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Phantom menace

Category: Interviews
Article Date: December 23, 2004 | Publication: South China Morning Post | Author: Helen Barlow

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Hardship and a chequered past have given Gerard Butler plenty to draw on for the role that could make him a star, writes Helen Barlow

HE'S GERRY TO his mates and to almost everyone who comes in contact with him. Yet no matter how likable and 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 is poised on a precipice. He might be thrust to stardom. Or he might not.

Muscular, with an authoritative chin, piercing green eyes and a slow-burning masculinity that allows him to come across as sexy on screen, Butler might be compared to Russell Crowe. The pair have certainly had their days of being wild - and of being wildly drunk. Both have strong cultural heritages to draw on when playing masculine men on screen.

"That sense of the Scotsman as stoic and tough comes from Scottish history - the hardship, the wars and the fighting. The reason so many Scottish actors have done so well is that we 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."

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

"To be honest, I was doing a career that I didn't want to do," he says. "When I decided to take up acting, I was actually fired as a lawyer 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.'"

Butler says he fell in love with the diversity of acting. Drawing on his talent for delving into the grey areas of his soul, he was attracted to characters that often surprise. Certainly, he seemed to charm the socks off Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, and it was never clear if he was as honourable as he seemed in Reign of Fire and Timeline. It's the kind of duality he's been able to bring to the character of the Phantom, a scarred musical genius who hides in the Paris Opera, longing for the love of a beautiful singer (played by 18-year-old Emmy Rossum from The Day After Tomorrow). The film features younger actors than planned - Antonio Banderas was once to have starred - and was shot amid remarkable sets. "It's dark and sad and sexy and passionate," says Butler. "And a musical."

Butler seems amused at the idea of having had to sing. "When I was in the band, I was training as a lawyer by day and I was a junk Jim Morrison by night," he says. "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. 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," he says, puffing on one of many cigarettes he smokes during the interview. "You know I say those things lightly and as a joke, but they were hard times for me as a person and I've changed."

To take on the role of the Phantom, 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 - but, at the same time, I was surprised by how much work I had to do."

Well aware that he'd 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," he says. "I was singing early in morning with my technical coach, then I'd go to the studio and sing with the musical director, which was more performance. Then, I'd go on set and sing in the show and perform it all day long, and then I'd go into the recording studio and lay down for the tracks for the next scene. So, I was singing all the f***ing time."

Having seen the stage show in London and New York, Butler says 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 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. 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, gluing a piece of string to my eyeball and pulling it down around my neck a lazy eye is part of the Phantom's deformity , I was, in fact, in a suitably insane frame of mind."

Is there an irony in being preened as a sexy new leading man and then 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," Butler says. "Then I should just be a model - and I'm not good-looking enough to be a model."

Sporting a battered leather jacket, cropped hair and trendy sunglasses, Butler looks like a lad about town. Without a wife and children to settle him down, acting has provided a soothing influence and he says he's working through his demons at the same time.

"If there's one thing I say about myself as an actor, it's that I'm not scared to try and not be sexy - and I'm not scared to try and be lost and be unable to cope. But I know that I can go the other way, as well, and play it powerful. With The Phantom you have all those things going on. You have this exceptional accomplished person who has this power and charisma that's almost magical, but at the same time there's this side that's like a lost little boy."

Butler's own childhood was fraught. His parents moved their brood to Canada from Scotland, only to have their marriage fall apart. "I had the best mother on the planet," he says. "But I was brought up by a single mother with three kids who came back from Canada with nothing after leaving my dad.

"I didn't see my father for 14 years and he turned up one day and I didn't even know he was alive. So, there were a lot of powerful things to draw on. You know, through my own self-abuse I went to some pretty dark spaces, so that when I read this script, I could believe they were synonymous with the feelings of the Phantom."

The Phantom of the Opera opens on December 30.


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