Gerard Butler: 'I know some things I will take to the grave'

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He may be a ‘fantastic-looking cutie-pie’ and is rumoured to earn $20m per film, but he is still haunted by his dark past.

Gerard Butler is the Scottish actor who has made it big in Hollywood and is rumoured to have dated all the usual suspects (Jennifer Aniston, Cameron Diaz, Some Supermodel Or Other) and none of the unlikelier ones (Whoopi Goldberg, Danny DeVito, A Bearded Lady) which is a pity, as such rumours would at least be interesting, and I've also read he earns $20m per film. Twenty million dollars! Gerry, love, I say to him, whatever you do, don’t turn a film down without mentioning my name and saying I will do it for $10m, with full nudity and everything.

He says: “With full nudity I would take less! I love that!” What? You think I could get more if I promised no nudity? He goes, “Ha!” and then says: "Look, I don't get $20m a movie although, trust me, if I did I'd be very happy to say it, because it sounds great. But I don't, and I don't know where the figure comes from. Now I know, by the way, why my mum keeps saying: 'Hey, what about a place in Tuscany and then one in Jamaica?'. She must have read the same article." Oh, Mrs Butler. You had Tuscany and you had Jamaica and then I took them away from you. Still, Cornwall is always nice. And the Pembrokeshire coast, if it doesn't rain, but you can't count on that.

So, we meet at a central London hotel, ostensibly to discuss his latest film for which, it is now apparent, he didn't earn $20m, and this is Olympus Has Fallen, a right-wing, Die Hard-style siege fantasy set in the White House which may, alas, be one of the worst films I have ever seen. (Full disclosure: I don't see many action films, as they're not my favoured genre, so it may be there are even worse ones.)

Anyway, being cowardly by nature, as well as a dissembler, I hope we can get through our hour together without mentioning the film – the elephant in the room! – or the subject of critical regard generally (the other elephant in the room! Two elephants in the room!). This is certainly my plan, as it would be any sensible dissembler's plan, so I kick off by telling him what a fantastic-looking, cutie-pie of a man he is, which, unusually, is actually the truth. He has quality bone structure and what is known in the trade as 'piercing blue eyes'. I ask: Do you think of yourself as a fantastic-looking cutie-pie with piercing blue eyes? He tries to dissemble but is useless: "Yeah… I don't think… um." So he quickly gives up, shrugs and says: "Yeah, I do," which I rather respect.

I tell him he reminds me, slightly, of a meatier James McAvoy, that there's a physical similarity, but he disputes this. "Maybe it's just because we're both Scottish?" More about something in the smile, I say. He says, enthusiastically: "He's one of my favourite actors. He's always got it right and he's a good dude, a really sweet guy. I love actors who can go to dark places yet remain sweet people and don't feel the need to be pricks."

By "always got it right" I think he means "made wise choices" professionally. Gerard's breakthrough films were as the phantom in Phantom of the Opera and all greased up as a chest-beating King Leonidas in 300, which was rather fun, but his choices since haven't always proved spectacular. There have been a number of rom-coms, for example, including The Bounty Hunter, with Ms Aniston, which I downloaded but could not watch after it became evident Gerard's character kidnapped women for a living.

It may be Gerard is realising all this too, and is also realising that, at 43, he is running out of time to do something about it. "I feel," he says, "like I've come out of a string of… oh my God, I've got to be careful what I say, but… a string of bad-luck movies. Sometimes my fault, but other times not my fault. I can't specify a movie, but there was one where I just think it was the wrong director, and another where the director had to be taken off the film because he basically had Alzheimer's. And if you make a few movies in Hollywood that don't make a lot of money, you've got to be careful."

But yours always make a ton of money, don't they? "Not all of them. Not these last ones I'm talking about." You need to work with Tarantino, I tell him, helpfully. He can re-invent anyone. He could re-invent Christopher Biggins. He says: "It really pisses me off when people go, 'Just go work with Paul Thomas Anderson or Quentin Tarantino'. It's not that easy." He does not, it soon becomes clear, count Olympus as one of his bad-luck movies, and volunteers proudly: "I was involved from start to finish, taking it to Antoine [Fuqua, the director] and getting him on board, and I worked so much on the script, ripping it apart and putting it back together, really putting flesh on the bones of it and trying to give it some real substance and meaning in terms of a fun, action thriller that is going be a rousing experience."

Alarmingly, it's looking as if we may have to confront an elephant head-on but, thankfully, I manage to avert such a disaster by employing a particular tactic known as Speedily Changing The Subject Even Though It Makes You Seem Mad. Can you cook, I ask him. "Can I cook?" he repeats. Yes. Can you cook? "Um… no… not at all." It was close, but I think I got away with it.

Gerard Butler has an interesting back story, which you may well have read before, if you are a fan, of which there are many. Indeed, Facebook fan sites include 'Gerard Butler is my husband… but doesn't know it yet', 'Gerard Butler can impregnate by touch alone' and 'Nutella on Gerard Butler' which, I can see, would probably be most delicious. But here is the back-story, which I shall present in an abbreviated form. OK, it begins with his parents, Edward and Margaret, who moved from Paisley, Scotland to Montreal, Canada, when Gerard was six months old. Eighteen months later, the marriage broke down, so Margaret returned to Paisley to bring up the three children – she took classes to teach business studies – and Gerard did not see his father again for 14 years.

Their eventual reunion, he says, when his father simply turned up one day, "stirred up a shit storm in me" and when Edward, a bookmaker, died a couple of years later, Gerard went off the rails and took to drink. A law student at Glasgow University at the time, he drank his way though his degree, and was a reckless drunk. He would smash bottles over his own head. He ran in front of cars. He once woke up in Paris, miles from where he'd been at a party, covered in gashes and blood and, to this day, he has no idea what happened. And he drank through his first job as a trainee civil lawyer in Edinburgh until he was fired, a week before he was due to qualify.

You silly boy, I tell him. If you'd stuck at it you could have sued lots of people on behalf of other people by now. Just think what you've missed. He says: "I was at the doctor's a couple of weeks ago and found I'd broken two little bones in my neck from when I was doing Olympus." Jesus, I say. "It's nothing," he says, "I hadn't even noticed it. They actually found it for another reason. But it's at times like that you think: I should have stayed behind a desk!" It's dangerous work, being an action hero. "I almost drowned in Chasing Mavericks!"

Jobless, he decided to come to London in the hope of becoming an actor. Why? Why an actor? "It was always a dream as I was growing up. I would watch movies, mostly American movies, and be so engrossed in those stories, all I wanted to do was be there. I wanted to be part of that romance or that fantasy or be that warrior or that struggling soul who finally makes it good." Maybe you didn't want to live your own story, I suggest. "I think that's a very valid point. Or maybe I wanted to have my cake and eat it, live my story and everybody else's. But the bug would get me every couple of years. I remember when Grease came out, I used to force my mum to try and grease my hair back and it was never long enough and literally I'd be screaming at her 'Do it. Just do it!'."

What's the first cinema film you recall seeing? "Jaws. I was with my mum and the point where Richard Dreyfuss is under the boat and there's a hole in the boat, and the head pops out, I went into hysterics and she had to take me out of the cinema." He says he tried, in Olympus, to put in similar jump-out-of-your-seat moments. "I love trying to find new ways to make an audience jump," but I see where this is going, so head him off smartly. So, what does Gerard Butler eat, then, if he doesn't cook? "This is going to sound sad…" – a bowl of cereal? Toast? – "…but I have all my meals prepared by a chef."

He gave up drinking at 27. Do you remember, I ask, your very last drink? "I was in Camden," he says, "and I had a crazy experience with these two sisters whom I was friends with from Glasgow, and we'd been out one night, and one of the sisters just went nuts. I don't know what it was. She just lost her mind and the other sister was freaking out and crying and saying, 'I don't know what's wrong with her' and I remember thinking: 'How many of these crazy situations do I have to get into? This is not who I am or where I should be'. I woke up the next morning and looked in the mirror and didn't recognise myself. I didn't recognise my face, and I didn't recognise my soul. I went: 'Who is this? What's happened to you?' I actually went to the pub and thought well, I'll have a beer, and sit and contemplate this, and I just couldn't drink it. I took a sip and went to the toilet and threw up and said: 'That's it'. And that's the last time I ever had a drink."

Do you, I ask, think the drinking was the result of your father's double abandonment, first by absence and then by dying? "I think it created a lot of sadness in my life and self-doubt." Did he explain why he hadn't been in touch for all those years? "I think he had his own issues to deal with and then he remarried and had another child." Did you like him? "Yeah. He was crazy, but in a good way. He was incredibly entertaining and a great story-teller. He was very smart, but also a complete bullshitter. His stories were remarkable and sometimes they would turn out to be true, but more often than not they were much embellished, although you'd enjoy them for that embellishment."

He owned a novelty hat and umbrella shop in Toronto, right? "Yeah, he used to spend his whole day in this store wearing an umbrella hat. He was nuts, but had a good heart, and wanted people to be happy. He just never really knew how to look after himself." Are there other ways in which all this affected you? "It made me very dependent on my mother, in a good way, as I do have an amazing mother." One who deserves Tuscany, then Jamaica? "Yeah! But I always had this terror about losing her. I used to have nightmares about it all the time. I was often on a beach, kneeling on some board, and the board wouldn't move, and my mother would be calling me, and I couldn't get to her. It caused me to be an attention-seeker. I was the youngest and would always say to my mum: 'Just tell me you love me more' and she'd always say: 'I love you all the same' and I'd say: 'I know you have to say that but, just admit it, you love me more'."

Perhaps, I say, you needed to be an actor because it would allow you to be loved by audiences; loved on a large scale? It appealed to that craving in you? Possibly so, he concedes. I say Woody Allen once said he makes so many films because he doesn't know how to stave off depression other than by working all the time. Do you identify with that? "Yeah, I do. I mean my agents would say I'm happy when I'm working, but that's the easy part." Working is easier than not-working? You can't face being alone with yourself? Do you dislike you? He says he entirely loathed himself during his drinking years and "it takes a while to cast of that darkness" and "I know some things I will take to the grave". I can now see keeping busy may be more important to him than what he is keeping busy with.

He has certainly tried to work all this out. He's had therapy. He'd had one-to-one sessions with Deepak Chopra. He believes in The Secret, whereby you visualise what you want and, voila, it comes true. So he senses a need to change, but can he do it? He does think he has some good stuff coming up. "Right now, I'm sitting on some of the best scripts I've read in a long time." I'd like to see you do something quiet, I say. He says one of the scripts "does give me a nice opportunity to grow up a bit" but then adds "not that I would want to stop doing action and adventure".

I feel, at this point, sufficiently brave to acknowledge one elephant, so ask: do you read your reviews? (In preparing for this interview, I read quite a few, and cringed wildly on his behalf. The Ugly Truth, a rom-com co-starring Katherine Heigl, was accused by the Wall Street Journal of "revelling in the misogyny it claims to deplore" while The New Yorker said of The Bounty Hunter: "Even as an assembly line product this falls well below factory standards". And I could go on, but won't.) He says: "I try to just read the good ones and pretend they are all like that." And then: "No, I learn from reviews. Sometimes, it's just people being nasty and mean, but I also see what's constructive criticism and I try and take it on board." He may try, but I don't know how often he succeeds.

He says Reign of Fire, which was universally slated, "had 300 screenings all over America and every single one had the audience screaming and applauding and cheering and laughing". He says Machine Gun Preacher (which was described by the New York Times as "too true to be good") was badly marketed. "You know, we got a 10-minute standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival and I've never felt an energy like that. But it was marketed as an action movie and it didn't do big box office, which hurt, because it looked like we'd made a big failure of an action movie, whereas in actual fact it's a true-life story of a guy who was a drug addict, reformed, became a born-again Christian and ended up building an orphanage in Sudan. I gave so much to the role and was so affected by it that when I did the first two interviews about it I had to stop, because I was crying."

Our time's up astonishingly quickly, and he'd like to talk more. "Five more minutes!" he keeps telling the PRs. And although I don't get much on his personal life, aside from the fact he has homes in LA and New York but has sold the Hampstead one ("I was never there"), I can tell you he is dating someone and this someone is for real, and not Jennifer or Cameron, who never were.

I say it's a pity you're not single, as you strike me as a genuine person, and I was about to offer myself up as your girlfriend. It would have involved nudity, I'm afraid – I'd have insisted on it, along with a jar of Nutella – but I have compensating qualities. I can make good lasagne, for example. "You make good lasagne?" You like lasagne? "I love lasagne." Your chef doesn't cook lasagne? What's the point, even, in having a chef, if the chef doesn't cook lasagne? He has no answer to that – just as there never is an answer to that – and I leave, taking the elephants with me. It's hard, working with elephants in the room, but not entirely impossible, as I think I've just proved. You may even wish to consider this a masterclass in the art.

'Olympus Has Fallen' is released on Wednesday

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