I’m living the dream’
Last Updated: December 18. 2009 2:41PM UAE / December 18. 2009 10:41AM GMT
Todd Plitt / Contour / Gallo
An award at the Dubai International Film Festival is the latest accolade for Gerard Butler, who abandoned the law for acting relatively late in life but now, at 40, is firmly established on the Hollywood A-list. Ali Jaafar meets him.
Gerard Butler has flown into the UAE to accept the Variety international star of the year award at the Dubai International Film Festival. The award recognises his popularity among audiences across the world. Previous recipients have included Hugh Grant and Rowan Atkinson. The presentation neatly ties in with the release of his latest film, Law Abiding Citizen, which opens here on December 24. While not exactly a family-friendly movie given its subject matter, the timing is particularly fortuitous for Butler and gives him a chance to connect with local audiences. And while he is growing accustomed to receiving accolades, he still gets excited at the prospect of flying halfway around the world to receive a prize. “Sometimes I wish it was as simple as still being that boy in Scotland imagining being an actor in movies but it’s kind of great because I’m literally living the dream,” he says.
When he was 15, he dreamt he was in the fantasy action film, Krull. “It actually isn’t a very good film,” he says. “I was in the bottom of this lush valley. We were surrounded by kings, wizards and holy men. I was with the princess and we put our hands together and flames came out and lit the sky. The feeling was so intense. There was an element of knowing I was making a story as well, even though I don’t remember there being any cameras. When I woke up, I just knew I had to be an actor.”
Twenty-five years later, he has emerged as a particularly versatile leading man, with the ability to mix it across the action, thriller and romantic genres. Over the past few years he has played everything from an iconic, singing phantom (The Phantom of the Opera) to a belligerent Spartan king (300), to a crude cable TV host with a heart of gold (The Ugly Truth) and now a bereaved widower seeking brutal vengeance on his family’s killers (Law Abiding Citizen).
Butler plays Clyde Shelton, a loving father and husband whose life is shattered when two men break into his home and force him to watch as they murder his wife and daughter. A lack of evidence sees the prosecutor in the case, played by a subdued Jamie Foxx, make a deal with one of the killers and set him free in favour of sending the other murderer to death row. Unhinged by the failures of the justice system, Shelton turns into a mass-murdering psycho genius, intent on wreaking vengeance on those he feels have betrayed his family.
It is a demanding role. Butler has to drift convincingly from doting family man to cold-blooded murderer. That the audience remains sympathetic to Shelton, despite the number of people he kills, is a testament to his ability to imbue the character with an endearing humanity despite his violent actions. He employed an acting coach for the first time on Law Abiding Citizen, partly because he served as one of the film’s producers, but also to help him tap into Shelton’s darkness.
“Playing Clyde felt like a way more textured, subtle and interesting performance than I would normally do in, say, a romantic comedy. I really had to analyse the mind of a psychotic, revenge-obsessed killer. He’s somebody in a very, very dark space. It was far more difficult than being in a romantic comedy where you generally understand the essence of the character and can get away with a lot of spunk, naughtiness and masculinity.”
His performance is a far cry from his turn earlier this year opposite Katherine Heigl in the romantic comedy The Ugly Truth, but he seems equally comfortable in either character’s skin.
“Any time they think they have me pegged as one thing, the challenge is to get out and surprise myself. I feel I’ve only tapped into 10 per cent of what I can do.”
Gerard Butler was born in Glasgow, Scotland, but grew up in nearby Paisley. His parents Margaret and Edward split up when he was two, and he and his brother and sister were brought up by their mother. He didn’t see his father for another 14 years. They reconciled when Butler was 16 and became close. Edward died of cancer when Butler was 22 and studying law at Glasgow University.
Already a hard-partying hedonist, Butler went off the rails. He graduated and then spent a year in America. “I had 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 has said. He had showed promise in the legal profession – he was elected president of his school’s law society – and returned to Glasgow to begin his legal career, but the partying was out of control and he was fired.
The opportunity to pursue his passion for acting came out of the blue, at the relatively late age of 27, after a chance encounter with the actor and playwright Steven Berkoff, who was casting for a stage production of William Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy Coriolanus. Berkoff was so impressed with Butler’s presence and vigour that he offered him a role.
Now he is gearing up to star in a big-screen adaptation of the same play opposite Ralph Fiennes, who also makes his directorial debut with the project. It’s a measure of how far Butler has come that his participation in the project should help it secure financing on the strength of his name alone. He also hopes that his current streak of box-office success will enable him to continue to pursue the more challenging and left-field roles such as the lead in Beowulf and Grendel or the unnamed Stranger in Dear Frankie.
“If I can keep making movies that perform at the box office, it allows me to move into Shakespeare territory. I was talking to someone the other day and we were both surprised that I’ve actually been able to make it in any way. I would always love to go off and make films like Dear Frankie or Beowulf even when there were larger projects around. In the long run that has paid off but in the short term – especially when those films didn’t make any money – it can make you a liability. But I wanted to do those films because I loved them.”
Butler had a rabid following – predominantly, it must be said, female – for years, even predating his star-making turn in the ultra-violent and mega successful 300, where his Spartan King Leonidas did battle with a horde of digitally enhanced Persians. He has been linked romantically to a host of beauties, including Jennifer Aniston, but has generally managed to maintain the appearance of a man about town. Despite turning 40 in recent weeks, he dismisses any notion that he’s finally settling down, even if he has swapped the hard drinking of his youth. He gave up the bottle when he was 28 and now favours California-friendly exercises such as meditating and being a gym addict.
“I would like to sound more mature and organised or say that I have some sort of genius plan that people will want to follow in the future, but I don’t.”
With success coming relatively late, Butler has managed to keep his feet on the ground despite his growing stardom. He currently lives between New York and Los Angeles but has made it a point not to lose touch with his Scottish roots. He was recently appointed as the Glasgow Film Office’s first film ambassador on an initial two-year term. He will use his celebrity to draw attention to Glasgow as a viable production base, and has already put his commitment into practice by bringing the UK premiere of Law Abiding Citizen to Glasgow last month. In fact, he still retains the sense of a man who can’t quite believe he’s been able to achieve his goals in life.
“When I was younger, what made me want to act was the movie stars I was in love with, whether it was Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Mitchum or even David Niven, crazily enough. Sean Connery, of course, topped them all in my book since we’re both Scottish. These characters, these actors, I just wanted so much to be them and live in that world they created. I know this might sound boring, but my fantasies were always to live within another story, another world. When I would watch movies or even television, it would hurt so much wanting to be there, doing that and being in that character and in that world. The desperation in me was knowing it had to happen but not really believing that it would.”
This has been a red-letter year for Butler, allowing him to cement his position as an A-list star. The Ugly Truth and Law Abiding Citizen have both performed stronger than expected in the US and internationally. He also has a clutch of buzzy projects in the pipeline.
Next March sees the release of The Bounty, in which Butler plays a bounty hunter who learns that his next target is his ex-wife, played by Jennifer Aniston. He has also lent his voice to DreamWorks Animation’s How to Train Your Dragon opposite fellow Scot Craig Ferguson and funnyman Jonah Hill (Superbad). In the meantime, he has been ramping up activity at his own Evil Twins production company. He received his first producer credit on Law Abiding Citizen and also has an expanding number of projects in development, including Teacher Man, about author Frank McCourt’s 30-year career teaching in New York’s public schools, and Slide, in which a former baseball player attempts to fix his relationship with his child and estranged wife.
At the moment he finds himself torn. He finds producing taxing, saying that after Law Abiding Citizen, “It was a real breath of fresh air to work on The Bounty and not have to worry about all that other stuff.”
On the other hand, his star profile is making the business of publicising his projects a real grind.
“I’ve made two and a half movies and done press for three movies in the past four months and it made me never want to do movies again because of the press situation. It’s weird but I’m actually getting worse at interviews. A lot of what I said before could fly under the radar but that isn’t the case now, so it definitely makes me more wary. When I first had that dream about acting, I didn’t think I’d have to travel all over the world and do 50 interviews a day talking about the valley, what the princess and I were trying to achieve when we put our hands together, whether that moment was powerful enough or if it was gimmicky and manipulative. There is all the extra-curricular stuff with acting that you don’t realise when you’re younger takes a lot of work. But at the end of the day, it’s that work that puts me in flow and inspires me. I have no problems in life when suddenly something is completely illuminated and comes alive that wasn’t before.”
Law Abiding Citizen is due to open nationwide on December 24.