Sharp Interview: The Art of Manliness
By Joshua Neuman
Gerald Butler is spent. After spending nearly the entire morning and afternoon training for an upcoming role, he finds himself wandering around the back nine of a country club in Half Moon Bay, California—as if in a daze. His body aches, his muscles are sore and he’s on his cell phone, so focused on the conversation he’s having that he doesn’t notice the three elderly men about to tee off in his very direction. I know this because I’m the one on the phone with him talking about his two latest films.
The spectacle of three men aiming their projectiles in Butler’s general direction is an apt metaphor for Butler’s career at the moment. After 30 some-odd films that have regularly generated impressive box office numbers, Butler’s recent turn towards more complex roles has left him vulnerable to critics lining up like the golfers waiting to tee off at him. In Machine Gun Preacher he portrays Sam Childers, a former drug-dealing criminal who finds his unexpected calling as the protector of hundreds of kidnapped and orphaned children in war-torn Sudan. In Coriolanus, he plays Tullus Aufidius, the opportunistic guerilla leader with whom the title character joins forces in Shakespeare’s story of vengeance. But the reviews have been kind. As Scottish countryman Craig Ferguson recently joked with the 42-year old actor: “I knew you were hunky, but I didn’t know you were this good.”
The “hunky” label has tailed Butler throughout his career. His breakthrough role as Leonides for 2006’s Zach Snyder-helmed 300, did for Butler what Spartacus did for Kirk Douglas almost a half century before: define him as the classic warrior ideal to a generation. Since then, Butler has done a couple of thrillers (Shattered, Law Abiding Citizen), romantic comedies (The Ugly Truth, The Bounty Hunter) and even family fare (Nim’s Island, How to Train Your Dragon), but more often than not these roles have left Butler competing with his own abs for critical attention. With the morally complex roles he’s taken on in Machine Gun Preacher and Coriolanus, Butler is showing that there’s more to him than rugged charm.
Not many people know that you were a litigator before you were an actor. Yet you seem to have a knack for portraying battlers even when it is the battle of sexes. Do you ever wonder whether your law degree prepared you for your acting career?
Obviously, everything that I’ve done, dealing with people along the way, has shaped me to become the actor I’ve become. It was at law school where I really became a man—where I learned to have fun and, at the same time, to reach my true ambition. I don’t know if law school taught me ‘battling,’ however. It taught me how to work, how to focus and how to strategize. In a sense, it made me less warrior-like and more cerebral— less Sam Childers than Tullus Aufidius. It’s where I first developed my mental muscles.
You broke up law school with some time in America—cross country road trips, partying and trouble with the law. What did you learn about America during that period?
I ended up there twice, earlier in my life: Once, when I was 17, when I worked at Sea World and then the second time which was more troublesome and out of control when I went all over the country. America was the land of adventure where I could be irresponsible, where I could climb mountains, or jump off ships. I was free. You grow up and every movie is American, the world is American. It was before I knew I was going to be an actor and before I knew I’d ever have to grow up. I felt like I was getting a lot of it out of my system. I found it to be warm and welcoming and I was coming with a fun loving attitude so it was a good match. I feel very much at home in America. I have the same energy as the Americans.
King Leonidas in 300 was your breakthrough role. To what extent has the success of that film shaped your subsequent career? Has the power of that performance presented any challenges?
Making 300 was the best thing in my life when it happened and I was so proud of it. I’m still so proud of it. It’s a phenomenal a piece of work. And, yes, it’s always stayed with me. It’s provided me with a foundation of confidence. Challenges? It offered me so many opportunities, and not just action films, I mean all sorts of things like romantic comedies like PS. I Love You.
Sam Childers and Tullus Aufidius are meaty roles. Is it fair to say that you are now consciously looking to do more serious stuff?
Good question. Part of you does want to grow up a bit—work a new muscle, show people you’re more than what they think you are. I haven’t had the chance to show the world that I’m a heavy hitter—and part of that is because of how much I’ve put into establishing myself commercially. So, yeah, it is partially a conscious effort to shift gears. But it also feels very organic for me to be gravitating towards lower budget, meatier roles, as you describe.
You once said: ‘In Scotland I’m just like a lot of other guys, but in America I’m seen as a very strong, masculine guy.’ What do you think it is about the American man right now that makes the Scottish one seem so masculine by comparison? Are we just giant pussies, obsessed with hugging each other and telling one another, ‘I love you man!’?
Yeah, there is something to it. It’s true of the Irish and Australian actors too. There is an innate masculinity and a maturity that maybe we have. Russell Crowe has it. Colin Farrell has it. It’s that deep voice, the intensity, a gravitas. You just hear the Scottish voice and you can hear a man with a set of heavy feet that are connected to the ground. When they smile, they really smile. When they stare they really stare. There is just something burning about them.
In a sense, Sam Childers is more like Coriolanus’ title character than he is like the character you play, since his tragic flaw is his inability to separate his public and private selves—it’s what make Sam and Coriolanus great warriors, but it also makes them vulnerable. To what extent is that a challenge for you? I.e., maintaining both a public persona and a healthy private life?
It’s a challenge for any actor as his star rises—the welcomed and unwelcomed attention you get. I get followed by cars and chased by photographers even if I’m just going to the chiropractor. They can make up a story out of that: Gerard Butler is a cripple! And they’re just so aggressive about it. They’ll even taunt you. Three ran up behind me once and when I turned around I banged my head into a pole really hard. It was pretty painful and embarrassing and they just laughed. And one said something like, ‘Still doing your 300 stunts?’…So, to have a healthy private life, I try to live as much as ‘Gerry’ as possible. I see a lot of actors for whom life becomes one big schedule. I guess I try to be more sensitive to my private life—to take a breath of fresh air and be in the countryside or on a golf course.
I don’t suspect that you pay much attention to what people say about you. But do you find it somewhat amusing that the media is so fixated on your “manliness” (your weight loss, the models you date, etc.)?
I suppose having them fixate on my ‘manliness’ is better than a lot of things. I mean, it’s better than them saying you have an effeminate walk.
And speaking of the media being fixated on your manliness, I was watching an interview in which you talked about your relationship with working out. It seemed like it was sort of a drag for you. Given the physical demands of your roles, how do you constantly get yourself up for the gym?
I’ve been all kinds of shapes and sizes and I actually like it when they appreciate how much work it takes. I spend 75 to 85 percent of my time changing my body [for the next role]. That leaves about 20 percent for eating doughnuts. I have a love/hate relationship with training like 99 percent of the population, I guess. But I do like to take things to extremes, I suppose. Leonides couldn’t just have a nice body, he had to look like a Greek God. It puts me under a lot of pressure, but it’s a good thing to have a goal—it keeps you from skipping out on a workout.
Even in Machine Gun where you performed your own stunts and in Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare’s most violent works—physicality seems to be so closely connected with your roles. Have you ever found yourself worried for your physical safety in the midst of a scene?
Oh my God, so many times! And I’ve been injured a ridiculous number of times, whether it’s being hit by shell casing, or broken glass, or there’s an explosion and I get debris in my head and in my eyes. In Cradle of Life [2000’s Lara Croft Tomb Raider] there was a scene where Angelina Jolie and I were hanging from a crane and lowered down to the ground at a really fast pace and I nearly landed on my head—that time I was really worried.
Though if you do have to break your neck, it might as well be alongside Angelina Jolie.
Indeed. There was one time during the making of Shattered when I crashed a car with Pierce Brosnan. The cable was supposed to hold us but it didn’t end up working. I do 99 percent of my stunts so I’ve pulled a ridiculous amount of muscles, gotten so many cuts. The other day I was with my physiotherapists and I just went around my body pointing at scars and naming the movie it was from. Being an actor in one of these movies is like being an athlete. You spend as much time recovering and keeping yourself fit and trim as you do performing. I think my next movie, I’ll pick something less physically demanding.
Like Driving Miss Daisy 2?
Sounds about right.