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At the precise moment Gerard Butler appears to be attacking acting roles with a noticeably vigorous volcanic fire in his belly—the one so famously six-pack-sculpted for his bravura breakout in 300—he has a surprising admission: “It sounds terrible to say, but I do feel that burning thing inside has definitely leveled out.”

This fall filmgoers can twice encounter the six-foot-two-inch Scot who—after a run of lighter, romantic fare opposite A-list leading ladies including Hilary Swank and Jennifer Aniston—seems freshly reconnected with the intensity and bombast that made him a star. First he tackles the hardly clichéd role of a real-life reformed ex-con/recovered drug addict/clergyman/African school builder in Machine Gun Preacher, and follows it up with a fiery turn as Tullus Aufidius, the nemesis of Shakespeare’s titular hero Coriolanus in star Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut, Coriolanus. But the renewed pyrotechnics in his performances, Butler says, result more from challenges and experience than from a burning need to further build his stardom.

“It’s not like a supernova anymore, the thing that got me here so fast,” says the 41-year-old actor who spent part of his summer headquartered on a Malibu surf break. “Or maybe not fast, because it did happen over 12 years.” Indeed, Butler hovered at the brink of household namedom in films such as Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life and The Phantom of the Opera before his 2006 breakthrough as Leonidas, the rousing Spartan king. “I counted the other day, and I’ve actually made 33 movies, so it didn’t happen overnight. That passion and energy—maybe not just in the making of the movies, but in the publicizing of the movies—everything that it took to get here, I don’t have that drive anymore. But I also don’t feel that I need that drive anymore.

“I’m at a spot where the movies come to me more easily, and maybe I’m more at a place of a kind of spiritual acceptance that what’s for me won’t go past me,” says Butler. “That’s good for me, because to be honest, as much as I love what I do, it’s not the be-all and end-all anymore.”

That sentiment is delivered without any sense of actor-y, arty angst—indeed, there’s something Zen-like about Butler’s casual matter-of-factness. His confidence in his craft is deservedly high. “I think the one thing I have going for me is an ability to play a wide array of roles and genres, and therefore I want to keep challenging myself and keep surprising people,” he says. “That’s the most exciting thing for me as an actor: Nobody can ever define you. They go, ‘Oh, he’s the action guy.’ ‘Oh, he’s the comedy guy.’ I’m not any of those things, and I never want to be categorized like that. People shouldn’t know what to expect from me."

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