Scottish actor Gerard Butler sang for his supper as the ill-fated Phantom of the Opera and not to be outdone, takes on the mythical King Leonidas in the much anticipated 300, a stylized retelling of the Spartan attempt to do battle against the mammoth Persian army. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, to Margaret and Edward Butler, Gerard Butler was raised (along with his older brother and sister) in his mother’s hometown of Paisley, Scotland (he also spent some of his early youth in Canada).
His parents divorced when he was a child and he and his siblings were raised primarily by their mother, who later remarried. He had no contact with his father until he was 16 years old, after which time they became close. His father passed away when Gerard was in his early 20s. Butler went on to attend Glasgow University, where he studied to be a lawyer/solicitor. He was president of the school’s law society thanks to his outgoing personality and great social skills.
His acting career began when he was approached in a London coffee shop by actor Steven Berkoff (who later appeared alongside Butler in Attila, who gave him a role in the play “Coriolanus”, and Butler decided to give up law school for acting. He was later cast as Ewan McGregor’s character Renton in the stage adaptation of Trainspotting (1996). His film debut was as Billy Connolly’s younger brother in Mrs. Brown (1997).
While filming the movie in Scotland he was enjoying a picnic with his mother, near the River Tay, when they heard the shouts of a young boy who had been swimming with a friend who was in some trouble. Butler jumped in and saved the young boy from drowning. He received a “Certificate of Bravery” from the Royal Humane Society. He felt he only did what anyone in the situation would have done.
His film career continued with small roles in the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and Russell Mulcahy’s Tale of the Mummy (1998). In 2000 Butler was cast in his breakthrough roles, the first being Attila the Hun in the USA film Attila. The film’s producers wanted a known actor to play the part but kept coming back to Butler’s screen tests and decided he was their man. He had to lose the thick Scottish accent, but managed well.
Around the time “Attila” was being filmed, casting was in progress for Wes Craven’s new take on the Dracula legacy, also wanting a known name (so Butler wasn’t much of a consideration). His unending tenacity and drive drove him to hounding the producers. Eventually, he sent them a clip of his portrayal of “Attila”. Evidently they liked it because Dracula 2000 (2000) was cast in the form of Gerard Butler. “Attila’s producers, thinking that his big-screen role might help with their own film’s ratings, finished shooting a little early so he could get to work on “Dracula 2000”. “Attila” ended up being the second highest rated TV movie ever. Following these two roles, Butler developed quite a fan base and internet sites and lists started popping up everywhere.
Since then he has appeared in Reign of Fire (2002) as Creedy and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003) as Terry Sheridan, alongside Angelina Jolie. The role that has garnered him much attention from both moviegoers and moviemakers was that of Andre Marek in the big-screen adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel Timeline (2003). Butler played an archaeologist who was sent back in time with a team of students to rescue a colleague.
Last year he appeared in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical The Phantom of the Opera (2004), playing the title character in the successful adaptation of the stage musical, and was a role that has brought him much international attention. Other projects include Dear Frankie (2004), The Game of Their Lives (2005) and Beowulf & Grendel (2005).
Apart from 300, based on the Frank Miller graphic novel, Butler has completed Butterfly on a Wheel and PS I Love You. Butler, in good humour, spoke to Paul Fischer.
Question: What was the challenge for you to play a character in which you’re marrying technology and performance: trying to get the performance right against what was going on technologically.
Butler: I can’t worry about technology. The challenge for me is just to give the best performance that I can. However, you’re right. You’re always aware that you’re working in a different environment and for me that’s – every film you do for one reason or another requires a different thought process or a different approach. And for me it’s almost leaving yourself open to that in a weird way. It’s not even necessarily a technique but leaving yourself open to trying to feel, almost by osmosis this different feeling that’s going on there. And then thinking about it as quickly as possible like Phantom of the Opera, I tried to learn so many things in the first few days about performing while singing and literally you’re like – it’s ridiculous things that you wouldn’t even think about like when you’re singing, don’t open your mouth so wide because you know all the camera can see is this big open mouth, whereas you’re thinking ‘I’m opening my mouth’. But no that’s not how it works. So there it was definitely about trusting. Really trusting the world you were living in because I think the temptation was to force it a little because there’s nothing there and yet sometimes it felt you were performing in a vacuum and in that respect, in using your imagination to create it, might push you towards more theatricality or perhaps explaining things a little more just with your voice and it was about trusting that and trusting who you’re dealing with, your kind of immediate partners in crime if you like.
Question: Was it the character that was interesting for you when you decided to take this on or was it the whole sort of process?
Butler: It was the whole thing. If I read a script where I had an interesting character but I wasn’t really excited about the script then I wouldn’t want to do it because that’s happened before and I hated it. Likewise if it was a great script but a character that I didn’t love, I wouldn’t want to do it. Because I’ve done that before and I hated it. This film had it all. It was a character that I’d never come across before. Yes I have played similar characters but I’d never come across one that really pushed the envelope in terms of what it takes to be a hero and what it takes to be a villain because, I have to say, there were times when I thought, ‘Jesus these bad guys actually seem kind of nice. They’re very reasonable’. You know, there is a confidence and an arrogance about this king and even in terms of the political dealings either messengers or Xerxes that it’s quite risky in terms of keeping an audience kind of in your favour. We really pushed that. There’s never an apology about who they are. They stayed focussed and simple and principled and they never budged on that. And it doesn’t really matter what actions come out of those beliefs, there’s no conscience there in that respect when it comes to fighting which I loved because as an audience member I’m always saying in my head to the hero, ‘Just fucken kill ’em. Kick the shit out of ’em now. You know he’s a bad dude’. And in this, that’s what they do. So I think that it’s really cool that at every turn it kind of goes the way you wouldn’t necessarily expect and it’s also a great excuse for more violence and more action.
Question: Nothing like a good decapitation as far as I’m concerned.
Butler: Och, in life or in film.
Question: Could you afford to allow yourself to do a lot of research on this? Did you do historical research or not worry?
Butler: No, I do historical research but I have to say my experiences as, it was the same with Zack, you do all this research and there are some great books, fictional and historical, and then general historical books about the minds of generals and the soul of battle by Victor Davis Hanson or Hanson David – you always end up to me probably 90% of where this character and where this film came from was Frank Miller’s graphic novel. Because often when you go too much into the past and bring up interesting facts it only muddies the water of your own story. There’s a very, I’ve got to be honest, really quite a simple true but yet mythological tale going on there and if you start messing – you know what? That action story was way more complicated than what it is in the film, as is every story that you see in a film and that’s for the History Channel.
Question: What are you doing next?
Butler: I don’t know. Going to bed.
Question: Is there anything after 300?
Butler: Well it’s been weird because after P.S. I Love You I couldn’t do anything early on in the year because of this, because of the press stuff. And I was quite happy to take a rest but now I’m, you know, I’m in a really good place right now. I’m happy with what I have coming out and I’m just going to wait until, you know, see what comes along.
Question: Would you ever do another film that required you work out this intensely and train this intensely?
Butler: I don’t think so, but I think somebody would have to understand just how intensely I trained for this film. I think it’s pretty impossible to surpass, at least in my book, I wouldn’t want to do it again and I don’t think I’d ever really need to do it again. It’s not where I would necessary go now.
Question: You’re the romantic lead in P.S. I Love You I take it?
Question: Was it a nice change of pace going to that?
Butler: Oh I loved doing that.
Question: How much training, working out did you do for that movie?
Butler: Well funnily enough I did. Because I had to do a Men’s Health shoot in the middle of it. The cover of Men’s Health magazine.
Question: For this movie?
Butler: Well it was for this movie but it was while I was filming P.S. And the weird thing is I was training in the gym. But then I started getting pumped and quite big and I thought, ‘I can’t – that’s not this guy’ and I had to do a strip tease in front of Hillary, so I had to do this banana cove and to not get in too great shape and then trying in the last week get into really good shape for the Men’s Health cover. So it was kind of strange but I loved that film.
Question: You trained for the strip tease?
Butler: Um, yeah. You just messed around with how can you be as silly as – I mean I stripped with a pair of boxer shorts on and suspenders and Chelsea boots and sleepy socks. I mean, there was an element of ‘OK let’s think about some funny moves I could do’ but at the same time I wanted it to be spontaneous.
Question: It sounds like a nice film.
Butler: Mmm. It’s great. I’m really excited about it.
Question: Cool. And your leading lady in 300 was not shabby
Butler: Rodrigo? I know. I love Rodrigo but Lena is very cool. You know, Lena’s from the north of England. She’s a Newcastle lass and has this really kind of classically beautiful face but then she’s out, she drinks beer, she dances, she jumps about, she’s like one of the guys, and that’s my kind of girl.