GERARD Butler has had a busy month. Dubai, Toronto, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Oslo. And Scotland.
He celebrated his 43rd birthday last month and knew he had to do it in the motherland, so he made a stopover on his way back to the US, where he lives between New York and LA.
Born and raised in Paisley, for Butler, Scotland is “a break” from a life lived 24/7, a place where he can “get out and breathe and be a part of the mountains, glens and lochs”. As such, he visits as often as he can, and today – a grey December morning in a bare hotel room in London – he can’t stop raving about a “magical” Highland trip he took in the summer.
“I just made it up as I went along,” he says excitedly. The adventure took him from a “haunted room” in Loch Lomond to Inverlochy Castle via various pitstops: “I was begging for a B&B at 1am in Plockton because everywhere was full and the barmaid ended up saying, ‘well, I have a B&B in another town if you want to come and stay there?’ It was nuts. A lot of my best trips have been those ones in Scotland where you never quite know they’re going to happen.”
He recalls another: “I was on my way to the airport and it just felt too soon. It was really breaking my heart. You know that feeling that only thinking about your country can ever give you, those butterflies?” He puts his hand on his heart.
“I was on the phone with my agent saying, ‘why am I leaving?’ And they said, ‘well don’t leave. Stay’. So I got to Edinburgh Airport and I carried on driving. I drove right through to Perth, went into an outdoors store and bought a tent and walking boots and spent the next few days camping and walking.”
Start him on the green green grass of home and he’s got plenty to say.
Perhaps it was, in part, that link to Scotland – and to certain boyhood sporting fantasies – that attracted him to his latest role; that of an ex-Celtic star, George, now living in the US and trying to get his life and family back together in romcom Playing For Keeps.
George has an ex-wife, Stacie (Jessica Biel) and a young son, Lewis, with whom he’s desperately trying to reunite after fame and fortune chewed him up and spat him out. Stepping in to coach his son’s failing football team builds bridges, but he has to contend with the unwanted attention of a string of bored “soccer moms” played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, Uma Thurman and Judy Greer. Hi jinks inevitably ensue as he tries desperately to do the right thing in the face of considerable temptation.
George is not a bad guy, and never has been. Rather, he was propelled to fame in his youth and enjoyed all the perks that came with it before realising – possibly too late in his case – what really matters. Butler, who studied law at Glasgow University but was fired from Edinburgh law firm Morton Fraser a week before he qualified, came to fame later in life but sees some parallels between George’s experience and his own.
“It’s easy enough for anybody to identify with that part of your life … and especially in the realm of fame, which definitely lends itself more to areas that deal far more with your ego, your vanity, and fun, celebration, living it up and quick fixes. That can stop your growth as a human being in terms of how you mature emotionally. It takes extra work, I think, to grow up in that world and I can identify with that. I’ve had to deal with fame and all the trappings that go with it.
“You have to remember what is important in your life. You go through different chapters. You go through times where you get perhaps too caught up in it, where you get so sick of it and then you make your peace with it and you appreciate it for what it is. I think I’ve been there for a while.”
Here, today, he seems pretty at peace, despite having a gruelling three-day press junket ahead of him. Dressed in casual, slim-fitting neutrals and looking tanned and toned, he is all ease, silliness and surprisingly high-pitched giggles.
He talks excitedly about home, about work, about a recent gig he took presenting the Nobel Peace Prize Concert. He throws his jacket on the floor with a faux-dramatic flourish when he finds that all the furniture in the room bar two chairs and a table have been removed, leaving him nowhere to put it. And he cracks a joke to his publicist that the bed has been removed because they never know what he might get up to.
Famously jovial, notoriously flirtatious and with a tendency to squeeze every last drop out of life, Butler makes for boisterous company.
He even laughs loudly and politely when a sloppily worded question from me comes across, entirely unintentionally, as a rather audacious insult.
His roles have at times mirrored elements of his own personality, as he’s played loveable rogues in The Ugly Truth, The Bounty Hunter and PS I Love You. Darker, meatier parts have included a criminal seeking redemption in Machine Gun Preacher and a father bent on revenge in Law Abiding Citizen.
Then there was Tullus Aufidius in last year’s critically-acclaimed Coriolanus and, of course, the role that made him world famous, King Leonidas in 2007’s ab-tastic 300. Most of his projects to date have tended to fire up audiences more than they have critics, but the fact remains that he is one of Hollywood’s most bankable British film stars.
I ask him about the romcoms, about what makes him return to the genre repeatedly, and the question seems to irritate him a little. “There are only so many genres,” he says with a smile. He gets similar questions, he says, about his action flicks. He patiently lists for me some of his projects of which he is “very proud” but which fall into neither category and didn’t reach a large audience. “I do all sorts of movies but the ones that most people hear about are the romcoms and the action movies.” Enough said.
Playing for Keeps sees him showing off some pretty impressive ball skills. In the opening frames George scores for Celtic, then Liverpool, in a series of flashbacks to his career heyday. Later, he works his son’s football team into a frenzy showing off his abilities. As someone who is a fanatical Celtic supporter and loves a kickabout there must have been elements of the dream role to it?
“Oh yeah. I got to partake in all that soccer training and work with great soccer, um football players. F***ing ‘soccer’. Football players.” He says it again as if to drum it home to himself. You can take the boy out of Paisley, it appears, but you can’t make him call football ‘soccer’. “I got to play a sport that I love,” he continues, “that I don’t get to play so much any more and then to pretend for a moment that I was actually a Celtic player and a Liverpool player...”
He shrugs in an it-doesn’t-get-much-better-than-that way.
He is nothing if not hands on. For 300 he built abs so impressive that some suggested they must have had a little help from CGI (they hadn’t). And in December last year, while filming surf movie Chasing Mavericks, he was hospitalised after being pulled under enormous waves.
Three weeks after the accident – which nearly killed him – he checked into a pain-management programme at the Betty Ford Clinic. He says he has a “pretty addictive personality” and the move was a precautionary one, since he didn’t want to become reliant on prescription painkillers.
He has said of the seconds he was held beneath the waves that he believed he was going to die. I suggest that experiencing a moment wherein you think you have breathed your last breath has got to be something that fundamentally changes a person. Has it changed him?
He thinks carefully. “Here’s the thing; if I look at my life, I’ve come close a few times, sometimes in heroic ways and other times going ‘how did that happen?’ Because I was a big risk taker when I was younger. I was the kind of guy who found myself jumping around the edge of buildings for a lark 46 storeys up and hanging off cruise ships in the middle of the ocean. For a lark. I’ve done a lot of stupid things...”
Stupid things in the name of your art are another matter, perhaps. As long as you live to tell the tale, that is. Which, of course, he did.
The Chasing Mavericks experience was, he says, “the scariest thing imaginable”.
He sits further forward in his chair. “That sea, it’s like she holds you down and says, ‘OK, I’m going to let you up. Maybe. But I don’t have to. I could keep you here forever.’ And I’ll tell you what got me; what was bizarre was that it was still me. My lungs were bursting.
“I was in so much pain. There was a huge amount of fear, terror. But I always thought when you’re in a situation like that it must be like in a dream or it wouldn’t really feel like it’s you it’s happening to. But it was me.”
He presses both fists against his chest to punctuate his point. He’s worked through the pain and the fear and the memories of the experience, and now it’s a story to dine out on. I hang on his every word as he describes being pummelled and churned by the waves, feeling like he desperately needed to gasp for air just one third of the way through the ordeal.
The energy of those waves stayed with Butler for some time. He’d “wake up in a cold sweat” or suddenly find himself back in that moment. What stays with him today is a sense of his own mortality: “It all felt so normal and it suddenly made me realise that death is very normal. It can just happen like that.” He clicks his fingers for emphasis.
“When you say the words ‘destiny’ or ‘fate’ or even just ‘death’, you put it in another realm, another dimension, but actually it’s not. It sits within you and it’s kind of strange when that reality grabs you.”
On that observation, our time is up. He shakes my hand and takes a gulp of the now-cold, almost-untouched latte sitting in front of him. He’ll need it, I think. I’m the first of many people who want a piece of him today and London is one of many cities Butler will find himself in this month.
No wonder he said, when he first walked into this empty room and dropped his jacket on the floor, “I don’t really know where I am at the moment”. Still, if he needs a break, if he wants to “get out and breathe”, he knows where to go.
And all he needs are those walking boots and that tent.
Playing for Keeps is released on 1 January.