Butler's Irish Eyes Are Smiling
Gerard Butler has much to be thankful for, Dracula 2000 for one. Dashing, witty and masculine, Butler seems the perfect phantom in the screen version of Phantom of the Opera. Also to be seen in Dear Frankie and Beowulf, Gerard Butler is a star on the rise, but a modest one, who talked to PAUL FISCHER in New York.,
Paul Fischer: You must be very thankful for "Dracula 2000" if you believe the press notes, apparently was that movie that Joel Schumacher saw...
Gerard Butler: There were six films in the cinema and he'd seen all of them, so he said, "Oh, shit, we might as well go see 'Dracula.' He tells me the story anyway. It just goes to show you that it can be one character you take, one movie that somebody sees something that inspires them.
PF: What's the fun of playing these iconic characters? You've done Dracula, Beowulf and now this?
GB: I probably should have thought about this because it's quite a common question. The answer is I really don't know. I just know that when I read a script that I fascinating and I love taking a claim into the darkness of the soul, but I just don't know how to explain it. Not just to be bad to be bad and to be entertaining, but be bad and try to...If you try to sympathize and realize why he's bad and does the things he does an audience can connect with that and sympathize with that character.
PF: The movie goes far more into the background of the character than stage play. How important was that element that we got to know what drove the Phantom?
GB: That's a disconnect I had with the stage play as well even though I loved it. 's very entertaining and at the end quite moving. I read the script fortunately before I ever saw the stage play, therefore it was completely fresh to me when I saw Joel's interpretation, which is obviously so much more emotionally complex. When I connect with something, I already imagine myself playing that role and I knew the direction and the feeling I could give it. It's a much more exciting prospect, because if something moves me I'm no different than anyone else. The same with 'Dear Frankie' when I read that script, I thought can I be so wrong? If this is so moving and profound to me than surely if I could in a simple way, and never more than in 'Dear Frankie,' you know I know this guy. I'm not good at working, working it and than technically try and make something I instinctively feel.
PF: But with The Phantom, you also had the danger of stepping into Michael 's shoes in the role he is so closely identified with. Were you surprised when they first came to you with this?
GB: I was very surprised when they first came to me with this, because I'm not a singer. I can sing, I've been singing for a long while, but I never had a singing lesson in my life. When they approached me, I had sung for fun in a rock band when I was training as a lawyer. But that was about as good as it gets. So when they came to me I thought, 'Why, I'm too young.' And I didn't come from a musical background. So I was surprised until I read the script and what I connected with, I could see. I also know, that was my surprise, Joel Schumacher who I knew, we were friends, if there was one thing about Joel it's he's a genius for casting. I thought 'There must be something going on here, he must have some reason for coming to me, and then when I read it I understood and then I talked with him and he explained wanting to bring the whole age down, I could see the genius of that. I think it's all the more heartbreaking for the Phantom because he's a man in the prime of his life. Therefore, he's denied sexually, intimately. I think it's more heartbreaking when you know he's already had his story, so he's already been through a lot of that pain, but here he still has so much to offer in everyway but this love is not for him, which killed me in every way.
PF: What do you think the appeal of this movie will be to 18-to-25-year-olds who are not accustomed to classical musicals, which this one is, not like "Chicago?"
GB: I'll tell you something; to me, I'm an actor, I do something because it touches me and then you'd expect to understand why something is in terms of the public. If I were to offer something up, it would be the same reasons it touched me. We are all at heart romantic and passionate and there is nothing like a dark romance to stir us up, no matter what age you are. On top of that, this movie has everything. It has a lot of old Hollywood and it feels like an old musical, but at the same time it's vibrant and alive and beautiful and lush, it has a great energy because that's what Joel is great at getting. Cinematically, it's a treat. The music appeals to all ages. When I walk past 'The Phantom' here in New York, I can't believe how many kids are going to the theater. So it's obviously their story and it appeals to everyone. And the movie makes it more accessible because of the cost. A lot of kids don't go to the theater because of the cost, but now they can go see it in the cinema and claim it. This movie has recreated the world of the Phantom, of the Paris Opera House in a dark, luscious (way). And you can claim it and abandon yourself to a romantic, tragic love story, but it's also....I forgot what I was going to say.
PF: What was your experience of meeting Andrew Lloyd Webber? Talking to us, he seemed a little nervous and shy.
GB: Yeah, I think he was nervous. You know, the thing is, I treated this in my head as an interesting, independent production, which it was. That helped me not get too nervous about it. And I also knew, this is a great philosophy, I work very, very hard as an actor. The second I knew, even before I met Joel, I was working with a vocal coach taking singing lessons, even before I knew how interested he was in me for the role. And then after that, I always knew I could sing or not. I'll put in as much work as I can and then the experts will tell me whether I can handle this kind of singing or I can't. So that didn't make me nervous; it was either a yes or no. I think acting is much more difficult; it's a comment on your soul. I think a bad acting audition can go far worse than a singing audition. You have a page and notes that you can stick to. If you're not good, you can lose 20 percent, but me at a bad acting audition, I can loss 300 percent or I can fly. So therefore, I wasn't nervous until I stood by the piano and then enormity of what I was trying to achieve (stuck him), and my mind went, 'No, this isn't an interesting, independent movie. This is 'The Phantom of the Opera,' probably the biggest musical of all time.' And then I'm singing 'Music of the Night,' one of the most famous song of all-time, sung and made famous by someone who isn't me, in front of the composer, one of the most famous composers of all-time. All those things went through my mind and then my legs started shaking. Simon Lee was playing the piano and he was (Butler imitated his gasping). It was like a comedy act, he was telling me to breath, but he kept (again gasping). I kept singing, and, of course, I'm my own worst critic. I thought I'd sung terribly, but Andrew really dug it.
PF: How pleased are you with the finished product?
GB: I'm blown away by it. I always felt like we were doing something special, but even I didn't know the extraordinary amount of vision and talent that had gone into it. I thought when I saw it, 'When did he do that? Where did he do that?' And I loved that, because when I finish a film and go see it, I almost wish I wasn't in it because you get too caught up being too vain about your performance. I loved this movie so much I thought 'I wish I wasn't in this film, because I could relax and enjoy it.'
PF: So much of your performance is through music that is a unique form of expression?
GB: To be honest, I think a lot of my jobs as an actor have been tough, like the one I just did in Iceland, because of the conditions or tight schedule. But I would have to say, this was the most difficult because of the emotional journey factor. The actors that do it on stage, God love 'em, eight times a week. But the emotional breakdown for six weeks, 15 hours a day, I was going insane, screaming, and crying. I was really in that space. I was a bit of a basket case by the end of it. So there was emotional roller coaster that I knew I was going to have when I started the job, and then, of course, there was the singing which was an added pressure. In fact, sometimes it become harder, because the tireder you'd get you were still always recording. I was filming all day and then I was still working on songs and recording. It was getting worse because my voice was getting tireder. Yeah, there was so much I wanted to say through the voice, because you don't get the chance to be so physically, theatrically expressive. Therefore, to me, the voice is subtle movement and I did a lot of movement classes to understand. I knew the voice was probably the main means of communication, so I wanted to become as technically good as I could. Honestly, I wanted to hear his life story in every note, which therefore I think weakens him up in the beginning because I always felt even through "Music of the Night" that even in his more seductive moments it was tinged with pain. Like he always knew this wasn't going to be for him. It was a controlled yet desperate attempt at something he knew he wasn't going to have any luck in. Maybe it was too much, but it was my instinctive feeling when I first read it I would think, "This is so said." Joel would say, "But this is so sexy." Somewhere along the way, we managed to get them both in there. That's one of the most exciting things. If you can do "Point of No Return" which is so heartbreaking and so fuckin' sexy and sensual and lusty and yet tragic and yet when you can feel both those things at the same time, they are almost like warring emotions. It's like, for instance, you watch a movie like "Billy Elliot." It gets you laughing and crying at the same time. That's the experience I had when I watch "Point of No Return." In the finale, when I looked into the eyes of Patrick Wilson, who is such an exceptional and truthful actor, I could see this man dying in front of me with nothing, it broke my heart, and yet, I wanted to kill him. I wanted to kill someone (He raised his voice), but to be breaking your heart about it at the same time, that's when my fate playing these villainous characters is so fascinating.
P.F: Can you tell me about you're experience in Iceland? How was it? (filming "Beowulf & Grendel" adapted from the Angelo-Saxon epic poem that inspired J.R.R. Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings" Butler plays the Norse warrior Beowulf, who is pitted against the great and murderous troll, Grendel).
GB: To this day, probably Iceland and Scotland will be my two of the most memorable countries. It's so up my alley, everything is so raw and primal. I was carried away by landscapes you ''t believe exist on this planet. The people really surprised me. It's a very artistic community without an ego. They are just all down to earth and I worked under some of the most difficult filming conditions. I was working at zero degrees centigrade soaking wet for two nights. I was filming on glacier rivers. One day, eight car windows were blown in by flying rocks and our base camp was blown away five times. It was insane. There was one scene where four actors were blown three feet off their marks by one gust of wind. We were trying to film under the most insane conditions, and for those reasons it was harder, but those experiences stay with you so much stronger. I also loved the story and being able to stick to those landscapes.
PF: Did you get to go to the Blue Lagoon?
GB: I got to go to the Blue Lagoon and the geysers and the hot springs, went up on the glaciers. I'm actually one of the few people on this planet who can claim to be on a snowmobile with (co-star) Stellan Skarsgard feeling my breasts. "Nice pecs, boy!" (laughing). I saw the Northern Lights while listening to Cigaros. (sp?) I don't know if you know who they are. They are like a special experience, to look up and watch the Northern Lights flying across the sky while listening to Cigaros, you understand why understand why those Icelandic people play music with so much more soul. It's not necessarily beautiful, it's just profound.
PF: What about this take on "Beowulf?" interested you?
GB: It's a very unusual retelling, unlike the poem, what you realize, the audience has already had the advantage of meeting the troll. In a way it's a metaphor for racism. Grendel comes from another race that humans don't understand. Beowulf wants to fight and Grendel doesn't want to fight, so he's left in this standoff position with an enemy who he starts to appreciate. It's not really an enemy, but something that's more beautiful and pure than half of the human beings. And yet they're on this inevitable path towards conflict. It's one of the most fascinating, unusual stories I ever read. A whole new language has been created in the vein of the sagas. It's told almost dispassionate, but yet it creates such emotion to witness. Even if the movie doesn't do business, I'm so glad I did it.
PF: What were some of the psychological effects of wearing the Phantom's mask?
GB: You know what? There's good and bad and then you try to use the bad for the good. It's very weird to be sticking a mask in your face after you've worked so hard on the character. And then after that you have to try to sing on screen and make that believable. To really feel your performance and lip-sync, it's bizarre, but then if it was bizarre for me, it was bizarre for him. So you just trust that that's something you have to deal with and he has to deal with. At the same time, you enjoy that experience because to put on that mask is a very empowering experiencing. You can see it. That mask has a very ominous, powerful physical presence and you get to know that by spending a lot of time looking into the mirror. And then the many hours of prosthetic makeup I had to go through would make me psychologically screwed up. Gluing my eye was torture. By the time they finished and you've been looking in the mirror you really are not in the best shape, so you're ready to go bite somebody's head off, and it's also heartbreaking because you're realizing what it must be like. So all the things you have to deal with and the struggles you go through help to create your character.
PF: Do you think Miramax will release "Dear Frankie?"
GB: Yes, yes they are, it's a great film.
PF: Are you anything like your characters?
GB: I'm so incredibly not like those characters. I'm easy going and happy.
PF: You're not the sexy guy?
GB: Not sexy in the slightest.
The Phantom Of The Opera opens on Wednesday.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.