He ditched his suits and briefs for a life of villains, spooks, and vampires. Now he’s the man behind the mask

Gerard Butler: he ditched his suits and briefs for a life of villains, spooks, and vampires. Now he’s the man behind the mask

Emily Mortimer

Taking on the titular role in Joel Schumacher’s new film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, which Michael Crawford made famous on the stage, would be a tall order for any actor. But thankfully, broad-shouldered, 6-foot-4 Gerard Butler was more than up to the task. It’s a watershed performance for the 35-year-old Scot, who has quietly built a reputation for bringing a depth to complicated, often quixotic lead characters in smaller eponymous films like Dracula 2000 and Attila (2001). But now Butler’s profile is about to become more concomitant with his physical stature with his roles in Phantom and another new film, Dear Frankie, in which he portrays a mysterious man who masquerades as a child’s long-lost father to a hapless single mom played by Emily Mortimer. She caught up with Butler in Iceland, on the set of his latest movie, Beowulf & Grendel.

EMILY MORTIMER: So, The Phantom of the Opera–I want you to tell me all about it. But first, you didn’t really know you could sing before you started working on it, did you?

GERARD BUTLER: Well, I had sung in a rock band before, so I knew I could hold a couple of notes; but that was just for fun, and there was a lot of screaming. For pleasure, I’d always preferred to sing ballads and more emotional music. So, strangely enough, when Phantom came along, it just seemed to make sense. I took two lessons before I met Joel. I didn’t want to embarrass myself because I felt that eventually I’d have to sing for both Joel and Andrew Lloyd Webber. So, I wound up at Andrew’s house, singing in a room that wasn’t really designed for singing, with Andrew sitting at the back. And I thought to myself, “What am I doin’ here? I can’t sing.” [laughs] It was awful. As you know, all of this happened while we were filming Dear Frankie together.

EM: Yes, I remember. Every time there was a break, I’d see you standing with your head in your hands, singing to your shoes. [laughs] You also talked about how you really related to the sadness in the Phantom, and that you used that to ground him in reality.

GB: That was something both Joel and I agreed on. The role of the Phantom always seemed very theatrical, and I didn’t really get it until I listened to the music. It was then that I really understood the human element of his journey, his longing for love and companionship. Here was a man who had so much to give, and in so many ways had just been reviled by everybody. I think in the lonelier points of my own life, I’ve either felt that or been scared that I could find myself in that place.

EM: Your characters always have names like “the Phantom” or “Attila” or “Dracula” or “Beowulf,” who you’re playing now. Do you have a secret yearning to play an accountant called Brian?

GB: [laughs] Well, the upshot is that most of those characters have been title roles.

EM: Then I really want to see you in a movie called Brian. [Butler laughs] We’ve also got to talk about Dear Frankie, in which your character is called, of all things, “the Stranger.” Every woman journalist who talks to me about this movie has asked me what it was like kissing Gerry Butler.

GB: Sorry. Hold up–How was it kissing Gerry Butler?

EM: It was excellent, especially in retrospect because I’ve been making all these women so furious with jealously. What was it like for you going back to Scotland and shooting there?

GB: It was amazing just hangin’ out in Glasgow and catchin’ up with old friends, because now that my parents have moved to the Highlands, I usually only just pass through. Going to Glasgow really recharges my batteries.

EM: Do any of your friends think you’ve gotten all la-di-da and movie star-ish since you’ve left?

GB: Well, I have.

EM: [laughs] Which is interesting since I know that you came into acting quite late in life. You were a lawyer beforehand. Your mom must have been appalled!

GB: [laughs] Well, it was worse than that because I was actually fired from a big law firm in Edinburgh. I had been such a high-flyer up until that point–I was president of my class, tops at my school, I landed a top job with a top firm. But I was miserable. I was drinkin’ too much, and I knew in my heart that being a lawyer was not what I wanted to do. Anyway, at one point I had missed work so often that I was on my final warning–and strangely enough, a week before, I’d gone to see Trainspotting, the play, at the Edinburgh Festival, and had my heart broken watching this guy play the lead, Renton, thinking, I know I can do this. So after I missed work again, they let me go. I had to call my mom that night and say, “I know you thought I was going to be a lawyer, but I’m not. I’ve just been fired.”

EM: And now I’m going to be a poncey actor!

GB: [both laugh] That literally happened the next day. I packed my bags and moved down to London. It was like free-falling, but there was something incredibly thrilling about it. One day I heard they were auditioning for Trainspotting and recasting the role of Renton. I had no agent, so I took a little photo of myself and wrote my number on it. The director called me up, and I went in and read from the book, playing two parts, jumping from seat to seat; I spent the next half hour convincing him that I wasn’t really on drugs. I ended up getting the job, so a year later, I was back at Edinburgh doing Trainspotting. Even the people from the law firm came to see it. They loved it.

EM: That sounds like a movie we should make: a lawyer who jacks it all to become an actor.

GB: Yeah. We could call it What the Butler Saw.

EM: I think we should call it Brian.

Emily Mortimer can next be seen in the upcoming Dear Frankie.

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