BUTLER'S EYES ARE SMILING.Interview by Paul Fischer in New York.
Gerard Butler has much to be thankful for, Dracula 2000 for one. Dashing,witty and masculine, Butler seems the perfect phantom in the screen versionof Phantom of the Opera. Also to be seen in Dear Frankie and Beowulf, GerardButler is a star on the rise, but a modest one, who talked to PAUL FISCHERin New York.
Paul Fischer: You must be very thankful for "Dracula 2000" if you believethe 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 thestory anyway. It just goes to show you that it can be one character youtake, one movie that somebody sees something that inspires them.
P.F: What's the fun of playing these iconic characters? You've doneDracula, Beowulf and now this?
GB: I probably should have thought about this because it's quite a commonquestion. The answer is I really don't know. I just know that when I read ascript that I fascinating and I love taking a claim into the darkness of thesoul, but I just don't know how to explain it. Not just to be bad to be badand to be entertaining, but be bad and try to.If you try to sympathize andrealize why he's bad and does the things he does an audience can connectwith that and sympathize with that character.
P.F: The movie goes far more into the background of the character thanstage play. How important was that element that we got to know what drovethe Phantom?
GB: That's a disconnect I had with the stage play as well even though Iloved it. It's very entertaining and at the end quite moving. I read thescript fortunately before I ever saw the stage play, therefore it wascompletely fresh to me when I saw Joel's interpretation, which is obviouslyso much more emotionally complex. When I connect with something, I alreadyimagine myself playing that role and I knew the direction and the feeling Icould give it. It's a much more exciting prospect, because if somethingmoves 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 movingand profound to me than surely if I could in a simple way, and never morethan 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.
P.F: But with The Phantom, you also had the danger of stepping intoMichael Crawford's shoes in the role he is so closely identified with. Wereyou surprised when they first came to you with this?
GB: I was very surprised when they first came to me with this, because I'mnot a singer. I can sing, I've been singing for a long while, but I neverhad a singing lesson in my life. When they approached me, I had sung for funin a rock band when I was training as a lawyer. But that was about as goodas it gets. So when they came to me I thought, 'Why, I'm too young.' And Ididn't come from a musical background. So I was surprised until I read thescript and what I connected with, I could see. I also know, that was mysurprise, Joel Schumacher who I knew, we were friends, if there was onething about Joel it's he's a genius for casting. I thought 'There must besomething going on here, he must have some reason for coming to me, and thenwhen I read it I understood and then I talked with him and he explainedwanting to bring the whole age down, I could see the genius of that. I thinkit's all the more heartbreaking for the Phantom because he's a man in theprime of his life. Therefore, he's denied sexually, intimately. I think it'smore heartbreaking when you know he's already had his story, so he's alreadybeen through a lot of that pain, but here he still has so much to offer ineveryway but this love is not for him, which killed me in every way.
P.F: What do you think the appeal of this movie will be to18-to-25-year-olds who are not accustomed to classical musicals, which thisone is, not like "Chicago?"
GB: I'll tell you something; to me, I'm an actor, I do something because ittouches me and then you'd expect to understand why something is in terms ofthe public. If I were to offer something up, it would be the same reasons ittouched me. We are all at heart romantic and passionate and there is nothinglike a dark romance to stir us up, no matter what age you are. On top ofthat, this movie has everything. It has a lot of old Hollywood and it feelslike an old musical, but at the same time it's vibrant and alive andbeautiful and lush, it has a great energy because that's what Joel is greatat getting. Cinematically, it's a treat. The music appeals to all ages. WhenI walk past 'The Phantom' here in New York, I can't believe how many kidsare going to the theater. So it's obviously their story and it appeals toeveryone. And the movie makes it more accessible because of the cost. A lotof kids don't go to the theater because of the cost, but now they can go seeit in the cinema and claim it. This movie has recreated the world of thePhantom, of the Paris Opera House in a dark, luscious (way). And you canclaim it and abandon yourself to a romantic, tragic love story, but it'salso..I forgot what I was going to say.
P.F: What was your experience of meeting Andrew Lloyd Webber? Talking tous, he seemed a little nervous and shy.
GB: Yeah, I think he was nervous. You know, the thing is, I treated this inmy head as an interesting, independent production, which it was. That helpedme not get too nervous about it. And I also knew, this is a greatphilosophy, I work very, very hard as an actor. The second I knew, evenbefore 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 afterthat, I always knew I could sing or not. I'll put in as much work as I canand then the experts will tell me whether I can handle this kind of singingor I can't. So that didn't make me nervous; it was either a yes or no. Ithink acting is much more difficult; it's a comment on your soul. I think abad acting audition can go far worse than a singing audition. You have apage and notes that you can stick to. If you're not good, you can lose 20percent, but me at a bad acting audition, I can loss 300 percent or I canfly. So therefore, I wasn't nervous until I stood by the piano and thenenormity 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 theOpera,' 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 madefamous by someone who isn't me, in front of the composer, one of the mostfamous composers of all-time. All those things went through my mind and thenmy legs started shaking. Simon Lee was playing the piano and he was (Butlerimitated his gasping). It was like a comedy act, he was telling me tobreath, but he kept (again gasping). I kept singing, and, of course, I'm myown worst critic. I thought I'd sung terribly, but Andrew really dug it.
P.F: How pleased are you with the finished product?GB: I'm blown away by it. I always felt like we were doing somethingspecial, but even I didn't know the extraordinary amount of vision andtalent 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 gosee it, I almost wish I wasn't in it because you get too caught up being toovain about your performance. I loved this movie so much I thought 'I wish Iwasn't in this film, because I could relax and enjoy it.'
P.F: So much of your performance is through music that is a unique formof expression?
GB: To be honest, I think a lot of my jobs as an actor have been tough, likethe 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 theemotional 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 aday, 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 rollercoaster that I knew I was going to have when I started the job, and then, ofcourse, there was the singing which was an added pressure. In fact,sometimes it become harder, because the tireder you'd get you were stillalways recording. I was filming all day and then I was still working onsongs and recording. It was getting worse because my voice was gettingtireder. Yeah, there was so much I wanted to say through the voice, becauseyou 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 movementclasses to understand. I knew the voice was probably the main means ofcommunication, so I wanted to become as technically good as I could.Honestly, I wanted to hear his life story in every note, which therefore Ithink 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 tingedwith pain. Like he always knew this wasn't going to be for him. It was acontrolled yet desperate attempt at something he knew he wasn't going tohave any luck in. Maybe it was too much, but it was my instinctive feelingwhen I first read it I would think, "This is so said." Joel would say, "Butthis is so sexy." Somewhere along the way, we managed to get them both inthere. That's one of the most exciting things. If you can do "Point of NoReturn" which is so heartbreaking and so fuckin' sexy and sensual and lustyand 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 amovie 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 thefinale, when I looked into the eyes of Patrick Wilson, who is such anexceptional and truthful actor, I could see this man dying in front of mewith nothing, it broke my heart, and yet, I wanted to kill him. I wanted tokill someone (He raised his voice), but to be breaking your heart about itat the same time, that's when my fate playing these villainous characters isso 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 thatinspired J.R.R. Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings" Butler plays the Norse warriorBeowulf, who is pitted against the great and murderous troll, Grendel).
GB: To this day, probably Iceland and Scotland will be my two of the mostmemorable countries. It's so up my alley, everything is so raw and primal. Iwas carried away by landscapes you can't believe exist on this planet. Thepeople 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 mostdifficult filming conditions. I was working at zero degrees centigradesoaking wet for two nights. I was filming on glacier rivers. One day, eightcar windows were blown in by flying rocks and our base camp was blown awayfive times. It was insane. There was one scene where four actors were blownthree feet off their marks by one gust of wind. We were trying to film underthe most insane conditions, and for those reasons it was harder, but thoseexperiences stay with you so much stronger. I also loved the story and beingable to stick to those landscapes.
P.F: 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, wentup on the glaciers. I'm actually one of the few people on this planet whocan claim to be on a snowmobile with (co-star) Stellan Skarsgard feeling mybreasts. "Nice pecs, boy!" (laughing). I saw the Northern Lights whilelistening to Cigaros. (sp?) I don't know if you know who they are. They arelike a special experience, to look up and watch the Northern Lights flyingacross the sky while listening to Cigaros, you understand why understand whythose Icelandic people play music with so much more soul. It's notnecessarily beautiful, it's just profound.
P.F: What about this take on "Beowulf?" interested you?
GB: It's a very unusual retelling, unlike the poem, what you realize, theaudience has already had the advantage of meeting the troll. In a way it's ametaphor for racism. Grendel comes from another race that humans don'tunderstand. Beowulf wants to fight and Grendel doesn't want to fight, sohe's left in this standoff position with an enemy who he starts toappreciate. It's not really an enemy, but something that's more beautifuland pure than half of the human beings. And yet they're on this inevitablepath towards conflict. It's one of the most fascinating, unusual stories Iever 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.
P.F: What were some of the psychological effects of wearing the Phantom'smask?
GB: You know what? There's good and bad and then you try to use the bad forthe good. It's very weird to be sticking a mask in your face after you'veworked so hard on the character. And then after that you have to try to singon screen and make that believable. To really feel your performance andlip-sync, it's bizarre, but then if it was bizarre for me, it was bizarrefor him. So you just trust that that's something you have to deal with andhe has to deal with. At the same time, you enjoy that experience because toput on that mask is a very empowering experiencing. You can see it. Thatmask has a very ominous, powerful physical presence and you get to know thatby spending a lot of time looking into the mirror. And then the many hoursof prosthetic makeup I had to go through would make me psychologicallyscrewed up. Gluing my eye was torture. By the time they finished and you'vebeen looking in the mirror you really are not in the best shape, so you'reready to go bite somebody's head off, and it's also heartbreaking becauseyou're realizing what it must be like. So all the things you have to dealwith and the struggles you go through help to create your character.
P.F: Do you think Miramax will release "Dear Frankie?"
GB: Yes, yes they are, it's a great film.
P.F: Are you anything like your characters?
GB: I'm so incredibly not like those characters. I'm easy going and happy.
P.F: You're not the sexy guy?
GB: Not sexy in the slightest.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA OPENS IN DECEMBER.