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'Phantom' spotlights actor Butler

Category: Interviews
Article Date: January 20, 2005 | Publication: USA TODAY | Author: Susan Wloszczyna

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NEW YORK — You are entrusted with the career-defining role of a lifetime in a lavish blockbuster based on one of the most popular stage musicals of all time, beating out such possible contenders as Antonio Banderas and John Travolta.

Butler beat out Antonio Banderas and John Travolta for his role in Phantom.
By Todd Pitt, USA TODAY

Then they hide your good looks, worthy of a Bronte¨ hero, behind half a leather mask and plaster you with disfiguring makeup that takes six hours to apply and remove.

Sounds like the very definition of a mixed blessing. But not for Gerard Butler, who stars as the title character of The Phantom of the Opera, which expands to more than 1,400 theaters today. After teetering on the brink of discovery in such generic action flicks as Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, he isn't about to complain.

"The public doesn't know me well enough to recognize me, and I like it like that," the Glasgow-born actor, 35, says in his bracing burr. "At least while I have it."

He is already in danger of losing that relative anonymity, especially after People recently unmasked Butler as one of the world's sexiest men. "There are sexier people just walking down the street than there are in those magazines," he says. "But it's nice. When I'm old and using my Zimmer frame (the British term for walker), I can show my grandkids and say, 'See, when I was younger, I was a sexy man.' "

For those whose intro to Butler will be as the mad musical genius who haunts the Paris opera house, let it be said that, in person, he is not slick-model handsome. He's more scruffy-handsome as he gobbles fruit and puffs Marlboros.

The cigarettes are a sticky subject. Though advised not to quit while filming Phantom because it could alter his voice, Butler has tried to stub the habit for years. "I've tried pills. I even tried Zyban, the patch and had therapy tapes all at the same time."

The onetime rock singer showed similar commitment in learning such Andrew Lloyd Webber songs as Music of the Night. "I've never had a singing lesson in my life before this role," Butler says. "I was always going to give a more raw, emotional performance, but you have to learn those rules before you can break them."

Director Joel Schumacher, who helped launch then-newcomers Julia Roberts (Flatliners, Dying Young) and Colin Farrell (Tigerland, Phone Booth), has had his eye on Butler ever since he caught him vamping up a storm in the flop Dracula 2000. "I always wanted to work with Gerry and thought he would make a great Phantom," he says. The deal was sealed once the actor passed the music audition with Webber, who recalls, "He had a fantastic presence. Every girl looked at him on his way in."

Butler studied law at Glasgow University and later joined an Edinburgh firm. But he wasn't cut out to be a legal eagle and was fired. "It made me appreciate so much that I now have a career that I love. That was one I didn't."

Moviegoers will soon see more of his face, starting with this spring's Dear Frankie. The drama, in which a mother hires a stranger (Butler) to pretend to be her deaf son's father, earned a 10-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Butler confesses, "I love it when people come up and say, 'I cried so much.' " He is also bringing the medieval warrior Beowulf to life onscreen and will play the legendary Scottish poet Robert Burns in an upcoming biopic.

Just don't expect this Phantom to have the movie's soundtrack on his iPod. "I recently discovered this Icelandic band Sigur Ros," he says. "Their music is so profound. I love Coldplay. I love the band called Bent. I even like a bit of old-school hip-hop like De La Soul. My mum said to me, 'Your music is beautiful but it's so sad.' I love music that seems to put me in a melancholy place."

Music of the night, so to speak.


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