Interview: Gerard Butler

Gerard Butler isn’t a stranger to two things both on screen and off: he loves being around kids and he’s used to be referred to as one of the sexiest men alive. The Scottish 300 star found his abs making their way to the top of People’s Sexist Man Alive list in 2004, which opened up quite a few more doors to him outside of simply the realm of action films.

From headlining a big screen adaptation of Phantom of the Opera to family films like Nim’s Island and How to Train Your Dragon to a handful of romantic comedies, Butler’s CV looks far more varied than a quick glace at his rugged features and almost effortless charm would suggest. In a way, it almost seems like his whole career has been building to a film like this week’s Playing for Keeps.

Playing a former soccer star now living penniless while coaching his estranged son’s losing league team, Butler gets the chance to headline an ensemble comedy – alongside such heavy hitters as Dennis Quaid, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jessica Biel, Uma Thurman, and Judy Greer – that’s part rom-com, part inspirational kiddie sports film, part adult sex farce, and part family drama. It’s almost like getting a chance to play the same character across several films without every having to leave a single movie.

Dork Shelf sat down with Butler during a recent stop off in Toronto to talk about working with kids, his great cast, his fading accent, and trying to make a film with soccer as a backdrop in the United States.

You’re often going back and forth between heavier fare like 300, Gamer, and Law Abiding Citizen and then going back to something a bit lighter like this. Is that always a conscious decision for you?

Gerard Butler: They all really start with their own pros and cons, but this one I have to say was really all pros. There’s a lot to be said for having testosterone and making a movie with all the guys that has its own sort of powerful message, but at the end of the day this movie shows that I do really have a sort of soppier heart and it’s nice that this touches on all of that. I mean, it’s hilarious and sexy and racy at times, but at the end of the day it’s also very poignant and emotional and it’s a real kind of feel good inspirational story, and I love those kinds of movies and I think there’s always an element of that in everything I do. I love those kinds of movies where you can laugh and cry at the same time.

It’s kind of a tough sell trying to make a film about soccer, even kids playing it, in North America. Did you find that when you guys were making the film you had to find yourselves explaining the appeal of it?

GB: A little bit, but we used this guy who’s actually become a good friend of mine named Oliver Weiss who played for the Swiss National Team and who was trained in LA by a guy who played for Tottenham years ago named Mickey Hollander. He had Tottenham tattoos everywhere, that guy, but he was great, too. So they knew a lot about how to approach the football or soccer in the movie, and all the kids in the film were all from soccer teams. The referees were proper referees and the coaches were proper coaches. We made sure we used people who were experienced in the game, but there was still an element where we had to explain where if you were filming the game what would be the best way to do it and where to cut the moments together.

But honestly, the soccer was secondary to the more important themes about love, second chances, fatherhood, and making sacrifices to look for what’s more important, and that’s what really grabs you about the film. My relationship to my ex-wife (Jessica Biel) and especially with my boy, and getting myself into these ridiculous situations with these horny married women or single mothers, so there’s a bit of Shampoo going on in there was well, and that’s something that’s a lot easier to explain.

What was it like working with Noah Lomax as your son?

GB: Oh, it was amazing. This kid is magical, and even though we screen tested a few kids for the role, from the second we saw him we knew. He walked out… Actually, he walked IN and we went “This is the kid.” He’s the nicest kid, but he’s totally unpredictatble, but in a great way. He’s got a big heart and a great sense of humour. I just clicked with him straight away, and I think you feel that in the movie. We have a great chemistry, and the more the movie went on we realized it was such a great part of the story. At times it just feels tragic as I’m trying to connect with this kid, and I don’t really know how to do it because I never really tried, but it develops into something beautiful as I kind of make my way into his heart, and likewise him to me.

One of the things that I’ve noticed is that you have an amazing way with children across a lot of your films Do you get something special as an actor from working with kids that you generally don’t get from working with adults?

GB: Yeah. There’s something magical about working with kids and developing a relationship with them and trying to make them see enough to gravitate towards you, and in a movie like this and across different film you have to create different relationships with them because they’re so different. As a guy who has come into his 40s and at some point would like to get further towards fatherhood, you kind of connect with them in that way, as well. I have four nieces I love dearly. I just saw them yesterday when I was over in Scotland for my birthday, and I just noticed that then.

Because I’m a big kid myself, to me watching kids is great because they lack any kind of “mannered behaviour.” They’re unpredictable and really fresh. When I left Noah I had really fallen in love with him, and it almost broke my heart to go away. He gave me the best present. He made a soccer boot with a ball and put it in a glass casing, and when a kid gives you that it means something truly special like you earned something. It was like when I worked with Abigail (Breslin) on Nim’s Island, she did a painting for me. That’s the kind of thing and that moment that you just never forget.

I’m really glad you picked up on that because I think a lot of my favourite movies that I’ve done – Dear Frankie being another one – they have moments where I know I feel touched by something, and when you see an audience being touched by it, too, you can’t ask for anything more as an actor. To me, I want to move people and remind people of their own families and their own relationships. It’s just beautiful.

And as kind of a side question to that, do you think that working with kids and their unpredictable nature somehow keeps you sharper as an actor?

GB: Oh yeah! Absolutely. I think it allows you to be a lot more in the moment because you don’t know what to expect from them. They don’t play games. Sometimes when you work with certain kinds of actors there’s a bit of a power struggle going on. Older actors can always try to use their experience to get what they need, but I’ve never really tried to do that. I’m in it for the movie, and I don’t want to say all actors are like that, but there’s definitely an element of that. You just kind of naturally and unwittingly pick that up as you go along, but kids just live in their world and you kind of just climb into it, which as an adult you have to do anyway. The best way to relate to a kid is to climb into their world. In this story that’s what George does. He kind of climbs into that world, but at first he doesn’t do it really well because he’s so consumed with himself and his own issues. Then ultimately what tugs at the heartstrings.

But your adult cast is also really quite stacked on this one, so what was the vibe like on set overall? It seems like a lot of the comedy is somewhat ad-libbed.

GB: There was definitely a lot of ad-libbing there. With someone like Judy Greer, that’s her forte, and Dennis Quaid just makes magic out of anything. He really keeps you on your toes. It’s funny because when I was doing scenes with him, he would often come out with stuff and I wouldn’t know what to say. That’s EXACTLY what’s going on because this guy is so overpowering as a character and he’s catching George from every angle, and you really are left just wondering what you were a part of, and yet it feels weird to have that in your performance. Then you watch it though, and it looks great because George is always kind of flabbergasted by that guy.

But it’s rare that I get to work with so many different kinds of actors of such calibre and talent on a single film like this one. It’s always a challenge to me, but it’s also great fun to be working with such actors. It brings your game up and you learn a lot. It helps to make a great movie. I think one of the major plus points of this movie is the phenomenal cast because you get to see Uma Thurman with Catherine Zeta Jones and Dennis Quaid and Jessica Biel and Judy Greer. Oh… and me.

In the film, you say that your accent works with the ladies. Would you say that’s also been your experience in real life?

GB: (laughs) Did I really say that? (pauses) Oh, yeah! I did! It’s been a year and a half since I’ve made this and you’re quoting lines now. (laughs) Yeah, to be honest. Women do love that Scottish accent, but unfortunately my accent isn’t as strong as it used to be, so I don’t hear as many compliments about it since I first came over here. People used to say “Oh! Your accent is so beautiful. What did you just say?” (laughs) Now they understand me, but they never comment on how great the accent is. I could play it up, though! “AYE! ‘Ow are ya lad?!?” (laughs)