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Gerry and the face makers

Category: Interviews
Article Date: December 5, 2004 | Publication: Sunday Herald | Author: Vicky Allan

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Gerry Butler drives through Hampstead in his Audi TT, past the smart boutiques and lush mansions that “look like something out of Tennessee Williams”, his stomping ground, North London’s Jewish village, a moneyed part of town. It turns out Audi gave him the car for free. Typical, I say. Just when people have got enough money, that’s when they get offered it all for nothing.

Now that Butler’s a Hollywood actor, the lead in a string of upcoming films including The Phantom Of The Opera, Beowulf And Grendel, Dear Frankie and Burns (as in Robert), and earning accordingly, he gets all the perks.

An irreverent Glaswegian, he seems bemused and entertained by this. “I called my assistant,” he says, “and said, half joking, ‘Do you think if I was to ask somebody for a car, they’d give me one?’ She said, ‘What do you want?’ I said, ‘I love those little Audi TTs. Great for nipping about town.’ Actually they’d just been driving me around for an event and I had met their head of marketing and when my assistant called she said, ‘Oh I loved Gerry. He was great. Absolutely, tell him to take his pick.’”

Do you think, I ask, Audi would give me a car?

“If I asked they might.”

This is quite something, given that few people know the name Gerard Butler. For the past four years, he has seemed permanently poised in some kind of purgatory between major stardom and anonymity, consistently landing the big roles and then watching his films take a critical nosedive. He says himself, “I must be coming up for a Guinness Book Of Records in title roles: Attila, Dracula, Beowulf, the Phantom, Burns.”

Dracula 2000 was, according to the New York Times, a “thudding, suspense-free montage of unshocking shock effects”, Rolling Stone magazine summed up Tomb Raider 2 – in which Butler plays Lara Croft’s love interest – with the words “scenery can’t save this blindingly dull sequel” and already there is talk that Phantom Of The Opera is an overstuffed turkey.

Yet Butler’s name keeps floating up to the surface. At one point it was even rumoured that he was being considered for the next James Bond – though he says he was never approached about this.

How does he keep doing it? Partly because he can act (as he demonstrates in the Scottish tearjerker Dear Frankie). And partly, I suspect, because he is an incorrigible flirt. It’s one of his greatest assets. We conduct our interview on Hampstead Heath. “Do you want to get jiggy with it now?” he says as we recline on the grass. “Or shall we leave it till later?”

There’s something of the big kid about him. He watches, distracted, as a kestrel hovers over the grass, then stands up, over-excited. “Look. Has he got one? Is he going down? It’s really unusual to see them hover that low.”

It’s perhaps his mother in him. She was always, he says, watching the wildlife out of the back window, making up stories about the blackbirds, or going out to film the foxes at night. Butler seems to want to talk about his mum. In past interviews he has dwelt rather more on his relationship with his absent father, who left them when he was just a few years old, and it’s as if he wants to correct the balance. She was, he says, the dominant influence on his life: both mother and father to him. A tough lady, not afraid of a fight.

“I hate confrontation, unless I really lose my temper,” he says. “Whereas my mum is very principled and, if people cross that line, she’ll tell them and it doesn’t matter who’s looking or who’s watching or if it’s in public.

“She used to be, ‘Excuse me, I think you’re wrong and I think you better say you’re wrong’. I’d be thinking, ‘Stop it, stop it mum’.”

Just last week he was back in Scotland, hanging out at her house with its big patio and view of the distant mountains. It is, he says, a tonic for his soul. “My mum will say, ‘Get in there and wash those dishes’. I say, ‘Mum, you can’t. I’m a movie star, remember that.’ She’s like, ‘Shut your mouth and get in there’.”

Butler is quite a charmer. This year, perhaps appropriately, he is set to play Robert Burns in Vadim Jean’s biopic. Though Butler talks a lot about Burns’s sensitivity, his connection with his feminine side and his intelligence, his stand-out comment is, “He was a lad. I always think: women wanted to f*** him; guys wanted to be him.”

He is trying to climb inside the poet’s humanity, he says. This is a character he relates to, not just because Burns had a “good and sensitive heart” or because he was a Scot, or because he travelled from Ayr to Edinburgh – just as Butler went from Glasgow to LA – to find fame, but because of “the way he was with women”.

And then comes a confession. “I’m not fantastic at keeping them, you know,” he says. “It’s all very much being in love in that moment but sustaining it for a lifetime doesn’t seem to be something I’ve acquired yet. You know Burns loved women, he loved life, but he loved humanity as well.”

Phantom Of The Opera has been perhaps his biggest challenge so far, a gruelling marathon of costume fittings, prosthetics and laying down track after track of music. He throws a few thoughts and anecdotes out onto the breeze.

There was the time that the director of Phantom, Joel Schumacher, told him, “Listen: you’re going to take a lot of shit from people. Whether you’re the best actor in the world, the best for the role, or what. You’re just going to take a lot of shit because your name is not Michael Crawford [who played the Phantom in the west end musical].”

It seems he felt a bit of a chancer during filming. “A lot of people were watching and they’re saying, ‘Who is this kid?’ I’m saying the same. I’m going: ‘I’m playing the Phantom – what can I give them?’”

Then there was the “mindf***” of playing “a guy who is dressed up as the Phantom who is pretending to be Piangi pretending to be Don Juan” in the Point Of No Return scene. He remembers his audition for Andrew Lloyd Webber, which took place in the composer’s home. As he stood there, a sense of enormity suddenly dawned on him. “I’m standing here thinking, I’m singing this song to the composer, one of the most famous pieces of music, Music Of The Night, and I’ve had three singing sessions and anybody else who might be singing for this role might have been singing for 30 years. I’ve done three hours … and a lot of messing around on my own.”

The singing was, he says, “a big bastard”. Butler, however, wasn’t entirely new to it. Back in the early 1990s, while training to be a lawyer in Edinburgh, he was the lead singer in a band, Speed. “A big hello,” he announces, “to Alan Stewart and Kenny Mullan and all my buddies”.

Anecdotes from those days are shot through with almost hysterical giggles. At the time he was president of the Law Society, while Stewart was secretary. “I remember joining the band and there was a female singer. She ended up leaving because I don’t think she could put up with me. I’d get so screwed up at the gigs and have such a laugh. She said, ‘I’m not singing with him’.

“They did a few gigs with her and said, ‘This is not rock’n’roll. This is Kylie Minogue. We need you back’.”

Recently, while back in Edinburgh, Butler sang with what’s left of the band, reprising an old number which was written about him, Going Down Slow. “It was about, your life is falling apart but you’re with someone you love,” he explains. “It was very much about hedonism and kind of being so intent on a quick fix and a buzz that you would actually smile as things fell apart around you.”

He smiles now, looking back on those times. He really had been going down, spiralling towards self-destruction; not sure what he wanted in life. “You know there’s one thing I could say about large periods of my life: they were a hell of a lot of fun and they were a hell of a lot of pain. I think self-destructive would be a good word to describe it. And I don’t regret one second of any of that … because it allows me to appreciate what I have now all the more.”

Just before he qualified as a lawyer he was sacked from the law firm that employed him. It was as if fate was playing a card, forcing a move. The following day, he moved to London and started his acting career with a small part in Coriolanus. Acting, he says, pulled him back on to the straight and narrow. It became, in a way, his therapy.

Now his main addictions are cigarettes and work. He chainsmokes his way through the morning, listing the countless different ways he has tried to give up: the telephone number he called to order a set of pills called Smokeaways, the hypnosis, the momentary religious conversion, in which he stood in a church and thought, if Jesus died for mankind the least I can do is quit the fags.

It would be great, he thought, to be able to tell people that he had tried everything and then was touched by God. “Four hours later,” he says, “I was like: can I have a packet of Marlboro Reds?”

He did give up for a while, but it didn’t last. He tells a story. A guy called Pat once told him that a buddy of his had said, “You know it’ll be a bad day before you start drinking again, Pat”.

“No,” Pat had replied. “It’ll be a great day before I start drinking. That’s when I’m in trouble.”

For Butler and cigarettes it was the same – the good times found his weak spot. The “great day” was the night his television series Attila was first screened in front of an audience. “This guy at USA Network stood up to introduce Attila and he said, ‘We’ve found this discovery. His name’s Gerard Butler and once you’ve finished here you might want to walk upstairs where he’s playing in Wes Craven’s Dracula 2000.’ Up until that time I had physically and financially already made the change to playing in the big league, but my heart and my soul hadn’t. I thought, Oh my God, this is unbelievable.”

That night he went out and celebrated, someone handed him a cigarette, and – though for two years he hadn’t even wanted one – he took it. He has never managed to stop again. “Unfortunately for me there are certain things that I just shouldn’t do and I can’t do.”

Addiction is something which is never going to leave him, he says. It haunts him in different ways: in the way he throws himself almost obsessive-compulsively into acting, in his attitude to money. “I’ve been a binger in everything in my life and I think I binge in spending as well. I’ll go along and I’ll spend pennies over a week because I just haven’t really done anything. I don’t drink so – you know – so that’s not a huge expense. But then suddenly I’ll find myself spending a fortune in a single shop and I’ll be, ‘Where did that come from?’ It’s just it becomes like a madness that overtakes me. It steps in as a quick obsessive-compulsive fix.”

Money is clearly an issue he grapples with. He always imagined that even if he made a lot he would live modestly, and though he tries to uphold that principle, he admits he does “live well”.

“The other thing is: I believe only by throwing it out do you get it back. You know, I know some people who have quite a lot of money and they’re so tight and I find it disgusting. I find it revolting and I think, Is that how they manage to be rich?”

His attitude to fame has, he says, changed over the years. He likes success. It has, after all, brought him a lot of good things: the comforts of financial security, self-validation, and “an access to good material”.

But he’s not so sure about the actual fame that seems to skulk just around the corner. He recalls that when he stood up on stage to sing with his old band a few months ago, he didn’t enjoy it as much as he expected. “Maybe I always felt singing in a band was ultimately a bit posy. It was about showing off. And obviously that was a part of it when I got into acting at first.

The move down to London and the wish to be an actor was coloured with a feeling of, wouldn’t it be great to be famous? But now I think – having worked with so many famous people – that there aren’t a huge amount of advantages in it.”

There are constant murmurs that he’s the next big thing. So why does he think he still isn’t mobbed in the street?

“I think it’s partly because these characters are all from completely different places and completely different looks,” he suggests. “For instance, I see a photo of me as the Phantom and I’m thinking, Is that me? Or in Attila The Hun, where I had hair down to my arse and a big beard.”

His latest metamorphosis is into curly-locked and bearded Beowulf. “I’ve been watching all these other epics and they’re all running round in skirts, with, you know, blow-dried hair. This is not like that. This is so butch. This is down and dirty. Big heavy chain mail. Because the Vikings were the dudes. They weren’t running around in skirts.”

These days, Butler looks a little older than his 35 years. It’s not so much his appearance, but his manner. He is, he says, “an old soul”. Indeed, he sometimes talks as if he has already done it all and seen it all.

“I think it’s like you travel along on a path,” he says, “where sometimes you venture off course a bit and, when you’re younger, you’re like a young animal who doesn’t know you should stick to that path. So you tend to veer off more sharply than you do as you get older. Then finally, as time goes on, you realise that sticking to the path as much as you can isn’t quite as exciting – but it’s a damn sight nicer.”

The Phantom Of The Opera is released on Friday


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