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The man behind the mask

Category: Interviews
Article Date: August 16, 2003 | Publication: The Scotsman | Author: Lesley O'Toole

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"My mum’s as happy as Larry," Gerard Butler tells me with a huge smile. Known to all his friends as Gerry, this is the man who is about to make his name as the next British movie star. Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life - in which he stars alongside Angelina Jolie - is not the film that will do it for him, however, even though it’s currently in the American box office top ten. The honour of catapulting Butler into the A-list goes instead to The Phantom of the Opera, after the actor beat the likes of Antonio Banderas to play the lead in an adaptation of the famous stage musical.

Butler, 33, begins filming The Phantom of the Opera in London next month. Until then, he is playing football in humid heat of St Louis, Missouri, filming The Game of Their Life, and then working in Brazil. But he is here in New York at the moment to promote the Lara Croft sequel, which is due out in Britain this week.

Butler’s performance as Croft’s former lover and colleague is one of the best things about the film, and he seems genuinely thrilled to be in New York to talk about it. "I love it here. I was looking for a place to buy last time I was here," he says matter-of-factly, suggesting that he’s already earning serious money.

He is wearing the sort of outfit that implies the input of a stylist - black long-sleeved shirt and expensive-looking tailored black trousers - because Gerry Butler is surely a jeans-and-T-shirt kind of guy. It’s the sort of look that befits a man on the verge of major-league fame, and who is about to throw off the shackles of an internet hoax that has dogged him for the past couple of years - the spurious but rampant story that insists Gerard Butler will be the next James Bond.

He grimaces at the mention of Bond, shoving up the sleeves of his shirt. That Butler is engaging, bright, charming and attractive does him no harm at all in his quest for the perfect career - or, at least, one that will prevent other false rumours springing up about him. "I hate the Bond question," he says, with little hint of frustration in his voice.

Butler knows that, in time, his will be a household name thanks to his skills as an actor rather than any gossip on the internet. "It’s so not an issue. I’ve never talked to the Bond people and they’ve never asked about me. It’s a press creation, and probably the Scottish press - ‘Oh my God, he’s Scottish! He’s not crippled, and he’s done a movie. He’s the next James Bond.’ Someone threw it on to an internet site, and then some American goes [from thick Glasgow brogue to perfect American], ‘Oh my God, this is incredible. This guy’s going to be Bond. Let’s tell CNN.’ I’d feel a bit silly saying I had an interest in it when it’s not an issue."

But if it were? "Yeah, I would be interested. But it’s not an issue."

He looks amused but it’s clear the subject is closed. Besides, he’d rather talk about his mother, who joined her son in LA for the film’s première there. "She’s over the moon. A very proud mother. I’m her little boy, the baby of the family. I’m very close to her. I put her through so much when I was growing up that it must be nice for her to see me starting to make good at last."

By his own admission, Butler was a bit of a tearaway when he lived in Paisley with his mother and older brother and sister. "I got pretty insane for a while. I was kind of a wild one," he confesses.

He eventually decided that things couldn’t go on like this and, three years ago, gave up alcohol for good. "There are actually a lot of people in Scotland who don’t drink - who started off drinking and then had such a big headache that they stopped. And that was kind of how it was for me. I’ve had enough fun in that area. I don’t miss it. I’m much more productive and happy without it."

He’s not kidding. Before filming The Cradle of Life, Butler endured an arduous shoot for another big action film, Timeline, which was directed by Richard Donner, best-known for blockbusters such as the Lethal Weapon series. And these days, while still in the middle of The Game of Their Life, he is already deep into his voice training for his role in The Phantom. That must be a challenge, I suggest. He nods. "I’m not a singer. I sang in a rock band for fun when I was a student, but this is a very different style of singing. I have some technical stuff that I have to listen to while I’m in St Louis."

Butler read law at Glasgow University, and was a week from completing his articles with the Queen’s Scottish firm of solicitors when he was fired. Two days later, he was in London, working as an actor. Not long afterwards, he was spotted by Steven Berkoff in a coffee shop and offered a role in the play Coriolanus. His first film was 1997’s Mrs Brown, in which he played John Brown’s brother, Archie.

Butler might have long since developed a passion for the wanderlust his acting career currently nurtures. He spent the first two and a half years of his life in Montreal, where his entrepreneurial father tried and failed to establish various businesses. But when his parents split up, his mother brought the children back to Paisley. Butler was 16 before he saw his father again, but they became close until his dad died a few years later. Before starting at Glasgow University, Butler had already spent summer holidays with aunts in California and Alaska, and taken off a year from law school in 1991 to travel around California working at a fair.

He says he is used to being rejected at auditions, despite a career trajectory that has soared ever upwards since he won the lead role in the huge US TV mini-series Attila four years ago. "I’m used to people wanting names and saying, ‘No, I said not Gerry Butler. He’s an outsider.’ Joel Schumacher, who’s directing The Phantom, told me early on and excitedly, ‘I see you as my Phantom.’ And I kept thinking, ‘That’s too weird, because I get all my jobs when the director isn’t interested in me at the start."

Such up-front rejection evidently fuelled something in Butler, who nods his head vigorously when I ask if he’s very tenacious in his approach to getting cast. "I work hard and I think I do it in a very honest way. I don’t pull someone aside and say, ‘You have to give me this role’. I go in there and do the job. For all of my films, I have had to read and screen-test and send tapes." For Dracula 2000, for which he won the lead role, he says he sent in three tapes of his work. And for The Phantom, he hired a voice coach in a bid to secure the role.

Before The Phantom is released next year, Butler has one more film that could slip him in the celebrity back-door entrance, Timeline, an intelligent action thriller coming out this winter. But the actor certainly doesn’t make his choices based on whether he thinks a film will make him famous. He told his disappointed agent not to send him the script for The Cradle of Life because he didn’t want to do two action thrillers in a row. As most would do in the same situation, Butler’s agent ignored his client’s wishes and sent it anyway. Butler had to jump through hoops, having to leave Timeline’s Montreal set to fly to both LA and London in order to secure the role.

"I’ve always had to f**king fly to get there. It must be like, ‘Okay, if you’re willing to spend all this time in a place and fly all the way back, we’ll give you the role."

Butler’s on-screen chemistry with Angelina Jolie is certainly palpable, and he doesn’t seem to mind who knows that he finds her very attractive. "I said, ‘I think we need many rehearsals and many takes before we do our love scene.’ And I was dreading the moment when Jan [De Bont, the film’s Dutch director] would say, ‘Okay, that’s fine - let’s move on to the next scene.’"

And it evidently lived up to expectations. "It was very exciting and fun, and, yes, very frustrating. I find Lara Croft very sexy but very frustrating. You’d have a very quick, very intense sex life with her."

He was frustrated because his character, Terry, is only permitted by Croft to go so far. "But Jan just said, ‘Go for it, guys. Just enjoy the thing.’ We did it and finished and we were all over each other. I could barely breathe. I was wiping the sweat off me and Jan said [in Dutch accent], ‘That’s great, that’s great.’ I said, ‘Isn’t it too much?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but it’s great.’"

As a non-drinker, he couldn’t even knock back a cocktail for Dutch courage. But it seems kissing one of the world’s most beautiful women was not the daunting prospect it might have been. "Not to put down Angelina, because she’s gorgeous, but it’s not such a big deal. You just go in there and do it. I think it would be the same for everybody. Something is only a big deal when it’s not going to happen to you. If you were doing it, you wouldn’t think it was so amazing because you’re in the moment, doing it. So yes, she’s beautiful and sexy and it was great to kiss her, but I wasn’t hiding in my dressing-room, thinking, ‘I need a drink.’"

Like Jolie, Butler is single at the moment. "I was recently in a relationship, and having no time for it was completely the problem," he says. "We both knew that, and it breaks my heart now when I think about it, to be honest. Then again, it’s so easy to blame that on your career. I know I’m not the best guy for a relationship. I’m not fantastic at them. But on top of that, I’m an actor who’s particularly busy right now, so I’ve got no f**king chance."

Given that he’s starring on the big screen with a fiercely independent, very challenging woman in Lara Croft, does Butler like a challenge when it comes to women?

"I do, but it’s a strange question to ask at the moment. Generally I love the challenge, but right now I have neither the time nor the inclination. I’m hanging out with all the guys in St Louis, and there’s a high level of testosterone. We’ll be out somewhere and I’ll see a beautiful woman and I’ll think, ‘That could be the love of my life.’ But I just don’t even have the energy to say hello."

Being of no fixed abode only increases his problem. "Yeah, it doesn’t help when you tell a woman you’re homeless," he laughs. He lives between Los Angeles and London, as many British actors on a certain rung of the career ladder are able to do - and moan about. Does he like LA? "It’s not that Los Angeles is an evil necessity. It’s just not my favourite city on the planet. I often find that when you’re in LA you’re sitting there going, ‘Is there something going on that I don’t know about? Is there some big party I’m missing?’ I have great friends there, though, but I do find that the longer I stay there, the more it does my head in.

"Life passes you by in LA. That’s why everyone’s into yoga or something. They’re all searching for something that the city doesn’t give them. And you’re always in your f**king car. I’m like a little puppy dog, looking at the person in the car next to mine for some sense of life. And they see it as a victory if they catch you - ‘You looked at me and I looked away. Ha ha ha!’"

But there are compensations to life in California. "I’ve really bonded with my buddies in LA. It’s like being 15 again, and being on the phone with my guys. Sometimes we’re on the phone five times a day, and we’re meeting in two minutes anyway. It’s cool like that. We’re all like, ‘I’m just round the corner. Let’s have a coffee.’"

Before this interview, a colleague warned me that Butler had a reputation for being arrogant. Certainly, his ‘I’m so busy’ routine has a whiff of the self-important actor about it, but his endlessly self-deprecating wit ensures that he comes across as charming and approachable.

Butler is right to seem very pleased with himself, having worked hard to get here. A still ostensibly unknown actor landing a big role such as the Phantom hasn’t been seen since Colin Farrell took the lead in Phone Booth, after Jim Carrey dropped out. Farrell’s director? Joel Schumacher, director of The Phantom of the Opera, who also launched a little star named Julia Roberts.

The fame game starts soon for Gerard Butler. How will he play?

• Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life is out on 22 August


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