It’s a warm Monday morning in the Roosevelt Hotel’s grand lobby, where European tourists lounge in leather couches with their, “official” star maps, where indie instrumental music plays low-volume on the speakers, and where Gerard Butler, Hollywood’s most omnipresent leading man over the past summer, is on his hands and knees.
It’s not what you think. Butler is admiring the lobby’s terra cotta tile floor, shined to a preternatural gloss. “Oh man, this is what I have in my place!” he says, referring to his Chelsea apartment (he also has a house in Los Feliz). Butler is exuberant in the discovery in an almost adolescent way. The tourists gawk at the 39-year-old Scotsman, who, like many European tourists flocking to Los Angeles in the sweltering fall heat, is dressed in a sporty mix of respectable leisure: Abercrombie & Fitch running shorts with a pique polo shirt in charcoal. If they recognize him, they’re not copping to it, taking digital pictures of the ornate ceiling instead.
Which seems just fine for paparazzi favorite Butler, who settles into a club chair and sips a latte. He’s only recently returned to Los Angeles for some much-needed R&R. It’s been a perfect storm of film projects this year, from shooting romance flicks with Katherine Heigl and Jennifer Anniston to co-producing his first film, Law Abiding Citizen where he takes a dramatic turn by starring as a calculating sociopath. If you can recall Butler’s physique while playing King Leonidas in 300 a few years back, you’d expect he’s not spending his time off glued to an xbox. Earlier, he rode up Griffith Park on his mountain bike. He’s into racquetball, hits the weights regularly, and did he tell you about his surfing lesson last week?
“I don’t surf, but I was taking a lesson,” Butler says, again with the adolescent excitement, which is refreshing more than cloying. “And I got up the first three times and took the wave in.” “I don’t believe you,” I blurt out. Nobody gets up the first time. Immediately I wonder whether this celebrity interview is about to go south.
“On my life!” he replies with a hearty laugh (thank god). “Though I’m sure it was beginner’s luck.” The diversity of Butler’s recent projects, is, like his workout habits, no accident. The co-star of The Ugly Truth and P.S I love you seems steadfast in avoiding the romantic comedy trap, where actors begin as virile, potent onscreen idols, only to become veritable eunuchs after following the guy-gets-girl, loses-girl, then-reunites-with-girl-in-slow-motion-final-scene-with-Kelly-Clarkson-hit-song formula one too many times. “It’s been tough with all of these movies coming out in such quick succession, but people do get to see me in different roles – here’s a romantic comedy, there’s a fantasy action film, and here’s a dark thriller,”Butler says. “And it’s when I’m challenged that I do my best work.”
In Law Abiding Citizen (in theatres October 16), Butler plays Clyde Shelton, an otherwise-innocuous Philadelphian whose wife and daughter are murdered in the course of a home robbery. The suspects are apprehended and convicted, though one receives a light sentence at the hands of Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), a young assistant district attorney. Clyde goes berserk and exacts revenge, as you probably already assumed – and then goes even further (no spoiler alert here), evolving into a morally ambiguous character. Do we sympathize? Roundly denounce? Withhold judgment?
Screening audiences are consistently torn, Butler says. “It was incredible. I was surprised by how the audience gets on Clyde’s side. I think that we all have this sense of injustice and frustration, whether on a personal level, a community level or a national level. Where we feel like our balls have been cut off and there’s nothing we can do. One reason why 300 was so successful is that you saw your heroes kick ass – but not always in the nicest way.”
Two years ago, when Butler began work on Law Abiding Citizen, which he also co-produced, he was originally cast in the role of prosecutor, not criminal. But as he was fighting to round out his character, Butler found himself more attracted to the villain of the script – a terrifying challenge, he says (and one not immediately embraced by his management).
“Comparisons are made the second you take on the role of a psychotic aggressor. To Anthony Hopkins [Silence of the Lambs], to Kevin Spacey [Se7en]. I didn’t know if I would fall flat on my face,” Butler says.
But he had top-notch colleagues to work with in the film. In addition to the Academy Award-winning Foxx,Viola Davis-who received an Oscar nod this year for best supporting actress in Doubt and is one of the few thespians working today who can go toe-to-toe with Meryl Streep in a heated scene – plays the Philadelphia mayor. The real mayor, Michael Nutter, also has a cameo role.
“That was one of the most exciting parts of making this movie, the day we knew we had Viola,” Butler says. “She’s a sweet, sweet woman, but her character can be terrifying. Then at the end of the day she’ll go back to sweet. ‘Thanks for the cup of tea’, she’d say.”
Shall we expect a Psycho-esque franchise from Butler? Judging by his next two projects, no. He lends his Scottish accent to Dreamworks’ upcoming animated film ‘How to train your dragon’ due out in March.
Butler also co-stars with Jennifer Aniston in The Bounty Hunter which the two filmed earlier this year – or tried to film, when rogue paparazzi weren’t getting into the way (rumors abounded that the two were an item).
“It was frenetic, for sure,” he says. “A lot of [paparazzi] are really lovely and considerate, but some of them seem to make a point of harassing you on-set. They’re just waiting for that one moment when your smile becomes a grimace.” He laughs, then adds, “Or when you’ve got a finger up your nose.”