Gerard Butler seems determined to keep a nearly extinct idea of the ordinary-guy action movie alive. So it is perhaps appropriate that one of our most underrated and likable screen presences (to whom I once wrote this only mildly embarrassing critical mash note) would corner the market on disaster pictures. Sure, there was Geostorm (there will always be Geostorm) and now there is the killer-comet flick Greenland (which comes out this week after months of delays and is way better than Geostorm), but if you think about it, the Has Fallen movies are also disaster movies. In the last couple of years, Butler found an ideal collaborator in director Ric Roman Waugh, with whom he made Greenland as well as 2019’s Angel Has Fallen and the upcoming Kandahar. Waugh, a former stunt director who also guided the Rock to his best and most relatable performance in Snitch, has clearly tapped into Butler’s charisma in compelling fashion: The heroism in Greenland is grounded in a sense of everyday drama gone haywire, where the common challenges of being a parent, spouse, and neighbor are completely upended by the fact that a giant comet is hurtling toward Earth. I talked to them about their new film and how they got here.
How do you deal with this peculiar situation of releasing a disaster movie in the middle of an actual disaster? Greenland makes me feel more anxious than the average disaster movie.
Ric Roman Waugh: We shot this movie, cut this movie, tested this movie and then suddenly this thing called COVID hits. There’s a big period of time during the first of the year, through January and February, where I don’t see the movie for quite a while. They’re getting the visual effects done. And then I finally went to the mix stage in March, and suddenly we’re all wearing masks and we’re trying to figure out what the heck this new thing is. I had a tremendous amount of anxiety prior to that, like you were saying: Why are people going to want to see a disaster movie in the middle of a disaster? The first thing I do is watch the movie to see where we’re at with the mix. And I experienced this narrative in a very new light. I completely forgot about the mix. I got an amazing smile on my face. I felt confident that what you get out of this movie is a big action ride. And, yes, it is a disaster movie, but it’s really a love story about a family that is a million miles apart, which thematically represents us as a society right now. And through the discovery of life and death, they realize what life is all about again and rekindle not only their love but a sense of hope.
Gerard Butler: I thought it was interesting that for the first two months of the pandemic, the No. 1 movie on iTunes was Contagion — which I was surprised about, at first, and then rewatched it and understood. But Contagion, to me, didn’t really have a positive message. I think both the pandemic and [Greenland] play on the fact that we might think we’re the center of the universe and we’re invincible, but we’re really not. We’re way more fragile than we thought, whether it’s something so tiny or something so huge. And, in some ways, it puts a responsibility on us that we can still do something about this and there is a way to act. We so often go to low-hanging fruit and the negative portrayals of things. But in this movie, we play a lot on the kindness of strangers and the kindness of ourselves, these moments where you put yourself out and sacrifice and take risks to help other people. In actual fact, a crisis often brings out the best in so many people.
The other thing is you’re watching a movie about a comet that’s basically destroying everything and then you come out of it and go, Okay. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, but it’s not that bad. What I just saw was worse. I can still go to my grocery store. It’s still there. L.A., it’s not been destroyed. It has that element of disaster movies where you can go and be entertained and be scared and be moved and cry and be on the edge of your seat and then come back and go, I’m okay. Or, well, I’m still not okay, but it’s not that bad.
When I first saw the trailer for Greenland, I thought, All right. This is great. Gerard Butler versus a comet. And when I saw the film, I was pleasantly surprised by how much more life size it was. It wasn’t a CGI-fest with … well, it wasn’t Geostorm. I felt like I was watching a Rod Serling–style interpretation where so much of the film was about the trust and distrust that happens in this kind of situation. In Greenland, you have the neighbors at the beginning who are like, “Please take our daughter.” And they’re like, “We can’t take your daughter. Sorry.” That’s much more gripping and moving than the average disaster movie, in part because it’s very relatable, especially now.
R.R.W.: I loved that it was actually about two monsters. One monster is what’s hitting the Earth, but the other monster is humanity itself. Will we turn on each other when it’s life or death, or will we come together? To talk about the one moment you just spoke about, we shot in a real neighborhood in Marietta, Georgia. We were on a real cul-de-sac with real families who invited us into their homes. The very first week we were filming, you come up with these issues of, What if you had to leave your neighbors behind? What if you were selected for safety and your neighbors weren’t? How would you deal with the guilt that you would feel? The very first moment that we shot that week was the Garritys leaving the house and having to tell this woman, this mother, that they cannot take her child — a child that’s played with their boy since they were in diapers. It was an amazingly gut-wrenching scene to film, and the very first take we did was the entire scene. When it was over, I yelled “Cut,” and my AD put his arm on me and he said “Look up the street,” and he was really shook up. We looked up, and all the real neighbors were in tears crying watching the scene. So I knew we had something that could be relatable.
Yeah, this movie’s about a comet, but it could be a pandemic. It could be a number of things. It’s more about how humanity will act.
G.B.: It’s something that I’ve always seen in Ric’s work, and I saw it specifically in Shot Caller, where he really takes his time in getting to know these characters in a very normal way. It’s the truth of a situation and all its awkwardness and all its discomfort — what is said, what is not said — so that you’re actually very invested in this family because you understand them. You are them. You’ve been there. And then you put them in these horrific moral dilemmas, and you’re there, too, so you’re in that car going, Oh my God. What do I do? Would I take them? And it’s that way through the movie. It’s like you come to a dead end and you’ve got to go left or right. And if you go left, you’re screwed and you’re the devil, but maybe you’ll live. But if you go right, it’s going to be worse, you know? There’s almost no way out, even when you’re doing your best. These characters make mistakes and they forget things and they get lost. They don’t always make the right calls, which, again, is not typical for this kind of movie.
Gerry, I would argue that there’s also something very relatable about you. Even something like Hunter Killer, where you’re playing a submarine captain, you try to give an ordinary quality to your characters. I feel like, in some alternate universe, I could almost be this guy — which is not something that I see that much, especially today, in action movies. I saw it back in the ’80s and ’90s in the Die Hard era. Today, when we have so many superheroes and interstellar beings and intergalactic figures, you have kind of kept this type of very relatable average-guy action-hero character alive.
G.B.: I grew up with those movies that you’re talking about back in the ’80s and ’90s. I’d feel like that watching those movies: I get in the car, I put my feet up on the dashboard, I think I’m the coolest thing, even though I wasn’t even in the movie. But I’m like, That movie made me cool. That movie made me want to be a badass. It made me want to be more brave. I want to be that guy making people put their feet on the dashboard and think, I want to be a hero.
That’s one of the main reasons that I’ve always loved these kinds of stories. I don’t know if it’s specifically been a plan; I think it’s partly that’s what I do and partly that’s what so few other people do now. They’ve all turned into superheroes, and there’s very few just regular heroes left. I’ve always been into the hero’s journey but without necessarily having to be the most amazing warrior — because we’re all on a hero’s journey. If you meet a submarine captain, you speak to them and you go, “It’s just a guy. He’s just a guy that I know and I like and he’s quite funny and he’s very smart and he has issues. Maybe he has a little bit of a big ego here, or maybe he has a chip on his shoulder there.” I want to play that in a way that people can imagine themselves in that situation, rather than, All right. That’s guy’s cool, but I could never be that.
I feel like I keep saying “I’m getting out of these movies.” Then I meet up with Ric and we do Angel Has Fallen and I go, “Okay, I’m getting out of these movies.” And then Greenland comes along, and I’m like, “Okay, I loved it, but I’m getting out of these movies.” And then Ric says, “Hey, I’ve got Kandahar.” I’m like, “Okay, but then I’m getting out.”
R.R.W.: No, he’s not.
G.B.: I’m blaming Ric for everything.
R.R.W.: I always remember that great line in The Insider when Mike Wallace is looking at Jeffrey Wigand, played by Russell Crowe, and they break apart and he asks Lowell Bergman, played by Al Pacino, “Who the hell are these people?” And Bergman says, “They’re ordinary people under extraordinary circumstances.” I think that’s what Gerry does to roles, because he plays them in such an honest way. So you can have a Secret Service agent, a submarine captain, or, here, a man trying to redeem real mistakes that he has made as a husband, and as a father, that he’s trying to atone for. If you don’t have an actor who can convey that in a very honest and sensitive way and show vulnerabilities that I think a lot of movie stars today are so afraid of showing, then you get fake. You get a false narrative, and you get into “the special skill set” versus the heart of a person.
Ric, you made Snitch, which also features what I think is the Rock’s best, most relatable performance. So it seems like you’re pretty good at getting these kinds of performances from people.
R.R.W.: Maybe I’m a cynic. I was an undercover parole agent to learn the prison system, and that’ll turn you into a cynic real quick about life. And you realize it’s not black and white. Our lives are gray. We’re seeing that right now. We’re seeing such a divisive world and people not seeing each other. The F-word of today is forgiveness. Nobody wants to forgive. And what I like to do is push into the moral gray of society. The interesting thing to me is, metaphorically, I always saw Greenland as Shot Caller without prison. Because when I made Felon and Shot Caller, everybody said, “Well, of course, that’s what prison does to you. It’s a violent place.” I’m like, “No. Life or death does that to you. Life does that to you,” and that’s what Greenland shows, and Snitch, and the other movies I’ve made. There are always people for whom there is no reverse. They have to make a choice, and it’s a shit sandwich either way.
Gerry, I feel like you’ve been having more fun with your parts of late.
G.B.: Maybe as I’ve relaxed into things. The last decade, I tried to have fun with 300 and Law Abiding Citizen. But I’ve definitely been having more fun in my performances. One of the things about being able to get better is just having time in front of a camera and working around other actors and learning. I never went to drama school, so I’ve learned how to perform through osmosis and working with great actors and directors. I have become more relaxed. I’ve also changed how I perform and how I study for roles, which has given me way more freedom. I used to tie myself down a lot more and go in with a more rigid idea of what I was going to do. I used to always go and watch my replays. I don’t think I’ve watched a single replay since I started working with Ric. It’s like, Whatever. I’m trusting. If you like it, that’s good. It’s more fun that way. I go into scenes having no idea [what I was going to do]. Especially in Greenland, we specifically didn’t rehearse so many of those scenes as the action starts, just to give it an edge, to allow more of your own humanity and all its million different colors and shades.
Were there any specific turning points that you can think of — a meeting with a particular actor or a particular moment or movie — where it started to click for you in that way?
G.B.: Yeah. It came at a moment when I was starting to feel a bit staid in my performance. I made a movie called A Family Man, and I started working with this particular coach who just shook me up. He made me do so much preparation work that every time I did a session with him, I was terrified. But it really taught me a great work ethic. As a producer and somebody that develops scripts, I too often get too caught up in other things. But there’s a way to say, “Guys, I need to stop that. Let me go, and let me focus on the role.”
You were trained as a lawyer. You said you didn’t have any theatrical training. But you have an ability to go real big in your performances. You can go broad; you can shout. These are things I always associate with training. The type of actor who can pull that kind of thing off is usually someone who studied it for years. But you can go toe-to-toe with Ralph Fiennes in Coriolanus, and he’s obviously got this whole theatrical background. What is it that allows you to go big like that?
G.B.: I’ve always had a strong identification with older, more ancient characters. When I played Leonidas in 300, I literally would sit and channel him and feel him come into my body, and that included the physicality, the emotions, the strength. I would trust that that would come out in my eyes. When you start to delve into, say, something like Shakespeare, once you get over the initial fear of, Oh my God. What am I dealing with? I’m not trained in this, and you realize that the writing is so unbelievably beautiful and powerful, you go from, Oh my God. I’m going up against Ralph Fiennes, to … I cannot wait to go head-to-head with Ralph Fiennes! And I know that I can do it. I did spend time onstage. I wasn’t trained, but I did spend time in the West End of London doing a few plays. It’s not about the training; it’s about the writing, and it’s just about trusting in yourself and that warrior that you have inside you. There’s just something — I wouldn’t say primal, it’s further along than that, but something very powerful I find in the older ideas of nobility and strength and courage. Then part of it is just acting. Maybe it’s a Scottish thing or British thing.