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A Sunny Side of Scotland

Category: Interviews
Article Date: March 6, 2005 | Publication: FilmStew.Com | Author: Pam Grady
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With two movies in theaters and many more on the horizon, actor Gerard Butler is upholding the tradition of such countrymen as Robert Carlyle, John Hannah and Sean Connery.

The heavy Scottish brogue singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me across the telephone line belongs to Gerard Butler, star of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera and the winsome new Scottish drama Dear Frankie. Butler's rendition of the birthday ditty is charming, but really, he shouldn't have. After all, it is not my birthday.

As it turns out, while the Miramax publicist was putting me through on one line, the effervescent Butler was making another call on the other line. "I've been sitting in front of a camera and by a phone all day and I haven't had a second to do anything,” he explains with a laugh. “So I'm calling my ex-girlfriend, whose birthday is today.”

That Butler is resorting to stacking phone calls the way air traffic controllers stack planes waiting to land is understandable, given how busy the 35-year-old Glaswegian is these days. He has already made two movies since completing work on Dear Frankie and Phantom: The Game of Their Lives, about a 1950 World Cup soccer match between Britain and the United States; and Beowulf & Grendel, based on the epic poem, in which Butler plays the Norse warrior who battles the troll Grendel. Soon, the actor will take on a different sort of legendary figure when he goes in front of the cameras to play poet and Scottish national hero Robert Burns in Burns.

Dear Frankie represents something of a break for Butler from the larger-than-life figures he has been asked to portray recently. In first-time feature director Shona Auerbach's drama, set in the picaresque port town of Greenock, Butler's character doesn't have a name. He is simply The Stranger, hired by Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) to play her young son Frankie's (Jack McElhone) father for a day.

In trying to protect the child's innocence by never letting him know what his violently abusive dad is really like, or why they have never lived together as a family, Lizzie invented the fiction that her husband was a sailor away at sea. But she used the name of a real ship and with it about to land in port, Lizzie prefers to keep the fantasy going rather than tell the boy the truth. The Stranger becomes her initially reluctant conspirator, but Frankie's charm has a way of wearing down all resistance.

Butler confesses he very nearly rejected the part he's grown to love, initially reading Andrea Gibb's screenplay as a favor to the movie's casting director, Des Hamilton, a friend since long before either was involved in the film industry. Although Hamilton thought his buddy was perfect for The Stranger, he threw it away after reading only the first seven pages.

“This wasn't for me.,” he recalls thinking. “I saw this little boy move in with his family and then he went out to buy cigarettes and he was deaf and he was buying them for his gram and he was getting fish and chips at the same time… And I thought, 'What is this movie about?'"

But in honor of his promise to Hamilton, Butler picked up the script again and read it all the way through. This time, he found himself charmed by the tale's apparent simplicity and reassured that though Frankie is deaf, his hearing loss is not treated as a subject either for pity or for sickly sentimentality, but simply as one more fact of the boy's life.

"I even understood the genius of the everyday, matter-of-fact way in which the story was told, because it actually lures you into this little fairy tale," Butler observes of his second, closer reading. "It never conveys that story in any other way except real, everyday terms, yet you get drawn into it.”

“It's a small story, but in actual fact, in human terms, in terms of feeling and identifying, it's really quite an epic tale."

In addition, the role offered Butler an opportunity to take on a rare down-to-earth part. Though he points out that he's played Mark Renton on stage in Trainspotting, the doctor in a West End revival of Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer, and a recovering alcoholic in a six-part British miniseries The Jury, he is more familiar to movie audiences for portraying outsized characters.

Taller than most actors at 6'2" and gifted with strong, handsome features, this is perhaps natural. But his resume is still rather breathtaking as in addition Phantom and Beowulf, recent roles include the titular vampire in Dracula 2000 as well as Attila the Hun. "I could have a Guinness Book of World Records record for playing title roles," the actor jokes.

In practice, Butler says playing all those mythical or action heroes, like the mercenary in Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life, often requires a different kind of preparation. “Normally, there is a lot of preparation that goes into my role, because often they require ridiculous talents that I didn't start off with, but I have to end up with,” he admits.

But to play The Stranger, he needed no special training. "With this, it was simple,” he insists. “I identified with and immediately knew this guy and I felt him. More than that, I knew the story. I knew the little boy.”

“I knew what he was going through. I knew what his mother was going through and I just loved and cherished the story.”

In playing a character with no name and no past, Butler could have filled in the blanks with an invented a back-story and a whole range of motivations, but in the end, he decided none of that was necessary. "The script is so fantastic and so much of what happens doesn't lie in the lines. It lies in between the lines and lies under the surface and lies in the subtext," he remarks.

"It's interesting,” he continues. “If you're truly experiencing those moments, the audience will just climb in and experience it with you rather than you having to draw a map for them and shove it in their faces."

Butler’s co-stars also delighted him. He describes Emily Mortimer as a perfect actress for her willingness to explore different ways of approaching a scene, and young Jack McElhone impressed him with his confidence and his knack for staying within the truth of the moment.

Meanwhile, the crew was small and the sunshine held for the entire six weeks of the shoot. "I thought, 'I've never seen Scotland like this!' Butler raves. "We had a blast."

Dear Frankie also afforded Butler the rare opportunity to work in his native country. While he is truly becoming an international star and now works all over the world, he still says there’s no place like home.

“For me, you're never more comfortable than when you're back in your home territory," he suggests. “I was making a little movie that I was already relaxed about and already made the decision not to put myself through the grind and kill myself doing this, and we were filming in really interesting and lovely locations, especially down by the beachfront in Greenock."

When Butler was 14, he saw a sci-fi action-adventure called Krull, which he describes as a kind of ultra-low-budget Lord of the Rings. When he watched it again a few years ago, he discovered that it is not a very good movie.

Still, a year later at age 15, he had a dream that he was living in the world that Krull had created. The dream proved revelatory and Butler still remembers the sensation of waking up that morning to discover a new ambition. "I had the acting bug so bad that if I had known for a fact that I would never become an actor, I probably have given up on life right then,” he says. “I wanted to do this so much."

As it turned out, practicality initially prevailed, with Butler studying civil litigation and working initially as a lawyer. But he was soon fired by his firm, which precipitated a move south to London and the fulfillment of that long cherished ambition.

Somewhat amazingly, Butler has never attended drama school. "I've very instinctive," he says of his craft. With Dear Frankie and Phantom in theaters and a full slate of films on the horizon, Butler's star is definitely on the rise. Not only is he being offered more and more screenplays to look at, but he has also noticed something else.

"Those scripts that you used to pick up and read and think, 'OK, I love this script, but what are they offering me? The guy that walks through the back door and falls?'” he muses. “And suddenly they say, 'No, we want you to play that role.' And you say, 'That role? That role that I love? That role that I would do anything to play?' They say, 'Yeah, we want you to do that role.'”

“That's a buzz,” he admits. “That's a buzz."

 


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