Copyright 2003

[ July 22nd 2003 ]

Gerard Butler is trying hard not to smoke. It's been minutes since the Scottish-born actor's last cigarette, and he's determined to forego another for a little while longer. As he paces around the room, he spies a cup of coffee, which seems to stoke his nicotine urge. ''To hell with it,'' he says, lighting a Marlboro and swigging his coffee. ''Restraint was only going to last for so long.''

The 33-year-old actor, who stars opposite Angelina Jolie in ''Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life,'' which opens nationwide on Friday, says he has a long list of demons to wrestle, and for the moment, he's too tired to fight his cigarette habit. ''I am a very extreme person,'' he explains during a recent visit to New York. ''I think I'm very impulsive and compulsive. That can be a wonderful thing -- it helps in acting -- and it also can mess with your head. I always seem to be battling something.''

Butler says he gave up alcohol several years ago because a life of ''wild partying'' was taking a toll. He even managed to wean himself off cigarettes for a while, but two years ago, stress from an accelerated work pace caused him to start up again. ''I'm working so hard right now,'' he says. ''It's a very difficult time to try to quit.''

Any minute now, Butler will add ''grapple with stardom'' to his to-do list. The 6-foot-2-inch actor, whose green eyes, rebel chic, and brazen charm will probably bring him movie-idol status, has been cast in the title role of ''The Phantom of the Opera'' movie, scheduled to begin filming in the fall. Names such as John Travolta and Antonio Banderas had been bandied about for the part since the musical opened on Broadway 15 years ago. But ''Phantom'' director Joel Schumacher told Butler he was his first choice for the role, which Butler was unaccustomed to hearing. ''I'm used to being the outsider,'' he says. ''Suddenly I had Joel Schumacher saying, `He's my Phantom.' I'm not used to being the guy.''

Most of Butler's roles have been hard-won, as he has had to prove to directors that despite being something shy of a big-name star, he is the man for their movie. This strategy won him the role of Terry Sheridan, Lara Croft's bad-boy love interest in the new ''Tomb Raider,'' according to the film's director, Jan de Bont. ''We needed someone who had a physical presence, because [Jolie] really wipes every actor off the screen,'' de Bont explains. ''After endless screen tests, [Butler] was the only one who clearly stood out.''

Screenwriter Dean Georgaris says he was concerned about who would play the leading man, because it's difficult to portray a dangerous, unpredictable scoundrel who happens to be an immensely likable guy. But after ''listening to the way [Jolie] and Gerry Butler spoke together and watching them interact,'' he says, he knew Butler would do justice to the character. ''I knew we could have him be playful and it wouldn't be annoying, because Gerry is the kind of person who can pull that off,'' Georgaris says. Butler acknowledges that like his character, he has a ''roguish quality and a cheeky manner'' that have sometimes gotten him into trouble. ''Terry Sheridan has a dark side, and there are times when I can't help being a bad boy,'' Butler says, smiling coyly. ''Deep down I'm a good guy, but I have a lot of flaws that sometimes take me to the wrong places.''

Luckily he's getting better at navigating his psyche away from some of those danger zones. ''I think I made my early 20s a very choppy period for myself,'' he says. ''That was mixed with pursuing a career I didn't believe in and suddenly thinking that this one life that I had was going to be taken up with doing something I hated with a passion, and that terrified me.''

During that period, Butler was working as a solicitor trainee at an Edinburgh law firm after graduating from the University of Glasgow, where he was president of the school's law society. He left the law firm one week before he was qualified to become a full-fledged lawyer. ''To be honest, they fired me -- and it takes a lot to get fired,'' he says. ''I had a terrible disciplinary record and attendance record. I thought I would live the life of a rock star while working as a lawyer.''

In fact, Butler was a rock star of sorts, at least in his local legal circles. He was the lead singer for a band called Speed (originally Speed of Light, he explains), made up of his lawyer buddies. Soon after his legal career ended, he moved to London to pursue acting, and in the mid-1990s, he landed his first part there in a stage production of ''Coriolanus,'' directed by Steven Berkoff. Butler's movie debut came in the 1997 film ''Mrs. Brown.'' Last year he had a major supporting role in the futuristic science-fiction adventure film ''Reign of Fire.''

Butler's real knack, however, was for playing it dark and ominous. He starred as Attila in the USA Network miniseries of the same name, and he portrayed Dracula in the movie ''Wes Craven Presents: Dracula 2000.'' His journey to the netherworld will continue with the Phantom, a character whose loneliness and desperation strikes a chord with him, he says. ''That character breaks my heart,'' Butler says, suddenly looking soulful and sad as he speaks about the masked phantom who haunts the Paris Opera House. ''I have such warmth and compassion for him. And I think he represents the fear that so many of us have -- being alone and never having the things that we have a right to have: a companion, life, love. I think there's always a deep-down fear in all of us that suddenly we'll become repugnant to everybody else.''

Butler has learned to quell his self-doubts and focus on making himself happy. With ''Phantom'' about to launch him into a new realm of fame, he understands it's important to keep his priorities in order. ''There's definitely a lot of downside to fame,'' he says. ''I love the opportunity to be anonymous and do my own thing. You don't have to worry about attending great parties and being seen in the best cars. I used to think that was important, but it's not.''

One thing Butler hopes to make time for someday is a family. While working on ''Tomb Raider,'' he says, he was struck by the tenderness of Jolie's relationship with her young son, Maddox. Whenever she wasn't filming, she gave her full attention and energy to her child, which Butler says he finds remarkable. ''He dotes on Angelina and she dotes on him, and it's a beautiful thing to see,'' he says.

But Butler realizes that he's probably more than a few steps away from fatherhood. ''I'd love to have kids, but I'd have to stay in a relationship that lasts more than a week,'' he says. This would be a difficult feat, he adds, because his filming schedule doesn't allow him to stay in the same place for very long. ''I'll be on location and see a woman who I'm interested in. I look, think about it, and then say, `What's the point?' That's the downside of working all the time.''

For now, he's headed to St. Louis, where he's filming ''The Game of Their Lives,'' the true story of an American soccer team that won the 1950 World Cup. While he's there, he says, dragging on a cigarette, he might get an injection in his ear to help him stop smoking. ''They say it works,'' he says, looking unconvinced. ''I've tried everything else.''

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