King Leonidas himself talks BMWs, Mustangs and his new movie, Olympus Has Fallen
The fear of being unceremoniously and painfully jettisoned into a black chasm of death by a leather-sandaled foot is currently taking up some of my thought process. I am sitting with Gerard Butler, King Leonidas himself, ready to talk all things Top Gear. And when I ask if he considers himself a petrolhead, he informs me that he doesn't really know anything about cars.
"I don't even know what a petrolhead is". So, I respond, you're not really into your cars then?
Silence. He stares for a minute, I shuffle uncomfortably, and that scene - the one repeated by countless groups of men the world over - flashes into my consciousness. I tense my stomach muscles in anticipation of a swift kick, but the talk quickly turns to film, and you realize Gerard Butler is actually very charming, charged with an effusive and slightly unsettling energy. He returns to cinema screens this week as Mike Banning in Olympus Has Fallen, a film reminiscent of Die Hard.
"It is a bit like Die Hard in a way," he says, "but it's a more updated version. I actually got an email from my favourite actor in the business - I won't say his name - who emailed me saying ‘dude, that movie rocked'. What really grabbed me about the script was the second scene, where in the middle of a meeting between the President of the United States and the South Korean prime minister, a C130 cargo plane flies over Washington, and you immediately go ‘what the **** is happening?' Then this attack ensues..."
And it's some attack. In fact, it's a bloody good film - as in literally, really bloody. Eyes are gouged, limbs are ripped, bones are ceremoniously broken, necks are stabbed and slashed, faces are bludgeoned and cars are ground into metallic mince. It's violent, there are some genuinely funny moments, and it's actually a lot of fun, a 1980s action movie throwback (if a little heavy on the cheese). Many explosions happen. Lots of blood is spilt, including much of Gerard's own.
"I broke two little bones in my neck," he tells me, as though reeling off his weekly shopping list. "I lost a fingernail - I banged it in a fight, and of all the injuries that I got, that was the most painful. It felt like someone took my finger and slammed it with a mallet. I got a burn in my throat from a flicked cigarette (his throat was coated in glycerin), I bruised the back of my leg from my knee to my ass, and I chipped a bone in my forearm. The whole thing swelled up and went black."
Thankfully, the car crash at the beginning of the film that kicks off Gerard's character arc was marginally less dangerous. Marginally. A freak accident leaves the President's armoured Cadillac - nicknamed ‘The Beast' - hanging over a precipice, and Banning jumps out to save him.
"We literally had a car on a bridge, tipping up, so it was very dangerous because it could have gone over at any moment. But a lot of the car accident is CGI - it's amazing what they pulled off."
So no need for any driver training, clearly, but the mere suggestion of this literally lights up GB's face. "It's so crazy that you mention driver training, because at the premiere of Olympus, one of the directors from McLaren came up to me and said, ‘I really want you to come and drive our cars'. I told my assistant we gotta do that."
He's smiling quite broadly now. "My stunt driver on the film Gamer - his name is Jeremy Fry - has also offered to take me to his stunt driving school. That would be four or five days of bliss."
Now we're getting somewhere. "I just love classic BMWs and Mercedes - my first car in fact, was an old BMW, like a '79 BMW or something. It was a piece of ****," he laughs, but something in his voice suggests he might be into cars more than he lets on. "You know what happened? I was making Tomb Raider at Pinewood Studios, and I saw an Aston Martin DB6 for sale. I absolutely fell in love with it, took it for a test drive and thought, how cool is this? This is the studio where they made Bond, and some guy's selling an Aston in the car park, I should buy it."
Clearly, the sight and sounds of the Aston stirred up Gerard's inner Stig, because he then felt an urgent need to go see more classic machinery. "I thought, maybe I'm being too hasty with the Aston, so I went to the classic car place in Chelsea to look at something else, walked in there, and there was an old E-Type Jaguar convertible, the V12 one." Ah, that'd be the Series III, then. "I literally took one look at it," he says, trying to stave off the excitement in his voice, "and thought, oh, my, god."
He's an old school warrior, is Gerard. "You know what I almost bought as well? A Shelby Mustang - I love the Shelby Mustang, the classic one. They had one in racing green with stripes on the side, and it was the coolest thing ever. But then I thought, I'm living in a city where it's hard enough to avoid paparazzi (he lives in Los Angeles), so I thought, if I get a racing green Shelby Mustang with white stripes along the side, I'm pretty much ******. I didn't end up getting it, but I kind of regret it."
So what did he get in the end? "I have a Range Rover - the big one, the proper Range Rover. I like the Sport, but it's a bit of a ‘soccer mom' car. But mine is great, it's great for LA. You can take surfboards on it, stick some bikes in the back..." He trails off for a second, then flashes an evil smile. "If you kidnap people you could tie them up in the back, there's space for your chloroform." I look up from my pad. He's laughing at me. "I better stop there, I think."
His other car has less space for kidnapped hostages, mind - he's also got a BMW Z8 - "I remember seeing one in Glasgow maybe ten years ago, and I just stood there gaping at it" - and this caps an interesting sequence of dots many of you out there might have already connected up. Some very familiar ‘007' shaped dots. Count ‘em: so far, Gerard's been on set in Pinewood, driven an old Aston Martin and is in custody of a Bond car (the Z8)...
And, believe it or not, he's actually starred in a James Bond film. It's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot, but he's one of the British navy in Tomorrow Never Dies. I think for a second: he's tall, he's big, he's charming, and he's into his cars (despite his protestations). Does he want to play 007?
Some laughter occurs. "Listen, do I think I could play Bond? Absolutely. But I'm very happy with where I'm at right now. I love being able to create my own roles, like Leonidas or Mike Banning. But I gotta say, that although my favourite Bond was Connery, Daniel Craig is killing it, especially with Skyfall. It's great to have a really classy, intelligent actor who's capable of complete ferocity and darkness to play Bond, because that's what I think it needed."
And it's fitting that we should end on his mention of King Leonidas from 300, a film that grossed many millions across the globe and catapulted Butler to international stardom. "I'm especially proud of Olympus, because I helped produce it too, but without a doubt 300 is my best achievement. It was a movie I had to fight to get." His voice lowers a touch. "This sounds weird, but I made a commitment to Leonidas, to channel his spirit and do his story justice. It's amazing to be able to do a movie that has really affected people.
"It's also amazing to have just given people some good damn enjoyment".