After treading the boards in countless plays, Gerard Butler took roles in dubious movies like Reign Of Fire, Lara Croft: The Cradle Of Life and Richard Donner's Timeline. Recently though, he scored a critical hit with upcoming Scottish drama Dear Frankie although box office success still eludes him. This time he tries something completely different, playing a masked madman in Joel Schumacher's adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage musical The Phantom Of The Opera.
You haven't had much experience in musicals so it seems strange that you should be cast in this...
When Joel [Schumacher] called my agent and asked if I could sing, even he wasn't sure about it. He knew that I could sing but not if I could handle something like this. I was dubious myself as to why they were considering me for The Phantom until I read the script and then I could completely understand why he came to me and why I would want to play it. I read it as I was listening to the music and to me it was a major experience because I felt I had to tell this guy's story. Without sounding pretentious, I felt his soul - all his passion and his hopes and frustrations and, in the end, his tragedy. It was like it was happening to me and I judge whether or not to do a part based on how easily I slip into it while reading the script.
With your lack of singing experience, did you have some trepidation about taking this on?
Yes and no. I have a level of fear going into every project and that's what keeps me going. If I'm being honest it was a much higher level of fear with this than most other things because it was a musical. But I've done a whole bunch of movies where I've come in as the underdog but I have the tools and experience to deal with. Basically you've juts got to use the pressure to make yourself work harder.
Did you have to do a lot of vocal training to prepare?
Yeah, I started singing for The Phantom in January and we started filming in October and I sang all the way through to the next June. In fact I was singing for about two months before I even knew I had the role because they pretty much said: "This role's yours but we just can't say it yet but you've got to train as if it's yours." That's a weird position to be in because I didn't know if they were then going to turn around and say that somebody else had the role but still I sang every day with my own musical teacher. When I went to Scotland to do another movie I would sing with a coach up there and then when I went to New York I sang with a coach over there - I mean I've now sung with coaches in LA, New York, London, Glasgow, St Louis and Rio de Janeiro! I felt like retiring after The Phantom.
Did acting behind a mask also present a challenge for you?
Yeah, but it's something you get used to. Again you use it like a tool to help you become the character. There's a reason he has the mask and you make his reason your reason. Also you have to understand the advantages of that mask insomuch as it's something to hide behind and it's also a very powerful thing to behold. He understands that because he wants to present the most intimidating and sexy exterior he can. At first it was a bit strange and daunting to have to wear a mask but afterwards I came to enjoy it. In warm conditions though it started to slip off my face. Other times they used this double-sided sticky tape and I literally couldn't get it off my face. I would feel like I was ripping my face off and I had a lot of cuts and bruises because of it - huge red marks. People might think it was method acting.
Did you find singing the dialogue rather unnatural?
This movie was such a steep learning curve for me because I had never done that before - singing while trying to give a cinematic performance. The temptation is to open your mouth and belt it out and do something theatrical which would just be ghastly because every time you open your mouth it's 30ft wide on a big screen. Therefore I had to learn devices and ways of keeping it subtle and truthful. Sometimes that would mean that I would barely be singing or I would be much more concentrated on the feeling of what he was going through. I was always focused on that actually because that is the power of cinema - the eyes of The Phantom could say so much more.
You're now gearing up to play the poet Robert Burns in a biopic. Is that another daunting prospect for you?
In a way but I feel so lucky to have that opportunity because it's such a great story and we have the best script by Alan Sharp, who wrote Rob Roy. I cajoled Julia Stiles into doing it but she told me it was the best script she'd read in years so she's on board and we also have Brian Cox. We cover Burns' life from the ploughman days to the Edinburgh society days and his take-off as a poet. It's beautiful, it's passionate, it's sexy, it's hilarious and it's really quite sad as well.
And you've got The Game Of Their Lives coming up where you play a member of the American 'soccer' team who beat the English football team. Being Scottish you must relish the chance to beat the English at football!
What do you think? Actually I just find that very funny. The Scots will do anything to beat the English or just to see them lose, but I've never bought into that really. I was supporting England in the World Cup, so for me it was very funny to pretend to be an Italian-American but still stuff the English 1-0. It was amazing. We went down to Rio de Janeiro in a soccer stadium there with thousands of extras and played this game against the English - who were, funnily enough, mostly Brazilians - but it's great. I saw a cut about nine months ago that I wasn't very impressed with but I saw it again a couple of days ago and it's been tightened up and a few things added. I think we have a movie on our hands now.