Butler is the star and producer of “Olympus Has Fallen,” and with so much riding on the film, he was enthusiastically talking up the Antoine Fuqua action thriller last week to a room full of journalists. He was so passionate and excited, the 43-year-old Scotsman barely stopped talking to take a breath.
He’s very appealing and charming in person. No pretty boy, his rugged good looks and scruffy two-day growth of facial hair gave him a real badass, tough guy look. He’s a physical actor, tall and well built, and totally believable as a Secret Service agent battling terrorists who kidnap the President and take down the White House (code name “Olympus”).
Born in Scotland, Butler made his stage debut in “Oliver” at Glasgow’s Kings Theater at age 12. After a seven-year detour studying law, he went back to the stage, including tackling Tennessee Williams’ “Suddenly Last Summer,” with Rachel Weisz.
I first met Butler nearly a decade ago when he was promoting “The Phantom of the Opera” in New York. I can tell you, at every event he attended, his bad-boy vibes made the women swoon.
He’s made some forgettable but lucrative rom-coms, including “P.S. I Love You” with Hilary Swank and “The Bounty Hunter” co-starring Jennifer Aniston. But he made his mark with a slew of action films, including the blockbuster “300,” which earned more than $450 million at the box office. Butler formed his own production company in 2008, and their debut film, “Law Abiding Citizen,” co-starring Jamie Foxx, racked up more than $100 million.
Given the wide range of his films, it’s sometimes easy to forget he has real acting chops. He was scary and heartbreaking in “Phantom,” and impressively powerful delivering Shakespeare in “Coriolanus” opposite Ralph Fiennes. He brings that same intensity to everything he does.
Here are highlights from the press interview with the star and producer of “The Olympus Has Fallen”:
As the producer on this film, how did it affect the way you saw your character, and did it have anything to do with the way he came across?
I think it had everything to do with it … the reason I produced it is so I could have as much influence as possible over the script. I mean, we ripped the script apart and rebuilt it to be the freshest, most modern, heart-pounding, and yet provocative, action thriller, and yet give it some sophistication and interesting characters you could follow and connect with through the journey. So that’s what I was probably doing more than I was acting [he laughed], and working on that with Antoine, saying, “How do we make this attack as shocking and yet as plausible as possible?”
The way Antoine directs, as well … seeing it all, the ugly side, the beautiful side, just grounding it and making it logical and methodical, and creating that situation where you literally believe the White House is besieged … that there’s a real hostage situation underground where people are being executed, and that there’s a crisis room dealing with these decisions that will affect the human race essentially.
And how that all connects and how do these personalities all meld … humanizing it and making these real people, the people you usually see in the grey, where they make decisions, but suddenly you’re there with them, realizing they’re humans just like us. They’re under pressure. They’re trying to do the right thing. They may not all have opinions that we agree with, but they all believe they’re coming from the right place, and they make mistakes.
I think that’s a really fascinating concept, especially when you up the ante and say, “The whole world is relying on you making the right decision.” But nobody knows what the right decision is at that point. And then you throw me in the middle of that as a guy who’s now in this position … he’s been like a caged animal since his fall from grace with the tragedy that happens early on in the movie. Now he’s there to perform a function that he’s trained his whole life to do, and that’s all he wants to do.
He’s so dedicated, he’ll do whatever it takes. Now he’s in that position to protect the President, to protect the interests of the country, and yet, even he has some tough decisions. What do you do? Do you sacrifice the President and avoid a war? Or do you start a war but save the President? There’s all these very riveting, compelling ideas, so that’s why I wanted to produce it. As an actor, you just want the most interesting role possible, but at the same time, you want him to be badass because when you get down to the most primal level … watch any movie, “Taken,” “Law Abiding Citizen,” “300” even … when it comes to payback, revenge, it’s a very delicious concept.
You’re left after seeing this movie, seeing good people die, military servicemen, the guy trying to defend this country, yeah, trying to defend this country, and you’re left seething, you’re ripped apart, you’re appalled and you need to see – how would you say it? – you need to see people suffer. Enter Mike Banning.
The physicality in this film is so realistic. How much improv is in the fight scenes? Did you get injured?
I started taking photos of my injuries because I cut up my hands. I was doing a fight where he [Dylan McDermott] hit me like this [Butler slapped his right forearm]. I must have done it a thousand times. My arm went black all the way to my elbow, from here to here [Pointed to this shoulder to his elbow]. I was hit in the eye by a bullet casing that hit a wall and hit me in the eye, and I thought it lodged. It hit me so hard, I felt like I was punched in the face. I was hit by another bullet casing in my back.
You always get hit by debris from explosions because I was around almost every f*cking explosion that happened. It was like, “Put Gerry just five feet from there.” And then the fighting itself … because I’m being smashed around … I’m smashing people around and you’re in it, you’re not thinking about it. So yeah, you’re always getting hurt. And then Dylan flipped the cigarette and because I had glycerin down my throat, it hit and the burning part came off and stuck to my throat. So I’m doing like this…. [He made a choking noise] trying to get it off, and it scabbed up.
The same night, I pork chopped him, and he got a cut in his throat there. He had to go to the doctor about it — this is just one night, by the way — and all I could think was, what if that cigarette had gone in my eye? My buddy had something like that and he was in six months of hell.
So there were always those risks. They hopefully just become stories, but when you do an action movie, you sign on for that. By the way, Antoine, even before we started the day, went, “Bad Intentions.” That was his line before I started: “Bad Intentions, Gerry. Bad Intentions,” just to remind you, why the f*ck am I here? I’m here with bad intentions.
But at the same time, in some ways that simplifies it, because what I love is him having been an army ranger. He’s a badass, but he’s also Secret Service, so he knows how to eradicate. He knows how to kill. He knows how to make people suffer. But he also knows how to reconnaissance, how to fight, how to establish lines of communication, how to formulate plans, think on his feet, so you go to all of that.
Because when he goes in, he’s just one guy. He has no army. He’s against 42 terrorists, and they have the President in a sealed room downstairs. What are you going to do? You’ve gotta be thinking on your feet. You’ve gotta use your intimate knowledge of the White House. You’ve gotta know protocol, and you’ve gotta be able to step outside protocol when it’s necessary. You’ve gotta use psychological tactics, so you start screwing with the bad guy … how are you gonna make him start to question his tactics? So you’ve got all that going on, as well. So that’s what we were always working on up til 2 in the morning, and then you’ve gotta be back up again at 6.
By the way, it’s a blast. And working with Antoine, he’s the most appreciative guy. He and I were so tight. He’s the dude. You know he’s killing it and you’re moving fast and efficiently, or as efficiently as possible, and you’re creating, you’re bouncing ideas off each other and then you’re backed up by Morgan Freeman and Aaron Eckhart and Angela Bassett and this incredible cast who are giving meaning and substance to these roles that could otherwise be really cardboard. Then you’ve got yourself a pretty watchable action thriller.
Was doing this a conscious effort not to do another romantic comedy? Was Hollywood saying do this?
No, Hollywood was saying, do “300” again. Hollywood was saying do more of those kinds of things. Here’s the thing, though … I made a Shakespeare movie, “Coriolanus” with Ralph Fiennes, and I would say that was a pretty tough and intense character. “Machine Guy Preacher” … that was a guy who goes to the end both emotionally and psychologically. That was about as intense as they come in terms of taking on a character, but unfortunately, they’re not always the ones people see. So people say, “You’ve been doing romantic comedies?” Actually no, since then I did a couple, but my mandate has always been to try and keep it interesting and keep challenging yourself.
Whether people see it that way, I don’t know, but it felt like time to go back to that kind of heroic mythological element about a guy who has to face his own inner demons whilst trying to fight the outer demons, as well. Go on this journey that feels impossible, but that brings out all the aspects of a human being that we aspire to be.
We all have those elements of facing up to fear, testing your loyalty and trying to understand yourself and what this is really all about. Antoine is big into that, as well, and that’s what I love. He’s a director, number one, but he’s artistic, he’s masculine, and at the same time, he’s incredibly sensitive about the issues with the relationship with the kid and the wife. He gets all that and he gets the inner workings of who we are as human beings. He sees it as an action movie, yet he’s right in it with you.
Is it true you’re planning another movie with Antoine?
We have a couple of ideas we’re talking about, but I won’t say because we never know what’s going to happen. This movie came to me, and within five days, he was onboard with me. I wouldn’t have been able to mention that a week before it happened.
You have such a great voice, as anyone who has seen “Phantom of the Opera” knows. Do you think you’d do a musical?
I might. I was actually just talking about one recently, but on Broadway, so who knows?