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Fame's two faces

Category: Interviews
Article Date: December 10, 2004 | Publication: Brisbane Courier | Author: Helen Barlow

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HE'S GERRY to his mates and to almost everyone who comes in contact with him. Yet no matter how affable Gerard Butler is in person, with his leading role in the movie version of The Phantom of the Opera the 35-year-old Glaswegian's career is at a watershed: stardom or failure.

Muscular, with an authoritative chin and piercing green eyes, he might be compared to Russell Crowe, and both have wild, strong cultural heritages to draw on.

"There are a lot of fags in Scotland as well," counters the outgoing actor, whose accent is as thick as the Loch Ness fog. "You just have to go to the Club Exchange in Glasgow on a Friday night.

"That sense of the Scotsman as stoic comes from Scottish history, the hardship, the wars and the fighting.

"The reason so many Scottish actors have done so well is that we also have a lot of passion and sensitivity, and insanity as well. We have a lot more going on, to be honest, than what your average American experiences in his life, and therefore we have more to say in cinematic terms."

Certainly Butler has more life experience to draw on than your average actor. A recovering alcoholic who was once, by his own admission, a "down and dirty" singer in a band called Speed, he was close to finishing a law degree when he was spotted in a cafe by actor-playwright Steven Berkoff and decided to give acting a go.

"To be honest, I was doing a career that I didn't want to do," he said. "When I decided to take up acting, I was actually fired by a law firm because of my drinking problem. It really got quite bad. I was a week away from qualifying after giving it seven years of my life and then they let me go.

"It just shows you the beautiful symmetry of life because I didn't want to be a lawyer. I know many people who are lawyers now, who are 35, 40, 50, who never really wanted to be lawyers but who got sucked into it. So, in actual fact, it was a blessing in disguise. The next day I packed my bags, moved down to London and said f--- it, you've ruined your life, why not aim for the stars?"

A risk-taker and adventurer by nature, Butler was seduced by the diversity of acting.

Drawing on his talent for delving into the grey areas, he was attracted to characters that often surprise, so that it's difficult to tell if he is the good guy or the bad guy on screen.

Certainly he charmed the socks off Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life before putting in the boot, and audiences weren't quite sure if he was as honourable as he seemed in Reign of Fire and Timeline.

But he was. It's the kind of duality he has been able to bring to the character of the Phantom, a scarred musical genius who hides away in the Paris Opera, longing for the love of a beautiful singer (18-year-old Emmy Rossum from Day After Tomorrow).

Featuring younger actors than initially planned, and filmed amid remarkable sets, Phantom is a story that runs the full gamut.

"It's dark and sad and sexy and passionate and a musical," says Butler, who sniggers at the thought that he actually had to sing, as it's something he hadn't taken seriously in the past.

"When I was in the rock 'n' roll band, I was training as a lawyer by day and I was a junk Jim Morrison by night I thought I was, anyway.

"In fact, I was kicked out of three of my own gigs. I once performed three songs standing in the street, screaming and shouting, while at the biggest gig ever, I was thrown off stage twice because I was shouting abuse at the audience. I barely remember the gig; it was one of the last we ever did."

Has he changed?

"Yeah, completely. You know I say those things lightly and as a joke, but they were hard times for me as a person and I have changed."

To take on the role, singing songs that half the planet had heard in Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, meant he had to develop a vastly different attitude to his vocal chords.

"I was surprised by how quickly I came on in my singing," he says, "but at the same time I was surprised by how much work I had to do."

Well aware that he would never win awards, he aimed to strike a balance between having emotion and quality in his voice.

"Some things I was singing four times a day. I was singing early in morning with my technical coach, then I would go to the studio and sing with the musical director, which was more performance, then I would go on set and sing in the show and perform it all day long, and then I would go into the recording studio and lay down for the tracks for the next scene.

"So I was singing all the f------ time," he says, drawing out his words for emphasis.

Having seen the stage show in both London and New York, he was keen to avoid theatrical campiness in the movie version, directed by Joel Schumacher, and make the Phantom more human.

"The hardest thing, though," he says, "was sustaining the emotion. I mean, half the Phantom's journey is insanity and madness and having his guts ripped out, and I had to do that all day long.

"Quite often when you play a monster you wear so many prosthetics that you don't get to do much, and even if they took six hours to put the prosthetics on, I was able to do some serious acting.

"After having three people in my face for six hours, glueing a piece of string to my eyeball and pulling it down around my neck, I was in fact in a suitably insane frame of mind." (A lazy eye is part of the Phantom's deformity.)

Is there an irony in being preened as this sexy new leading man and then end up playing a monster?

"Yeah, but I love that because I want to be seen more as an actor who can take on interesting roles rather than just some sexy guy.

"Then I should just be a model. And I'm not good-looking enough to be a model."

Today, sporting a battered leather jacket, cropped hair and trendy sunglasses, Butler looks like the lad about town. Without a wife and children to settle him down, acting has provided his soothing influence.

The Phantom of The Opera opens Boxing Day.


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