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By Scott Huver
photography By Sam jones | November 14, 2011 | People
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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."
Gerard doesn’t fret about where his star stands in the Hollywood firmament or second-guess his career choices, having occasionally bucked his handlers’ wisdom to tackle roles that simply intrigued him. “There were times when it felt like maybe my career was going off the tracks when I did smaller movies,” he says. “They were movies I found really interesting that didn’t really hit. That’s when you realize that if you get the chance to do more commercial fare, one, it’s a lot of fun; and two, you can make some money to live on. You also become more marketable, and it allows you to spread yourself out more and take on a wider amount of roles and stories, so that’s been my fight and struggle.” He pauses and shakes his head at his turn of phrase. “Not ‘my fight and my struggle’—I shouldn’t say it like that, because it’s not a fight and a struggle. I mean, I love it, but that’s been my journey—to never feel like I’m going down any predictable road. It’s not the only factor I take into account, but it is a big factor: Where can I go I haven’t already been?”
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For now, that place is the life of Sam Childers, the narcotics-dealing, drug-addicted Midwestern biker with a criminal record who found God and dedicated his life to building—and zealously defending—an orphanage in war-torn Sudan, whose story forms Machine Gun Preacher. “I think what made me want to walk around in his shoes was just the man himself,” says Butler. “What he’s achieved is so mind-blowing, so unbelievable—this person who just kind of takes on the world, decides to go into Sudan and build an orphanage in the middle of a civil war. You think, How does that happen? Who does that? He’s such a fascinating character, really a kind of antihero who’s got so much more going on with him. He’s definitely not a Mr. Goody Two-Shoes, squeaky-clean hero, so it just felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
If the fire in the pit of his gut has indeed cooled, Butler’s enthusiasm for his profession remains undimmed. “I do get incredibly excited about the movies I’m involved in, whether they’re good or bad. I believe they’re going to be good and put a lot into them.” He’s concerned his desire to have a good time once the heavy lifting on set is over may be creating the false impression he views his gig as just a lark. “I feel like I work so hard when I make movies, and I often think I work harder than anyone I’ve worked with—or at least as hard. And yet when I do the interviews, I like to have fun. I’ve often said to my publicists, ‘Should I not be so light?’ because perhaps people take it less seriously and think I haven’t put in the work or taken the role as seriously as I have,” says Butler. “You hope people actually see when they watch you on-screen—whether it’s a comedy or a drama or a musical—the effort you put in.”
The Shackles of Fame
And then there is that encroaching ambivalence that comes with increasing stardom. “I love what I do,” says Butler, “but the more successful I’ve become, the more I’ve realized it’s the things around acting I don’t love. I sometimes wish I could just go make a movie and then disappear. I never thought I would be like that, actually. I was surprised at my reaction, because I love acting. It’s harder than anything I’ve ever done, but it also provides more fun and fulfillment than anything else I’ve ever done.”
Though cognizant that “whining” about celebrity rarely engenders great sympathy (“‘Screw you!’ ‘Bring out the violin!’” he mockingly says), Butler makes it clear it’s the double-edged nature of public recognition that’s gotten under his skin; encounters with genuine admirers still give the movie fan in him a relatable kick—the paparazzi, not so much.
“It’s nice you can be a part of something that will move somebody, inspire somebody. Hell, I don’t know, just even put a smile on their face at the end of a hard day,” he says. “But then it’s almost like being successful makes certain people feel like they have the right to be completely invasive and aggressive in your life. That’s what really bothers me. I can’t often go to a Starbucks without literally having five different cameras pointing at me. You smile and wave, but really you think, I don’t even want to do this anymore. I just want to go,” says Butler.
“Sometimes I do think, You know what? I could see myself doing something else in a few years,” Butler muses, then continues with a self-aware grin: “Although I said that to somebody else just recently and they said, ‘How many retired actors do you know? How many guys do you know who actually went off to do something else?’ I went, ‘Maybe you’re right.’ But I do feel sometimes it’d be really great to disappear. Now, I might go and do that for a year and then think, Sh-t, I need to come back! Because that’s the thing: At the end of the day, I love making movies.”
Styling by Neil Rodgers at Tracey Mattingly; grooming by jamie taylor at the wall group;
shot on location at Rampart Community police station