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Phantom Menace

Category: Interviews
Article Date: August 9, 2003 | Publication: Telegraph Magazine | Author: David Gritten

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The Scottish actor Gerard Butler is a reformed hellraiser, sought after in Hollywood, who has starred as both Dracula and Attila the Hun, and insulted Angelina Jolie without even trying. What more does a man have to do to be recognized in his own country?.

The Scottish actor Gerard Butler has pulled off a neat trick: he is hugely in demand in Hollywood as a big-screen leading man, without having taken what seems like the obvious step of making his name in Britain first. Next month he starts filming the title role of a major movie event – the long–awaited screen version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mega-musical Phantom of the Opera. Potentially, this is a career break of the highest magnitude. Ever since Phantom was first staged in 1986, almost every Hollywood leading man has been linked with the role. For years it was assumed Michael Crawford, who first played the Phantom on stage would get the gig. John Travolta was favoured for a spell, then Antonio Banderas seemed to be in pole position. Bizarrely, Robert Redford once told me that he personally lobbied Lloyd Webber (who said incredulously, ‘Are you serious?’). But instead the melancholy, masked Phantom will be played by a little-known Scot.

In fairness, Butler’s career has been simmering on a low heat for a while. This summer he stars in Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life as the love interest to Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft, and in Timeline, an action –adventure based on Michael Crichton’s novel. But it doesn’t stop there; just days after signing his Tomb Raider contract, he received a call from Julia Roberts, who asked him to play opposite her in her new romantic comedy Mona Lisa Smile. However, the two films clashed, and Butler, cursing inwardly, had to turn her down.

The day before I am due to meet Butler, a friend in the film business calls me from Los Angeles. I mention Butler’s name, and he says, ‘Yeah, Gerry Butler – I guess he’s pretty big over there in the UK, huh?’ In fact, quite the opposite is true. The following day, I find myself forlornly ringing the bell of Butler’s flat near Hampstead village as the man himself comes dashing up the road, having popped out for a pack of cigarettes. One sees why he is an effective big screen presence – at 6 ft 2 in, he has strong, regular features, and there is something of the rebel in his body language; he moves with easy, athletic grace. But it is fair to say he has not been detained by the attentions of adoring fans: Butler, 33, can walk London’s streets without anyone having the faintest idea who he is. ‘It’s true,’ he agrees. ‘I must be the least-recognized successful actor around.’ He checks himself, wondering if this sounds arrogant, but does not amend the statement. ‘I think it’s partly because I look different in every picture I do,’ he says finally.

That, and the fact that the films he has been in so far have been duds. In recent years he has played the title role in Attila the Hun, a big budget mini-series shot for American television, and in Wes Craven’s film Dracula 2001. But Attila has not even been broadcast here and Dracula 2001 required a title change (it was originally Dracula 2000) when it finally limped into British cinemas. Audiences also stayed away in droves from last year’s dragon-slayer Reign of Fire, in which Butler played Christian Bale’s sidekick.

Still, this summer Tomb Raider and Timeline will elevate his profile considerably, and Phantom will inevitably make him a household name when it opens next year. Meanwhile, he has gained a reputation within the industry as a bit of a loose cannon, a man who can be stunningly indiscreet. Discussing Tomb Raider with Harpers & Queens magazine earlier this year, he made a flippant remark about Oscar-winner Jolie’s acting. His comments, to put it mildly, were not well received, and the magazine later published a correction to ‘clarify’ that Butler’s crack about Jolie was in jest. The lesson may, however, have been learnt; when I meet him, during his final week of shooting Tomb Raider, this storm is just breaking, and his comments about Jolie are already more measured.

‘Angelina is an easy actress to work with,’ he says. ‘She doesn’t play games. She’s an intelligent girl who puts an incredible amount of energy into her work.’ He giggles. ‘Also she’s punctual and professional, far more so than me. During the shoot, people were always knocking on my (trailer) door: “Come on, Gerry, you can’t be on set after Angelina again!” She keeps herself to herself. We haven’t become best buddies.’ Butler may protest that his apparent gaffe was nothing more than a reporter’s failure to spot a joke. Yet he has a habit of letting his mouth run away with him and he is by some distance his own favourite subject.

Even at Butler’s modest level of fame, he already has forebodings about celebrity’s dual-edged nature. ‘When I first started acting, I wanted to be famous,’ he says. ‘Now I’m doing good stuff, no one knows who I am, but it doesn’t bother me. I’ve worked with famous people, and seen the shit they go through. I haven’t experienced fame myself, but I see it and I think that it doesn’t look fun in the slightest.’

This is sensible, given that he hasn’t had long to ponder it. It was just three years ago that Butler flew out to Los Angeles, trying to get into films. He had what he calls ‘a dream start’, landing the role of Attila two and a half weeks after his plane touched down, and Dracula soon afterwards. The USA Network, broadcaster of Attila, took the unusual step of throwing a premiere for it at a multiplex cinema. ‘There were billboards of me as Attila, holding a sword, all over town. It was my first lead role. At the premiere the head of USA stood up and said, “We like this guy Gerard Butler, we feel we discovered him, and if you like what you see, go upstairs afterwards and see him in Dracula 2000.” At this point I’d been in LA less than a year.’

Given the frequency with which Butler wins roles by stealth, he obviously auditions well. ‘The guys at USA said, “We like this guys, but who is he?” The producers of Dracula said the same thing. Finally, Tomb Raider came along, and Paramount said, “We like this guy, and we’re right behind him.” To have that coming from a studio, it settles your stomach.’

One can imagine, then, how he felt on hearing he had won the Phantom role. ‘I had to go and sing for Andrew Lloyd Webber, and then again for the musical director,’ he recalls. ‘I can sing, but I’m not a trained singer.’ However, Joel Schumacher, the film’s director, clearly has more faith in his abilities. ‘Gerard is a fine actor with a wonderful voice who has a tremendous passion for the role,’ he notes.

But then Schumacher has long enjoyed plucking unknown talent from the ranks – since 1985, when he made Demi Moore and Rob Lowe into household names with St. Elmo’s Fire, to most recently Tigerland, which considerably advanced the career of Irish actor Colin Farrell. Getting the nod from Schumacher for Phantom was like receiving an industry-wide stamp of approval.

It also seals Butler’s final acceptance in a profession after long periods of drifting aimlessly. Born in Glasgow, he was raised in Montreal, then back in Paisley. His parents split up when he was small, and he did not see his father until he was 16. Since his teens he had harboured notions of becoming an actor (age 12, he had appeared in a production of Oliver! at Glasgow’s King’s Theatre and was in the Scottish Youth Theatre), but was dissuaded. He read law at Glasgow University and became president of its law society. That was when his troubles, mostly relating to drink and drugs, began. ‘I started partying too much, I became a bit of a bum,’ he says. ‘Me and a buddy of mine, who’s now a successful lawyer, we used to run clubs in Glasgow. We were out every night, and we lived in this awful student flat that was like a squat.’

After cramming his way through his finals, he went off to America for a year. ‘Then this wildness that was a part of me really took hold. I got into a lot of trouble. I seemed to step from one troublesome situation to another with the cops, not anything pre-planned or bad, just for being a bit crazy. I woke up four times in police cells, usually for stuff like drunkenness and generally being a bad boy. But even then, all I could think was, “This is so cool.” I was like this Jim Morrison character – long curly hair, biker boots, ripped 501s and a tight leather jacket.’

He recounts some of his American escapades at great length. Not all of them withstand close scrutiny. He claims, ‘Once I was in a chain gang with eight black guys and a Mexican,’ which summons up an image of convicts breaking rocks in the noonday sun. In fact he was briefly tethered to other prisoners in a holding cell. Still, these were troubled times, which worsened when he returned to Scotland to resume training for the law.

‘I had some terrible times in my twenties. I was outgoing and crazy, but that just showed up my insecurity and instability. I was someone who wasn’t doing what he wanted to in life. I’d gone from being a 16-year-old who couldn’t wait to grasp life to a 22-year-old who truly didn’t care if he died in his sleep.’

The prestigious Edinburgh law firm with which he had trained fired him weeks before he qualified; seven years studying law, all wasted. He headed for London and for five months did ‘stupid jobs, telemarketing, demonstrating toys at toy fairs, getting people to sign up for boilers’.

His break came while he was helping an old friend from the Scottish Youth Theatre, now a casting director. In a Soho coffee shop they chatted with the formidable actor-director-playwright Steven Berkoff, who took a shine to Butler. ‘He said, “Are you an actor or what?” I said, “No, but I’d like to be.”’ Berkoff gave him a role in a production of Coriolanus, and Butler embarked on a theatre career in London, at one point playing the lead role of Renton in a fringe production of Trainspotting. In his 1997 film debut, he played Billy Connolly’s younger brother in Mrs. Brown. This ushered in other small film roles, paving the way for his second, successful assault on America.

Butler has now put his troubled past behind him: ‘I’m much more mature, conservative and settled. I haven’t drunk or done drugs for five and a half years. It’s made a huge difference to my life. I went into programmes. I took care of it.’

He lives alone in his bachelors pad, with its dark, masculine furniture, an enormous flat screen television jutting from one wall, a dining table of baronial proportions and a huge canvas of Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur on one wall. But he does tentatively admit to a girlfriend outside the film business: ‘She’s a sweetheart, she’s beautiful. But I don’t want to say more. I don’t have a very good history of relationships.’

Constantly traveling does not help. Butler is currently in St. Louis, filming The Game of Their Lives, about the USA football team’s shock victory over England in the 1950 World Cup; he plays the goalkeeper, Frank Borghi. He will go straight from that film to playing the Phantom, about whom he says, ‘That character breaks my heart. I think he represents the fear that so many of us have – being alone and never having the things we have a right to have: a companion, life, love. I think there’s always a deep-down fear in all of us that suddenly we’ll become repugnant to everybody else.

He feels he has been given a second chance in life, and grasped it. ‘With acting, the more I take the magic out of it and the less I walk around saying, “Isn’t this amazing? Isn’t this a dream come true?”, the better I do. Now I think, that’s my job. This is what I do. I work harder at it now.’

If he learns to keep his own counsel, he might just make a go of it. As for being recognized in the street, that may still be some way off; the Phantom, remember, wears a mask.

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life opens on August 22.

© Telegraph Magazine


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