A lead role in a Shakespearean adaptation and a recent brush with death has given Gerard Butler a new outlook on life, as Jimi Famurewa discovers.
"Would you like some food?” asks Gerard Butler, gesturing at a table laden with enough room service to feed a small army of Spartan warriors. Will he be offended if we decline? Or even more annoyed if we start scoffing sandwiches? Thankfully, before ShortList has the chance to answer, he’s had another idea. “Right, we have to eat one piece off every plate during the interview, OK?” But then, just as we ponder the seriousness of this suggestion, it’s quickly forgotten and he’s hopped up to pour some water. Butler, it appears, isn’t one for sitting still.
Throughout our conversation he stalks the room, rattles off words relentlessly, leaps to his feet to act out anecdotes while frantically crunching his way through the feast in front of him. But in light of recent events, we’ll forgive the 42-year-old Scot his somewhat excitable mood.
Firstly, there’s the small matter of the grisly surfing accident that nearly cost him his life late last year — an incident we’ll come to later. But today’s surplus of manic energy can predominantly be attributed to a surprising new project he’s clearly proud of: his starring role in a new big-screen version of William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.
And the film — co-written, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes — is very much the Bard brought up to date. The battles of ancient Rome are transported to the bullet-ridden buildings of a Balkan-like state, swords are replaced with hefty automatic rifles and Shakespearean declarations come via flickering TV screens, as Butler turns chief antagonist Tullus Aufidius into a gruff, tattooed warlord.
“It’s like Shakespeare meets The Hurt Locker,” says Butler with a grin. “You’ve got the political machinations but you’ve got this wild action as well. When I read the script, it felt like a classic, modern cinema piece. It’s a dense play but all those ridiculously long and verbose speeches have been taken out, so it’s easy to follow.”
As well as Fiennes, Butler stars alongside other illustrious names such as Brian Cox and Vanessa Redgrave. Did the fact that this Coriolanus takes place in a muscle-bound world of gun-toting soldiers mean that these seasoned thesps were on his turf?
“Not quite,” he says with a laugh. “I did have a big fight sequence with Ralph and, although it’s not like he hasn’t dealt with action before, I definitely felt I had more experience [in that area]. Originally the fight was a little too choreographed and we both thought that it needed that rawness. Just looking at someone and thinking, ‘I want to tear your eyes out, bite your nose off and rip your arms from your sockets.’ That’s what we got, but it was tough.”
He’s not kidding. Butler is known for putting his body on the line for films, but his physical reenactment in the hotel room (naturally) of the two gruelling days spent filming the fight scenes in the Serbian heat while wearing “a f*cking boiler suit” is startlingly convincing.
“It’s about the hatred between these two guys but also the passion, so there’s almost a homoerotic thing going on” he explains. “There’s all this stuff about being ‘beard to beard’…”
Inadvertently tender tussles aside, Butler seems to have enjoyed tackling a different role to the rom-coms he’s favoured in recent years. “It was nice to be able to perform opposite somebody that the press weren’t saying I was having an affair with,” he laughs, referencing the long-lens cameras that followed him and Jennifer Aniston in the wake of The Bounty Hunter. “To be able to walk around a beautiful country like Serbia without paparazzi hiding under cars was exceptionally refreshing.”
Serbia’s landscape — and the “intense” special forces troops who starred as extras — feature heavily in his fond memories. But the years of international travel (highlighted by his LA-softened Glaswegian vowels) haven’t always been so happy, largely due to his numerous run-ins with customs officials.
“Just after the shoe bomber [plot] in 2001, I flew to London from Montreal to do a screen test for Lara Croft [Tomb Raider: The Cradle Of Life],” he remembers. “They’d built this caged floor for the set but they couldn’t hear my dialogue properly so they put felt on my boots. Straight after the audition I went back to the airport and as I walked through they went, ‘OK sir, just show us your feet.’
“And then I realised I had this roughly cut, half inch of felt stuck to the bottom of my soles,” he laughs. “The guy literally went, ‘What the f*ck is that? Security.’ The next thing I know there are 10 people around me, and I’m telling what sounds like the most far-fetched story ever about my audition with Angelina Jolie.”
Butler has a habit of blundering into situations like this and a fondness for childish on-set pranks that’s earned him what he sheepishly terms “a wild man reputation”. But few events match his recent wipeout in north California while filming upcoming surfing biopic Of Men And Mavericks for wildness. Was it really as close a call as reports said?
“It was intense,” he says. “The whole reason we were filming there was because we had big surf, big waves. Normally you can roughly calculate where they’re going to be, but this wave came out of nowhere. It just spread across the skyline, took me down and basically all hell broke loose.”
Does he remember it? Or was it a jumble of flashing childhood memories and celestial light at the end of a tunnel? “I remember everything,” he admits. “I remember thinking, ‘Maybe they’ll get me later and they can resuscitate me.’ I was under for so long. The first wave took me 150 yards underwater, then when the second broke I hadn’t got up yet. I was spinning around like I was in a washing machine but eventually they got me [Butler was saved by film crew on a jet ski].”
He spent the night in hospital and he has since claimed this watery close-call has forced him to question his often extreme approach to filmmaking. But then he’s also admitted that even in the ambulance, he craved a return to the waves. It’s a do-or-die attitude that chimes with his career philosophy.
“Those times when you take on a role that you’re not sure you can pull off are the most important and exciting moments of your career,” he says. “It’s like playing the villain in Law Abiding Citizen when everyone said I shouldn’t, or learning to sing for The Phantom Of The Opera. That’s when your true colours have to come out.”
Yep, he’s not one for standing still. And while that might not be good news for the people in charge of his life-insurance policy, it’s very good news for film fans.
Coriolanus is at cinemas nationwide now
(Image: All Star)