GERARD Butler is excited, but not because he is just about to go on the London Eye for a ride on the city’s newest tourist attraction. The adrenalin is pumping because the 29-year-old Scottish actor’s dreams are all starting to slip into place.
He has just been cast in Timeline, a film which ought to go some way towards moving Butler from the fringes of stardom.
The production, a time-shifting drama, certainly has the right pedigree. It’s an adaptation of the bestselling novel by Michael Crichton and is to be directed by Richard Lethal Weapon Donner.
The film will certainly raise the profile of the Scot whom the movie rumour factory has suggested might be in the running to be the next James Bond once Pierce Brosnan – who has said he will have one more outing as 007 – hands in his licence to thrill.
Timeline is the continuation of a pell-mell couple of years for the tall (he’s 6ft 2in), handsome Glaswegian who only made his film debut four years ago, as Billy Connolly’s brother in the award-winning Mrs Brown. He had originally seen his future as a legal eagle and, after taking an honours law degree at Glasgow University, began work as a trainee lawyer. Since choosing the limelight over the law and straightening out his life – he admits to a period of too much partying and drinking and now doesn’t touch alcohol – Butler has not been doing so badly. He has starred in the title role of Attila, a TV mini series, which was the second highest rated mini series ever screened in the USA; been out in Eire with Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale in the futuristic fantasy Reign of Fire, in which battles are fought against alien dragons and now he is working on The Jury, a major drama series for ITV.
Meanwhile he has also got his teeth into one of the cinema’s greatest legends… Dracula. Butler stars alongside Jonny Lee Miller, Justine Waddell and Christopher Plummer in Dracula 2001, which opens on Friday. It’s not a film that is expected to be a hit. In America – where it was released just before Christmas as Dracula 2000 – it came and went without causing much fuss at the box office. On the plus side though, the vampire flick has given Butler the experience of working with a happening film outfit like Miramax – whose productions have ranged from Shakespeare In Love to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.
“It is great to do a movie with the might of Miramax behind it, not a movie where the director says: ‘Will you call up all your friends and tell them to come and see it,'” says a grinning Butler when we meet at a London hotel. When he discusses how his career has developed, moving from a blink-and-you’ll-miss -it part in Bond romp, Tomorrow Never Dies, and the low budget weepy, One More Kiss, to the current batch of big budget special effect spectaculars, Butler’s delight is transparent. “After Mrs Brown I got a few nice little jobs. I was getting more experienced and confident. I was doing better work and playing bigger parts, getting all this experience, and not realising how invaluable that was.”
Once his creative juices were pumping, he gambled on heading to Los Angeles and made the breakthrough almost immediately. “It was weird,” he says. “Every part I went up for, the feedback was amazing. My agent was saying to treat it with caution. This is LA where they get very excited. But you can’t do better than being offered a part. There’s a difference between people blowing smoke up your ass and saying we want to give you all this money to play this part!”
One of his still-to-be-seen Hollywood movies is Harrison’s Flowers, a drama in which Andie MacDowell plays an American wife who heads into the Yugoslavian conflict after her war photographer husband (David Strathairn) is reported missing.
When I mention that I saw the movie at the San Sebastian Film Festival, Butler stresses that he only has a small role, as a photographer. “But it was great to be involved. We filmed that in Prague and the surrounding countryside. The biggest buzz was a scene where we are running away during a bombing raid. I was heading towards a lorry, which exploded and threw me off my feet.”
His determination to make his mark in movies was proved by the manner in which he found himself playing both Attila and Dracula because the schedules of the productions – Dracula 2001, filmed in New Orleans and Toronto, and Attila, a three-and-a-half month shoot in Lithuania – clashed.
“The day before I left for Lithuania and Attila, I auditioned for Dracula. I was told there was no point because they clashed. But I auditioned anyway,” Butler recalls. He also remembers that he had gone along armed with fixed ideas of how the old bloodsucker ought to be portrayed.
“I had all these conceptions about the character. I had just had my hair extensions put in and my beard for Attila and I put on a tiny bit of black eye liner. I don’t know why I did that, I just had this feeling about Dracula. Then I gave an exceptionally intense performance. When I walked out from the audition, I thought: ‘Well they either thought that was the biggest piece of s**t or they really liked it.'”
Obviously, they were impressed. But it still took three months for Miramax – who had initially wanted their Dracula to be played by a better known actor – to offer Butler the part. And after some adjustments in his schedule, he went straight from leading the Hun hordes – which included fellow Scots actor Tommy Flanagan as Attila’s brother – to going for the jugular of the inevitable bevy of Dracula babes.
Though he complains about the discomfort of wearing false fangs and red contact lenses – for the traditional look of the Nosferatu – Butler says he enjoyed creating Dracula’s screen presence. “I felt powerful and focused,” he says. “The power came from the character’s stillness. That was something that I learned from playing Attila and used even more as Dracula.”
Looking back on what might prove to be a couple of significant career breaks, the actor admits that he made an unlikely Attila. “I am too tall to be Attila. He was a wee guy with a squashed nose,” he says, smiling. To get into shape for the role, he trained two hours a day, six days a week, for a month. “I did some serious pumping iron. The routine was so organised it was as though my body was being re-shaped by computer,” he says. Once he had muscled-up, there was also the business of the Hun leader being a fantastic horseman, capable of living in the saddle. As he reveals, Butler was far short of the standards demanded by your average Hun warrior.
“The last time I was on horseback I fell over the top of the horse. I was ill for two days, I had a terrible headache and felt really sick. I was drunk at the time.”
This drama occurred on a French beach, when Butler was showing off to a French girlfriend. Deciding that he had enough of cantering leisurely he belted off at the gallop.
“I fell off,” he says, wincing at the memory. “Then I got back on and started galloping again. I ended up with my arm round the horse’s neck and went right over the top and landed on my head. When I knew that they wanted me on a horse for this TV series I had to get over the fear. Now I’m told that you wouldn’t know that I was anything but an expert horseman.” That’s not surprising. You can see that the Scot has the tenacity and drive to succeed. He might have been a late arrival on the film scene, but Gerard Butler is certainly making up for lost time.
Dracula 2001 is released on Friday
Copyright 2001 The Scotsman Publications Ltd.