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The Butler Did It

Category: Interviews
Article Date: December 10, 2004 | Publication: Evening Standard Magazine | Author: Annabel Rivkin

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The Phantom of the Opera Unmasked - How Gerard Butler beat Hollywood's A-list to land the role of the year.

Gerard Butler is a hit in Hollywood but still virtually unknown in his native Britain. But 'The Phantom of the Opera' will send his straight to the top of every girl's Christmas wish list, says Annabel Rivkin

"Here! You have a go!" I've just stuck my head round the door and Gerard Butler has thrust his brand-new mobile phone into my hands. "I can't f***ing work it out." He doesn't look even vaguely familiar and yet in Hollywood he's already known as the star of last year's Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, and adaptation of Michael Crichton's Timeline, and the dragon-slayer flick Reign of Fire.

"I must be the least-recognized successful actor around," he says in his Glaswegian burr. "I think it's partly because I look different in every picture I do." It's also partly because, until now, his movies have limped in and out of British cinemas attracting little more than a critical panning. But tonight he opens in the title role of The Phantom of the Opera - Joel Schumacher's lavish and long-awaited screen version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical. From now on, people will not forget his name.

Certainly, at 35, he doesn't cut an unforgettable figure; tall, with arresting blue eyes and a slightly dangerous, devil-may-care gruffness - so different from the measured thoughtfulness that actors seem to cultivate. And there's a campness about the name "Gerard" which he utterly and instantly overrides - let's call him Gerry; everybody does. He's muscle-bound in a pikey, tight, white T-shirt and jeans, but he does order a latte. Shame - he rather looks like he might start working his wat down a bottle of Jack Daniel's. But there are reasons why he doesn't drink.

Gerry was born in Paisley but his parents moved him and his two sisters to Montral when he was an infant. The couple split up when he was two and a half and his mother returned to Glasgow with the children. "I saw my father once when I was four, and then he didn't stay in touch." He didn't see his fathr again until he was 16 - "didn't even know he was alive. And then he turned up." They managed somehow to salvage their relationship and remained close until his father died of cancer ten years ago.

In his teens Gerry toyed with the idea of becoming an actor but chose instead to read law at Glasgow University. "I started partying too much," he says. "and became a bit of a bum." After cramming for his finals, he took off to American for a year. "Then the wildness that was part of me really took hold," he says. "I seemed to step fropm one troublesome situation to another." Several times he woke up in police cells. "But all I could think was - "this is so cool!"" His stunts usually endangered himself more than others; he remembers hanging from teh rails of a cruise liner in the middle of the night 'pissed out of my head and singing "We Are Sailing"'.

He returned to Scotland to continue his law studies. 'I knew law wasn't for me, but I was stuck, so I behaved crazily.' The week before he qualified, he was sacked by the law firm that had taken him on as a trainee. 'I'd gone from being a 16-year old who couldn't wait to grasp life to a 22-year old who truly didn't care if he died in his sleep,' he says. 'Let's say that I had a problem and I dealt with it.' He hasn't had a drink in six years.

Gerry came to London to seek his fortune. For five months he did 'stupid jobs; telemarketing, demonstrating toys at toy fairs, getting people to sign up for boilers.' But then he bumped into the infamous actor-director-playwright Steven Berkoff in a Soho coffee shop and they started talking. 'Are you an actor or what?' asked Berkoff. 'No, but I'd like to be,' replied Gerry. And so Berkoff offered him a role in a prodcution of Coriolanus and a theatre career was born. He went on to play the lead role of Renton (Ewan McGregor found mainstream fame with the same part) in a stage production of Trainspotting before getting his film break in 1997, playing Billy Connolly's younger brother in Mrs. Brown.

He gives the impression of being hardy, but in Mrs. Brown he had to do lots of naked running in and out of the freezing North Sea and caught hypothermia. He als won an award, but not for acting: during a break in filming near the River Tay, he heard a child's cries for help. A boy had got into trouble while swimming and would probably have drowned had Gerry not jumped in and rescued him. He was presented with an award for bravery by the Royal Humane Society - no wonder this is the man the industry has secretly labeled the next James Bond.

In 2000, Gerry flew out to Los Angeles and within three weeks had landed the part of Attila the Hun in a big-budget USA Network mini series, Attila. The broadcasterd took the unusual decision to give the series a premiere and there were billboards of Gerry as Attila, holding a sword and looking menacing, all over town. Hollywood behgan to sit up and take notice. 'We like this guy,' they said. 'But who is he?'

Wes Craven cast him in his luscious rendering of the classic Dracula tale, Dracula 2000. Sadly, it was a movie which proved both too luscious and too bloodless for any audience's tastes - in act, it was widely recognized as a disastrous turkey. But producer/director Joel Schumacher happened to catch the movie and it sparked his interest in Gerry. Schumacher has a good eye - it was he who secured Demi Moore and Rob Lowe's careers in St. Elmo's Fire, and more recently it was his vehicles Tiferland and Phone Booth, which fuelled the meteoric rise of Colin Farrell. 'After Dracula, Joel followed my career,' says Gerry, 'and he says he saw various components of the Phantom in all my roles. Two years ago, we had lunch rogether and talked about acting. Some months later he called my agent and asked if I could sing.'

Gerry had been in the school choir and a rock band but was not a trained singer, and he suffered a nerve-wracking audition for Joel and Andrew Lloyd Webber in which he missed a high note in 'The Music of the Night'. He was convinced he's blown it. And he admits he desperately wanted the part. 'I identified with the Phantom totally,' he says. 'He just breaks my heart. He represents that fear we all have of being unloved, ugly and left alone. I've had a very happy life, but I've also had a lot of darkness, and I'm very much in touch with that.'

He need not have worried. 'When he came into the audition,' said Joel Schumacher when the casting was announced, 'he blew me and Andrew away. I know the Michael Crawford fans are going tobe hysterical but maybe they should stay home.' Gerry had beaten John Travolta, Hugh Jackman and Antonio Banderas to the role.

From tonight, when the film premieres, Gerry's position as a household name is guaranteed. But the Phantom wears a mask so his anonymity should remain relatively undisturbed. He is wary of full-blown celebrity. 'When I first started acting, I wanted to be famous,' he says, 'but I've worked with famous people and seen the shit they go through and it doesn't look fun in the slightest. I want to be able to walk into Burger King and fly economy.'

With a fast-rising profile comes an increasing interest in his love life - after all, he looks the stuff of old-fashioned matinee idols and he's a deadly flirt. 'I'm just shite at relationships,' he sighs, 'and I don't have a very good history.' When he's in England, he lives alone in his Hampstead flat. 'I would love to fall madly in love with someone, but I'm kind of bad at that.' With the release of this movie, he's going to have an awful lot of women to choose from. Including yours truly.


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