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Mastering the mask

Category: Interviews
Article Date: December 19, 2004 | Publication: The Free Press | Author: LOUIS B. HOBSON
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The Phantom's trademark mask was just one more problem for Gerard Butler to overcome.

NEW YORK -- Before he could become the opera ghost in the film version of The Phantom of the Opera, Gerard Butler had to overcome two enormous obstacles. First he had to find the source of the man's pain, loneliness and dark obsessions.

Then Butler had to find just the right mask to hide it all.

The phantom's discrete white mask has become the very symbol for Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical version of Gaston Leroux's classic beauty and the beast story.

"The mask had to be beautiful, but also ominous," says Butler. The movie version of the drama opens Wednesday.

"They literally created hundreds of masks of different sizes, shapes, materials, eye shapes and expressions before we got one that was the right texture, physical expression and size."

The day before cameras rolled on his first scene, panic set in.

"I asked (director) Joel Schumacher how it was going to stay on my face," recalls Butler.

"During the fittings I just held it on with my finger."

Make-up and prosthetic experts scurried about their shops, finally settling on a two-sided tape similar to that used to secure wigs, hair pieces and costume pieces.

"It behaved wonderfully in the makeup trailer, but because the opera house sets were so dry, the tape would fuse to my skin.

"I'd bruise my skin taking it off."

The opposite happened when Butler had to perform in the sets for the phantom's underground lair.

"Because of all the water in these sets and the hot lights, the air would be so moist the mask kept slipping off."

Butler jokes the problematic mask helped immensely with portraying the phantom's inner angst.

In reality, Butler just had to look at his own youth to find some of the phantom's motivations.

"I've had a pretty intense and crazy life. I've been through a lot and a lot of it I wish I hadn't."

Butler was born in Glasgow, but moved to Montreal when he was six months old.

"My dad moved the family to Montreal and then a couple of years later left my mother," he recalls.

Butler, his mother and two older siblings moved back to Glasgow.

"I had the best mother on the planet, but you still grow up with certain issues when you grow up without a father."

The family moved in with their grandparents for six months.

"We had nothing and my mom wasn't trained for a job. When we did move out on our own, we lived in a pre-fab house on a council estate, which is not the best place to grow up.

"Fortunately, I come from a really good Catholic family who have high morals and a family that believed strongly in education."

Butler studied law, became the head of his class's law society and got to article for one of the top law firms in Glasgow.

"I hated it. I hated every minute of it. It just wasn't me. I never felt fulfilled. I partied a lot and abused the privileges of my firm."

One day the head of the firm asked Butler to give him one good reason not to fire the articling student.

"I told him there wasn't (one), thanked the firm for everything and quit."

That night Butler went to see a production of Trainspotting in a tiny theatre at the Edinburgh Festival.

"I was blown away. I wanted to be up there on that stage, so I packed my bags and headed for London."

The next year, Butler returned to the Edinburgh Festival as the lead in a new production of Trainspotting, which became the hit of the festival.

"The movie had come out. It was a hot property and suddenly I had a career."

His first film performance was a cameo in 1997's Mrs. Brown. For the next three years, he appeared in British films and TV productions.

In 2000, he nabbed two roles that gave him international exposure. He starred as the conquering Hun in the TV mini-series Attila and as a contemporary vampire in Dracula 2000.

"We really went for the sensuality with Dracula. I thought it was a lark. I never really expected anything to come of it," he admits.

Butler came to Schumacher's attention when the director was in St. Louis scouting locations for a movie that never came to fruition.

"There's not much to do at night in St. Louis," said Schumacher. "Right behind my hotel was a 16-screen multi-plex. I walked over, only to discover I'd seen every movie except Dracula 2000."

He bought his ticket and sat down, expecting to doze off -- until Butler came on screen.

"I told my producer friend who was sitting beside me that this Jerry Butler had incredible screen presence."

When he returned to Los Angeles, Schumacher got hold of Butler's agent, met with the Scotsman and promised they'd work together one day.

Two years later when he was casting for Phantom, Schumacher lamented that Butler would be high on his list if only the actor could sing. Then Schumacher remembered that Butler said he was the lead singer in a rock band while he was at college.

"When Joel contacted me I said I thought I could sing the score," says Butler.

He was filming Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life at the time and immediately contacted a voice coach.

"She worked with me on other songs until finally we dared work on Music of the Night. She told me I could do it, so I let Joel set up an audition for me with Andrew Lloyd Webber."

Webber said nothing to Butler when the actor arrived.

Schumacher sat behind Webber sweating.

"I wondered what I'd subjected poor Jerry to.

"Then he sang. When he finished, Andrew rose from his chair, went over to Jerry and shook his hand," recalls Schumacher.

 


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