Gerry Butler: staking everything on Hollywood

April 1, 2011 | Interviews

You get your Kicks walking in front of cars. but what do you do if that’s not enough? you go to hollywood

The couch is worrying. Its pale green bulk fills a fair portion of the intimate back room, little more than a snug, in London’s Soho House where I’m to talk to Gerry Butler. Sit down on it and you begin to sink. And then keep sinking. I’m convinced that if I sit back in it I’m not going to be able to get back out again. So for an hour I sit nervously on the edge of the cushion, fearful of getting in too deep. The story of my life, you could say. When Butler arrives, though, he throws himself down into the depths of the couch without hesitation. Which, pop psychologists might suggest, is the story of his.

Butler – Gerry to his friends, Gerard to his mother (and actress Izabella Scorupco: “She has such a sexy, husky voice I let her get away with it,” he says) – is the new Scottish superstar with a wild past, the 32-year-old Glaswegian who gave up a legal career to chance his arm as an actor and lucked out big time in Hollywood. With a major Hollywood feature film in the can and another on the way, Butler could be officially tagged as the next best thing if he hadn’t already been called that 12 months ago. This time last year he was being touted as the new Ewan McGregor after landing the lead in Wes Craven’s millennial version of Dracula. The problem was that the film turned out to be a poor advert for his talents, giving him the chance to do little more than flash his teeth and torso at the camera. And with nothing else on show in 2001, audiences could have been forgiven for thinking so much for that.

Fortunately for Butler, Dracula 2001 has proved more of a false start than a dead end. Later this year he can be seen fighting fire-breathing dragons with Izabella Scorupo, Matthew McConaughy and Christian Bale in the fantasy adventure Reign of Fire directed by Rob Bowman. He has pulled out of Renny Harlin’s serial killer thriller Mindhunters but come March he starts filming the lead in the much-delayed adaptation of Michael Crichton’s time travel fantasy Timeline. Twelve months from now we will probably be able to drop the next from next big thing. “I almost feel scared to acknowledge what’s going on in LA,” he admits.

There is an almost childish glee when he discusses his upward career direction. Timeline will be directed by Richard (Lethal Weapon) Donner. “He’s such fun to work with,” Butler gushes. “He’s one of the all-time great directors and he’s made six movies with Mel Gibson at the helm and now I’m at the helm. I’m sitting having lunch with him a few months ago, sitting in the most amazing house in the Hollywood Hills and I just thought I remember watching Lethal Weapon when I was a teenager in Glasgow. Now I’m sitting with Richard Donner having lunch as we talk about me and how we’re going to do this ginormous studio movie, Paramount’s tentpole movie for next Christmas.”

Before all this, though, Butler is making a rare appearance on the small screen as part of the ensemble cast of ITV’s new Sunday night drama The Jury, the reason for this afternoon’s conversation in the clubbable surroundings of the Greek Street hostelry. Soho House is a venue around which actorly types tend to congregate. What’s her name from Playing the Field is sitting at a window table when I come in, while our waitress has a part in Michael Caine’s current movie Last Orders. Butler obviously feels at home. He comes into the room in a hurry, coffee in hand, cigarette in mouth, chatting with his PA and flirting with the staff. He happily sinks into the sofa’s billowy depths and begins to talk. Actually babble might be a more accurate description. Words and ideas tumble out of him pell-mell. He will start a sentence but before finishing jump on to the next one. His favourite words are “fantastic” and “beautiful”. At one point he tells me he loves London because it has this “really cool vibe” to it. His vocabulary is pure stoner, but he rattles it out at amphetamine pace, his Scottish accent still very much intact.

His style today is terrace casual. All Pringle jumper and jewellery – necklace, rings and bracelet – hair tousled, beard fashionably unkempt. You could describe him, as The Jury’s press notes say of his character, as having “stereotypical good looks”. Knocking back an iced mineral water (he stopped drinking four years ago) he is immediately friendly and unguardedly open. The Jury – a court drama which also features Anthony Sher, Derek Jacobi and Mark Strong – sees him take a rare break from cinema, but he is pleased with the result. “I can honestly say I have on many occasions had to talk things up and feel embarrassed about doing that but I wholeheartedly think this is a wonderful TV series,” he says.

The programme has, he admits, all sorts of resonances for him. Before turning to acting he spent seven unhappy years pursuing a legal career. Filming in the Old Bailey hasn’t left him regretting that decision. “Pretty much any brush with legality confirms my conviction that I should never have been a lawyer. One, I didn’t give a shit and two I wasn’t that good.”

Perhaps it is appropriate then that Butler’s character, Johnnie Donne, one of the 12 titular jurors, is a man fresh out of rehab and still raw from the experience. Butler has said he can relate to some of the more negative aspects of Donne’s character. He has in the past admitted to having been overly fond of a drink at one time in his life, with painful consequences. In fact, he has said that without experiencing real low points including battling with alcoholism, he would not have been able to play Donne.

Butler is rather taken aback when I remind him of this comment. “I didn’t realise I’d put it as strongly as that,” he says, obviously disconcerted. “But yeah I was a party animal through uni and when I came out of uni I found that difficult to stop.”

Unhappy at work, he pursued a hedonistic agenda. He talks now of the insiduous, slow process that overtook him in his twenties. “It’s a very addictive thing, nightlife and everything that goes with that for some people, for the less-well adjusted like myself. You start to go out a lot, drink a lot and do all sorts of crap and then life, when you’re not doing that, becomes very boring. You start to develop this uneasy feeling, you can’t concentrate, you’re not as contented as you used to be.” It’s a constant search for the next buzz? “Yeah. Exactly. You look for the buzz in everything.”

That search led him to taking huge risks. “I was nuts. I think the perfect comparison would be an untalented Jim Morrison. I lived like Jim Morrison.” He talks of hanging off tall buildings and even a cruise ship. “Just crazy stuff that was part bravado and part coming from a deep-seated frustration and a sense of being lost. And you’d go out and there’s a part of your soul and your mind that knows this is not what you should be doing, and yet there is a part of you that thinks you’re never going to change. So when you’re drunk all this anger and frustration comes out and sometimes it’s hidden as ‘Hey, watch this boys. I’m going to throw myself in front of a car.”‘

It sounds as if his drinking was a symptom of a wider malaise. Where all that anger came from he doesn’t say, but it seems it has been with him for some time. “I always felt a bit of a loner in some ways. Even though at school I was one of the main guys in the crowd I always felt a wee bit different. Maybe sometimes better, but a lot of the time just f***ing weirder. Sometimes worse. Just thinking, when am I going to get it together?”

It is tempting to look for the origins of Butler’s insecurity in his family background. Born in Glasgow, he moved with his parents and his older brother and sister to Montreal at the age of two only to return to Paisley within two years when his parents split, a result of his father’s own drinking. His mother raised her three children on her own, although she eventually remarried. When Butler was 16 his father suddenly reappeared. “I literally walked into my house and my stepdad said ‘keep your jacket on your dad’s here’,” he recalls. “We hadn’t heard from him for 12 years and I had to walk into a restaurant and I had to walk round all these tables and I was literally like, is that my dad at that table? Is that him over there? And it just makes you appreciate as a person and as an actor how some things, they just don’t show. I think as an actor when you start out you just want to show everything and then you realise so much of your pain or happiness is concealed. When I sat down in front of my dad I didn’t realise it was such a huge concern to me but I couldn’t talk for the next four hours, I couldn’t stop crying, I could barely breathe and I didn’t know all that pent-up sadness was in there. At the end of the day that was the man who fathered me and he suddenly turned up.”

Understandably, the night is etched on his memory. He has talked about it before, but his description is no media soundbite. He can’t keep the catch out of his voice while telling it again. At the same time that evident desire to take something positive from such painful memories is telling. He is now keen to put a positive spin on his personal history. “It’s only recently that I’ve started to think that everything I am, good and bad, is what makes me. Instead of fighting all the bad and just being so unhappy. That’s just me, that’s just the way I am. I am not saying I’m going to try to improve but there is a level of acceptance. I’m doing well and I’m doing well because of who I am.”

His father died of cancer a month before Butler started a two-year law traineeship. He spent the last three weeks by his father’s side before returning to Glasgow for the course. At the end of it he wised up to the fact the law was not for him and headed for London looking to fulfil his teenage dreams of acting, a fantasy that is now becoming reality.

It is difficult to reconcile the picture of insecurity Butler paints of his past with the handsome, brash, friendly man who sits beside me. Perhaps it can be put down to what he admits is his nature. “I’m a very extreme person. So I either drink far too much or I don’t at all, or I smoke far too much or I don’t at all. Or I have sex with hookers all the time …”

He’s kidding. That’s Jamie Theakston’s line. Smoking is now his only vice and he’s giving that up next week, condemning it to the past along with his other anxieties. “So much of that insecure, fearful shit has gone away,” he says. “I feel so much more at home in my own skin now.”

He is, he says, very driven. When he began to get parts in the US he made a conscious decision to move there, spending most of the last two years, when not filming, in Los Angeles. “I am kind of living there right now,” he says. “I find I get a lot done and beautiful things happen to me there careerwise. You’re next door to the directors. Here you end up putting yourself on tape, there you just walk in and you’re speaking to Ridley Scott.”

He doesn’t much like LA – “life there is very focused and kind of miserable”- which is why he’s looking for a flat in Hampstead, London, to replace the “shitty” one he owns in Camden. But, of course, the work he wants is in LA, even though he says he is “material-led”. Indeed one of the attractions of The Jury was that it was a character piece. “Doing a huge action movie there’s a lot of sitting about. I mean, the more fun a movie looks, often the less the fun it is to make. If it’s a character based piece you get the chance to dive in there and get involved.”

So why opt for the big-budget spectacular? Time travel and dragons are not quite Shakespeare. But he remains unrepentant. The British film industry, he reckons, has an undeservedly high conceit of itself. “To be honest, in Britain we write so many awful movies. We do some great ones and they stick out and everybody thinks, don’t we do great movies?, but they don’t see the hundred other shit scripts that come through the door, some of which are made into movies, a couple of which I’ve done in the past.” But that, with help from Rob Bowman and Dick Donner, will be where they remain, consigned to memory along with the insecurities that seemed to have bothered Butler for so long.

Our time is up and Butler pulls himself out of the depths of the couch with ease, ready to pose for the camera and the next tranche of Ewan McGregor comparisons. Soon he is hoping such comparisons will be redundant. Indeed he has just beaten McGregor in some Scottish award ceremony, even if, he suspects, by default. “I know for a fact everybody was going: ‘We can’t give Ewan another award. I don’t know who this Gerry Butler guy is but we might as well give it to him.’ Because I know in terms of the business I’m doing very well in LA. In Hollywood, things couldn’t be better. In terms of Scotland nobody’s seen what I’ve done.” That is about to change. Or did we say that a year ago?

The Jury, ITV, Sunday, February 17, 9pm. Reign of Fire is released on Friday, July 19

Copyright 2002 Scottish Media Newspapers Limited

Publication: The Herald (Glasgow)
Author: Teddy Jamieson

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