As a 12-year-old, Gerard Butler appeared in Oliver! at the King’s Theatre in Glasgow, but few would have marked his card as a future star. "There was Oliver and the Artful Dodger and then there was about 40 kids," he says. "And I was one of the 40."
As dux and head boy of St Mirin’s and St Margaret’s in Paisley, he had more obvious talents elsewhere. He became president of Glasgow University’s law society, trained as a lawyer in Edinburgh and a lucrative future in the legal profession seemed assured. So how come Butler is to be found chasing dragons in Ireland these days rather than fat fees in the sheriff court?
"After spending so many years in law, I was becoming really disillusioned and I feel as a person I was becoming more and more unhappy," says Butler, with an expansive sigh. "And I think a big part of that was not even necessarily the law, but just doing something that I knew wasn’t for me."
He had been drinking heavily, getting his kicks not from legal text books but from playing in a rock band called Speed (with other lawyers, no less), and generally building a reputation as Scots Law’s answer to Jim Morrison.
Drunk for a month
He took time out, travelling in North America, during which he fell in with an Irish crowd, with whom he spent an entire month drunk, and worked in a carnival. He was still drunk when he came back and went for a job interview as a trainee lawyer. He got it anyway, an early sign perhaps that his future lay in acting. But he could hide his disillusionment only for so long.
"I wasn’t thinking ‘What are you going to do?’, because I couldn’t imagine carrying on as a solicitor." He followed Dick Whittington’s path to London, beginning with odd jobs handing out leaflets for boilers and demonstrating wind-up toys, and ending up co-starring with Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale in Disney's big-budget fantasy film Reign of Fire.
Reign of Fire is the latest in a series of projects that have made the 32-year-old, 6 ft 2 in Glaswegian one of the UK’s hottest young films stars. He was the legendary warlord in Attila, an expensive American TV mini-series (available on video in this country), he had the title role in Dracula 2000, and he was widely seen in the television drama series The Jury. He has even been mooted as the next James Bond.
"At first in London I had quite a few different things to deal with, and one was surviving, just getting by and making money," he says. Butler had not acted at university and his training was limited to a Scottish Youth Theatre course in his teens. But a job assisting the casting director on a West End production of Coriolanus gave him the chance to read for a small part. During rehearsals, he heard of auditions for a stage version of Trainspotting. Two auditions, two parts.
"The year before I had watched Paul Ireland play that part (Renton) at the Edinburgh Festival, just before I finished up as a trainee solicitor... One year later I was back playing that same part on the same stage at the Edinburgh Festival."
Acting on instinct
Meanwhile, director John Madden was having difficulty persuading established actors to take on the role of Billy Connolly’s brother in Mrs Brown, inviting direct comparisons with the Big Yin, in what was originally intended as a fairly modest television drama. Butler had no such qualms. "He was very unschooled at that point," says Madden. "It was just instinct really."
Butler contracted hypothermia from a naked dip in freezing water, but his film career was under way. Initially he was in the running for neither Attila nor Dracula. And first impressions did not help in persuading producers he could play such classic villains. "Normally when I walk into rooms I’m very lively and friendly and sometimes a bit goofy," he says.
But Butler has always been prepared to push for a role and push himself in roles. On Dracula 2000, he spent up to nine hours a day in make-up and wore uncomfortable contact lenses and fangs that really did draw blood, his own. He was suspended from wires and shared a swamp with an alligator. "And you are asked to act at the same time," he says.
Without formal training, his performances have been based largely on instinct, with some experience thrown in. For The Jury role of Johnnie Donne, a recovering alcoholic, he drew on his own dark days of heavy drinking. Compared to The Jury, Reign of Fire was a little light relief.
It is set in England in the near future, when dragons have reawakened from a long slumber and turned the countryside to toast. Butler’s survivor joins forces with Bale and McConaughey to defeat the alpha dragon and, basically, save mankind.
Butler now has a fan website devoted to him and he was a little more effusive in an interview for it: "If you can make that believable and draw the audience in, then that is the main purpose of doing that kind of movie..." Mind you, there should be some good effects too. "In a movie with this big a budget you know you’re going to see some amazing stuff."
Shurely, shome mishtake?
It seemed Butler’s meteoric rise was complete when news broke he was to inherit James Bond’s licence to kill. Butler appeared to confirm the rumours on television, only to have a spokeswoman for the producers deny them. An over-eager press may have missed the joke, for what Butler said was: "I’ve chatted with Barbara Broccoli and she knows that I’ll only do it if Ann Widdecombe can be my Bond girl."
If it was a joke... Butler says the subject of Bond came up in discussions with a senior executive at MGM, the studio behind the movies and the speculation has certainly done Butler’s career no harm.
James Bond and Oliver Twist remain unrealised ambitions, but with Attila and Dracula behind him, and a starring role in the adaptation of Michael Crichton’s time-travel novel Timeline next on his schedule, Butler is no longer just a face in the crowd. Not only that, at last Gerry Butler is a happy man, having found his true vocation.