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'dear Frankie' Embraced By Its Star

Category: Interviews
Article Date: April 15, 2005 | Publication: Tribune Media Services | Author: Ian Blair

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It's an unseasonable cool, gloomy morning in Los Angeles, but Glasgow-born Gerard Butler is all smiles, and no wonder. The Scottish actor's career is in high gear these days, and his diverse talents can be seen in two recent and very different releases: the high-profile "The Phantom of the Opera," where he plays the title character; and the low-budget "Dear Frankie," a charming and moving tale set in Butler's hometown about a 9-year-old deaf boy, Frankie (Jack McElhone); his protective mother, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer); and a stranger (played by Butler) who unwittingly changes their lives.

"It's a drama, but with a lot of comedic and very touching moments in it, which is what I loved about it," says Butler. "At the start, you find out that Lizzie protects her son from a harsh truth - that his own father, who she left, caused Frankie's deafness when he beat him as a child, and she does it by pretending that (the father is) now a sailor traveling around the world, which explains his absence. And she writes Frankie all these letters as if they came from his dad."

But Lizzie panics one day when the fictitous ship she'd created turns out to be a real one arriving in Glasgow within the week. Faced with either telling Frankie the truth or maintaining the charade, Lizzie decides to hire a total stranger to impersonate the father.

"Naturally I think she's completely crazy, and it's funny as when she first approaches me, she could just as easily have been talking about a contract killing," says Butler. "And that's how I felt I come into this situation - to help out a little boy, but it could have been about a hit."

As the nameless stranger, the actor resisted any attempts to make his character too easily accessible. "I tried to keep any kind of sweetness or charm or understanding or generosity of spirit away as long as possible, so that it surprised me, too," he says. "And the mother is so repressed and closed-off that it takes him awhile to truly understand the great bond between mother and son, and what great people they are. But when he does, he finds himself very drawn to both of them."

"Lizzie is completely shut off from the world when we first meet her, agrees Mortimer. "She can't get too close to anyone or confide in them, in case the truth comes out. So she's battened down the hatches and is obviously deeply suspicious of all men, and her whole life revolves around making sure that her son is all right and that all his needs are taken care of. And even when she sees just how caring this man is with her son, it takes a major effort for her to warm up to him in any way at all."

For Butler, Lizzie's protectiveness is "something I completely understand, as I was brought up by a single mother," he says. "And one of the beautiful things about this film is the idea of what people will do to help someone they love. It might not be the perfect thing, but it's the best thing they know at the time, and I loved the way this story is both melancholy but also uplifting."

The actor also loved being able to do "a wee film" back home after some recent big jobs that included starring opposite Angelina Jolie in the action adventure"Lara Croft: Tomb Raider2" and winning the coveted title role in the upcoming version of "Beowulf."

Not bad for a man who set out to be a lawyer and instead ended up in a stage version of "Trainspotting." "That totally changed my life," says Butler, whose shape-shifting abilities are also on display in such diverse films as "Mrs. Brown," "Attila" and "Dracula 2000."

"Before that, I'd been a bit of a 'wild child,'" he says. "I was always interested in acting, but I ended up going into law because it seemed like I had a full life ahead of me, and I thought, well, it could be fun."

Initially, at least, it was fun. "I became president of the law society at Glasgow University, and I basically had a ball - until I began training seriously to be a lawyer," he says. "In fact, I was the first trainee lawyer every in the whole of Scotland to be fired."

Happily for his fans, Butler then pursued his dream of becoming an actor, making his film debut as Billy Connolly's younger brother in "Mrs. Brown."

"Looking back, I can see now I was never really cut out for the law, although there are a lot of similarities," he says. "There's a lot of acting in court, and of course a lot of wigs."


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