Gerard Butler: the great Scot
A question for you. Who is Britain’s most bankable Hollywood property? Is it Daniel Craig, James Bond and serious actor in one protean package? Is it a living legend like Sir Michael Caine? Or could it be those reliable old-stagers, Dames Helen Mirren or Judi Dench?
The answer is none of the above. Britain’s most bankable Hollywood property, a man who can command $15-$20 million per film, is hunched in a corner of a Soho hotel, flailing at the keypad of his BlackBerry. A “security operative” is stationed outside the room, and paparazzi stalk the street outside, but Gerard Butler seems impervious to the folderol attendant on a visitation of Hollywood royalty.
“How are you doing?” he asks in his broad Glaswegian brogue, attempting to fold his 6ft 2in frame into a small “designer” chair that seems patently unfit for purpose. He’s dressed like an SAS man on furlough – black polo shirt, dark grey combats, serious boots – and his face has a bruised, lived-in quality. There are laughter lines around his eyes and, with his beard and curly ringlets, he’s just starting to grey at the temples.
To many baffled onlookers in his homeland, Butler appears to have risen without trace; even some of the more charitable put his United States success down to the same kind of quaint national blind spot that sees the French continue to lionise Jerry Lewis, or the Albanians elevate the late Norman Wisdom to demigod status. But, since his breakthrough seven years ago, beating off the likes of John Travolta and Nicolas Cage for the lead in the Phantom of the Opera movie, followed by his blood-curdling, six-pack-flaunting turn as King Leonidas in 300, two years later (his Gorbals-style delivery of the line “This! Is! SPARTA!” has become a YouTube staple), Butler has proved equally adept at playing chest-beater and soul-searcher. He mixes action epics (he’s played Attila the Hun and Beowulf) and romantic comedies (co-starring with Jennifer Aniston and Hilary Swank) with consummate ease.
His films’ takings regularly push beyond the $100 million mark, despite less than glowing reviews; Butler has become largely critic-retardant, and can take a meeting with the Toms, Wills, Matts and Julias any time he likes. You have to wonder, though, at 42, is he as surprised as anyone to find himself in this position?
Butler drapes a leg over the chair arm and grins. “A few years ago, I remember talking about movies with million-pound budgets, thinking who in their right mind would ever gamble on me?” He shakes his head in wonderment.
“Since then, it’s been a mixture of me finding my purpose, appreciating this second chance that I’ve been given, and working incredibly hard. People here in the UK think this all happened to me by magic, but I’ve got to tell you that I worked my f------ butt off for this.” The latest example of Butler’s Protestant work ethic has a darker, more sombre cast. Machine Gun Preacher tells the real-life story of Sam Childers (Butler), an ex-con redneck biker and drug addict from Pennsylvania who finds Jesus after a particularly brutal encounter with a psychotic hobo.
He then travels to Sudan where he single-handedly sets about building an orphanage for the victims of the long-running civil war, with particular focus on the brutalised ex-child soldiers of the Ugandan militia, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony. Kony’s methods – maiming, enforced parricide, sexual slavery – are uniquely nihilistic, even by the region’s benighted standards.
It’s one of those stranger-than-fiction stories – indeed, the New York Times described the film, directed by Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball), as “too true to be good” – but everyone involved, from Butler downwards, brings total commitment to the project, and it shines a light into a particularly murky corner of the planet. But for Butler, an executive producer as well as the star, the appeal was obvious. “I mean, Sam Childers…” He shakes his head slowly. “He’s a biker, a preacher, a gun-wielding criminal, there’s a multilayered psychosis going on there. I get excited by roles where I go ‘I don’t know if I can do that.’”
The film doesn’t shy away from exploring the psycho side of Childers’s psycho-saint equation; “You’re just a little f------ junkie stripper,” he spits at his long-suffering wife (Michelle Monaghan) on release from prison, and later, his willingness to take the AK47-wielding fight to the LRA leads some to dub him an “African Rambo”. So was Butler intimidated to meet – and embody – Childers?
“I was, because I’d heard he doesn’t suffer fools,” he says. “I’m a good head taller than him, and completely different physically, but I never felt like I was doing an impersonation of him. What I wanted to get across was his strength, his swagger, his zealotry, his gifts as a raconteur, his gallows humour, his warrior qualities and the incredible compassion he feels for these kids.” Childers has seen the film – and likes it, warts and all, luckily – and it’s clear that it has been rather more than just another job for Butler.
His eyes well with tears when he discusses the research he did on the LRA – “I’ve seen footage of people being hacked to death” – and he’s found the experience difficult to move on from. “Usually when you finish a movie there’s this weird period of adjustment, but you come out of it with some buoyancy and excitement,” he says. “Whereas with this, I felt burned out and exhausted.
“I’d brought some friends down to South Africa, where we’d been filming, and we were supposed to be going on safari, but I actually felt haunted, like, why would I want to be with people and look at animals?” He shrugs. “But the strange thing was, I did go to Richard Branson’s safari lodge, actually, and I’ve got to say that the restorative power of being out in the wilds, standing five feet from an elephant walking past with her young, really did the trick.”
What would he like viewers of Machine Gun Preacher to take away from it? “I would hope they’d be more informed about what’s happening down there, how awful it is, maybe get involved in some way, or realise the power one person can have. I'd like them to feel something,” he continues, “be moved, provoked.” Butler’s emotional identification with the film runs deeper still; Childers’s self-destruction-redemption story arc mirrors that of his own.
When Butler was six years old, his family emigrated from Scotland to Montreal. Eighteen months later, Margaret Butler returned to Paisley, her marriage in tatters, to bring up her three children. Butler didn’t see his father, Edward, for 14 years. Their eventual reunion “stirred up a s--- storm in me,” he says, and when his father died two years later, Butler went off the rails.
Academically gifted – he’d become head boy of his school, St Mirin’s and St Margaret’s in Paisley – he went on to study law at Glasgow University, and took up a position as a trainee civil lawyer in Edinburgh, but he seemed to be more interested in smashing bottles over his own head or dangling from a cruise ship while crooning Rod Stewart’s Sailing: “I’d gone from a 16 year-old who couldn’t wait to grasp life to a 22 year-old who didn’t care if he died in his sleep,” he said of his hell-raising days. The week before he was due to qualify, he was fired.
“I know what it’s like to feel lost, crazy, aggressive, fearful and to be screaming out at the world that you have no use or no purpose, and the best thing to do is go down screaming and take as many people with you as possible, and get really f----- up along the way,” he says now.
Butler decamped to London and looked up an old friend from the Scottish Youth Theatre, which he’d attended as a teenager; she took him to see the actor, writer and director Steven Berkoff, who was casting a new production of Coriolanus. Berkoff was impressed, and hired him. He then landed small roles in Mrs Brown and Tomorrow Never Dies, and then took off to Los Angeles in 2000, soon pitching up alongside Angelina Jolie in a Lara Croft movie, and Emily Mortimer in the British sleeper hit Dear Frankie, before Joel Schumacher took a chance on him in Phantom.
What does Butler think would have happened to him… “if I hadn’t found acting?” he completes the question. “It seems very easy to say that I’d be dead, but,” he pitches forward for another slug of coffee, “yes, I’d be dead. But to find that I could act, make a living at it, and challenge myself, tell stories, affect people…” He beams. “When I grew up, I loved watching movies and coming out wanting to take the world on, wanting to fall in love, wanting to be as cool as Spencer Tracy or Steve McQueen. And to think that I can now have that impact on people is a beautiful thing.”
Butler’s impact on the female portion of his audience, in particular, has been considerable, if the numerous Facebook fan groups — Gerard Butler Is My Husband, He Just Doesn’t Know It Yet, Gerard’s Tarts, or Gerard Butler Can Impregnate By Touch Alone – are anything to go by. He’s obviously in touch with his feminine side? “Yeah,” he laughs, “I feel that now and I wouldn’t always have been able to say that. I could simply have been Mr Action Guy; I had a ton of offers in that direction. But I went and did a kids’ movie, How to Train Your Dragon, then a bunch of romantic comedies. It was almost like playing in different leagues: ‘OK, I’m doing pretty well in action, let’s see how high I can go in romantic comedy or drama.’”
More than that, however, Butler has seemed to relish his role as Hollywood’s Lothario-in-residence, intoning his single status to interviewers like a mantra, while being linked with everyone from Cameron Diaz to Naomi Campbell to Jennifer Aniston, to, latterly, model Sarah Carroll.
I once interviewed the actor-director Richard Wilson, and asked him why he’d given up drink; he replied that he was “not a sipper”. By now, as he contorts himself further in the chair, it should be clear that Butler’s no sipper either. He actually renounced drink and drugs more than 10 years ago, and finally kicked his chain-smoking habit in 2008.
Today, work is his addiction, and he describes his forthcoming projects – a rom-com with Jessica Biel, Uma Thurman and Catherine Zeta-Jones called Playing the Field, a surf movie called Mavericks, not to mention a nod to his theatrical past with Ralph Fiennes’s update of Coriolanus – as “more chances to wing it, like the feeling Wile E Coyote gets when he runs off the cliff and his feet are barrelling away on thin air”. It’s always been those between-work times that Butler has struggled with, getting one-on-one meditation training from spiritual-guru-to-the-stars Deepak Chopra, and, today, extolling the virtues of Flow: The Psychology of Happiness, a book by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi about the quest to live in the moment. Is it helping?
“Work’s incredibly fulfilling, but I want to get to the stage where I’m happiest when I’m not working, so I can work less,” he says. “In the last few months, I’ve been riding a Harley through the southern states, I’ve been learning to fly helicopters, I’ve been playing football, I’ve been learning to surf.” He checks himself. “Oh God, even as I’m telling you this, I’m going, listen to yourself! F------- relax! Jesus Christ! Get some sleep!”