NEW YORK–Two years ago, Gerard Butler assumed he was doing well for himself–but things were about to get a lot better. The Scottish actor had taken small roles in films like Timeline and was up for the male lead in Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. He had been smart enough to finish law school as a backup. However, it was the part-time job he did to pay his way through school that eventually led to the part of a lifetime. Singing in a rock band was just a means to an end. Or so he thought.
When director Joel Schumacher told Butler that he might have a shot at playing the title character in his filmed version of The Phantom of the Opera, Butler knew he had to work on his singing skills. He hired a coach in order to pass the biggest test of his life, an audition in front of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the man who created the hit stage play.
“I treated this [Phantom] in my head like an interesting independent production,” Butler says in an interview room at a New York hotel. “So I wasn’t nervous until I sat by the piano. Suddenly I realized it wasn’t an interesting independent production, it was Phantom of the Opera, one of the biggest musicals of all time, and I was singing “Music of the Night”, probably one of the most famous songs of all time, one made famous by someone who is not me [the play’s Michael Crawford] in front of one of the most famous composers of all time.
“All those things went through my mind, and my leg started shaking, and [musical director] Simon Lee was playing the piano and he started making this strange noise, this deep breathing noise–‘aaaaggh’–and I thought ‘What is happening to him?’ It was a comedy act with my leg shaking and him making this noise. And I thought ‘He is having a fit,’ but then I realized that it was because I was trying to sing it without breathing. But I sang, and I am my worst critic, and I thought I had sung terribly, but apparently he [Lloyd Webber] liked it, or I wouldn’t be here.”
Butler got the role in the film, which opens in Vancouver on Wednesday (December 22). He says that his character, who falls for a young diva while haunting the 19th-century version of the Paris Opera House, seemed like a sorrowful one until Schumacher told him that he was missing the point.
“When I first read it I kept saying, ‘This is so sad,’ but Joel would say, ‘Yes, but it can be sexy.’ Somewhere along the way we managed to get both those things in. I knew that if you can sing a song like ‘The Point of No Return’, which is so fucking heartbreaking but so sexy and so sensual and lusty, and if you can feel those things while you are singing the words, the audience will feel what you are feeling. That was the responsibility, but it was also an honour.”