[i]He’s so good, the director of Scream is willing to stake his reputation on him in the new Dracula movie. Kicking off our Hot Scots issue, Paisley boy Gerry Butler explains why the legal profession’s loss is acting’s gain.[/i]
THERE is something strangely forbidden about meeting Dracula in the hushed atmosphere of a top class London hotel. The impossibly plush sofas, the dutifully reverential staff, the endless stream of coffee and sparkling water, and the knowledge that the writer Martin Amis is being interviewed in the next suite – all add to the sense of anticipation surrounding a liaison with one of cinema’s great seducers. And according to his publicist, this one is dark, handsome and charming, with enough of an edge to have you checking his front teeth.
Within seconds of meeting Gerry Butler, this sense of mystique has dissolved, along with the lumps of brown sugar being heaped into our coffee cups. For starters, Dracula’s latest incarnation has a distinctly west of Scotland accent, albeit one rooted in Ralston, or “posh Paisley” to those in the know. And then, there is his complete disregard for the five-star etiquette of everyone around us. While other guests air-kiss each other before sitting down and tinkering delicately with their silver teaspoons, Butler embraces you with a kiss on the mouth and a warm, vigorous shake of the hand, before throwing himself down roughly into a chair, legs dangling incongruously over its arm. Then he grabs an apple and bites noisily into it, smacking his lips unselfconsciously as he demolishes it, blissfully unaware of how rude it will sound when the interview tape is played back later.
Minutes after meeting Dracula, I am ready to believe he looks like Gerry Butler, not Christopher Lee or Gary Oldman. And it doesn’t even matter that he has left his cloak in the wardrobe department or that his teeth are straight as tombstones. Dracula has been reborn, as a 30-year-old wide-boy from small -town Scotland, with a nice line in disarming chat and an infectious laugh.
No doubt Wes Craven felt something like this when he first saw Butler – not in the flesh, but on a videotape sent by the actor in the hope that the legendary horror director would find him irresistible. Craven is producer on the latest Dracula movie, which is directed by his protege Patrick Lussier, the editor of his Scream trilogy. Craven got the final say about who would follow in Oldman’s shoes eight years after Francis Ford Coppola’s version of the film. Butler’s video audition convinced him, even when Bob Weinstein, the head of Miramax Films, was calling for a well known Hollywood actor to take the role. But who was going to argue with the man who created Freddy Krueger?
“Craven was a big supporter,” says Butler. “Weinstein said he wanted a name, but Craven said, ‘That’s our Dracula there’. Any time he saw someone else, he said, ‘Hmmm, but I liked that Gerry guy’.” Butler coyly refuses to tell who else was up for the role: “I don’t think it’s cool to say who, but they saw a lot of people, and a lot of names.” He admits, though, that Miramax might have preferred another Tom Cruise, who flirted with the Dracula legend in the film Interview With The Vampire.
Butler’s Dracula, due to be released in March, will be nothing like Oldman’s high-camp interpretation of Bram Stoker’s character, which earned the British star luke-warm reviews. Even so, as a relatively inexperienced actor whose biggest role so far has been Billy Connolly’s on-screen brother Archie in the 1997 film Mrs Brown, he knows Craven and Lussier took a risk by casting him. Even if he has the faith of the undisputed king of horror, Butler has to convince the rest of the world he is fit to kiss the cloak hems of Oldman, Lee and Bela Lugosi, who starred in the original Dracula film of 1931.
Butler’s first move was to ignore his predecessors’ interpretations of the prince of darkness and concentrate on bringing Dracula into the 21st century. “I really tried to put Gary Oldman’s Dracula out of my mind,” he says. “This is not the same kind of movie. It’s a different era, a different genre almost. This transcends a horror movie. Oldman’s Dracula was amazingly camp, and it worked, but this movie is different.”
Sounding like a preacher on a mission to convert, he continues, between mouthfuls of apple. “In this one, Dracula is just a quiet guy who kills people. You’ve got to forgive him. He needs blood to survive, it’s just what he does. But he is also the most potent and terrifying of all the ones I’ve seen. He’s more predator-like, more monster-like and more effectively lethal.
“Dracula has been played so many times, and it was a risk playing the character how I wanted to do it, but that’s why they chose me. I thought I could go in and be scary – aah!” For the first time during the interview, Butler camps it up, waving his arms above his head and baring his teeth. He does the same later, after dark, when he is waiting outside the building for his agent and spots me through the window sitting in the hotel bar with a friend. But as he points out, this is one Dracula you have got to forgive – he just can’t help himself.
“The power in my Dracula is in doing almost nothing,” Butler continues. “I thought any kind of movement for this guy would be a weakness, so I just played him very still and focused. It’s not just about being Dracula, it’s about being cool and knowing he can do whatever he wants.”
DRACULA, which co-stars Justine Waddell, Jonny Lee Miller and Christopher Plummer, brings Bram Stoker’s legend forward to the year 2000. It benefits from all the special effects you’d expect from a Craven movie, but post -production delays meant the filmmakers had to consider dropping the name Wes Craven Presents Dracula 2000 for its European release – the film was originally intended to open in British cinemas last month. So far, there is no word on whether it will be labelled Dracula 2001, which, Butler admits, doesn’t have quite the same ring.
Two thousand and one, though, could be the lucky number that gives Butler the break he obviously craves. He is already living between London and Los Angeles, and Americans will soon see him playing the lead role in a big-budget television mini-series of Atilla The Hun. Later this year, he plays a war photographer alongside Andie MacDowell in Harrison’s Flowers, filmed in Lithuania. Closer to home, he stars as a Glasgow gangster in the film Shooters, with Ioan Gruffud – reclaiming his Cool Britannia status after 102 Dalmations – and Matthew Rhys.
Wes Craven’s Dracula took Butler hurtling back to his past during arduous night shoots in Toronto. The actor spent some of the best and the most turbulent years of his life in the Canadian city, staying with his father in his penthouse apartment during vacations and – later – watching him die of cancer.
Butler swings his legs back over his chair, leans forward and speaks candidly about his family life. He has developed none of the devices most actors use to deflect questions about their personal existence – so far, at least. This is strange for someone shrewd enough to hire his own publicist for Dracula, knowing Miramax would concentrate their efforts on co-star Jonny Lee Miller.
Butler’s parents moved from Scotland to Toronto when he was tiny. His mother left his father when Butler was two and a half, taking her two sons and daughter back to Paisley with her.
“I saw my dad one day when I was four, and then he didn’t stay in touch,” he says. “I didn’t see him again until I was 16. Didn’t even know he was alive. And then he turned up.”
Butler spent the next few summers with his father, making up for lost time with a man he quickly grew to love, and enjoying the freedom that holidays in Canada gave him. Meanwhile, after getting good grades at a Catholic comprehensive school in Paisley, he went to Glasgow University to study law. Although he suspected within his first week that he didn’t want to be a lawyer, he completed his degree, but spent his spare time in pursuit of fun. He must be one of the few presidents of the Glasgow University Law Society to have been in jail, “for being too drunk once”.
IT WAS during a year out of academia, spent in Los Angeles, that Butler discovered his father was dying. Fun rapidly turned to wild times and Butler began developing a drink problem.
“He got cancer when I was spending a year in America just bumming around,” says the actor. “I went up to see him before we went on a cruise round the Caribbean, and I lost it a bit. I was up on the top floor of the building one night, jumping around on the edge, literally 47 storeys up. And the next day I was hanging off a cruise ship, going a bit nuts.”
Butler returned to LA, believing he would never see his father again – “We didn’t know whether he had two weeks or six months” – but three months later, he was at his bedside. “All the time, I had my family saying, ‘You actually don’t owe your dad this’, but it just felt right. I spent the last three weeks with him, literally watching him die. I was drinking a lot then. When he was dying, I remember screaming at his nurse, ‘Save him, save him’, but he was so brave. I really have a lot of respect for him. He was paralysed and couldn’t move, and we had to clean the sh*t out of him, and even then, he joked about us. It was only on the last day I saw him scared.”
A month after his father’s death, Butler returned to Glasgow to begin a two -year law diploma. Then, after nearly seven years of legal training, he decided he wanted to be an actor, not a solicitor. “Right at the end of my traineeship it was going very badly,” he says. “I made a decision that day and went to London.”
While working as a casting assistant for a production of Coriolanus, Butler approached the play’s director, Steven Berkoff, and asked for a part. Butler’s mix of gutsiness and affability got him an audition, and his talent got him the role. Parts in Mrs Brown, the television film One More Kiss and the Channel 4 satire The Young Person’s Guide To Becoming A Rock Star followed. He played an unflattering spoof of ex-Wet Wet Wet singer Marti Pellow in the latter drama – ironically, since he is the second cousin of Pellow’s fiancee Eileen Catterson. Butler tells of how Catterson found out about the role – and how the tabloid press twisted the story.
“I met Eileen’s mum at a funeral and said, ‘I’m sorry, I just wanted you to know that I’m doing this thing, but it’s all in good taste.’ By the time the papers got hold of it, I had walked up to Marti at a gig and said, ‘By the way, I want you to know I’m taking the p*ss out of you something rotten’.” His relationship with Pellow – and his career – survived.
These days, Butler lives alone in a London flat, spending only as much time as is necessary in Los Angeles. He prefers to rely on hard graft to get him the roles: “In LA, I like to socialise, but not to network. It makes me squirm.”
Importantly, he has cut out alcohol, although that hasn’t cured his craving for good times. “I stopped drinking three years ago,” he says. “I was a bit crazy with it, and I’d just had enough, and I thought: ‘I’ll do something else now, I’ll have much more fun now.”‘
He says he has little time for a relationship – and even less inclination to commit to one. “I would love to fall madly in love with someone, but I’m kind of bad at that. I want a relationship until it happens, and then it’s, aha, aha.” He laughs. “I find it difficult to imagine how I could have had a girlfriend in 2000 when I spent four months in Toronto, a month in New Orleans, three and a half months in Lithuania, two months in LA and a month in London.”
There is no doubt that Butler is devoted to his work, and for now, it is rolling in. This year, and his take on the Dracula legend, should get him noticed. Wes Craven, at least, has staked his highly bankable name on that
Wes Craven’s Dracula is released in March
Copyright 2001 Scottish Media Newspapers Limited