In the winter of 1999, Glasgow-born Gerard Butler left his home in London to visit New York, spend Christmas in Nashville and celebrate New Year’s Eve in Sun Valley, Idaho. His ultimate destination was Los Angeles, where a manager and an agent anxiously awaited his arrival.
The tall, sleek, dark, hairy and intense actor having burned himself up on the ski slopes finally arrived in Hollywood in early February, 2000. By March, the relative unknown (”Trainspotting” and ”Mrs. Brown”) was cast in the title role of ”Attila,” a two-part, four-hour miniseries about the life and times of the most famous Hun of them all. After a month of pumping iron and learning to ride a horse, he shipped off to Lithuania for a 65-day shoot.
”I was a little surprised because, on the first audition, one of the producers said, ‘We’ve got Attila walking through the door here,”’ says Butler, 31, in his native Scottish burr, thick enough to make Sean Connery sound like a Cockney. ”Not only that, I had to do the whole interview in an American accent. They were looking for a charismatic, powerful, muscular, virile, intelligent and proud man and I kept thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t do that.”’
A huge spectacle, ”Attila” chronicles the King of the Huns’ supposed exploits from birth (circa 406) somewhere in Central Asia until his death in 453 apparently of a massive stroke on his wedding night. Orphaned as a child, Attila is adopted by his uncle, King Rua (Steven Berkoff), the leader of several Hun tribes content to rape and pillage in neighboring regions. A visionary, he eventually united the barbarian tribes and led the devastating attack on the Roman Empire from 441 to 443. For good measure, he also invaded Gaul and Italy to lay claim to a major portion of the known world.
For a fraction of what it would cost to mount the epic production in the U.S., elaborate sets representing Hun villages, Roman aqueducts, the Imperial Palace and the Appian Way were constructed in Vilnius and the surrounding countryside. Powers Boothe was flown in to portray Attila’s mentor and greatest enemy Roman General Flavius Aetis; Simmone Jade McKinnon sheds several layers of clothing as the sexy slave girl N’Kara; Pauline Lynch checks in as the short soothsayer Galen and Tim Curry vamps it up as Emperor Theodosius.
Five hundred Lithuanian extras and an equal number of horses (made to look like a cast of thousands by computer graphic imagery) were rounded up to die over and over again.
”I loved working there I even considered moving to Vilnius at one point,” says Butler. ”It’s a lovely city with a relaxed lifestyle that has several beautiful hotels to match anything in the West. And the people are warm, friendly and full of life. I can’t say the same about Bulgaria …”
Although totally exhausted after two months of fighting Roman legionnaires with short swords and long spears, Butler headed straight from Eastern Europe to Toronto, Canada, in order to shoot his title role in the recently released feature film ”Dracula 2000.”
”It was a lot of fun, with a wild, crazy script and a great cast that includes Christopher Plummer,” he says. ”Going along at quite a pace, it has a lot of sexiness and darkness as well.”
Born in Scotland along with two older siblings, Butler spent the first 2 1/2 years of his life in Montreal, Canada, where his entrepreneurial father, Edward, sought to establish several businesses. When several business ventures failed, Edward sought his fortune in Toronto while his destitute, but resourceful wife, Margaret, took the children back to Paisley, a community just outside Glasgow.
”I didn’t see my father again until he visited us in Scotland 14 years later,” says Butler, ”but after that I saw him in Toronto several times. He was nuts, very funny and a wonderful man who lost fortunes several times. I lived in his apartment when he went off to Togo in Africa to buy $50,000 worth of gold. But he bought $50,000 worth of copper by mistake, then wound up in a Togo hospital with malaria. My French-Canadian stepmother flew off to rescue him, slipped on an airport ramp, broke her ankle and wound up in the same hospital as my dad.”
A wild child with a penchant for travel himself, Butler drove his mother and ”various bankers” crazy by taking off to visit friends and relatives in North America on several occasions. In 1987, he visited aunts in Alaska and San Diego, where he did clean-up jobs at Sea World for a summer. In 1991, he took a year off from law school to work in a traveling carnival at California county fairs making a ”small fortune” bilking small kids out of money with the Whacky Wire concession.
But Butler had his heart set on becoming an actor at the age of 12 after taking part in a school play. Seeing the mediocre action-fantasy film ”Krull” (1983) made up his mind. Then he entered Glasgow University’s law school at the age of 17 for a five-year academic program driven by ego and a need for financial security. An excellent student, he was a rotten trainee solicitor for two years at one of Glasgow’s most prestigious law firms. And then he got fired an impossible feat in the British system of training for the law. Butler had a week to go in the program when a partner in the firm observed, ”You have the makings of a wonderful lawyer, but you just don’t seem to care.”
”A bit crazy, I was a party animal showing disrespect for my profession, who found the law exceedingly dull,” he recalls. ”This was the most unhappy period in my life. Looking back, I was the luckiest man alive to have screwed up.”
Two days after his dismissal at the end of 1995, Butler started his new life as an actor in London. He found a series of ”crap” jobs immediately, including a brief gig demonstrating toys at a trade show.
”There I was, wearing the same suit as when I was a solicitor, explaining the virtues of toy cares to a group of bored merchants. My life had suddenly changed,” he laughs. ”I had been Head Boy of my school, the president of Glasgow University Law Society, part of a firm that was the Queen’s solicitors in Scotland and the managers of the Carnegie estate.”
But a few weeks later, Steven Berkoff who plays his uncle in ‘Attila’ offered him a small part in the London production of ”Coriolanus” and has made his living from acting ever since. While rehearsing the play, the London-based bachelor was offered a leading part in the stage-version of ”Trainspotting,” and followed it up with such movies as ”Mrs. Brown,” ”Fast Food,” ”One More Kiss,” ”The Cherry Orchard” and ”Shooters.”
”All I want now,” he laughs, ”is to fall in love and become a huge movie star.”
Copyright 2001 Copley News Service