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Gerard Butler drops the mask and opens up about bringing “The Phantom of the Opera” to the big screen.

Category: Interviews
Article Date: December 5, 2004 | Publication: Genre Magazine | Author: William Keck
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Once upon a time, a famous composer and a renowned gay director were casting the male lead in an oft-delayed, big-budget film version of one of the most successful Broadway musicals of all time.

They considered the actor who had originated the role on stage, but decided against it. “Too old!” they said.

Next, they mulled over a handful of major movie stars who were said to be interested in the part. “Too big!” they thought.

And then, they auditioned a young Scottish actor with oodles of charisma and a few little-known movies under his belt. When he’d finished singing the last notes of the show’s signature tune, the composer and the director smiled to themselves: “This one is just right.”

Yet as anyone who knows their bedtime stories can tell you, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” doesn’t end with the central character scarfing down the perfect bowl of porridge—that’s only the beginning. And quite similarly, the decision to cast the unheralded Gerard Butler in director Joel Schumacher’s film version of “Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera” drew more than it’s share of growls from discontented Broadway bears who had wanted to see their man, Michael Crawford (who originated the role of the Phantom in London in 1986), reprise the role on the big screen.

Surprisingly, Butler, 35, understands where Crawford loyalists are coming from. “When I was first approached, I thought, ‘Me? The Phantom?’ I was very dubious about the prospect of being right for the role or taking it on,” says Butler, “not just because of the role itself, but because of it being a musical.”

But once Butler read the script, he says, becoming the Phantom became his passion. “Joel could not have written a more perfect version of “Phantom” for the screen,” says the actor, calling on his cell phone from Iceland where he’s playing Beowulf in the upcoming “Beowulf and Grendel,” a retelling of the epic poem. “So I took a couple of singing lessons on the sly because I didn’t want to waste anybody’s time or make a fool of myself.” After his third voice lesson, Butler recalls his teacher “looked at me with this beaming smile and said, ‘you can do this.’”

Of course, before Butler would even get the chance to audition, a lot of other actors would have to be passed over. That’s because Lloyd Webber first approached Schumacher about making a movie version of “Phantom” back in 1988—the year the show (based on Gaston Leroux’s novel) won the Tony Award for Best Musical and Best Actor (Crawford). At the time, the director was fresh off helming “The Lost Boys;” Butler was still a teenager.

The plan was to shoot the film in 1990, with Crawford and his popular stage co-star Sarah Brightman (Lloyd Webber’s wife at the time), recalls Schumacher. But after Brightman and Lloyd Webber amicably split, “the rights to everything got tied up in the divorce, so it all got put on hold.”

Schumacher and Lloyd Webber continued to revisit the project throughout the years, with John Travolta, Antonio Banderas and Hugh Jackman all mentioned as possible candidates to wear the mask. With those rumors swirling, a group of Crawford fans banded together in 1998 to form The Michael Crawford Phantom Movie Campaign (MCPMC) and its Web site, phantommovie.com. “We grew quickly and got a lot of press,” says Jane Woodside, one of the group’s founding members. MCPMC held fundraisers, took out 11 ads in “Variety” and got close to 10,000 signatures in its online guestbook, but their efforts ultimately proved fruitless.

Robert Viagas, a program director at “Playbill” magazine, saw Crawford perform “Phantom” three times, and understands MCPMC members’ outrage over his not getting the movie role. “There are people for whom Crawford was practically a religion,” says Viagas. “They were so devoted to his interpretation because Crawford really got to the soul of the character.”

Indeed, Woodside says “I’ve seen ten other actors as the Phantom, but Crawford’s performance is so spectacular; the other actors acted the role, Crawford became.”

But even Viagas, a Crawford devotee himself, believes the 62-year-old actor, who is now performing in Lloyd Webber’s “The Woman in White”—a modest musical hit in London—is too old to play the Phantom. “If this film were being made ten years ago, I might say I made a mistake,” Viagas says. “But he has puffed up quite a bit and is rather barrel-chested now.”

Fast forward to 2002. After a holiday dinner with Lloyd Webber and his new wife Madeleine, Schumacher consented to refocus the project—with one condition: “I analyzed the story and realized Christine had to be a teenager, because she’s so innocent. Therefore, the guys had to be young. I wanted gorgeous, brilliantly talented, young sexy people to do it.” Lloyd Webber agreed, but added another condition of his own: Schumacher’s beautiful young people would have to do their own singing.

So the search was on for the Phantom, with Schumacher seeking “someone who was stunning on film, but beyond that, someone who could act the pain. This is a man who’s never been touched—except to be beaten.”

Fortunately for Schumacher, he recalled a trip he’d made to a St. Louis shopping-mall Cineplex, accompanied by his assistant, where they felt like catching a flick. The only movie on the marquee both hadn’t seen was something called “Dracula 2000,” starring a little-known actor named…Gerard Butler.

“Gerry burst out of a coffin, and I thought, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’” Schumacher recalls. Schumacher arranged for the hunkish former law student to audition for Lloyd Webber. No pressure, really. Butler just had to perform the Phantom’s signature song, “Music of the Night”—in a small music room at the composer’s London townhouse. Butler says he remembers Lloyd Webber sitting beside the piano, with his hands placed together at his lips, as if in silent prayer.

“I was cringing,” recalls Schumacher, who unbelievably hadn’t heard Butler sing a note up to that moment. “I had no idea whether he could do this. I thought, ‘This could be a disaster.’ And then Gerry opened his mouth, and I thought, ‘F*** man!’”

Lloyd Webber was not as outwardly enthused. He jumped up, shook Butler’s hand and then launched into a fifteen-minute critique of the performance.

“I should have taken that as a [good] sign because he said so many positive things, but I thought I blew it,” recalls Butler, who had seen “Phantom” performed on stage twice, but never with Crawford in the role. “I only listened to the negative things and thought it was a very elaborate blow-off.”

But quite the opposite, Butler had won the role and now Schumacher was faced with the daunting task of turning the handsome Scot into a monster—no easy task when you’re working on a canvas as fine as Butler’s mug. “I didn’t want him to have tons of prosthetics,” Schumacher explains. “I didn’t want him to look like the horror-monster ghoul, because then you wouldn’t believe Christine’s attraction.”

Eighteen-year-old Emmy Rossum, cast as Christine, never had any problem finding herself drawn to her co-star. “They say ‘the eyes are the window to the soul,’ and I think really great actors, like Gerry, act with their eyes,” she says. “His eyes smile, feel pain and show anger.”

In “Phantom,” however, one of those eyes is discolored, with a droopy lid, attached to a face ravaged by terrible growths, rashes and sores, and a scalp plagued with alopecia.

To create the droopy eye, make-up artists superglued a piece of silk to Butler’s lower eyelid and pulled the lid down with a piece of string that wrapped all the way down his face (beneath a prosthetic), around the back of his neck, down his back and out his shirt. The string attached to a piece of metal, which allowed for manipulation. Butler’s sensitive skin was further irritated by the chemicals used to remove the prosthetics. Getting them off at the end of the day was almost as torturous as the hours it took in the morning having them applied. “I’d get alcohol in my eye,” recalls Butler. “I’d be screaming with pain.”

Some would say Butler has been preparing for the “Phantom” role all his life—mastering not only his vocal abilities, but also the character’s deep despair, loneliness and rage. Butler began singing as a schoolboy. And he was only 13 when he began abusing substances, routinely persuading “some old drunk to get me a bottle of old wine that tasted like sh*t but did the trick.”

He performed for a few years in a Scottish band called Speed, but devoted more and more time to living the wild rock star life. Delving into a world of drugs and alcohol, Butler’s demons threatened to end his stardom before it even took root.

Eventually, Butler reached a stage where he lost all discipline. Friends noticed in him a frightening “Jekyll and Hyde” mode, at times exceptionally entertaining, and at other times erratically violent. “I’ve jumped around the edges of the roof of a 46-story building,” recalls Butler in his strong Scottish brogue, between puffs of a cigarette and sips of café latte. “You could find me throwing myself in front of cars or banging my head against walls. I would wake up with the worst cuts and bruises and lacerations.”

Although he never officially attempted suicide, Butler says he often “felt so full of pain that I didn’t know how to deal with it. I felt it almost would’ve been better if I wasn’t even around. When I was drunk seemed like the perfect time to put myself in a position for something tragic to happen.”

Butler’s childhood pain and suffering began when his mother, Margaret, left his father and took toddler Gerard with her from Montreal and back to the family’s native Scotland. Butler didn’t see his father, a former bookie, again until he was well into his teens.

“Gerry’s very much like Colin [Farrell],” notes Schumacher, who directed the latter in “Tigerland” and “Phone Booth.” Gerry grew up without a father, raised by a wonderful mother. Not the richest people in Scotland. Colin grew up without a father, with a wonderful mother. Not the richest people in Ireland. They’re both fantastic looking street-pub lads. The difference is, Gerry gave up drinking years ago.”

Indeed, Butler has been clean of drugs and alcohol for eight years. All the past pain now exists only as a tool, allowing the actor to relate to his characters—none more than the Phantom.

“I’ve been through very dark periods,” says Butler, explaining depression has long plagued his father’s side of the family. “I had such a fear of expressing myself. There was such a turmoil and a war going on within myself. And I think that’s something that would certainly be expressed in the Phantom—so desperately wanting to have somebody there for him; that one companion to be able to explore and be with.”

Schumacher, too, relates to the ostracized Opera House dweller, especially as a gay man. “The Phantom’s physical disfigurement is a metaphor for whatever most people think of as being unlovable, or what’s been rejected about themselves,” says the 65-year-old director. “The Phantom represents a person, who—through no fault of his own—is kept outside. All minorities share that connection.”

Growing up outside Glasgow in Paisley, Butler didn’t necessarily relate to the plight of gay men, mainly because he didn’t really know any. It was only after he moved to Glasgow that his eyes were opened. “I was amazed how free [gays] could be,” he says. “I would have thought that a gay culture would not really be accepted there because historically it’s a very tough city where not much out of the ordinary is tolerated. When I started going to university, a whole new world opened up to me.”

Butler developed a gay following when he shaved his head and tanned his frame to play the male lead in 2003’s “Lara Croft Tomb Raider 2: The Cradle of Life” opposite Angelina Jolie (“the sexiest woman I ever worked with,” he says). Walking around the streets of London’s Soho district in his biker jacket, Butler couldn’t help but notice he was being eyed left and right by anonymous male admirers.

And the 6’2” hunk may further cement his sex-symbol status if rumors about his next possible role pan out. Indeed, the latest talk is that Butler might replace Pierce Brosnan as yet another larger-than-life character: James Bond.

“I know they’re thinking about recasting the role right now, so who knows?” asks Butler, who had a small, non-speaking role as a seaman in the 1997 Bond film, “Tomorrow Never Dies.” “Of course I’d be open to some dialogue. Growing up, Bond was an icon for me. But if I was to do Bond, I would like to see something darker in him again—like when Sean Connery did it in some of the earlier, grittier movies. More violence. More of an animal. He was the dude. He was the one all the guys wanted to be and all the girls wanted to f***.” Forgive Butler for forgetting about those of us men who wouldn’t mind shaking 007’s martini ourselves—particularly with Butler filming the tuxedo (that’s under the wetsuit). But for now, the man is the Phantom. “Just to be part of this masterpiece,” he says, “it really blows my mind.”

 


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