April 1, 2011 | Interviews

WE HADN’T met before but, even in the crowded lounge of London’s Charlotte Street Hotel there was no mistaking Gerard Butler. And not just because I recognised him from the big screen. Sure, the slim, dark-haired Scot was the only movie star in the room. But while some stars seem almost anonymous when you meet them face to face, blending unobtrusively into the crowd, Butler actually looks just like a movie star is supposed to. He was fashionably casual, in black V-neck sweater and denims, and has the sort of brooding good looks the camera falls for every time. His face was also lit up by a smile that said that life was good.

And with good reason. Things could scarcely be better for the Glasgow-born actor who with his latest title roles in Dracula 2000 and Attila the Hun, is set to take his place alongside the new breed of big screen Scots like Ewan McGregor, Peter Mullan, Robert Carlyle, Dougray Scott, Alan Cumming, Ewen Bremner and Craig Ferguson.

Tea and designer bottled water ordered (he does not touch alcohol) Butler settles back, reflecting on how, seemingly from nowhere, he has become one of Hollywood’s hot new talents. The way he tells it – with a disarming frankness – his life has had enough in it to rouse the interest and imaginations of a team of Hollywood scriptwriters. The product of a broken marriage, he entered showbiz from left field, after his first career choice – as, of all things, a solicitor – did not work out as planned. This was followed by an intense period of soul-searching, mixed with a wilfully self-destructive lifestyle that was a symptom rather than the cause of a deeper melancholy that only acting could ease.

The youngest of three – he has an elder brother and sister – Butler made his first trek across the Atlantic when he was six months old and his father – who owned five betting shops – moved to Canada. “My father was a great entrepreneur but not the best businessman and I think he went bust and we ended up moving to Montreal, where he got a job as an accountant. My mum swears to this day that he was not an accountant but he said he was, something like that. We lived there for two years but I have no recollection of that time.

“The family came back to Scotland when my mum left my dad. He was a bit of a drinker, though he did not have a drink until he was 29. Then he went to the doctor one day with a stomach problem and the doctor said ‘have a Guinness’ and that was him… gone.”

Butler did not see his father again until he was four, and even then it was a fleeting encounter. “I used to question whether I really did see him or if I had dreamed it. Then we lost touch. I didn’t know whether he was alive or dead and then he just turned up, out of the blue, when I was 16.

“One night I walked home and my step-father said: ‘Keep your jacket on, your dad’s here.’ Funnily, five weeks before that I had had a dream about my dad. When I stepped into the restaurant of a Glasgow hotel, it was really busy and it was one of the strangest experiences of my life, to be walking through this restaurant looking at all these people, gazing at every man and wondering ‘is that my dad?’ Then when I reached a table I saw my sister was there so I knew it was him.”

It was, as you might expect, an emotional encounter and the memory of it is seared onto Butler’s brain. “I did not realise how much I had bottled up. When I sat with my dad, I said: ‘Hello, how are you doing?’ and then my sister, who had been crying a lot, went up to go to the toilet, and I started to ask him: ‘Why didn’t you get ina’ and I didn’t finish the sentence, I didn’t say the word ‘touch’, I just burst out crying. And I cried, hysterically, for the whole evening. I just could not stop, it was very strange.”

Looking back, Butler recognises that, as an actor, it is precisely situations like that he can draw upon for emotional inspiration when it comes to capturing the essence of the characters he plays.

“I learned a lot from that because you just don’t know what things are affecting you sometimes until they come out,” he says. “Maybe it is not the done thing to show your feelings but also some things are so deep. It was all those years of wishing that I had a father and also thinking that I was very comfortable in not having a father and then, in one night that you didn’t expect to happen, it all hits homea here is your father and here is his story and what do you feel about it? A whole part of my life that I had thought was gone was suddenly sitting at a table in front of me, sitting at a table and telling me stories.”

After this tearful reunion, the teenage Butler visited his father in Toronto. How, I wonder, did his mother – who had taken on the burden of being a single parent and sole provider to three children – react to that decision?

“My mum was worried because I was the baby of the family and couldn’t remember the troubles she had had with my dad. She was scared of losing me. She had put all this effort into bringing up three kids on her own and had started a new life. She did a fantastic job of bringing us up then suddenly my dad turns up, after playing no part in our lives. So my mum had her feelings but she was great and said that I had to do what I had to do. So I went to Canada and started hanging out in Toronto and getting to know my dad, who was like a big kid really,” says Butler, adding that his father died eight years ago.

Back in Scotland, Butler, unlike so many other actors, was successful at school. He was dux and head boy and then took an honours degree in law at Glasgow University, where he was also president of the university’s law society. Though he insists he received that honour for his “social skills”, Butler appeared to have impeccable credentials for a successful career in the law. Butler disagrees, however. “I don’t think I was heading for great things in the legal field because, although I could pass the examinations, my heart really wasn’t in it. I was employed as a trainee solicitor but I wasn’t really interested.”

So instead of laying the foundations for a prosperous career as a legal eagle, Butler spread his wings and plunged headlong into a life of partying. “Things had spiralled out of control for me, I was just too wild,” he admits. “I was going through a crazy time. It was a tough period of my life. I became disillusioned with what I was doing and nothing mattered. I became so unhappy in my career as a trainee solicitor.”

This was another defining stage in his life, as Butler decided to pull himself together. The first stage was to end all thoughts of becoming a solicitor, a decision that was accepted with no reluctance by his employers. “It was as much them giving me up as me quitting,” he says. “My mum was very, very upset. I was the golden boy. My mum had been so proud, telling everyone that her son was going to be a lawyer. Then her son was not going to be a lawyer and I think she was very embarrassed and hurt.”

Butler decided, instead, that he was going to have a stab at becoming an actor. “People say I was very brave making that decision, but it just was not happening in law,” he says with a shrug.

So he followed in the time-honoured tradition of Scots on the make, packed his bags and headed south to London in pursuit of, well, fame and fortune. After “blowing” the money he had saved from his time working, Butler found himself taking on a series of “awful jobs” to pay the bills. “I was giving out leaflets for boilers, demonstrating wind-up toys at a toy show and I worked in a couple of restaurants. I wasn’t very good at that.”

His aim was to put his wild days behind him and settle down. “I knew a casting director, who tried to put me off by telling me that I was crazy. She knew people who were talented and had been to drama school but still had nothing,” he recalls. “But for me it was almost because I had lost my vision that I was willing to take risks. After all what was I doing? I had really lost my way.”

Later in our conversation, he elaborates upon what he means. Alcohol. “Now I don’t drink,” he says, simply. “I used to drink a lot, now I don’t. It is just a habit. At first I wished I could, but if you can get past a year without drinking you wonder what you were missing.” And, you feel, that the knowledge he could give up alcohol has given Butler the self-belief that he can do and achieve anything he sets his mind to.

Every down-at-heel, would-be actor needs their lucky break, however. Butler’s came when he was helping out a friend who was working on Steven Berkoff’s production of Coriolanus. Butler, essentially, became Berkoff’s coffee boy. “He asked if I was an actor and I said I’d like to be and he invited me to read for a part,” he says, smiling at the memory. Butler grabbed the opportunity as though it were his last.

“It was a time when I had so much energy. So the audition was like unleashing a wild beara and I got the part. That was the happiest day of my life.”

So how does he remember the experience of going out on stage for the first time? “These are standard lines, but the truth is that it was terrifying and exhilarating. I had done some amateur stuff, but for me it was being thrown in at the deep end. All the others were professionals. I was not.”

That was the beginning of the new Gerard Butler. He was cast as Renton – the Ewan McGregor role – in a stage version of Trainspotting. “The actor Tam Dean Burn told me they were auditioning for Trainspotting. I had just had some pictures done, so I sent one off with a letter. Then I got a call asking me to audition. I did a couple of little pieces from the book and they offered me the part of Renton there and then. It was incredible. Just a year earlier, when I was still a trainee solicitor, I had been watching Trainspotting at the Edinburgh Festival. My heart had been breaking because I thought that was what I wanted to do and a year later I was.”

Next came his most famous role to date, as Billy Connolly’s brother in Mrs Brown, which he describes as “a huge deal”.

“I had just finished Trainspotting and this was my second film audition and I did not expect to get it. Even when I did land the part, it was not then the big deal that it turned out to be. At first it was a BBC film that would be on television. But knowing that Billy Connolly and Judi Dench were involved was enough. When my agent called to say that I had the part I was watching Billy Connolly in The Big Man on television and I started shouting: ‘I’m watching him on TV!'”

His enthusiasm is matched by his determination. For both the forthcoming Dracula 2000 and the Attila TV series, Butler was not initially in the running. The producers were intent on hiring “name” actors for these roles. It was the sheer force of his performance at the audition that won him the role of Attila, but initially, when they were considering who to cast as Dracula, Miramax bosses Bob and Harvey Weinstein would not even look at the Scot’s audition video tape. “Then they saw a scene from Attila and they called at 7am the next morning to say I was their man,” says Butler, beaming.

“Later, during filming, I had Bob Weinstein sitting with me saying: ‘I love what you are doing, I’m going to make you a star.'” Today, although he has a flat in Camden, Butler describes himself as a gypsy. “I just bought my place down here in London last January but I have only spent 11 days there because I have been out in Los Angeles so often. Well, that’s where the work is.”

Right now, Butler is desperately trying to keep his excitement in check as he waits to discover how his performances in Dracula 2000 and Attila are received by audiences and critics. If Bob Weinstein is correct and Butler is bound for stardom then the actor knows what he would like to draw from that experience. “I want the opportunity to do whatever I want. To tackle roles people think that I can’t do. To keep challenging myself. To keep being stimulated.”

Dracula 2000 is released next year

Copyright 2000 The Scotsman Publications Ltd.

Publication: Scotland on Sunday
Author: John Millar

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