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THE PRESSURE TRULY HIT ME ONE SECOND BEFORE I SANG

Category: Interviews
Article Date: December 8, 2004 | Publication: The Western Mail | Author: ROB DRISCOLL
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THE PRESSURE TRULY HIT ME ONE SECOND BEFORE I SANG. I SUDDENLY THOUGHT, 'OH MY GOD, I'M ABOUT TO SING ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS SONGS OF ALL TIME, IN FRONT OF THE GUY WHO WROTE IT, AND THE DIRECTOR AND PRODUCER. NO PRESSURE THERE, THEN!

The Phantom of the Opera is set to hit the big screen and finally make a star of Gerard Butler. Rob Driscoll reveals the man behind the mask GERARD Butler clearly loves a challenge. He brushed up on his sword fighting, archery and horse riding skills for the starring role of Attila the Hun, got ultra gym-fit for the crazy athletic stunts of Lara Croft: Cradle of Life - Tomb Raider II, and developed an Italian/mid-West American accent while training as a goalkeeper for footballing movie The Game of their Lives.

But The Phantom of the Opera, he concedes, has been his biggest personal stretch, on every conceivable level. Not only that, but the eagerly awaited, big-screen version of the world's most famous musical will catapult this devilishly handsome 35-year-old ex-trainee lawyer into a stratosphere of international fame that has so far, rather strangely, eluded him.

Nailing the title role of the notoriously tortured and disfigured anti-hero was a tough call for Butler, who had to convince no less than the show's creator Andrew Lloyd Webber that he could be his Phantom, as opposed to a more bankable, billboard-friendly name.

For a start, the only singing he'd done was in a makeshift rock band during his student days; he'd had no formal training for the kind of powerhouse, pseudo-operatic, theatrical performance required to deliver modern household classics (like the title song, for example) with any degree of credibility.

Although the movie's director, Joel Schumacher - who turned Colin Farrell into a superstar with Tigerland and Phone Booth - had actively sought out Butler as his leading man, the Glasgow-born actor still had to prove his musical worth the hard way, auditioning in front of Lloyd Webber himself in a room at the composer's London home, singing Music of the Night, with only a piano as accompaniment.

'The pressure truly hit me one second before I sang,' recalls Butler. 'I suddenly thought, 'Oh my God, I'm about to sing one of the most famous songs of all time, in front of the guy who wrote it, and the director and producer. No pressure there then!'

'I'm very hard on myself, and I thought I was dreadful. I'd heard all sorts of things about Andrew Lloyd Webber - that he was a hard taskmaster - and yes, he's demanding, he's a perfectionist, but that's why he's so successful.'

Butler needn't have worried. The next day Schumacher called him very excitedly, saying, 'I've just had Andrew here, raving about you'.

There was still a huge journey ahead, as Butler worked for weeks on end with a voice coach and musical producers perfecting his tone and range.

Now the results are all on screen, in a pounds 55m production filmed entirely at Pinewood Studios, alongside a cast including the similarly little-known Emmy Rossum as ingenue chorus girl Christine, and Patrick Wilson as her lover Raoul, who must battle the Phantom for Christine's heart and soul.

The cast also includes Minnie Driver as Spanish prima donna Carlotta, Jennifer Ellison as a ballerina, and Miranda Richardson as the ballet mistress who knows the secrets of the Phantom's past.

But make no mistake, this is Gerard Butler's movie. And musical challenges apart, from the moment he read the script for the film, Butler reckoned that, even though he'd never seen the show on stage, he could eat the part alive.

'I identified with the Phantom, totally,' says Butler. OK, he may not have spent his life hiding behind a mask and lurking around the catacombs of the Parisian Opera House, pining for the company's beautiful singing star. But there is a cauldron of intense emotion bubbling under this man's very genial surface.

'I knew exactly what I had to do to make this role mine,' he continues. 'The Phantom just breaks my heart. But that was the way in, really. He represents the fear we all have of being unloved, imperfect, ugly, of being left alone.

'Now I've had a very good life, but I've also had a lot of darkness, and I was always very much in touch with that while making the film.'

These are not the self-centred remarks of an attention-seeking drama queen. Butler's own life, to be brutally cynical, has the makings of a juicy movie itself. It takes some drawing out, but he was just two years old when his parents split up, and his mother brought him and his two older siblings up alone. Butler was 16 before he saw his father again.

After studying law at Glasgow University, he started working in an Edinburgh law firm, but he was emotionally troubled, and began to drift aimlessly. He drank heavily, took drugs and spent a number of nights in police cells; by the age of 24, he was contemplating suicide.

It was a chance meeting in a London coffee shop with actor and director Steven Berkoff that turned Butler's life around. Berkoff suggested he audition for a part in his upcoming stage production of Coriolanus. He got the part, and his next audition, in 1996, landed him the lead role of Renton in the stage production of Trainspotting.

Movies soon beckoned, with his screen debut in Mrs Brown, and over the past six or seven years Butler has delivered a slew of impressive performances from sci-fi fantasies like Reign of Fire and Timeline to the male lead opposite Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft and the Cradle of Life: Tomb Raider II.

It was his starring performance in the not-so-wonderful Dracula 2000 that first caught the eye of perennial talent-spotter Joel Schumacher.

'He said he was in St Louis one night, and there was nothing else to go and see!' laughs Butler.

'He's followed my career since, and he eventually phoned my agent and said, 'I'm very interested in Gerry - but can he sing?"

Which is where we came in, of course. But director Schumacher and his producers were always aware they were heading more for an actor who could sing, rather than a singer who could act.

'I've seen articles where I've been described as a Scottish rock'n'roll singer, and that's rubbish,' says Butler. 'I just happened to sing in a rock band with some of my lawyer buddies, and to be honest, I don't think that taught me anything in relation to the Phantom.'

Butler's physical transformation into the Phantom represents what he openly refers to as 'the really tedious part of this movie' - for him anyway: the prosthetics.

'We looked at hundreds of masks,' he says. 'I can't tell you the thought that went into every decision about the mask, and I tried on countless masks for camera tests. That alone was a five-week process.

'Then I had a three-week process of prosthetic make-up. The first time I did it, it was nine hours sitting in the chair. And what always happens with prosthetics is they overdo it, and so they go, 'Let's try it again, but let's just take out some of the pizza!'

'They finally got it down to about five-and-a-half hours. And I hated that with a passion. You've got two or three people poking your eye, your face, your nose. You can't move, so to me it's the closest version of torture you can have.

'It also meant very early mornings, getting up at three o'clock. There was one period of filming when I had to do that six days back to back, so I wasn't getting to bed until 10.30 at night, and wasn't really getting to sleep, as I was so wound up.

'So it was all about going on set and screaming and crying and breaking my heart all day - then going to bed for a few hours, and getting up and going through it all again, and thinking 'I never want to act again!"

He will act again; indeed, Butler will next be seen in cinemas in January, in Dear Frankie, a tiny-budgeted but heart-breaking drama that again touched on resonances of his life. It's about a young boy whose mother protects him from the truth about his missing father.

More recently, jack-of-all- trades Butler has been in Iceland filming Beowulf and Grendel, which required him to get back into action-man mode as the titular, sheepskin-clad warrior. And still the work goes on; right now, he is preparing to play one of his mother country's most revered icons, Robert Burns, in an ambitious new biopic co-starring Julia Stiles as the poet's true love Jean Armour.

'I might just be keeping my Scottish accent for this one,' he grins.

The Phantom of the Opera opens nationwide on Friday.

 


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