The invincible Butler did it
HE may be known as a party-loving ladies man, but Gerard Butler is a convincing father figure in his latest movie. Could he be ready to settle down?
You can’t accuse Gerard Butler of not putting his heart and soul into everything he does. The 43-year-old nearly died filming scenes in massive waves for his latest role as a surfing guru in Chasing Mavericks. But that doesn’t mean he’s about to put his foot on the brakes.
Sitting comfortably – and safely – in Beverly Hills, the Scottish actor looks fit, tanned and relaxed. He’s a little jet lagged, having just flown in from London, but he still exudes energy. And, yes, that bewitching boyish twinkle in his eye has every woman within 10 paces swooning.
The star’s daredevil nature only adds to his charm. “I’m passionate about what I do and sometimes it comes at a price,” he says, of being smashed by huge waves and trapped underwater for nearly a minute while surfing near Santa Cruz, California.
He was getting ready to film when a wave threw him off his surfboard and trapped him underwater as more waves rolled over. “We saw it coming half a mile away,” he says. “But there was nothing we could do.” In an ambulance on the way to hospital, though, he asked to be taken back to the set.
The actor’s subsequent injuries led to an addiction to painkillers (something he’d fought before), and he checked into rehab for three weeks. He’s now back to full health, but admits the experience made him aware of his mortality: “I do wonder if everything that happened to me in the past year was a build up of me giving everything to work.
"I don’t, or didn’t, take enough account of myself or my long-term health. I just get in the moment and say, ‘Let’s do this,’ but when I look back, it’s hard to calibrate if it was worth it.”
Butler’s reputation as a movie tough guy is partly due to his breakout role in 300, as the heroic and muscular King Leonidas. He worked hard to achieve the body required for the part. “I beat the shit out of myself doing 300,” he recalls.
“But, since then, I’ve met thousands of people who were inspired by that movie to change their body shape, or their career or whatever, and sports teams use 300 as inspiration. So then you go, is it worth a bunch of injuries to inspire people?” He pauses. “Or should I go at it less hard and not end up in a wheelchair?”
He holds up his right hand: “Look at this.” One of his fingernails is black and broken. “I got this in a fight sequence,” he says with a little too much enthusiasm. “The butt of a knife hit my finger. While filming my next movie, Playing for Keeps, I lost two toenails in one day, including my big toe’s.
"I trained for six hours the night before filming, and it became infected and ripped off – all from spending too much time playing soccer.” He wants to show me photos of the other bruises he picked up onset but, thankfully, he’s left his BlackBerry in another room.
This fearlessness is one of the reasons he was attracted to Chasing Mavericks. It follows the life of big-wave surfer Jay Moriarity (played by newcomer Jonny Weston), who became a legend in his teens after riding the mythical giant waves in Mavericks, California.
Butler plays Frosty Hesson, who took Moriarity under his wing. Moriarity died in 2001, aged 22, while free-diving in the Maldives, but he’s still revered in his Santa Cruz community. In fact, the phrase ‘Live Like Jay’ – meaning to live life to its fullest – is very much part of the local folklore. So, does Butler ‘Live Like Jay’?
“I don’t know… I have moments when I try to apply spiritual principles and I’m inspired,” he says. “But there are times when I live it the absolutely opposite way. I go into every movie with vigour and excitement, and I want to make everything as good as possible. Not that this always happens. I can make a crap movie like the next person – but I care about making things great.”
Underneath the Scottish bluster is a softer side, which is probably a result of his upbringing. Butler’s mother, Margaret, single-handedly raised him and his older brother and sister on a Glasgow council estate, with the help of a large extended family. His father, Edward, played no part in his upbringing, although the pair met again when Butler was 16 and stayed close until Edward’s death from cancer six years later.
Margaret put herself through night school and became a senior lecturer in business studies. “It was tough because we didn’t have much money. It was a real working class upbringing,” the actor recalls. “But I had the best family, with great morals.”
Butler had always been interested in acting but initially studied law. However, during his mid 20s, he went off the rails as his drinking and partying spiralled out of control. He was sacked from an Edinburgh law firm when he was 26, but used the opportunity to move to London to follow his dream of becoming an actor.
In 1996, after a casting director let Butler sit in on auditions for Steven Berkoff’s stage play of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Berkoff spotted the young actor and asked him to read for a role. He was cast and the rest is history. He gave up booze (he says he hasn’t had a drink in 15 years) and landed the lead in the stage version of Trainspotting, before being cast as Billy Connolly’s brother in the 1997 movie Mrs Brown. In 2000, he left for LA and a series of small film roles followed (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Timeline) until 300 came along in 2006.
“The day I got the part in the Berkoff play was the happiest of my life,” he recalls. “But with 300, things went stratospheric. It took a while to get used to. Only when there was distance from it could I feel pride welling.”
While Butler used to love being the centre of attention at parties, he’s much calmer now. “I don’t feel the need to jump around and perform as much.” Still, he gets plenty of attention. Romantically, he’s been linked to Naomi Campbell, Jennifer Aniston and Cameron Diaz, but has recently been photographed with Romanian model Madalina Ghenea.
Three years ago, the actor described his ideal woman as “a combination of sweet and sexy, tall, dark, with a bit of craziness thrown in. At the end of the day, they have to be a nice person, and I have to respect and trust them. I have to feel cared for and know that she’s [looking] out for my best interests.”
He blushes when I read this back to him. “I said that? Wow, you’ve just described the girl I’m dating. It’s her. That’s so crazy.” He starts laughing. “Oh my God, that’s Maddie.” So, has he found his ideal woman? “I don’t know about mission accomplished, but I’ve met a very lovely girl. It’s going good.”
Butler seems happier than he’s been in a long time. “Definitely,” he agrees. “There’s still crazy inside me, but there’s more acceptance of the crazy and more calm. I love my career and I enjoy what I’m doing, but I can honestly say I don’t need it. I’m more zen and that’s an easier way to exist.”