I hold no animosity towards the firm, I just feel guilty about what I put them through. In a way, they weren't even angry when they let me go; they basically said, 'This is not for you, so go and sort yourself out and do what you believe in.' It was probably the worst day of my life when that happened, but I look back now and think, 'What if they hadn't fired me, where would I be?'" The very next day, Butler went to London to seek his fortune. A week earlier he'd seen a production of Trainspotting at the Edinburgh Festival, and he realised that being on stage was what he felt passionate about. He got his first break in a Steven Berkoff production of Coriolanus and a year to the day after sitting in the audience watching Trainspotting he was back in Edinburgh, playing the lead role. "All the lawyers came to see me and they were amazing, they said, 'We're so proud of you.' It makes me appreciate that whatever happens, in some strange way it's for the right reasons."

Butler hasn't had a drink in nine years, but the traits of an addictive personality are still there. "I've never been great with balance," he says. "I've spent a lot of time killing myself for roles, diving into it in such a big way and taking on roles that are very demanding for different reasons. Now I feel like I'm trying to breathe a little bit deeper, trying to feel more centred." He seems to be succeeding, and having come to acting a little later than some of his contemporaries, he has managed to get his wild years out of the way in private, rather than seeing them splashed across the tabloids. As well as 300, he has two more films due out soon. Butterfly on a Wheel is a thriller in which Butler co-stars with Pierce Brosnan and Maria Bello.

"Pierce plays it dark, he really impressed me a lot," says Butler. "It's a very tight, intense story that involves a kidnapping and me having a nervous breakdown. For me it was so intense trying to keep that level of emotion going every day, while just getting over 300. I was on a massage table for a month coming into this film, then Pierce and I were in a car crash during filming. A rib came out, I had whiplash, so I spent the rest of the movie stressed the f*** out. I thought between 300 and this, that's enough, I don't need any more injuries. I began to think I've been giving a little too much blood to acting." His next project, PS I Love You, came as a welcome change of pace. A romantic comedy starring Hilary Swank, Kathy Bates and Lisa Kudrow, it allowed Butler to catch his breath. "I went into that job and just completely let go, relaxing and not thinking about the outcome," he says.

Whether these films turn Butler into a star of Tom Cruise proportions or not, you get the feeling he'll take it all in his stride. He's already got a fanbase of unbelievable proportions - do a Google search and you will find endless sites dedicated to him. One of them - - has had more than seven million visitors, sells Butler-related merchandise and raises tens of thousands of pounds for charity each year. Others organise conventions and radio broadcasts dedicated to him. They have Butler's full support. "It never ceases to amaze me how loyal, how passionate, how energetic and how much love and support they give me," he says. "I remember the first time I got fan mail, I was shocked. When the websites started appearing, there were other actors that I knew, who said, 'Don't pay any attention, they're all crazy.' How could you say that? If somebody's going to pay you respect or a compliment, what a horrible thing to turn round and say, 'No thank you.'

"I've never tried to play the 'cool, I've got it all together guy'. I'm very honest about what has happened in my life, so maybe people have identified with me as much for my imperfections as anything else."

Less than perfect, maybe, but he has his head screwed on. Ten years after knocking on Hollywood's door, Gerry Butler is on the verge on conquering it. And if it doesn't work out, chances are he'll still be joking around, throwing himself headfirst into filming, creating his own version of California dreaming.

300 is released on Friday.


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