Interview: Gerard Butler, actor

For a long time Gerard Butler was floundering, trying to find his way in life. But acting proved his salvation.

G erard BUTLER is remembering the good old days. And the bad ones. “I had a fantastic mother – very strong, powerful, loving,” he says. A single parent, Margaret Butler raised the future actor and his two older siblings in Paisley after his father Edward left when Gerard was two. Edward reappeared when Butler was 16. Father and son began reconciling, but when Butler was 22, Edward was diagnosed with terminal cancer. “She did such an amazing job bringing us up,” he continues. “But at the same time it was a weird upbringing.

“We weren’t brought up with a lot of money. But I always thought there was an elegant class to my mum. We lived in a neighbourhood that didn’t feel like it had much of that. There were a lot of tough kids who didn’t seem to live by any rules or respect. And that [brought out] the other side of my mum – she was an absolute lion. She was not scared of anybody.”

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These days, Mrs Butler lives in Highland Perthshire. Her house is situated on a parcel of land bought by her son with some of the millions of dollars he has made from films such as 300, PS I Love You, that one with Jennifer Aniston and that one with Katherine Heigl. A few of his films – the romcoms especially – might be rather forgettable. But they have made an awful lot of money at the box office, and turned the former apprentice lawyer into one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.

True to portfolio-swelling, A-lister form, Butler has his own financial holding company, Comrie Inc, named after the picturesque, sleepy town where his mum now lives. But back in the Butlers’ hard-scrabble Renfrewshire of the 1970s and early 1980s, she would face off thugs who were chucking stones at their windows. “I was so proud of her, if you like, Leonidas attitude,” the 41-year-old says, likening his mum to the muscle-bound warrior he played in 2007’s 300, the daftly gripping and grippingly daft fantasy epic that catapulted him to stardom. “She would stick by principles and not let it go. If people were doing wrong she’d stand up.”

Her son, by his own admission, was a bit wobblier on his own two feet. As a lad, he was in trouble with the police a few times, “as you do, for smashing windows or something”. On one occasion, a senior police officer threatened him with jail. His lioness mum, outraged at the over-reaction, duly phoned the local chief inspector and had him visit the Butlers’ house to apologise to her son.

Still, balance was always a big problem for big Gerry. He’d been dux and head boy at St Mirin’s and St Margaret’s High School. He got five As and two Bs in his Highers, and one SYS. He could have taken any university degree he wanted, pursued any career. “I had no imagination. It was easy to do the things that were in front of me.” So he took a law degree at Glasgow University, a no-brainer option for the brainy boy from the nearby comprehensive. “But the problem is, that feeds a lethargy. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. I couldn’t say in my heart that I was really excited about being a lawyer. That was the constant inner turmoil I had.”

Post-graduation, after his partying and lack of discipline spiralled out of control, he was fired by an Edinburgh legal firm the week before he qualified. The next day he moved to London. He fancied an acting career, even though he only had “a couple of connections”, barely any experience, and hadn’t been to drama school. “I’m this kid who turns up, drinking like a fish, trying to get sober. And deciding I want to be an actor.”

Why was he drinking like a fish? “Who knows,” he shrugs. “I think there was a million reasons. I lived in a culture of drinking. And when I discovered drinking I think it allowed me to vent all of the things I had inside.”

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He refuses to draw a direct causal link between the absence of his father for most of his childhood. But clearly he was all over the shop. At university, he admits he was like “a puppy dog, and I wanted to be everybody’s friend. And I got the nickname Gerry Superficial Bastard Butler – it was printed in a law magazine,” he laughs.

His friends, though, understood him better than he understood himself. “The people that knew me really well said, ‘On the outside, you’re such a fun-loving guy, but on the inside you have a lot of issues and you’re actually quite shy.’ And I did often feel that.”

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Within six months of his move to London, Butler had his first professional job. Within nine months, he was the lead in a stage adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. “And within a year, I was back playing Renton on the same stage [where] I had watched the play a year before, at the Edinburgh Festival, a week before I was fired. I swear to you on my life, I had watched the guy [in the Renton role] and said, ‘I know I can do this, and it’s breaking my heart.’”

I first met Butler in Los Angeles in 2007. He had been the Next Big Thing for some time, but none of his hyped films – The Phantom of the Opera, Beowulf, the second Tomb Raider film – had done the business. Still, he’d made enough money to buy homes in London, Los Angeles and New York. He’d been living in California on and off since 2000, and his accent had changed a little. As he had swapped one west coast for another, “studio” and had become “stoodio” and “personality” had softened into “personalidee”.

As we had lunch at an outdoor café in West Hollywood, the actor was pumped up with all the months of training for 300, and carried a dainty wee dog, a miniature pug called Lolita. He looked every bit the movie-star-in-waiting, and had the leather-jacketed gobbiness to match. The release of his blockbuster film was still a few weeks away. It was the calm before the storm. 300 was ‘testing’ well with preview audiences. “It scored the highest for any Warner Brothers movie in 75 years,” he puffed. “The Matrix got 73 – we got 94. It beat the original Superman movie.”

As he inhaled burgers and cigarettes with equal gusto, at the getting-on-a-bit age of 37 Butler looked and sounded like a man eager for his close-up. Still, he was a man with a past. With the obligatory zeal of the reformed hellraiser, he proudly totted up his achievements in sobriety: it was “nine years and one month” since he last had an alcoholic drink. He would never drink again, and no, he didn’t miss it. “I’m at the stage where I’ve never had a drink,” he told me. “I have no connection to it whatsoever.

“The smoking is my next battle. But we’re born on earth to be set with these challenges,” said the man who had recently discovered a new addiction: self-help books and meditation. “I’m on a spiritual quest,” he nodded sagely.

Still, I reminded him that he once said, “At 24, I thought dying might be a relief.” Sitting here in Hollywood, seemingly about to finally break really big, did the actor remember or recognise that older, younger version of himself? “Yeah, because I’ve had to go back into that a lot with different roles. And I also try and remember it as a way of feeling grateful for this life.

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“I lost my way. All my energy would go into a particular area, and when it went into negativity it was just eating me alive. All I could think about was the nothingness of life. I had ruined my [legal] career. I had gone down to London to be an actor. I was kidding myself on. I was still struggling with everything. And I felt like I couldn’t climb out of those dark moments. It got to the stage that, when I was drinking, people would say, ‘It’s like you’re trying to kill yourself.’ I’d be hanging off buildings, throwing myself in front of cars. I had a big thing for smashing glasses off my head. I was,” he snorted, “crazy.”

This time round, I meet him in a hotel suite in Soho, central London. He’s back in the UK to promote his new film, Machine Gun Preacher, about a religious man who goes after bad guys with bullets. Butler is the titular hero. It sounds like comic-book fiction, but is in fact a true story. It spins the yarn of an American named Sam Childers, a violent drug-dealer and drug-user, a motorbiker bad-boy from Pennsylvania who one day has a religious epiphany. Turning to God, he turns his life around. Not for Childers a stint in rehab and a new nine-to-five life of holier-than-thou respectability. He goes the whole way.

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In 1998, having already established a church in his home town for reformed bikers, he travelled to Sudan. Witnessing the plight of the children there, he determined to do something about it and so built an orphanage. As the film title suggests, he would protect his new wards from rampaging soldiers by any means necessary.

Although this is no comic-book story, the film – directed by Marc Forster (whose last project was 2008’s James Bond outing Quantum of Solace) – sometimes plays out like one. Butler is chunkily efficient in the role of rough, tough, rootin’, shootin’ Childers. He wears a grimy vest and handles a big gun with sweaty aplomb. At a pacy 93 minutes, it’s just short enough.

Presumably Butler – who’s also an executive producer – wanted to make a film that was subtle and empathetic to the plight of the African kids for whom Childers was, literally, a life-saver. Was he also wary of making a film that was just Rambo in a dog collar? “No,” he chuckles as he settles his meaty frame into the stiff-backed chair, “it isn’t just a Rambo. This guy has so many different facets to his personalidee.” In the four years since we last met, the accent has slipped deeper into Transatlantic waters. “A lot of which are dark, a lot of which are less appetising.

“He’s been selfish and negligent at times. Some of his decisions came perhaps from the wrong place … But at the same time, he’s a man with a huge amount of humanidee, who has a huge amount of courage. Mixed with a little bit of insanidee. You put all that together and you do get a more, as you say, subtle, empathetic character and story. It isn’t just all about shooting ’em up.

“Well,” he laughs, mindful of the scenes where his character injects himself with heroin in a grubby bar bathroom, “that has a double meaning in this. And I think that’s why the movie grabs you. Because when you expect it to go into that ‘white man in Africa saving the kids’ angle, it also shows a man struggling still with himself, with the world, with God, with money, with family.”

Could Butler relate? He has now not had a drink for 11 years, and has managed to kick the fags. Did he draw on his own memories of being a tearaway? He replies that it’s a mixture – of acting, and of “using that kinda sense memory of where you’ve been …”

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Of when he was a heid-the-baw? “Yeah,” he laughs. To his credit, for all his wealth, status, array of homes and Hollywood swagger, he won’t airbrush his challenging, stop-start past, or deny that he was a bit of a boozy nutter. And he reveals a flash of his argy-bargy side when describing the “piranhas” of the paparazzi who can make his life a misery in LA or London.

“Yeah,” he continues, when he read the script, he could say, “‘I know I’ve been here before. I remember what that’s like.’ But Sam felt like an extreme example of where I’d been in my life. Of course I didn’t end up in Africa building an orphanage and fighting for the kids. But without a doubt ... somebody who didn’t really know his way in life.”

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During the interview, Butler didn’t initially make clear whether that “somebody” was the Paisley boy or the real-life machine gun preacher. Listening back to the tape later, I realised he was referring to himself. He had “a lot of kicking and screaming to do. Going through a very painful process of really growing up and taking on life’s responsibilities – to become somebody who didn’t just find a purpose but found an inspired purpose, and something that really required a one-in-a-million effort. And for me that was actually acting, that was taking on the world for me. For him it was Africa.”

Which – unless we’re still underestimating the depths of young Butler’s naughtiness and despair – might be overegging the pudding in terms of acting’s powers of salvation. But as he tells me this, I can’t fault Butler’s passion and conviction. When the occasion merits it, he’s a good actor.

It’s not hard to understand why Ralph Fiennes cast the Scotsman in the upcoming Coriolanus, a modern, bloody, bellicose, Serbia-set adaptation of the play usually described as Shakespeare’s noisiest. It’s a neat slice of symmetry: a bit part in a Steven Berkoff production of Coriolanus was one of the first acting jobs the 27-year-old Butler landed in London.

He started late, but look how far he has come. He’s now a proper Hollywood hyphenate, an actor/producer – he has a production company called Evil Twins – whose name is big enough to help projects get the green light. Did pulling executive producer duties on Machine Gun Preacher mean more dosh? “You know what?” he splutters. “The funny thing is, this movie is the least dosh I’ve made in seven years of making movies.” He smiles, and I think he means seven years of making big Hollywood movies.

Last year, he adds, “was the least dosh I made. I went off and did a Shakespeare movie and this. And they were both – well, these weren’t movies to buy yachts with”.

Does the man who recently bought a $3.25 million Spanish villa in Los Feliz in Los Angeles (previous owners: actress Geena Davis and the mother of Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss) already own a yacht? Doesn’t he now command a fee of between $15 million and $20 million per movie? “That’s so not true,” he smiles. “I love that they just make up these figures. If I was making $15 to $20 million per movie I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you. I would be on a yacht in the Bahamas. That so nowhere near the truth.”

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Equally lacking in veracity, he insists, are slavering media reports of his love life. He has been linked with pretty much all his co-stars, and even people he has never met. “There was one about Paris Hilton, which was great – they said it was very clear that we had this massive attraction to each other by the way that, at this event we were both at, we didn’t look at each other the whole night.”

For the record, Gerard Butler might be living the dream, but he’s currently single. The most important woman in his life – apart from his mum, who’s down in London visiting while he’s in the UK – is Lolita, that wee dog. “Ha!” he laughs. “She is actually. She’s the coolest dog ever. Everybody that comes across her says she has the best personality for a dog.”

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Is a wee dog a good stress ball for a hard-working, teetotal Hollywood A-lister with no girlfriend? He grins. “Yeah. If I’ve had a bad day, there’s nothing like coming home and being able to kick your dog.”

His accent might have slipped its moorings, but at least Gerard Butler’s stoutly Scottish sense of humour brings him back to earth.

• Machine Gun Preacher is in cinemas now; Coriolanus is being released on 20 January

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