Gerard Butler’s Wild Ride

February 1, 2012 | Interviews

[i]The world-trekking, ATV-riding, ­Romanian model-dating Scotsman courts danger at every turn – and never more than when filming ‘Chasing Mavericks,’ the big-wave surf drama that almost took his life.[/i]

Gerard Butler is cruising through Shreveport in his blacked-out Range Rover – plaid shirt half unbuttoned, aviators on, A/C going full blast in the Louisiana heat, lost in another story about flying in a Russian MiG or mountain climbing in Scotland – when he’s struck by the realization that he’s taken a wrong turn. This is not an uncommon occurrence: Between his storytelling and a mild case of ADD, Butler gets lost quite a bit. (Once, at home in L.A., he was trying to drive from Hollywood to Santa Monica and somehow wound up in Pasadena.) “I apologize,” he says, punching buttons on the GPS. “I’m a little scattered.” He cuts across two lanes of traffic, doubles back across a bridge. “Fuck it,” he finally says, laughing his big Scottish laugh. “Let’s just go for a drive.”

It’s classic Butler – a glimpse of that why-the-hell-not optimism that makes him utterly, lovably up for anything. It’s the same impulse that got the 42-year-old actor his first big break, when he ignored Tinseltown protocol and phoned the head of Warner Bros. directly to lobby for the role of ‘roided-up King Leonidas in the Spartan splatterfest 300, which vaulted him onto the A-list at age 37. (“Faint heart never won the fair lady,” Butler says, quoting what I can only imagine is a 14th-century Scottish proverb. Nope. “I got that from a nature program about a male shrimp trying to fuck a female shrimp.”) It’s that same gusto that propels many of Butler’s real-life adventures – like the motorcycle trip he took from Rishikesh, India, up into the Himalayas – a journey that ended early when he drank some water from the Ganges and wound up puking his guts out at 14,000 feet. And it’s the same mix of enthusiasm and self-confidence that, on the set of his newest movie, a surfing drama called ‘Chasing Mavericks,’ almost got Butler killed.

He’ll get to that story in a bit. But first, Butler has some fun planned – and damned if he’ll let a little thing like getting lost slow him down. He pulls onto I-20 and punches the gas. He was pulled over for speeding here the other day. “I was literally doing about 100,” he says. “I went flying past the police car.” The cop was angry, but when he walked up and saw the guy from that movie with Jamie Foxx (that would be ‘Law Abiding Citizen’), Butler got off with a warning. “That,” he grins, “is definitely one of the upsides.”

From the passenger’s seat, it sort of all looks like upside. Butler is one of those regular-dude movie stars who got famous relatively late in life and thus seems about 10,000 times more appreciative of it. Back in his twenties, after he’d graduated from law school in Glasgow and was taking a break in L.A., he appeared as an extra in ‘The Bodyguard.’ It wasn’t until he got fired from his legal job, at age 25, that he seriously considered giving acting a try.

Butler’s been in Shreveport since July, filming a movie called ‘Olympus Has Fallen,’ in which he plays a Secret Service agent trying to recapture the White House from North Korean terrorists. A lot of actors would have been less than thrilled to spend two months in Louisiana during the steamiest time of the year, but Butler loves it: the bayous, the cypress trees, the way the light looks at sunset. Last year, he shot another movie here – a soccer-themed rom-com called ‘Playing for Keeps,’ a title he can’t even say aloud without laughing – and he rented a house on a big lake. The production was headquartered at a park nearby, and a lot of mornings, he’d kayak to work. “I’d go out at 6 am, and the whole lake would just be covered in mist,” he says. “It was so cool.”

The thematic distance between a White House–saving badass and a Jessica Biel–wooing soccer dad pretty much sums up Butler’s work. Ever since ‘300,’ he’s had two parallel careers: one as the gruff, surly action star of such aggro dude candy as ‘RocknRolla’ and ‘Gamer’ and the other as the gruff, surly anti-heartthrob of rom-coms like ‘The Bounty Hunter’ and ‘The Ugly Truth.’ The duality has won Butler a fan base that cuts across genders and age groups while simultaneously earning him pretty much zero critical props.

That could change this fall with ‘Chasing Mavericks,’ a surfing biopic co-directed by ‘L.A. Confidential”s Curtis Hanson. The movie tells the story of Jay Moriarity, a Santa Cruz surf prodigy who, at 16, was believed to be the youngest person to ride the legendarily huge Northern California break known as Mavericks. Butler, in acid-washed jeans and a beat-up VW van, plays Moriarity’s mentor, real-life surf guru Rick “Frosty” Hesson, who teaches his young charge about surfing and life while training him to tackle the deadly wave. Butler’s performance is a genuine tearjerker, one that’s already garnered at least one early rave; says the real Frosty Hesson: “I think it’s an awful lot like me.”

But either way, Butler won’t sweat it. He’s not a guy who takes himself too seriously. He makes no bones about admitting when his movies suck (“Some of them do turn out like shit. I look back and go, ‘What was I thinking?'”) and jokingly refers to the ridiculously campy ‘Dracula 2000’ as “probably my best piece of work.” This afternoon, he tells a story about a hotel in town that recently named its screening room after him – the Gerry Butler Theater. “Now, I’m not a guy who’s going to have monuments named after me, so I was proud of that,” he says. But then he was bragging about it just the other day to his ‘Olympus’ co-star Angela Bassett, who’s staying there now. “I went on and on,” Butler says. “And she didn’t have the heart to tell me that they’d renamed it the Angela Bassett Theater instead.”Eventually Butler defeats the GPS, and we arrive at our destination: a big farm south of town where he comes to ride four-wheelers, chase alligators, and do all sorts of other bayou-dude stuff. It belongs to a friend, David Myatt, a retired oilman. At the end of a long driveway that passes by a small lake and a miniature NASCAR track, there’s a hangar filled with toys: pool tables, shuffleboard, darts. Butler grabs a pool cue and starts racking the balls. “Do you want to break?”

Someone has set out a table of food, which Butler sets to work demolishing. Cheese, crackers, cookies, grapes – all of it shoveled into his mouth. He washes it down with the rest of his double latte, and then a Diet Coke for good measure. He drinks a lot of Diet Cokes; they’ve sort of replaced cigarettes for him. He smoked for years, at one point sucking down 60 a day. He tried to quit 40 times, in ways that sound like a torture scene from one of his movies: hypnosis, lasers, sodium pentothal. At one point he prayed for the strength to quit in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Jerusalem site where Jesus is said to have been buried. “If this guy can die for mankind,” he thought, “the least I can do is quit smoking.” He felt an epiphany, saw a bright light – and four hours later, bought a pack of Marlboro Reds.

“I think, on a basic level, I have a pretty addictive personality,” Butler says. “Both good and bad.” In his twenties the bad could get pretty heavy, when he’d drink too much and do something stupid, like smash a beer bottle over his head, or play chicken with a car, or hang off the railing of a cruise ship at 5 am, belting out Rod Stewart’s “Sailing.” He often looks back on those days and is genuinely surprised he’s still alive.

Butler doesn’t miss that, but he does enjoy the stories. Butler loves telling stories – and he’s got a lot. There’s the time he got to play in a charity match for his favorite football club, Celtic, in front of 50,000 fans (“It was, honestly, maybe the high point of my life”). The time he got himself and two friends stranded on a glacier in Iceland at 2 am because he forgot to turn his headlights off (“Because I’m an idiot”). The time he and a different friend were riding motorcycles through Arkansas, and Butler lost his key and had to be rescued by some Harley-riding evangelicals (“I was very close to joining a Christian biker gang”).

Butler is curious, a searcher. When he’s attracted to something new, he attacks it all-out. Take meditation: For years people had been telling him to try it because they thought it would calm him down. So finally, in true movie-star fashion, he made a pilgrimage to a Hindu temple in India and did. “I learned to meditate and give blessings,” he says. “It sounds crazy, but I came back and literally felt like I had fucking fire coming out of my hand. I’m walking around thinking, ‘Shit, I’m Jesus Christ.'” He went just as all-out when he was introduced to his girlfriend, a Romanian lingerie model named Madalina Ghenea. The night they met, Butler invited her to go to Iceland. “I’ve been impulsive,” he says, “but not that impulsive. I just had a good feeling.”

When he took the job on ‘Mavericks,’ Butler also dove in headfirst, schooling himself on surfing the way Frosty schools Jay in the film. He started in Hawaii with Laird Hamilton, who taught him about the philosophy of big waves and did his best to scare the shit out of him. Then he got a house in Malibu, where he surfed with a coach every day. He had trouble at first, like the time he got dragged 40 yards by a 12-foot wave. “I hadn’t learned to take on whitewater yet, so I just got clobbered,” he says. “By the time I got back to the beach, all I could think was, ‘It’s really going to hurt my career, but there’s no way I’m doing this movie.'” But he was back in the water the very next day. “That fear,” Butler says, “is very addictive.”

Butler was awed by the big-wave surfers. “Going out there, being at Mavericks with those guys – it was heaven to me,” he says. “When the sun’s going down, and you’re out there in the water, I thought, ‘This is another life.'” He’s the first to admit that he felt like an “imposter” and a “poseur” in such revered company; he even had a room at the hotel reserved for his boards. (“They were sleeping in beds,” chuckles Grant Washburn, a real-life veteran of Mavericks who consulted on the movie. In Butler’s defense, he says it was more about having access to them 24-7 than a diva move.)

“At the end of the day, what I was doing was really basic,” Butler says. Still, when he caught his first wave at Mavericks, he couldn’t help but be proud. “It was like the first fight I did in 300,” he says. “I felt like, wow, I’m really kicking ass.” The only downside was that when he was back in the water the following week, filming some final paddling scenes, he’d been lulled into a false sense of security.

“Big-wave surfing is a cat-and-mouse game,” Washburn says. “You’re constantly trying to get as close as you can, and it’s really just a matter of time.” The last day out at Mavericks, “I kept trying to pull Gerry back – and he kept moving over. And sure enough, a big one came and got him.”

“We saw it coming half a mile away,” Butler says of the wave, which he says was as loud as a volcano. “But there was nothing you could do.” Surfer Greg Long, who was in the water with Butler, started shouting at him to paddle away: “Go, Gerry! Fucking go!” But it was too late. When he realized Butler wasn’t going to make it, another surfer named Zach Wormhoudt yelled at Butler to take two deep breaths. He managed one, and then the wave hit.

Butler says he pretty much got caught in what surfers call a two-wave hold-down, where a wave forces you so deep so fast that you can’t get back to the surface before the second one hits. He was trapped underwater for nearly a minute. “It just went on and on,” Butler says. “It was absolutely terrifying.”

Butler was pretty sure he was going to die. “You know how people say you get a sense of peace?” he says. “I didn’t experience that. It was violent.” Washburn managed to reach him on a Jet Ski, and eventually an ambulance took him to the hospital. “You’re lucky,” the paramedics told him. “The last surfer we picked up here was dead.”

Sitting in the sun today, Butler pulls out his iPhone. “I have footage,” he says. “You probably don’t want me to show it to you, but I’m going to – because it looks pretty cool, and because I’m fucking proud of it.” He fires up a video. “So this is me here in the red,” he says. A Butler-like figure is on his stomach paddling furiously when all of a sudden a huge wave fills the screen, and he just disappears. The cameraman pans around for a second, and then shuts the tape off. When the next clip starts, Butler is behind Washburn on the Jet Ski, his face completely drained. “That’s me trying to throw up,” he says as he coughs up water in the video. “I thought my head was going to explode. Crazy, huh?”

Butler had already won the approval of the surfers, but that afternoon, he won a little more. “He earned a lot of respect that day,” says Hesson. Washburn agrees: “Some guys have an experience like that and they don’t want to take a bath for a month, but Gerry really wanted to keep playing.” After the accident, Washburn recalls telling him, “You’re a big-wave surfer now!” Butler’s response: “I don’t know if I want to be!”

After that, the insurance company wouldn’t let Butler back in the water. “Probably a wise decision on their part,” he says, “but I was bummed. I would have gone back in a second.”

We’re sitting at a picnic table overlooking the lake. You get the sense that sitting is a struggle for Butler. Anytime he’s stationary, his knees start bouncing up and down like a kid in detention just dying for recess. He channels the energy by scarfing down a tuna fish sandwich and another Diet Coke.

As long as he’s got his phone out, Butler has some more photos he wants to share. This time it’s an album of all his on-set injuries. “I can show you some that are just crazy,” he says, starting to scroll. “This is when I fell out of a car onto a bridge. This one’s where I got hit in the eye by a bullet casing. That’s an explosion that hit my arm – see all the flying debris?” He goes on for a couple of minutes.

Butler says injuries happen a lot. “Filming is a bloody dangerous business,” he says. “You’re not supposed to talk about it because it’s not very sexy. And I don’t want to sound like a whiner, because it is fun. But you take a beating.” And that’s on top of the injuries he gets from training – like the strained rotator cuff and tendinitis he got from lifting weights six hours a day for 300. He says in 15 years of working, he’s missed only three days on set. “And that’s when you start going, OK, I can do with a bit of extra help,” he says.

Butler started taking painkillers after an injury five years ago. He’d been working on a movie called Shattered, doing a scene where the SUV he’s riding in fake-crashes into a concrete wall. But when the cable that was supposed to catch the car before impact failed, Butler plowed into the wall for real. (You can see it in the movie; it’s the take they used.) “I had bruised ribs for months,” he says. “I had a headache every second of the day. I still have bulging disks from that fucking thing.”

A few years went by with some mild discomfort, but when Butler filmed an intense fight scene in an adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘Coriolanus,’ his back went out again, worse than before. “It was like somebody sticking a spear in there,” he says. “It would get bad, and I’d take something. But I would always stop.”

After the Mavericks accident, though, things got bad fast. “I started taking more,” Butler says of the pills. “And I started taking them very quickly.” He says it never got to the point of full-blown addiction. But he knew it could. Which is partly why in February he checked himself into Betty Ford and enrolled in a pain-management program. “I was actually taking a minimal amount [of pills] when I went in,” he says. “It was more about becoming a mental warrior and not letting pain bother you. The [instructor] would say, ‘I don’t want to hear about your fucking MRIs or your fucking X-rays. Let’s go do kung fu, let’s meditate, and let’s learn how to say to the pain, Fuck you.'”

Butler’s rehab lasted about three weeks. He says it wasn’t easy. “They really do rip you apart,” he says. “But it’s like spring cleaning, you know? You get rid of a bunch of shit, realize a bunch more shit, and you make a plan.”

At the time, there were rumors that he may have been struggling with harder drugs, or that he’d started drinking again. “That really pissed me off,” Butler says. “I haven’t had a drink in 15 years.” Still, just a month after a near-death experience, a drug problem wouldn’t be the most shocking thing in the world. After all, once you’ve been up to the edge like that, it’s probably only natural to look for other ways to feel outside of yourself. Right?

Butler is quiet for a minute. “I’ll just say that it put my mind in a place I didn’t want it to be,” he says. “I knew I needed to address some things. I just felt like I came so close to dying – and in some ways it was profound and scary, but in other ways it was just so normal. I thought, ‘Here I am, close to the edge – but it’s still me, still Gerry, thinking normally about my imminent demise.’ And that freaked me out.”

He sought out other help as well. “I went to a therapist to try and relive it, to get the energy out,” he says. “Even that didn’t completely take. I don’t want to be a drama queen, but it’s almost like a bit of PTSD.” Sometimes he still has flashbacks when he sees big waves – in fact, he had one just the day before, watching a video on YouTube. “I remembered that feeling of being trapped, going under, and that complete lack of control. . . . ” He trails off. “It’s just . . . it’s visceral.”

In the end, he knows he made the right move in going to the Ford clinic. “Maybe a stronger person wouldn’t have needed to go,” he says. “When you hear the word rehab, you think, ‘He’s a mess, he’s fucked up.’ But I’m glad I did it. I’ve made a shitload of wrong decisions in my life. But I know I’ve made some right ones as well.”It’s around now that the helicopter shows up.

It’s a few hours before sunset, the light hitting the trees just right. Butler is in the yard, enjoying another Diet Coke. “I wish life could be at this time of day all the time,” he says. Then, as if summoned by a director, a single-engine chopper the color of red wine comes whooshwhooshwhoosh-ing over the trees. It belongs to a guy named Freddie, who’s a friend of David Myatt’s. Butler has arranged for us to take a ride. We dash under the rotors and climb inside.

We take off and head east, following the Red River as it snakes through town. “I love this river!” Butler says. We pass over the house that Sony built for its remake of Straw Dogs and above the replica White House where Butler is filming ‘Olympus.’ He points out the window: “There used to be two guardhouses back there, but we blew them to shit. And that bus – we blew that up yesterday.” Then Freddie asks Butler if he wants to take the controls.

Butler was actually taking helicopter lessons for a while, around the time he was learning to surf (“I was Mr. Action”). But he hasn’t flown in about a year. “I probably shouldn’t be flying at all, to be honest,” he says. But as he guides us around the outskirts of Shreveport, and over a nearby Air Force base with its squadron of B-52s, he seems like he has it totally under control. “Hey, you really know what you’re doing!” Freddie tells him. “Most people are real jerky, but you’re keeping it smooth.”

“Thank you!” Butler says, beaming.

Butler banks left, and we head across town to the lake where he’s staying. We pass over a rocky island where a flock of white egrets is taking off, like a scene out of ‘Jurassic Park.’ “Oh, I used to kayak out there,” Butler says. We fly a little farther and he points out his house, a plantation-style mansion with a wraparound white porch. “Do me a favor – take this for a second?” he says to Freddie. “I want to tell my girlfriend to come out.”

Butler pulls out his phone and starts typing a text. We approach the house, and there, standing at the end of the dock, is Ghenea, looking very Romanian-lingerie-model-y. “There’s Madi!” Butler says. We hover for a few minutes, while the two of them take pictures of each other and wave.

It’s almost sunset now, so we head back. We’re ready to call it a day when Myatt asks if we want to ride four-wheelers with him and his son-in-law, Mike.

Butler, unsurprisingly, is game. “These guys,” he says, smiling, “they fucking fly.”

The four of us set out, ripping through the woods in the coming darkness. Butler charges ahead, taking hills and dodging rocks without so much as tapping the brakes. “Whoooo!” he screams. This is the kind of shit he lives for.

But then suddenly, out of nowhere, Mike’s four-wheeler hits a stump. He goes flying and hits the ground with a thud. The four-wheeler lands upside down next to him, inches from his head, wheels still spinning. “Call 911,” Mike grimaces. “I need an ambulance!”

Butler leaps off his four-wheeler and races over. “All right, just lie down, try not to move,” he says. “What hurts?”

“It’s between my shoulder blades,” Mike says. “I heard a crunch.”

“All right,” Butler says, crouching down. He dials 911; they say they’ll send an ambulance right away.

For a few minutes we just stand there, comforting Mike but feeling basically helpless. Butler, in particular, seems especially pained – a man of action with nothing to do. He spots the offending stump and, for lack of a better option, carries it down to the lake, where he heaves it in with an angry grunt. Splash. Justice.

After a few minutes, Mike starts to feel a bit better. “I think my legs are good,” he says. “I think I can get up.”

“That’s a crazy idea,” says Butler. “You’re not going anywhere.”

“No, it’s OK,” he insists. “I’m just gonna stand up and take care of these bugs.”

But Butler is adamant. “If you have a back injury and you move, you’ll do way more damage. Where are the bugs?” Mike points to his ankle, and Butler leans over and tenderly starts scratching the spot where the mosquitoes are biting. “Better?” he asks.

“Yeah,” Mike says. “Thank you.”

After a while, it becomes apparent that Mike’s spine isn’t broken. (Later we’ll learn he has a broken collarbone, three cracked ribs, and a partially collapsed lung.) Butler starts to brighten. “Well, this’ll be a story for the grandkids,” he says. Two EMTs from Caddo Parish Fire District 5 arrive and load Mike into the ambulance, and Butler walks over to see him off. “I gotta tell you,” he says by way of a farewell. “That was a fucking crash to be proud of.”

Back at the man cave, he’s more candid. “God, that was horrible. He’s so lucky! If that thing had landed on his head, he’d be dead.” He’s shaken up about Mike, of course. But he also seems a little freaked by the fact that he was 10 feet away from singlehandedly sinking an $80 million movie, all because of an ATV ride. “Can you imagine?” he says, vaguely horrified. A pause. “Anyway, you want a drink? Water? Coke?”

And that’s pretty much how things work for Butler. He pushes the limit, goes right up to the edge – and somehow things turn out OK. For all his mishaps, you get the sense that he’s leading a pretty charmed life – and he would be the first one to agree.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Butler says, kicking back with a final Diet Coke. “I bust my balls, whether people like the movies or not. But I’m one of the luckiest guys on the planet.”

Sometimes a part of him is tempted to chuck it all – to just get on his bike and ride somewhere, maybe South America or Asia. “Travel the world,” he says. “Go to a mountain and sit next to some spiritual wizard, or get on a bike and head into nowhere.” Or maybe he’d do the opposite: “Find a place up in the mountains, a little cabin with a great view, and just kick back and stick my feet up.”

But in his heart of hearts, he knows that won’t happen. “After two months I’d probably go, ‘Let me back, I miss it!'” he says. “I’m always telling my agent I need time away, that I work too much, and they always go, ‘But you’re fucking miserable when you’re not working!’ That’s not totally true, but I get what they’re saying. Because when I’m working, I’m focused. I’ve got something that scares me and excites me, and when it’s happening, I just feel like I’m on it, man – like I’m flying.”

“And that,” he says, smiling,””is a great feeling.”

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